Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Documentary Casts Doubt on Famed Colombian Rescue Op

Nearly three years after the controversial “Operation Jaque,” in which the Colombian military posed as humanitarian workers in order to rescue French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American hostages (potentially violating the Geneva conventions in the process), new reports have emerged that question the official narrative of events. In a new documentary which has sparked a firestorm in the country, journalist Gonzalo Guillen claims the Colombian government actually paid the FARC millions of dollars for the prisoners’ release.

A screening of the documentary was held in Quito, Ecuador on Monday, and as Infobae reports, the film alleges that the two guerrillas charged with monitoring the hostages made ​​contact with the Colombian government, seeking $ 100 million in exchange for collaborating with the ruse. "It was a financial transaction," Guillen told reporters at the screeing, and then called for an official investigation into the matter.

Various individuals involved in the operation, for their part, have denied this claim. According to Caracol Radio, Carlos Toro, a Colombian lawyer who facilitated negotiations between the government and the two FARC guerrillas, denied ever having reached a final agreement on the release. Then-Commander of the armed forces Gen. Freddy Padilla, told El Espectador that not a single cent was paid for Betancourt’s release, and EFE says President Santos has dismissed Guillen as nothing but a “useful idiot.”

However, the report would fit with a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable leaked in February by Wikileaks, in which American diplomats noted that one of the guerrillas, alias "Cesar" had contacted the Uribe government with a request to be allowed to flee to France with his family in exchange for his help in release. As Colombia Reports noted in February, the guerrilla in question cannot be found in U.S. court records, despite the fact that officials claim he was extradited there.

News Briefs

·         New images and a video of Chavez were broadcast on Venezuelan state television yesterday, including footage of the Venezuelan leader poring over the latest edition of the Granma and discussing current events with Fidel. Although the Venezuelan government has held this up as further proof of the president’s recovery, they have not released any official health updates or said anything more specific about his surgery. According to Reuters, rumors in the country have reached a “frenzy,” with some sources claiming that the leader plans to return in time for a military parade this Friday. The Miami Herald contributes to this flurry, speculating on what Chavez’s death could mean for his allies in the ALBA bloc. Because of the way Chavez is handling the media coverage of this occasion, it seems more and more likely that he is simply using this opportunity to stoke up controversy over his 2013 presidential campaign. As FP notes, however, this strategy only serves to illustrate the weakness of Venezuela’s institutions without him. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on the rising influence of his brother Adan, comparing the two siblings to the Castro brothers.

·         At the 41st Mercosur summit meeting in Asuncion, Paraguay yesterday, it was announced that the customs union’s four member states (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) will start negotiations today with Bolivia and Ecuador, with the intention of upgrading their status as “associate” members to full membership, reports TeleSur. According to Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, the Paraguayan congress is expected to approve Venezuela for full membership soon, despite the fact that legislators have been postponing the vote for months.

·         The LA Times highlights the rise of drug trafficking through Ecuador, and the fact that anti-drug police in the country are finding themselves overwhelmed.

·         The Times also has two interesting reports on Peru’s economic development over the past decade, as the fastest growing country in Latin America. The first article highlights the transition of many of Lima’s pueblos jovenes (shantytowns) into genuine cities of their own, noting that the capital has progressed significantly since the height of the country’s internal conflict. The paper contrasts this with Ita, in southern Peru, where zero unemployment has made little progress in addressing education and health issues.

·         After both Brazil and the U.S. expressed their support for Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s board announced she would become the first woman to lead the organization. According to Bloomberg’s Eric Coleman, the former French Finance Minister is expected to boost the clout of the emerging BRIC nations in the international lending process.

·         Argentina’s La Nacion reports that President Cristina Fernandez canceled a trip to the Mercosur summit in Paraguay on Tuesday due to a doctor’s recommendation that she shouldn’t fly after suffering a minor head injury recently.

·         Chile’s government has announced it will move up winter break in the country, after more than 200 schools found themselves occupied by student protesters demanding improvements in the education system, according to El Nuevo Herald.

·         In an exclusive interview with Mexico’s Milenio TV, President Felipe Calderon said he feels "misunderstood" in his struggle against drug trafficking and organized crime. Noting that his administration has succeeded in capturing 21 of the country's 37 top drug lords, he claimed that many Mexicans support his policies, although “perhaps silently.” Calderon also brushed off suggestions for a Truth Commission, something the country’s anti-violence movement demanded at last Thursday’s meeting.

·         According to El Universal, Mexican officials are now investigating at least six police officers in Monday’s killing of a police chief in the Monterrey suburb of Santa Catarina. AP says the officers apparently did nothing to stop the attack.

·         Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Security released a report last week which characterized the highly-fragmented Familia Michoacana as a terrorist organization, owing to the fact that it uses "propaganda tactics in a terrorist fashion to spread a climate of violence and social intimidation through executions, messages, threats on banners, and internet videos, with the objective of generating  impunity for their actions.” Because of the limits on civil liberties often justified in the name of countering “terrorism,” this is a potentially dangerous label to use. As InSight’s Patrick Corcoran points out, many other drug trafficking organizations in Mexico has used similar tactics at one time or another, so the move could open up a new phase in Mexico’s security crisis. Meanwhile, El Universal reports that 24 Michoacan police have been arrested this week for alleged connections to the Familia.

·         Siglo XXI has the latest poll numbers in Guatemala’s presidential elections. According to polling firm Vox Latina, it seems that former first lady Sandra Torres’s popularity has fallen by nearly six points since the last poll. According to the survey, OPartido Patriota (PP) candidate Otto Perez can now count on 41.2% of the vote in September, compared with Torres’s 15.1%. Interestingly, the paper also reports that a last week’s presidential debate saw both candidates expressing their willingness to host U.S. troops in their country to provide security.

·         The Center for International Media Assistance has released a new report on media freedom in the Americas entitled “Confronting the News:  The State of Independent Media in Latin America,” by Douglas Farah. Although the report focuses much of its attention on Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, it also notes constraints on journalist by non-state actors in Mexico and much of Central America.

·         The U.S. Department of State has released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which evaluates states’ efforts at combating human trafficking around the world.