Friday, June 24, 2011

Calderon Meets with Peace Movement, Defends Security Strategy

Mexican President Felipe Calderon met with poet Javier Sicilia and other representatives of the country’s ant-violence movement yesterday in a three-hour meeting that was, by all accounts, extremely emotional. In Sicilia’s opening remarks, he accused Calderon of being responsible for the thousands of drug-related violence in the country, and demanded an apology from the leader. Instead of increasing security, Sicilia said, Calderon’s military-heavy counternarcotics strategy has strengthened a “criminal conception of power” in the country.

Other movement representatives who offered their testimony included Omar Esparza, a community leader from Oaxaca who complained to the President that no arrests had been made on a recent attack on a protest there, and freelance journalist Julian Le Baron, who denounced impunity for those who had kidnapped his relatives in Chihuahua. At one point, Le Baron lost patience with the proceedings, and at one point accused Calderon of “insulting” the victims. El Universal has a list of some of the most pointed criticisms, available here.

Perhaps the most promising outcome of the meeting was the attention given to Mexico’s corrupt judicial system, which has long proven itself unable to effectively administer justice. As El Universal reports, Sicilia reserved special criticism for the country’s courts. “We've talked to the legislature, we talked to the executive branch, but we have not spoken with the judiciary…we have not received a single call from them despite the fact and they have very serious responsibilities to the nation. "

This criticism was partially echoed by the president, who acknowledged corruption within the judiciary but claimed there was little he could do without specific evidence.  In response to this, Mexico’s Supreme Court released a statement expressing its willingness to meet with civil society organizations fighting for the improvement of public security and the eradication of violence.

At the end of the meeting, Sicilia and Calderon exchanged an extremely awkward embrace, and agreed to meet again in three months. Whether this or not the meeting will bring about any difference in tactics remains to be seen, but it is highly unlikely considering Calderon’s reaction to the testimony. Although he recognized that the state has failed in protecting the victims (and apologized for this) he did not acknowledge that his strategy was responsible for a sharp increase in violence in the country, as some analysts argue (see policy expert Eduardo Guerrero’s recent article in Nexos). He also refused to apologize for “acting against the criminals who are killing the victims,” according to La Jornada. If anything, Calderon expressed regret for not adopting this strategy sooner, which does not bode well for the future of insecurity in the country.

News Briefs

·         The UN Office on Drugs and Crime released its 2011 World Drug Report yesterday, which reveals some interesting developments in the global market for illicit drugs. The report confirms what counternarcotics officials in the U.S. have long been saying: Colombian coca production has declined, and Peru has officially surpassed Colombia to become the world's largest producer of coca. However, reports of coca production in Colombia may be overstated.  As the White House Office of National Drug Control director Gil Kerlikowske noted in a recent press report, "Colombia is holding the line against coca cultivation after major decreases in 2007 and 2008." Just the Facts points out that this does not necessarily mean the country is making progress, but only indicates that there has been little change since 2008. Also, this dynamic has been complicated by internal political factors in Peru. Although president-elect Ollanta Humala has promised to be “tough” on drugs and crime in the country, AFP says that links between his Nationalist Party and coca growers’ unions may make this difficult. Unfortunately, the UN’s 2010 data on coca production in Bolivia was not included in the report, although most are predicting a moderate increase in the country.

·         The main coalition partner of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, the PMDB, is becoming increasingly unwilling to make compromises, effectively slowing the rate of legislation down to a crawl and complicating the country’s efforts at reforming the tax code. As Reuters and FT report, this comes after President Dilma Rousseff’s chief of staff resigned due to allegations of corruption, which made her appear more vulnerable and opened her up to increasing criticism.

·         The UNODC’s director, Yury Fedotov, has called the lower house of the Bolivian Congress’s decision to withdraw from the UN Single Convention on Narcotics a “worrisome” development, EFE reports. Bolivia’s House of Representatives passed the bill on Wednesday, and it will now move to the Senate, where it will likely pass as the MAS party has a two-thirds majority. As I noted in a recent article for InSight Crime however, the move itself is not likely to alter coca production in Bolivia one way or another.

