Friday, July 29, 2011

Changes to Cuba Policy Under Attack

Despite the fact that President Obama has threatened to veto any bill which reverses his easing of travel restrictions to Cuba, The Miami Herald reports that a recent attempt by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) to do just that has a very good chance at gaining Congressional approval. From the Herald:

The Florida Republican’s proposal was initially given little chance of becoming law, especially after President Barack Obama last week vowed to veto it if it reached the White House for his signature. 
But as the bill’s possible paths through Capitol Hill became clearer, even some of its critics now say they believe the measure stands a reasonable chance of making it past Congress and even the White House.
“Although we appreciate the president’s veto threat, there is no question that this misguided legislation, due to the way it’s been placed in a [Treasury] appropriations bill, has a good chance,” said former Democratic congressional candidate Joe Garcia.
 If passed, the bill would return travel restrictions to Cuba back to their status under President Bush. Non-Cuban Americans would find it much more difficult to visit the island, and even Cuban-Americans would only be allowed to make a trip to Cuba  once every three years for “family reunifications.” Additionally, the bill would limit the individuals who are considered eligible to send remittances, as well as cap them at $1,200 per year.

Frankly, considering that 67 percent of the Cuban American community voiced support for the removal of removal of all restrictions on travel to Cuba in 2009, it seems odd that such a move is even on the table. But because the current debt ceiling debate is consuming much of Obama’s political capital, it also appears increasingly unlikely that he will act on his veto threat and risk being slammed by opponents for “defunding the Treasury.”

News Briefs

·         Cuba celebrated the July 26 anniversary of the 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks earlier this week, and as the New York Times reports, Raul Castro took a back seat role in the ceremony for the second time in two years, leaving Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura to lead the commemoration ceremony.

·         The Sacramento Bee reported yesterday that the number of undocumented immigrants seeking employment in California has reached a new low. As Mexican consul general, Carlos González Gutiérrez notes,"It's now easier to buy homes on credit, find a job and access higher education in Mexico. We have become a middle-class country."

·         The L.A. Times has published the fourth installment of Richard Marosi’s series on the Sinaloa Cartel in the U.S. The latest article highlights “Operation Imperial Emperor,” a 2007 crackdown on the cartel’s cocaine shipments throughout the country.

·         The Trans Border Institute has released its monthly analysis on Mexico’s drug violence. According to the report, drug-related homicides are on track to exceed 2010 levels. So far this year, the figure is 20 percent higher than last year.

·         Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that Mexican cartels are broadening their criminal portfolios, becoming increasingly involved in human trafficking and forced prostitution, which is made easier by a lack of strong penalties for these crimes. According to Rosi Orozco, a congresswoman in Mexico and sponsor of a proposed law against human trafficking, “If narcotics traffickers are caught, they go to high-security prisons, but with the trafficking of women, they have found absolute impunity.”

·         The Foreign Policy blog confirms what Colombia analysts have been saying for months: FARC operations are on the rise in Colombia. In the first six months of 2011, the group undertook some 1,115 "military actions,” which is a 10 percent increase from the same period last year.

·         Colombia Reports has published new photos of the ELN’s central command, which local media outlets say were stored on a laptop seized in a raid on July 4. Another document found on the computer allegedly proposed that the group adopt an “attitude of dialogue” with the Colombian government.

·         The L.A. Times reports that Guatemala elections are “heating up,” but because former first lady Sandra Torres has had her candidacy declared illegal by two different courts in the country, it is unlikely that she’ll be much of an opponent for Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who is currently leading the polls by nearly 30 points.

·         InSight’s Steven Dudley has written a withering critique of the Obama administration’s new drug strategy, arguing that the “strategy” presents little in the way of actual policy changes relating to reducing the availability of weapons domestically or strengthening criminal justice systems in the region.

·          Peru’s new president, Olanta Humala, took office yesterday after delivering an inauguration speech geared at addressing the country’s poor. As AP reports, the leader has promised to make the one in three Peruvians who live in poverty a main focus of his administration, saying “Peru's peasants and the poor in the countryside in general will be the priority." According to El Comercio yesterday’s ceremony was marked by something of a controversy, as Humala swore to defend the 1979 constitution, not the one passed in 1993  by the Fujimori administration, which is currently in effect.

