Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Unethical U.S.-funded research caused 83 deaths in Guatemala

In a US-funded program during the 1940’s designed to study the effects of penicillin, researchers infected hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners, psychiatric patients and sex workers with syphilis and gonorrhea, none of whom were informed of the procedure. In total, approximately 1,300 people were exposed to or inoculated with venereal diseases between 1946 and 1948, less than 700 of which received any kind of treatment.

President Obama established the Presidential Commission on the Study of Bioethics in November of last year to investigate the research program after it was discovered last year (see article below). The Commission plans to publish its first full report next month outlining the historical facts of the case. So far, the Commission has declared the syphilis project an ‘institutional failure’ and a ‘shameful piece of medical history,’ recognizing the grave violations and inhumane conduct that took place in Guatemala. Furthermore, according to the commission, the program may have resulted in the deaths of 83 people unwillingly infected with diseases.

Documentation of the research was acquired by the National Security Archives earlier this year, ‘consisting of some 12,000 pages of reports, correspondence, patient records, and graphic
photographs of the effects of syphilis infection on Guatemalan subjects.’ According to the reports, the initial experiments were preformed in Guatemala’s Central Penitentiary, where U.S. researchers paid infected prostitutes to transmit the diseases by having sex with prisoners. When this method proved inefficient, the team of researchers began targeting the country’s insane asylum, where they could easily access hundreds of vulnerable men and women unable to speak for or understand their rights. The NSA analysis of the documents reveals that the doctors and scientists involved were fully aware that what they were doing was unethical and violated research standards, even skeptical at times.

In an interview with Prensa Libre, Amy Gutmann, the president of the Presidential Commission on the Study of Bioethics, declared that the researchers and doctors who participated in the syphilis study are morally responsible, given that they were well aware of the ethical standards they were violating. Gutmann said that the commission plans to recommend compensation to the victims in its upcoming published report. The Guatemalan government announced on August 29th that five survivors of the syphilis and gonorrhea experiments will be medically examined to determine any lasting effects of their infections. Vice-president Rafael Espada made the announcement after the presidential commission revealed that the experiments left 83 people dead.

Top Stories:

· As recovery and reconstruction efforts in Haiti continue to fall short, leading thousands of refugees to flee the country, the Dominican Republic is no longer welcoming the influx. The Dominican Republic traditionally has had a cooperative relationship with Haiti and, despite its own economic troubles, was one of the first nations to lend aid after the earthquake devastated the country. Amid protests calling on migrants to go home, the Republic has begun deporting Haitians and ‘generally making their lives difficult.’

· The Supreme Tribunal of Bolivia convicted five former military commanders of genocide on Tuesday with prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years. Protests and unrest stemming from government plans to exploit natural gas came to a head in October of 2003 when those convicted were involved in a military crackdown on riots, resulting in the deaths of at least 64 civilians.

· In Venezuela, Leocenis Garcia, the editor of the weekly newspaper, 6to Poder, turned himself in to intelligence officials yesterday as he faces charges of ‘insulting public officials and instigating hatred.’ According to the Associated Press, the newspaper found itself in trouble after publishing demeaning photographs of the Supreme Court president, the elections chief, and four other women in revealing outfits.

· According to human rights activists in Haiti, women and girls have been ‘badly neglected’ in recovery efforts following the devastating earthquake 20 months ago. Human Rights Watch released a report on Tuesday documenting a ‘serious gap’ in the healthcare that women and girls are receiving. Sexual violence, high maternal mortality rates, unwanted pregnancy, unhealthy conditions for children, and poor prenatal care are just some of the problems facing women in Haiti.

· Yesterday, the International Day of the Disappeared, Mexico reported that over 3,000 people have ‘disappeared’ since 2006, the same year President Calderon launched his campaign against organized crime. The high number of disappearances in Mexico have led to comparisons to the country’s “Guerra Sucia” (dirty war) in the 1960’s and 70’s and the Southern Cone military dictatorships. Colombia reported 61,604 disappeared, up from 47,000 in June 2010.

