Monday, August 1, 2011

Venezuela to Consider Releasing 40 Percent of Prisoners

According to Venezuela’s new prison minister, Iris Varela, 40 percent of the country’s 50,000 prison inmates should be released from jail. In an interview with El Nacional published yesterday, Varela told the Venezuelan publication that the major contributor to the country’s prison crisis is overcrowding, saying “For me, the achievement will not be to open prisons, but to close them.”

The minister, who was appointed by President Chavez last Tuesday, said that officials will begin work this week to expedite the release of up to 20,000 inmates who meet certain legal requirements and do not constitute a danger to society, but took care to assure Venezuelans that authorities will not let "wolves loose on the streets."

Some of Varela’s remarks are sure to raise the ire of Chavez’s critics, who have repeatedly expressed concerns about the state of judicial independence in the country. According to BBC Mundo, the newly-appointed minister offered a firm warning to judges opposed to her work: “If a judge gives me problems, I’ll tell the president of the TSJ (Supreme Justice Tribunal, in Spanish) to remove him from his position.”

The announcement comes just one month after more than 25 people were killed in deadly clashes at El Rodeo jail. Last year, 476 inmates were reportedly killed and another 967 were injured, according to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, an NGO which monitors prison conditions. From 1999 to 2010, a total of 4,506 inmates reportedly died and 12,518 were injured, a phenomenon which the group claims is linked to a lack of institutional capacity to deal with overflowing prisons in the country. The organization’s director, Humberto Prado, told AFP last month that the entire El Rodeo prison complex housed more than 3,600 inmates although it only has capacity to hold 750, which forced hundreds of inmates sleep on the floor, stairs and hallways.

While Varela’s concerns are valid, it should be noted that her strategy does not by any means represent an end to prison overcrowding.  Citing official figures, AFP notes that Venezuelan prisons are meant to hold only 14,000 inmates, which means that even if all of the proposed 20,000 are released, the prison system would still hold more than twice its intended population.

News Briefs

·         In light of a recent reevaluation of Venezuela’s oil reserves, which OPEC now says are the world’s largest, President Hugo Chavez has called on the organization to adjust its quotas in order to allow Venezuela to produce more oil. This comes just a few weeks after the country led a campaign with Iran to vote against increasing production at OPEC’s last meeting in June.

·   El Tiempo reports that ex-President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia has been hit with the hardest challenge to “Uribismo” yet. Last week Uribe's former agricultural minister was jailed while prosecutors investigate corruption charges against him, and on Saturday his chief of staff Bernardo Moreno was arrested for his alleged role in the illegal wiretapping of government opponents. Uribe himself is also being investigated by a Congressional commission over his role in the illegal wiretapping scandal, in which Supreme Court magistrates, journalists, human rights workers and opposition politicians were all illegally placed under surveillance. According to an Ipsos Napoleon Franco poll released Sunday, Uribe's approval rating dropped from 76% in November last year to 60% in July.

·   Meanwhile, it appears that these developments have taken a toll on Uribe’s popularity in Colombia. According to a Sunday Ipsos Napoleon Franco poll cited by Terra, Uribe's approval rating has fallen by 16 points, from 76 percent in November of last year to 60 percent.  The poll found that this shift in opinion has not taken a toll on President Santos, who after one year in office, is enjoying support from 71 percent of Colombians.

·         President Santos is in Mexico today, where he will sign several agreements meant improve anti-crime coordination between the two countries. According to El Tiempo, the treaties will allow for both countries to extradite nationals of each country to the other in order to stand trial. Under previous agreements, the two countries only extradited foreigners between the countries.

·         The New York Times reports that the leader of a drug gang who is believed to be responsible for killing three people linked to a United States consulate in Juarez last year has been captured. José Antonio Acosta Hernández, a former police officer known as El Diego, was arrested by Mexican police on Saturday, and has allegedly confessed to ordering 1,500 killings in Juarez.

·         The L.A. Times’ Tracy Wilkinson takes a look at Elba Esther Gordillo, who is head of Mexico’s largest teachers’ union and known as a political kingmaker in the country. Despite being accused of extorting a state social security agency, the candidates in the upcoming 2012 elections are flocking to gain her support.

·         The Washington Post editorial board published an op-ed in Saturday’s paper calling on Congressional Republicans to stop “clubbing” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) over the failed “Operation Fast and Furious” and start working with the administration on appointing a new director of the agency. The Post rightly points out that the operation was a response to – and not the cause of – the flow of weapons from the United States to Mexico.

·         Guatemala’s Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by former first lady and presidential hopeful Sandra Torres to a ruling which declared her campaign unconstitutional. AFP has the latest on the decision, which Torres has vowed to appeal yet again to the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, which is her campaign’s last resort. As Reuters notes, even in the unlikely event that she were to win the appeal, poll numbers show her trailing retired general Otto Perez by nearly 30 points.  This is a worrisome development for human rights activists, who fear that Perez will take advantage of current President Colom’s attempt to repeal a law which limits military spending and introduce a greater military presence in the country.

·         InSight Crime has released an English translation of an anonymously written comprehensive analysis of organized crime in Guatemala. The report details the five major families which act as the main criminal powerbrokers in the country, and offers an in-depth look at the dynamics of criminal activity in the lawless Peten region.

·         Latin America News Dispatch reports that Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is now on Twitter. His account,  @MashiRafael, means “Comrade Rafael” in the indigenous language of Quechua.

·         Black history scholar Henry Louis Gates has recently published a new book on black identity in Latin America, called “Black in Latin America.” An NPR podcast presents a taste of the work, which explores the cultural history and the impact of slavery in Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico and Peru. Gates has also put together a four-part PBS documentary on the subject, which is available here.

·         In the latest blow to her political agenda, AP reports that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s favored candidate in Buenos Aires’ mayoral election was clobbered by his conservative opponent, current Mayor Mauricio Macri.

·         The Miami Herald informs that the Cuban parliament will convene today for a three day meeting in which it wil discuss pending economic reforms, and it seems the legislative body is poised to pass a law which would ease restrictions on home sales. With the announcement, Cubans are scrambling to fix their homes and gather housing titles in anticipation of selling them.

·         And finally, if you’ve ever wanted to get back into shape with everyone’s favorite Bolivarian leader, here’s your chance: the Venezuelan government has released footage of President Hugo Chavez leading a workout session with leaders of his cabinet. A clip of the video released by Reuters features fast-paced music and speedy graphics, all accompanied by enthusiastic commentary from Chavez lecturing about the benefits of regular exercise.

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