Monday, June 20, 2011

Prison Battle Rocks Venezuela in Chavez’s Absence

For the past week, security forces in Guatire (a city just twenty five miles east of Caracas) have been struggling to retake control of a prison that has been overrun by armed inmates. The conflict began on June 12 with a riot in the country’s Rodeo I prison, which broke out after troops broke up a clash between two rival groups and attempted a weapons search, and has since extended to Rodeo II, an adjacent complex. As Spanish news agency EFE reported, at least 19 prisoners were killed in the original riot, and scores more were injured.

Since the initial riots, officials have been engaged in a standoff with about 50 armed gang members, who the Venezuelan government has claimed are refusing to put down their weapons.  To further complicate matters, a “short circuit fire” broke out early Sunday morning. Although no one was apparently harmed in the fire, the AP says it sparked rumors –which the government denies – that state forces had started it in an attempt to smoke the prisoners out.

According to the BBC, some 4,000 soldiers are currently engaged in the conflict, and have managed to regain control over three quarters of the prison. On Friday afternoon, two Venezuelan national guardsmen and one prisoner were killed. In an effort to minimize harm to prisoners unassociated with the conflict, police have so far 2,500 prisoners from Rodeo, and will be relocating 1,000 more in the coming days.

Caracas Chronicles posted a video on Sunday which appears to show a heated gun battle between the national guard and prisoners, notable for its illustration of the surprising firepower that the prisoners have at their disposal. Venezuela, like Mexico and several Central American countries, has a long history of prisons serving more or less as safe houses for organized crime. Simon Romero, the New York Times’ Andean bureau chief, wrote an in-depth profile of one such prison several weeks ago, noting the availability of automatic rifles like AK-47s, AR-15s, and M-16s.

The violence has been condemned by the Inter-American Commission of Human rights, which cited figures by the Venezuelan Prison Watch claiming that 476 inmates reportedly died in 2010 and another 967 were injured. From 1999 to 2010, a total of 4,506 inmates reportedly died and 12,518 were injured. The organization’s director, Humberto Prado, told AFP that the entire El Rodeo prison complex houses more than 3,600 inmates although it only has capacity to hold 750, which has forced hundreds of inmates sleep on the floor, stairs and hallways.

Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez has been out of the country for all of this, and remains in Cuba, where he is recovering from a hip surgery. As the AP notes, Chavez’s influence seems to be on the decline lately, with domestic matters increasingly weighing down his ability to project his influence elsewhere in the region. The opposition seems to agree, and has ramped up its criticism of Chavez in his absence. According to Venezuela’s El Universal, Miranda state governor (and Chavez’s leading challenger in 2012) Capriles Radonsky delivered a scathing critique of the government’s handling of the prison riots on Sunday, and called for a dialogue with the prisoners. Adding to this criticism, the AP reports that the largest Venezuelan business chamber has spoken out against the government’s proposed attempts to ration electricity, saying the measure will hurt the economy and endanger recent growth. So far Chavez has not indicated when he’ll return to Venezuela, when he does it’s certain he’ll have to do some extensive damage control. 

News Briefs

·   El Universal and TeleSur report on Chavez’s visit with the Castro brothers on Saturday, with predictably different takes on the occasion. The former highlights the fact that the only news of Chavez’s state have come from official Venezuelan and Cuban government sources, whereas the latter emphasizes the officials’ calls for increased bilateral ties between the two countries.

·   A high-level official in the Cuban Catholic Church has claimed that the Church faring better there than in many other countries. As EFE notes, this may have something to do with President Raul Castro’s calls for a renewed respect for religious diversity in the country.

·   Perhaps as further proof of Chavez’s declining influence in the region, AP says a new Ipsos Apoyo poll proves Peruvians want a Lula and not a Chavez as their head of state. According to the poll, 61% of respondents would prefer Humala to model his government on ex-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, while only 11% said they’d like Humala's government to resemble that of Chavez. Apparently 28% percent didn't specify, but frankly I’m willing to bet most Peruvians would prefer it if their president to developed his own leadership style instead of looking to other countries in the region, regardless of which ones. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that 70% of Peruvians have a favorable opinion of Humala, who will kick off a second regional tour this week on Tuesday, when he will meet President Evo Morales. From there he will head to Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.

·   Despite the recent controversy regarding Antanas Mockus’ departure from the Colombian Green Party,  a recent El Tiempo poll puts Bogota’s mayoral candidate Enrique Peñalosa more than 12 points ahead of his nearest rival in the capital's October elections.

·   A car bomb went off late Saturday in the southwestern Colombian city of Popayan on Saturday, killing one and leaving 16 people injured. Despite the tragedy, officials were able to intercept the vehicle before it was planted in a large crowd celebrating a soccer victory, said Reuters.

·   the government has sent in its national police force to the Amazon region to protect the families of small farmers who have received death threats.

·   IPS reports that, with the appointment of two women this month to cabinet positions, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is only two female positions away from meeting her goal of having a cabinet composed of 30% women. Although this shuffle was far from planned out in advance, it is being heralded as a significant step forward for gender equality in the country.

·   About 750 Brazilian military police raided the Morro da Mangueira, Morro dos Telegrafos and Candelaria neighborhoods in northern Rio de Janeiro over the weekend, seizing 32 vehicles and large amounts of marijuana. Despite the large number of officials involved in the operation, CNN reports that only three suspects were arrested. Because there were no gun battles, Brazilian authorities have deemed it far more successful than last year’s deadly raid of the Alemao favela in November, in which 35 people were killed.

·   On Friday, Mexican officials announced they had arrested a man who is allegedly responsible for the kidnappings of 72 Central and South American migrants found slain in a mass grave in northern Mexico last year. Mexico’s El Universal claims that the man is a former member of the military who was recruited by the Zetas.

·   The L.A. Times reports on the Mexican National Commission of Governors’ weeklong anti-crime initiative known as CONGEGO-1, which was met with skepticism across Mexico. According to La Jornada, the operation resulted in the arrests of 3,705 people, the seizure of 131 firearms.

·   Contralinea has just published a report (complete with this intriguing graphic) which maps out various ties that Mexican cartels have with criminal organizations around the world. With the decline of Colombian cartels abroad, their Mexican counterparts have stepped up their operations abroad, especially in Spain and Portugal, European officials warn. The authors claim that the most strategic alliances maintained by Mexican drug trafficking organizations are with the Japanese, Indian, Peruvian and Italian mafias.

·   After the death of a second local political candidate last week, Amnesty International released a plea for Guatemalan authorities to fully investigate the killing, claiming that from January to May 2011 there were 20 killings related to political violence in the country.

·   On Friday, Guatemalan police arrested the highest-ranking official yet to be detained for ordering massacres of civilians in the country’s civil war. A former military chief of staff, Gen. Hector Mario Lopez, 81, was allegedly involved in about 200 massacres committed between 1982 and 1983. According to La Prensa Libre, Lopez will face a hearing today on genocide charges.

·   AP with a long report on Puerto Rico’s mixed reactions to Obama’s visit last week. Particularly controversial for Puerto Ricans is the fact that he did not offer any major solution to the island’s rising crime rate and economic woes.