· In Sight Crime argues that lowering drug demand in the United States is not enough to combat organized crime in Mexico. Increases in violence, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, and pirating against Mexican civilians call for dramatic institutional reform within the country.

· Bus drivers in El Salvador are striking to demand better protection from authorities against extortion and violence from gangs, a common practice in much of Latin America.

· Facing pressure from congress, the director of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the US attorney in Arizona announced their resignations yesterday. A Congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious discovered US agents were allowing thousands of guns into Mexico with the hopes of tracking them to organized crime members. However, many of the guns went missing or were found at crime scenes in Mexico.

· Five Chilean police officers have been dismissed after admitting that the shot that killed a sixteen-year-old boy during anti-government protests came from a police weapon. Until yesterday, police officials had denied any involvement in the death of the boy.

· Dialogue between the Bolivian government and indigenous groups began on August 26, as the President’s administration as agreed to set up a round of six negotiations to provide a forum for indigenous community members to express their concerns over the construction of a highway through the protected TIPNIS territory.

· Standard and Poor’s raised Peru’s debt rating from a BBB- to a BBB, the second-lowest investment grade due to President Humala’s ‘broad fiscal and monetary policy continuity.’ In the past five years, economic growth as averaged 7.2% in Peru, in large part due to a booming global mining industry.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Five members of Los Zetas arrested for Monterrey Massacre

Police arrested five men yesterday supposedly responsible for the massacre of 52 people at a Monterrey casino last week. The five suspects admitted they were members of Los Zetas, one of the most violent and brutal drug cartels in Mexico. Authorities released video footage of the perpetrators filling cans at a gas station minutes before the attack. The governor of Nuevo Laredo, Rodrio Medina, said that the Zetas were most likely extorting the casino, providing motive for the brutal display of violence.

The los Zetas drug cartel is the most powerful and brutally violent organized crime groups in Mexico, with their strongholds spreading further and further southward into Central America (InSight). In 1997, los Zetas began their operation under the recruitment of the Gulf Cartel chief, Osiel Cardenas. The original 31 members were former Mexican Special Forces deserters, heavily trained in ambushes, marksmanship, intelligence, intimidation, and other military techniques (Borderland Beat). After Cardenas was arrested in 2003 by Mexican authorities, los Zetas took over operations for themselves, ‘eliminating’ several Gulf Cartel lieutenants and working their way to the top of the chain of command. Now, the group has expanded from 31 to somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 members, including former local, state, and federal security officers, as well as ex-Kaibilies (the Guatemalan Special Forces) (InSight, Borderland Beat). The Kabiles are the special operations forces of Guatemala known for their intense and ruthless training in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics. Los Zetas use their ability offer much higher compensation and benefits to military deserters as leverage to recruit technically trained and skilled fighters.

The Zetas’ rise to power has established a new precedent within the world of organized crime throughout Mexico and Central America. Prior to the paramilitary strategies and operations of los Zetas, most drug cartels were composed of ‘thugs’, gang members or toughened criminals who had access to drugs and smuggled arms (Borderland Beat). As Hal Brands puts it, the “combination of massive firepower with expertise in infantry squad tactics, complex assaults, and other military techniques [resulted in a] qualitative escalation of the intensity of drug-related violence” (Borderland Beat). Not only do the Zetas know how to fight, but they have the resources to orchestrate complex attacks, infiltrate police stations, and ambush government convoys, among other strategic military actions. They have a military-grade arsenal of AK-47’s, shoulder-fired missiles, armor-piercing ammunition, fragmentation grenades, heavy machine guns, and even helicopters. Zetas members are trained in prolonged torture and execution, frequently employing such tactics as decapitation, immolation, strangulation, castration, and immersion in toxic substances.