·         Bloomberg and The Guardian report that Chavez’s chemotherapy will indeed take its toll on his hair, with the Venezuelan president expected to be completely bald in a few weeks. Although Chavez has made a point to present himself as being back to his usual lively self, this development may take a toll on his image in the lead up to the 2012 elections.

·         La Razon reports that the Bolivian Congress has passed a law which the opposition says will put 67 percent of radio outlets in the country under state ownership, and allows for the government to spy on phone calls for matters of state security.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ollanta Humala: South America's 'Great Uniter?'

Ollanta Humala will officially take office as the next President of Peru following an inauguration ceremony in Lima today. According to El Comercio, Humala and his vice president Marisol Espinoza will be sworn in at 10:30 am local time in a Congressional session. As AFP notes, at least 12 Latin American leaders and 109 foreign delegations will be in attendance for the ceremony, which will be followed by meetings of the South American Union (UNASUR) and the Andean Community of Nations (CAN). 
Among the Latin American presidents who will be present at the ceremony are South Americans Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Sebastian Piñera (Chile), Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Cristina Fernandez (Argentina), Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia) and José Mujica (Uruguay). Central American leaders Ricardo Martinelli (Panama), Porfirio Lobo (Honduras) and Alvaro Colom (Guatemala) will also attend.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo will not, as both are currently undergoing cancer treatment. According to Reuters, the latter will instead be going to Brazil to seek chemotherapy. 
As noted in Tuesday’s post, outgoing President Alan Garcia has chosen not to attend the event due to fears that he will be heckled by opponents, as occurred when he left office in 1990 after his first term. La Republica (Spanish) and Andina (English) report that in his last presidential speech last night, Garcia addressed these critics in a backhanded apology, saying he is sorry for offending anyone with his words and actions but that he “forgives them” for opposing his drive to spur growth in the Andean country, “because more important is the fate of Peru and its people.”
After addressing the nation as President for the first time, Humala will then head to the Government Palace, where his new cabinet will be sworn in at noon, followed by an official diplomatic luncheon for the country’s international guests. From there, the new head of state will lead an Extraordinary Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of UNASUR, which will also be held at the Palace. Mercopress has more on the UNASUR meeting and suggests that Humala has potential to serve as a “balancing element” in the organization, as his leftist credentials and recent shift to the center could allow him to more easily serve as an intermediary between left and right-oriented governments in the continent.
Next, a CAN summit is scheduled for this evening, where the leaders of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador will discuss regional issues. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this gathering is the fact that it will be preceded by a brief meeting between Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and Bolivian leader Evo Morales, in which they will discuss their ongoing maritime border dispute. As Reuters notes, the two broke off diplomatic communication in June, after 14 Bolivian soldiers were arrested in Chile near the border for allegedly driving stolen Chilean cars. Morales added to this controversy by decorating the soldiers upon their return.
Although Humala has claimed to have based his center-left leadership model on former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Reuters questions whether his moderate cabinet is even more conservative than the one that Lula assembled in 2003. Meanwhile, the Financial Times blog suggests that Humala’s first test in office will be his negotiations with the mining industry over the restructuring of taxes and royalties on the sector. Despite this speculation, it seems that only the coming months will tell what “Humalismo” will bring to Peru.
News Briefs:
·         El Salvador’s Congress voted to repeal the controversial Decree 743 –which required the Constitutional Court to make rulings unanimously rather than by majority – yesterday, in a vote that included members of all the countries major political parties, La Pagina reports.  As El Faro points out, the bill will now go to President Mauricio Funes, who has previously expressed support for the decree.  Because 57 of the Legislative Assembly’s 84 congressmen voted for the repeal, however, it is likely that they could overcome a potential veto. Meanwhile, IPS reports that the gap between Funes and his FMLN seems to be widening.
 ·         Last week Guatemala’s Plaza Publica hosted an interesting discussion with presidential candidate General Otto Perez, who will likely win the upcoming September elections. The interview covers a wide range of issues, including human rights, security and development. Alarmingly (but not surprisingly), Perez cites ex-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as a political influence and expressed opposition to the use of the term “genocide” to describe massacres that occurred during the country’s civil war.
 ·         More details have emerged about the prison riot which broke out in Juarez on Tuesday night. As the AP reports, the inmates involved may not have stolen their weapons from guards for an escape attempt after all.  Instead, it appears that security at the prison was almost laughable, as prisoners had access to weapons and drugs, and may have been partying before the incident.
 ·         The LA Times has released the third part of Richard Malosi’s highly informative four-part series on the activities of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel in the U.S. The latest piece profiles airborne smuggling of drug shipments across the country. 
·         CNN Mexico reports that the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations approved the nomination of Earl Anthony Wayne on Tuesday, along with 11 other nominations, as the new Ambassador to Mexico. During his hearing last week, Wayne cited the implementation of the Merida Initiative as a major concern, and expressed his hope that the 2012 elections would not hamper the process. Wayne still awaits final confirmation in the Senate.