·         Ciudad Juarez’s controversial police official, Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola, escaped an ambush by gunmen on Thursday while on patrol, says El Universal. Leyzaola has been on the job for a mere three months, and has cultivated a reputation as a formidable enemy of the cartels due to his combative anti-crime tactics.

·         The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is awarding the the 2011 Knight International Journalism Award, to two Mexican journalists who have risked their lives covering the illegal drug trade along the U.S.-Mexico border.

·         Reuters says Peru’s  privately-run pension funds are swiftly becoming one of the most important campaign issues for Humala, who has in the past proposed the creation mandatory government-run pension system that would have effectively destroyed the funds.

·         On Thursday the House Appropriations Committee voted in favor of an amendment (available here) to roll back recent measures which facilitate travel and money transfers from Cuban-Americans to their relatives on the island. As the Miami Herald reports, the amendment was first presented by Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who claims that the changes have allowed for a major inflow of funds to Cuba, which he claims is “the largest source of revenue of the [Castro’s] dictatorship.” The move would require licenses for family visits to the island, limit the scope of relatives that would be eligible to visit, and restrict visits to once every three years for a maximum of 14 days. Geoff Thale, Program Director at WOLA, points out that the amendment faces several obstacles, including opposition from the White House

·         IPS reports on the friction at this week’s SICA convention on Central American security. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom responded to attempts by the United States and Europe to pressure Central America to increase their tax base by urging them “with the same emphasis” to reduce drug consumption in their own countries.

·         Despite yesterday’s announcement by Venezuelan authorities that Chavez is healing well from surgery in Cuba and will return to the country in 10-12 days, rumors continue to swirl that his health may be worse than he is letting on. The AP notes that no one has heard him speak since he talked by telephone with Venezuelan state television on June 12, saying he was quickly recovering from surgery two days earlier for a pelvic abscess. Chavez, who turns 57 next month, said medical tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness.The Wall Street Journal became one of the first in the U.S. media to parrot gossip that the Venezuelan leader could be suffering from prostate cancer, and may have had his prostate removed.

·         The standoff at Venezuela’s Rodeo I and II prisons continued in Venezuela on Thursday, despite attempts made by officials to begin a dialogue with the inmates. Venezuela’s El Universal reports that Justice and Interior Minister Tareck Al Aissami said officials made contact with the inmates for the first time on Wednesday, and was able to speak directly with a group representing the inmates inside Rodeo II. However, the official claimed that the prisoners were refusing to negotiate.  According to the prisoners’ relatives, who have made contact with them via smuggled cell phones, the prisoners demanded that officials allow them to meet with their relatives and members of the press, as well withdraw the National Guard, before negotiations began. The Economist has written a tidy analysis of the conflict, highlighting overcrowding and violence in Venezuela’s prison system.

·         The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), along with more than 400 other organizations, academics, and individuals from both the United States and Colombia, has sent a letter to the U.S. Congress asking representatives to vote no on the pending U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. In the letter, the leader of the U.S. Steelworkers Union (USW) claimed that FTAs with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia would undermine economic recovery, further harm American manufacturing jobs, and deepen economic insecurity.

·         The Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled on Thursday that authorities must first consult indigenous people before conducting aerial eradication of coca crops on native lands, Caracol Radio reports. In response to the ruling, Interior Minister German Vargas Lleras called the decision a "huge concern," saying it would make the government’s efforts to fight domestic drug growth more difficult.

·         Just in time for the two-year anniversary of Honduras’ June 28, 2009 coup, Just the Fact’s Adam Isaacson has a helpful timeline of the major events following President Manuel Zelaya’s removal.

·         Mercopress reports that Brazil and Spain are fielding the leading candidates the upcoming June 26 election for the next head of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN agency leading the struggle against global hunger. The article notes that Brazil may be leveraging its candidate by pointing that Europe seems poised to “take over the IMF,” an apparent reference to the race between Mexico’s Agustin Carsten and France’s Christine Lagarde to become director of the IMF, where the latter is seen as the favorite, according to AP.

·         Finally, the L.A. Times profiles outgoing Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s strange “personal gift” to the city of Lima: a massive statue of "Christ of the Pacific" that resembles the famed statue above Rio de Janeiro.