Top Stories:

  • Police discovered seven bodies of individuals who had gone missing earlier this month buried near the northern border of Mexico and five skulls near the border city of Juarez. The seven bodies appeared to be strangled to death, one shot in the head, and all with their hands tied behind their backs. Mass graves are becoming more and more common in Mexico as drug violence escalates.
  • After criticizing the Venezuelan government for the way it handled recent armed uprisings at two prisons, the director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, Humberto Prado has received numerous anonymous threats. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization, called for protections of the activist, arguing that ‘the government should ensure that defenders can do their job without fear of reprisals.’ According to In Sight Crime, attempts at reform of the prison system have failed, as 13 inmates have died and 62 have been wounded since the new prison minister took office.
  • After an order which prevented the Venezuelan newspaper, 6to Poder, from publishing after openly criticizing Chavez’ government, a judged ruled that the ban be lifted. While the decision allows the newspaper to continue publishing, it bars 6to Poder from publishing insulting text or images against women or public officials.
  • Drug traffickers are being forced to seek new markets in the northeastern region of Brazil, as their traditional markets experience dramatic economic growth. The states of Bahia and Alagoas have proven to be particularly vulnerable to the violence, with murders growing by 430% in Bahia and the arrival of crack-cocaine only making matters worse.
  • The once-powerful Familia Michoacana drug gang has lost its near-monopoly of the methamphetamine trade, paving the way for the Sinaloa Cartel to take over the market. In Sight Crime refers to the shift as a clear example of the ‘balloon effect,’ in which one government blow against one organized crime group simply creates room for another one to take its place. July has seen record seizures of illegal shipments of chemicals used to make synthetic drugs, methamphetamine included.
  • Mauricio Cardenas, a senior fellow from Brookings, discusses Latin America as a viable market with many new and growing economic opportunities, as well as ongoing problems, such as the drug war in Mexico. Listen to the podcast here.
  • In a US-funded program during the 1940’s designed to study the effects of penicillin, researchers infected hundred of Guatemalan prisoners, psychiatric patients and sex workers with syphilis and gonorrhea, none of whom were informed of the procedure. President Obama set up a commission to investigate the program after the research was discovered last year, which will publish its first report next month outlining the historical facts of the case. So far, the commission has declared the project an ‘institutional failure’ and a ‘shameful piece of medical history.’
  • Many small businesses, shop owners, bus drivers, and street vendors are being forced to make weekly payments to gangs in Medellin, Colombia adding up to a large sum of profits. The payments can be as small as 20,000 pesos (about $10) a week, making the extortion difficult to crack down on.
  • An increase in cyber crime and information trafficking in Latin America has shown a dramatic increase in 2011, with greater media coverage of government surveillance, wiretapping, hacked e-mails, and legislative debates over privacy issues.
  • Contrary to fears of a mass exodus of Mexican refugees fleeing the drug war, it appears that those (legally) immigrating into the U.S. are actually middle and upper class Mexican families. The influx has been warmly welcomed by border towns benefiting from the economic boost and increased investments.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Massacre in Monterrey shocks Mexico, contributing to national ‘state of anxiety’

In what media sources and Mexican officials are calling one of the most violent and brutal attacks in recent history, a group of unidentified men mostly likely associated with cartel rivalries, torched a casino in Monterrey, killing 52 innocent people trapped inside. According to witnesses, at least six armed men burst into the casino on Thursday yelling at patrons to leave, doused the building in gasoline and setting it on fire. While some costumers were able to escape through the front exits before it was engulfed in flames, the rear exits were blocked, trapping many people inside. The efficiently orchestrated operation took only several minutes, suggesting the work of the powerful Los Zetas drug cartel.

In a series of comments made this weekend, Felip Calderón said the attack was committed by ‘true terrorists’ and declared three days of national mourning. Calderón increased military presence in the region, ordering the deployment of 1,500 federal troops to Monterrey over the next few days and calling citizens to set their political interests aside and allow the security forces to ‘do their job.’ He asked the country to unite against the criminals, in a ‘unanimous condemnation’ of the violence by ‘society, politicians, political parties, leaders, and the media.’ Calderón also made a plea to the United States to reduce its drug consumption, trafficking of high-powered arms, and to take greater responsibility for its role in the increased violence. According to Foreign Policy magazine, the choice of actions and words following this attack will prove to be vital. Even though Calderón’s leadership is coming to an end, the attacks in Monterrey necessitate concrete solutions that can quell the ‘state of anxiety’ dominating the electorate.