·         Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who turns 57 today, celebrated his birthday in part by mocking succession rumors, Reuters reports. He has also proposed a new date for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States summit, which was scheduled for July 5 but postponed due to Chavez’s cancer treatment. EFE says that Chavez has sent letters of invitation to regional heads of state inviting them to attend a new summit on December 9 in Caracas. 
·         Two months after being arrested in Venezuela, FARC member and protest singer Julian Conrado has formally requested political asylum, Venezuelanalysis reports. According to the website, Conrado’s extradition to Colombia has been postponed by a habeas corpus request, and will be delayed while a Venezuelan court investigates murder charges against him.

·         In an exclusive interview with AFP, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has said that he is unaffected by widespread international criticism over his decision to appeal a ruling which mandated that the El Universo newspaper pay $40 million in damages for libel, after the president initially sought $80 million in his initial lawsuit. According to Correa, “Freedom of speech is not freedom from intimidation, extortion, and assault by misinformation.”

·         According to InSight Crime, Brazilian officials have arrested at least 14 members of a militia in Rio de Janeiro, which included a former high-ranking policeman. As O Globo reports, the individuals have been accused of charging a community in the Rio favela of Taquara with extortion fees for water, street maintenenace, and providing “security.”

·         In the wake of a reduction aid from the U.S., the Bolivian government has sought funding for its anti-drug trafficking programs from other countries in the region such as Venezuela and Brazil. Now, it seems that the UK has also pledged to increase support for Bolivia’s efforts.  According to the BBC, the British Minister for Latin America Jeremy Browne has said the Serious Organised Crime Agency in London will coordinate more closely with counter-narcotics police in La Paz.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Historic Guatemalan Massacre Trial Begins

A historic trial is underway in Guatemala this week, involving four ex-soldiers who stand accused of participating in the notorious civil-war era massacre in the village of Dos Erres. Prosecutors have accused the defendants, three of whom are former members of the Guatemalan Army’s special forces unit known as “Kaibiles,” of entering Dos Erres on December 7, 1982 in search of a guerrilla weapons cache and, upon finding nothing, torturing and killing more than 220 men, women and children in a three-day bloodbath.

As El Periodico notes, so far all four of the accused have denied being in Dos Erres when the massacre took place, despite the fact that two ex-Kaibiles testified via a satellite conference from an undisclosed location in Mexico that at least two of the four were both present and complicit in the violence.  The two former soldiers originally approached the UN Mission in Guatemala in the mid 1990s to confess their participation in the massacre, and now have protected witness status. According to the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), which has written a very comprehensive summary of the trial’s developments so far, when one of the witnesses was asked why he agreed to testify, he said, "Because many families need it, they must know the truth."

La Prensa Libre and El Periodico report that the court has also heard testimony from Dos Erres villagers, all of whom agreed that the town’s inhabitants had no links to guerrilla forces, and in no way offered any resistance to the Kaibiles.  Perhaps the most heart-wrenching testimony in the case was delivered on Monday, when Ramiro Osorio Cristales was called to the stand. As a 5-year-old, Osorio only survived the massacre because one of the Kaibiles who took part in the massacre “adopted” him, raising him as a servant.