The attack occurred on in Monterrey, the capital city of Nuevo Loredo, one of Mexico’s most modern cities and a ‘hub for big businesses. The area has been seen as a fairly isolated safe-haven from the drug-related violence spreading throughout Mexico in recent years. However, Monterrey has seen a dramatic increase in violent attacks as tensions and rivalry mount between Los Zetas and Gulf drug cartels. Murders in the state of Nuevo Leon have jumped from 267 in 2009 to 828 in 2010—a figure which was already surpassed mid-June this year. The Zetas have increased violent efforts against the Gulf and Sinaloa Cartels in a rivalry war over control of the Northeastern region of Mexico. The spread of brutality into what is considered the most Western city in Mexico is an urgent call for action—as Gilberto Marcos, a prominent Monterrey businessman put it, “if Monterrey falls, then Mexico does too.”

Top Stories:

· Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez began his third round of chemotherapy on Sunday in Caracas. Chavez remarked that he is ‘determined to continue living…It’s not time to die. What we have to do still is a great deal.’

· More than 1,000 people protested on Sunday in Monterrey, demanding the resignation of the Nuevo Leon state governor and the mayor of Monterrey. Demonstrators said that ‘they are tired of the violence that afflicts the metropolis…as the Gulf drug cartel and the rival Zetas battle over turf.’

· Emilio Palacio, an Ecuadorian journalist accused of libeling President Correa, fled the country fearing for his safety. Palacio was sentenced in July, along with three other executives of the Universo newspaper, to three years in prison and $42 million in fines.

· As mass graves become an increasingly common discovery in Mexico, police discovered five bodies buried outside of Mexico City after responding to a call about a missing person.

· After ‘a relatively tranquil 20 years,’ Chile is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in popular protest with the students’ movement dominating the debate. According to the Economist, the protests might actually turn into some serious changes, so long as politicians are willing to ‘enact some sensible reforms quickly.’ After a 16-year –old boy was shot and killed on Friday, President Pinera agreed to begin education reform talks and open dialogue with representatives from ‘all sectors involved.’

· According to IPS, microcredit loans are growing at 15% a year in Colombia, with more than 1.2 million microenterprises accounting for approximately 50% of all employment. Small businesses and microenterprises dominate 96% of businesses in Colombia and many owe their success to microfinance loans.

· The National Tribunal of Spain called for an explanation of El Salvador’s decision to halt the extradition of 20 former military officials accused of murdering six Jesuit priests. The Supreme Court argued on Wednesday that the Salvadoran government is only required by law to locate those accused, not necessarily capture them.

· The Constitutional Court of Guatemala stood firm in its decision to extradite ex-president Alfonso Antonio Portillo Cabrera to the U.S. amid charges of money laundering by the District Attorney of New York.

· As the global economy continues to weaken, some Latin American central banks are re-considering high interest rates and opening the door to looser economic policies. Brazil, Chile, and Mexico have all expressed interest in re-evaluating high borrowing costs.

· The Peruvian Congress passed a law last week making it mandatory to seek consultation and consent with indigenous populations before development projects will be permitted. The ratification of this law comes amid increased development-related violence and human rights violations against indigenous peoples throughout the region.