As the Associated Press points out, this trial is only the second "massacre trial" in Guatemala. The first occurred in 2004 and resulted in convictions for an officer and 13 soldiers, but the ruling was then overturned on appeal. This trial is expected to continue through the end of July, but regardless of its outcome, there are sure to be more trials related to the Dos Erres case to come. In addition to the four suspects in trial, three other alleged perpetrators have been arrested in the United States for immigration fraud, and are expected to face charges in the future.

News Briefs

·         In other Guatemalan human rights-related news, Prensa Libre has published an interesting interview with the mastermind of the country’s infamous “scorched earth” counter insurgency strategy, former de facto president José Efraín Ríos Montt. Rios Montt, who has been indicted by Spain's National Court on genocide charges, claims that he never ordered any mass executions, saying he only served as head of state, not “director of massacres.”

·         The Houston Chronicle takes on a favored mantra of gun rights advocates: the claim that the majority of weapons used in Mexico’s drug war originate from Central America. As the paper notes, only a tiny percentage of weapons recovered by officials have been traced to Central American arsenals.

·         El Universal reports that a prison riot which broke out in Ciudad Juarez late Monday night has left at least 17 people dead and 20 wounded. According to authorities, the conflict began when inmates stole weapons from prison guards and attempted a breakout, sparking a gunfight that lasted over an hour.

·         According to El Milenio and AP, Ciudad Juarez Mayor Hector Murguia announced yesterday that the federal police who have been in control of security in the city since April 2010 will be gradually pulling out in the coming months, with the goal of completely withdrawing them by March 2012.  Despite this announcement, CNNMéxico reports that many in the city are still concerned that local police lack the training and professionalism to take over. The process is slated to begin in September.  

·         Colombia Reports highlights the difficulties faced by Colombian Interior Minister German Vargas Lleras in investigating criminal accusations against candidates in the country’s October elections. As of yesterday, public prosecutors have been unable to release the list of candidates who face ongoing criminal procedures. Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group released a report yesterday on how to minimize the influence of armed groups and criminal organizations in the upcoming elections.  Among its recommendations, the report calls on the government to grant more autonomy to the National Electoral Council (CNE), as well as to update and simplify Colombia’s electoral rules. 

·         While other countries in the region have been plagued by a series of politicized libel cases, the Peruvian Congress has taken steps to ensure more press freedom in the country.  On June 21, legislators passed a bill which aims to eliminate prison sentences for libel convictions. As an editorial in El Comercio notes, although the move is a positive step, it still falls short of guaranteeing full freedom of speech.

·         With Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala set to assume the presidency in an inauguration ceremony tomorrow, AP reports that outgoing President Alan Garcia has left a mixed legacy, marked by his inability to resolve social conflicts related to the distribution of wealth in mining regions. The Inter American Dialog’s Michael Shifter takes a critical look at Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala’s foreign policy, which he suggests may not be dramatically different from his predecessor’s. 

·         InSight Crime profiles Venezuela’s Iris Varela, who was appointed to head the newly created Ministry of Correctional Services. Valera has said that she intends to take a “humanist” approach to reforming the country’s broken prison system, and hopes to ease overcrowding by shortening the time devoted to reviewing individual cases.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Obama Announces New Transnational Crime Strategy

Yesterday President Obama issued an executive order which imposes a number of sanctions on transnational criminal organizations, authorizing the U.S. government to freeze the assets of suspected drug traffickers and bar American citizens from engaging in any business with groups whose activities are a threat to U.S. interests or security. According to a Treasury Department press release, the move is intended to crack down on four main criminal organizations: the Brothers’ Circle of Eastern Europe, the Camorra of Italy, Japan’s Yakuzas and Mexico’s Zetas.

The order, known as the “Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime,” seeks to shift organized crime from a national security threat to a “manageable public safety problem,” and lays out five strategic objectives associated with this aim:
  •  Protect Americans and our partners from the harm, violence, and exploitation of transnational criminal networks.
  • Help partner countries strengthen governance and transparency, break the corruptive power of transnational criminal networks, and sever state-crime alliances.
  • Break the economic power of transnational criminal networks and protect strategic markets and the U.S. financial system from TOC penetration and abuse.
  • Defeat transnational criminal networks that pose the greatest threat to national security by targeting their infrastructures, depriving them of their enabling means, and preventing the criminal facilitation of terrorist activities.
  • Build international consensus, multilateral cooperation, and public-private partnerships to defeat transnational organized crime.

The new strategy proposes 56 “priority actions” that the government will take to implement these goals, divided up into the following six chapters:
  • Start at Home: Taking Shared Responsibility for Transnational Organized Crime;
  • Enhance Intelligence and Information Sharing;
  • Protect the Financial System and Strategic Markets against Transnational Organized Crime;
  • Strengthen Interdiction, Investigations, and Prosecutions;
  • Disrupt Drug Trafficking and its Facilitation of Other Transnational Threats; and
  • Build International Capacity, Cooperation, and Partnerships.

The plan recognizes that the “the fluid nature”  of these groups, which take advantage of weak rule of law, false corporations and offshore bank accounts, makes addressing organized crime “increasingly difficult.” As the AP reports, the new strategy maintains the National Security Council’s role as the government’s principal investigator of transnational threats, while also stepping up reliance on the Justice Department and the FBI.  AFP says that the move comes as a counter to the increasing globalization of drug cartels, noting that the administration cited increasing cooperation between Latin American drug trafficking groups and local gangs in West Africa, Western Europe and the Middle East as a central concern.

Although the strategy seems at first glance to be quite comprehensive, regional criminal analysts will have to wait and see how it is implemented before making any judgment. As James Bosworth of Bloggings by Boz points out, some of the "actions" sound rather unclear, and lack further details about how the administration plans on putting them into effect.

It is worth noting that the White House took care to mention the role of U.S. demand in fueling the drug trade.  In the strategy’s introduction, the administration recognized that "the demand for illicit drugs, both in the United States and abroad, fuels the power, impunity and violence of criminal organizations around the globe.” While this is perhaps no more than florid rhetoric, it opens up the administration to criticism from anti-prohibitionist advocates, who will likely call attention to the fact that U.S. demand for drugs has remained relatively stable since the beginning of the so-called “war on drugs.” This could potentially be used to leverage arguments for a more comprehensive strategy based on harm reduction and public health, as outlined in the recent Global Commission on Drug Policy report, which was released in early June and signed by several high-profile world leaders.

News Briefs
·         Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala has announced the appointment of several additional cabinet members. In keeping with his refurbished image, all of the picks appear to be moderates.  Just the Facts has more on the new cabinet, and points out that it is seriously lacking in female presence.  Out of the 18 nominations, only three are women.  These include Women and Social Development Minister Aída García Naranjo, Education Minister Patricia Salas, and Latino Grammy award-winning singer Susana Baca, who will head up the Ministry of Culture.  According to Infobae, Baca is the country’s first Afro-Peruvian to take a ministerial position. 

·         Humala will take office following an inauguration ceremony on Thursday, and it seems that outgoing President Alan Garcia will not be in attendance.  According to La Jornada, the unpopular leader fears he will be “mistreated” if he attends.

·         El Mundo reports that the embattled Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo, which is facing a, $80 million law suit from President Rafael Correa for “defamation,” printed a black page on Thursday, in protest of a court ruling which imposed a three-year prison sentence, in addition to the fines, on three of the publication’s owners and a former editor.

·         Colombian police are claiming that Angel de Jesus Pacheco, alias "Sebastian," leader of the feared neo-paramilitary drug gang known as the Rastrojos, was killed by his own bodyguards yesterday.  According to El Tiempo, his body was found in the northwest region of Antioquia department, and bore signs of torture. Two of his guards, aliases "Muelas" and "El Negro," are thought to be responsible for the killing. The paper compares the incident with the 2008 death of FARC leader Ivan Rios, who was reportedly killed in 2008 by his own bodyguard for reward money.