· The Peruvian government will continue its program of coca eradication on Tuesday, which is suspended last week. The Prime Minister, Salomon Lerner, said in an interview on Sunday that the eradication was meant to reevaluate the government’s anti-coca campaign and investigate more efficient methods and strategies.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Top Stories: August 26th 2011

  • The unemployment rate in Brazil fell to its lowest level this year at 6%, down from 6.2% in July. Also, average real wages rose 4% since last year. Concerns about inflation and a rapidly growing economy have led the central bank to raise interest rates up to 12.5%.
  • According to the Wall Street Journal, the International Monetary Fund urged Chile on Wednesday to cut spending further to ‘ensure macroeconomic stability,’ after increasing spending in 2009 to combat a recession.
  • Two union leaders, Larry Cohen and Leo Gerard, from the Communications Workers of America and the United Steelworkers, asked the House Select Intelligence Committee to investigate allegations that the Colombian government misused U.S. funding, endangering labor activists. Unions and many Democratic lawmakers argue that the possible misuse of funds underscores the dangers and illegitimacy of entering into a free trade agreement with Colombia, especially given that the agreement lacks appropriate protection for workers and labor activists.
  • Piedad Cordoba, a former Colombian senator, will be pressing charges through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for ‘political persecution.’ Cordoba was barred from holding public office for 18 years amid allegations that she had ties to the FARC.
  • Pablo Peréz is vying to compete with Chávez for the top spot in the upcoming Venezuelan presidential elections. The coalition of opposition parties, the MUD, still has yet to choose a candidate and it is unclear how likely Peréz is to receive that vote in the February 12th primary. Chavéz continues to hold a firm grip on national support, despite his very public battle with cancer and difficult economic problems.
  • More than fifty people were killed yesterday in a casino fire in Monterrey, where alleged members of an undisclosed drug cartel doused the building in gasoline and then lit it on fire. At least 53 people were trapped inside and killed. According to the AP, drug cartels sometimes extort local casinos and businesses, threatening to destroy them if they do not pay.
  • In an effort to facilitate the transport of goods from Brazil to the Pacific Ocean, the Bolivian government continues to support a highway construction project through a tropical national park, home to many independent indigenous communities. One 177 km. section of the road would run directly through the TIPNIS national park, which, according to IPS, ‘covers more than one million hectares and is collectively owned by some 15,000 people from three indigenous groups.’ Critics and protestors of the project argue that it violates the 2009 Bolivian constitution, which grants broad rights to the indigenous majority population.
  • NACLA interviews Carlos Amaya, the son of a well-known Honduran novelist—Ramon Amaya Amador, and grassroots activist. He comments on the leftist political movement in Honduras, the resistance since the coup that led to the Micheletti regime, and internal debates within the resistance.
  • The US government will now allow Mexican police to cross the border in order to stage drug raids from inside the U.S., further increasing its role in the drug war, reports the NY Times.
  • Amid efforts to receive full membership in the United Nations, Palestine was recognized by El Salvador as an independent state. El Salvador’s President, Mauricio Funes, said that the decision was made in support of establishing peace in Israel.
  • A court ruling in Colombia on Wednesday took some initial steps towards loosening the country’s extremely harsh, zero-tolerance drug laws. According to El Tiempo and In Sight Crime, the Court ruled that a previous 2009 constitutional amendment making it illegal to possess less than 1,000 grams of marijuana and 100 grams of cocaine was unconstitutional and violated personal freedoms.
  • [Not completely related to Latin America, but interesting nonetheless!] As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, PBS Frontline is preparing to unveil a series of investigative documentary features about the post-9/11 world, and how ‘the White House set the framework for a covert war that would be fought in the shadows,’ examining the ‘secret side of America’s war on terror.’ Watch the preview here.
  • In Brazil, a leader of a landless workers’ group was shot and killed on Thursday, making him the fourth person murdered since May who has been involved in the environmental and land rights movements. According to Catholic Land Pastoral, the killings are usually carried out by gunmen working for loggers, ranchers, and farmers in an effort to silence protestors.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Top Stories: August 25, 2011

· In recent years, Colombia has seen a major surge in private oil companies investing in crude production throughout the country, with about 130 companies now looking for oil there and 88% more barrels being produced than the 2006 average. However, violence and kidnappings against oil companies and workers has increased on the part of leftist rebel groups, particularly the FARC, generating fears the newly booming industry will be pushed out of Colombia. La Republica reported on five oil workers from the OXY Company who were kidnapped and held for about one week by the FARC earlier this month and another four Chinese workers from another multinational corporation in June.