·         El Tiempo also reports that the total count of local candidates killed in the lead up to Colombia’s October elections is at 20, following the Saturday assassination of Alfredo Hernán Ríos, a Liberal Party candidate for the municipal council of Toribío, in Cauca department.

·         The L.A. Times has published the second of Richard Marosi’s four-part series on law enforcement efforts to track the Sinaloa Cartel’s distribution networks in the U.S. The latest piece highlights the group’s use of Los Angeles and Southern California in general as an operations hub, extending into Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.

·         InSight’s Patrick Corcoran takes a look at the continued public support of the military in Mexico, despite an uptick in documented abuses. According to a recent poll published in Excelsior, only 21 percent of Mexicans believe that the army does not respect human rights.

·         In an operation that began on Friday, Mexican officials have detained more than 1,000 people in a crackdown on human trafficking in Ciudad Juarez.  According to El Universal, police arrested 500 men and 530 women linked to human trafficking networks in the city, and rescued some 20 minors from sexual exploitation. Because details of the operation are sparse, their level of criminal involvement is unclear, and it is not known how many of those arrested are voluntary sex workers rather than “trafficked persons.” Citing data from an unnamed NGO, AFP says that a total of 59 women and girls disappeared last year in Juarez, and 48 more went missing throughout the state of Chihuahua.

·         The Central American Integration System met again last week to discuss regional issues, El Heraldo and EFE report. Interestingly, the group spent much of their time addressing climate change, in addition to their usual focus on transnational crime.  On Friday the group’s governments signed a joint declaration which aims to address climate change by adopting “regional positions in international forums and negotiations, promoting the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities," as well as establishing a comprehensive regional strategy to address national disaster relief.

·         For the second time, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has voted to approve an amendment to the State Department appropriations bill which seeks to reverse President Obama’s easing of travel restrictions to Cuba. While the President has threatened to veto any bill which includes such language, the vote is striking because of its bipartisan support.  As the Miami Herald reports, it was approved 36-6.

·         AFP reports that Bolivian President Evo Morales has expressed fear of traveling to New York in order to attend a UN General Assembly meeting on Water as a Human Right, saying he suspects that the U.S. would use the visit as an opportunity to plant drugs on him and discredit his drug control efforts.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Chavez to Run in 2012 Elections

After completing what he has called his first cycle of chemotherapy, President Hugo Chavez returned from Cuba to Venezuela on Saturday, triumphantly announcing that his Cuban doctors had not found a single cancerous cell in his body, neither in the pelvic region where his tumor was located nor anywhere else in his body.  In a televised speech delivered at Simon Bolivar’s childhood home on Sunday, the Venezuelan leader commemorated Bolivar’s 228th birthday by speaking passionately about the future of his “Bolivarian Revolution,” and at one point broke into song with a folk music group, according to AP. Despite his cheery outlook, Chavez has stated that he will likely return to Cuba to seek treatment again in the coming months, although he did not say when the next series of treatments would begin.

In a Sunday interview with the state-owned Correo del Orinoco, Chavez also appeared to reaffirm his commitment to running for re-election in 2012, saying "I have medical reasons, scientific reasons, human reasons, reasons of love and political reasons to keep myself at the front of the government and the candidacy with more force than before.”  While this is not quite a formal declaration, Reuters notes that the Venezuelan publication took it as such, allegedly splashing “Chavez to be candidate in 2012" on its front page.

Meanwhile, it seems that all of the speculation over whether Venezuelans would be outraged by Chavez’s decision to “govern from Cuba” has been relatively baseless. According to a survey of 1,300 Venezuelans by polling firm Datanalisis, domestic support for the president remains at around 50%, a figure which is nearly identical to the results of a poll that the group conducted a month earlier. What is less clear, however, is whether a different candidate will be able to step in should his cancer take a turn for the worse.  Although this possibility currently seems rather distant, Roger Noriega claimed in the Miami Herald last week that Chavez has a 50% chance of surviving 18 months, citing “sources close to his medical team in Cuba.”  