· The occurrence of violence and forced evictions between national and transnational companies and local populations is not unique to Colombia. While not necessarily associated with oil companies, similar conflicts have occurred with mining and African palm companies in Guatemala. In Guatemala, a group of farmers were forcibly evicted in the valley of Polochic by unidentified security forces allegedly hired by Chabil Utzaj, an African palm company vying to develop the area.

· Looting and violence between protestors and police broke out yesterday and today in Chile during student demonstrations, Reuters and the Associated Press. No one has been killed, but (as of last night) 36 people were injured and 348 people detained. According to the Miami Herald, government officials said that only 10% of union workers participated on the first day of the protests—a much lower number than expected.

· Nine former military officers indicted in Spain for the killing of six Jesuit priests in 1989 are not being detained by El Salvador’s Supreme Court. According to the AP, the court has not received a request for extradition from Spain and

· Mexican officials announced yesterday that certain types of cases will be available for processing on the Internet, as part of series of recent legal reforms.

· A Miami-Dade judge ruled in favor of a $2.8 billion settlement to Gustavo Villoldo, a veteran of the CIA and the Bay of Pigs, against the Cuban government based on charges that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara persecuted him and his family, seizing properties, eventually leading his father to commit suicide, reports the Miami Herald. The case could serve as a precedent for other Cubans seeking reparations for assets.

· In Peru, on Tuesday, congress passed a bill which would require companies to consult with local communities before building mines or drilling for oil, with the aim to help prevent future conflicts between rural indigenous populations and foreign companies. In the past, conflicts have resulted in approximately 100 deaths in the past three and half years.

· Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Gabriel Silva Lujan, said Wednesday that he is optimistic that the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries will pass in September. However, Silva also said that if it does not pass this fall, that will ‘probably be the end of it. Supporters of the FTA argue that it could create 6,400 jobs in Florida and would remove tariffs on 80% of U.S. exports to Colombia and most imports to Colombia.

· In Nicaragua, the Roman Catholic Church is demanding more information about the death of a priest, Marlon de Jesus Garcia, who was found wrapped in a mattress. Jairo Contreras, from an Ortega opposition group said that the priest was a critic of the President.

· According to McClathy Newspapers, it is possible that the U.S. and Mexico are going easier on the Sinaloa Cartel, shifting focus to the Zetas group due to their more brutal and violent strategies. The Sinaloa Cartel is more prone to corruption than violent intimidation tactics, earning it weaker sanctions and less attention possibly to the detriment of the fight against organized crime. In Sight Crime also commented on the U.S. decision to put los Zetas on the list of organized crime priorities earlier this month.

· Shannon K. O’Neil analyzes the ‘myths and realities’ the US-Mexico border conflict, arguing that it is not violence that is spilling over into the U.S., but rather an increase in corruption infiltrating local officials and even members of Homeland Security.

· The U.S. State Department included Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism in its annual report last week. Sarah Stephens, the Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, argues that Cuba’s position on the list is ‘both untrue and a travesty.’ According to the State Department report, Cuba ‘denounces U.S. terrorism policies’ and has continued with ties to the FARC in Colombia. Stephens calls for Cuba’s removal from the list, denying sufficient evidence and information supporting terrorist links in the country.

· In Sight Crime provides an extensive report on the dramatic rise in conflicts between Mexican military personnel and suspected criminals. ‘Confrontations and aggressions’ between the two groups, as they are referred to by the Mexican government, have increased from 231 in 2007 to 2,099 in 2010. The terms refer to ‘skirmishes between authorities and suspected criminals’ or attacks on government installations without response from security forces, respectively. The conflicts have raised suspicions that the military has been abusing military powers and manipulating statistics and crime scenes.

· Police and the human rights ombudsman in Guatemala announced that there have been over 3,000 murders so far in 2011, with Guatemala, Escuintla, and Peten as the three most violent departments.