News Briefs

·         New York Times highlights the rise of credit agencies in South America, with a focus on Brazil and Chile.  Although credit-fueled spending has driven much of the growth in the region in the past few years, many South Americans have become victims of predatory lending practices such as misleading advertisement and hidden fees. According to the Times, the household debt-to-income levels in Brazil and Chile are rising at an alarming rate. In Brazil, it increased from 22% in 2006 to 40% in April, and in Chile, it was at more than 70% in December of 2010.
·         Last Thursday, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduria General de la Republica – PGR) charged 111 of its own officials with a series of criminal charges, including abuse of power, fraud and embezzlement, and dismissed 192 others for inadequately carrying out investigations.  AP and the Wall Street Journal claim that the process of investigation began in April, when Marisela Morales became attorney general and promised to fight internal corruption within the department. El Universal says that an additional 700 employees of the PGR are currently facing disciplinary sanctions for improper conduct.

·         The Washington Post profiles Ciudad Juarez’s divisive new police chief, Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola.  The Post touches on opposition to Leyzaola by human rights groups, and points out his nomination is part of a larger controversy, as the government is tasking more and more military commanders with police duties in the country.
·         The L.A Times’ Richard Marosi offers an interesting look at the efforts of U.S. law enforcement to track and detain members of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.  The article provides useful insight into the high level of complexity in the group’s trans-border smuggling networks, as well as their ability to make contacts in the U.S.

·         Haitian President Michel Martelly has announced several changes to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, naming Ann Valerie Timothee Milfort, former chief-of-staff for the Ministry of Women's Affairs, to serve as its interim executive director. Martelly’s also appointed six political allies to the Commission’s board, replacing those who resigned in protest when he took office. AP says the president also backed a proposal that aims to relocate 30,000 people living in six different refugee camps into 16 residential neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince.

·         Nicaragua’s La Prensa reports that President Daniel Ortega enjoys a considerable lead in the upcoming November presidential elections.  According to a new survey by M&R Consultores, the leader has the support of 56.5 of likely voters.  Additionally, Ortega’s Sandinista party is projected to gain 56 deputies in the National Assembly, which would give them the numbers necessary to overpower the opposition on a number of political, economic and social reforms.

·         The Global Post reports on Costa Rica’s worsening security situation, made worse by increasing income inequality, rising drug addiction and the rise of organized crime. Although homicide rates have fallen in recent years, almost half of all Costa Ricans consider insecurity to be the worst problem facing their nation.  The Post also cites an April World Bank report which found that the percentage of victims of crime in the country doubled from 1997 to 2008.                                                                                                     
·          Mercopress and Clarin report that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s presidential campaign suffered a setback on Sunday, when her party’s candidate for governor finished a distant third in the province of Santa Fe. Especially damning to her was the fact that Kirchnerite candidates swept the Santa Fe provincial elections, indicating a high degree of support for her party but a widespread rejection of Fernandez herself.
·         Julian Torres has a tidy critique of Colombia’s so-called “obligitaory” military service over at Colombia Reports.  As is the case for most Latin American countries (and many other nations around the world), the majority of the Colombian army come from poor backgrounds, while the rich generally avoid military service or manage to obtain relatively risk-free positions.  Torres claims that this represents an attitude which treats Colombia’s poor majority as “replaceable and expendable objects,” calling for a change in order for Colombia to become the more just society outlined in the country’s 1991 Constitution. 

·         Alan Gross, the American government contractor imprisoned in Cuba on espionage charges, made a final appeal to the Cuban government on Friday to have his 15-year prison sentence reduced or dismissed.  According to the Miami Herald, the Cuban Supreme Peoples’ Court is expected to issue a ruling in a few days, and U.S. officials are confident that Gross will be freed for “humanitarian reasons.”

·         AP reports on the Cuban government’s efforts to enact major changes to the country’s home ownership laws, which is expected to ease the massive demand for housing, stimulate construction employment and generate increased tax revenue. 

·         Finally, the New York Times reports on a new addition to Uruguay’s art scene: the Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo, which is located in an abandoned former prison.