Friday, September 30, 2011

Correa Bashes U.S. 'Pro-Democracy' Fund

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Ecuador President Rafael Correa blames U.S. non-profit the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for playing a role in the attempted coup against him in 2010. The NED finances opposition groups in Ecuador, Correa said, and “probably financed the movements behind the 30th of September.” The NED, which says its stated mission is the “strengthening of democratic institutions around the world,” has denied Correa’s accusations. Correa goes on to address other issues in the interview, like his $40 million lawsuit against newspaper El Universo, and his general ill feeling against the Ecuadorean press outlets that argued Correa was responsible for the September upheaval.

The Correa administration has continuously maintained that the uprising was not a series of police protests that got out of hand, but was in fact a pre-meditated attempt to topple the president. On one hand, mentioning the NED falls in line with the government’s thesis that other forces were responsible for bringing about September 30, rather than Correa’s governing style, which the opposition has criticized has confrontational and undemocratic.

Notably, name-dropping the NED is Correa’s most explicit comparison yet to the 2002 coup which briefly deposed Venezuela President Hugo Chavez. The NED, established in 1983, played a key role in supporting anti-Sandinista groups during the Nicaragua civil war, providing up to $10.5 million in funding. Leading up to Venezuela’s 2002 political crisis, the NED was the principle channel which funded opposition organizations like Sumate, one of the Chavez government’s most detested political rivals. An internal review by the U.S. State Department, which examined NED actions related to the Venezuela coup, found there was no evidence supporting accusations that the outfit directly contributed to the putsch. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the Chavez administration from arguing that the U.S. had all but endorsed the attempt to force him out of office.

There is appears to be little basis to Correa’s claims in the Herald. He does appear to have a supporter in Eva Golinger, the fervent pro-Chavez supporter who published a book in 2004 on the NED’s operations in Venezuela, which sparked an uproar among Chavez’s supporters. It is possible to interpret Correa’s words as more political maneuvering. Nevertheless, even if Correa’s intention was as simple as looking for another outfit to blame for September 30, he probably could not have picked a more convenient target besides the NED.

News briefs
  • The LA Times has a feature on the Alien Transfer Exit Program, in which illegal immigrants caught near the U.S. border are deported back to Mexico, far from their original entry point. Hence, immigrants caught trying to cross into California are shipped to Texas, and vice versa; Arizona deports immigrants to both states. Authorities say the operation is supposed to break up smuggling rings, because if immigrants are repatriated to the same Mexican border city where they originally tried to enter the U.S., this allows them to easily reconnect with familiar smugglers. As the Times points out, dropping immigrants in northeast border towns could be potentially deadly. In these areas, the Zetas tax the “coyotes” who move groups of migrants through their territory, and take brutal action against the vulnerable migrants if the payments aren’t made.
  • Two Twitter users in Mexico almost ended up spending years in jail because of alleged Tweets maintaining that primary schools in Veracruz were under attack. Now, criminal gangs have apparently moved one step closer to carrying out that threat just outside Monterrey, where four banners appeared yesterday announcing intentions to attack local schools. The threats could be related to ongoing extortion demands against teachers, who, while poorly paid, nevertheless could provide an attractive source of income for criminal gangs looking for new influxes of cash.
  • The mystery deepens over the state of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez’s health. On one hand, the president appeared on television yesterday shrugging off rumors that he’d been rushed to the hospital with kidney failure. El Nacional briefly details a meeting Chavez reportedly held with the National Assembly president during the late afternoon, discussing party politics. Government backed paper Correo del Orinoco makes no mention of Chavez’s illness, asides from reporting on his rejection of the rumors. In counterpoint, Miami Herald quotes unnamed sources who say Chavez was rushed to the military hospital Tuesday “in very serious condition,”as a result of kidney problems from his fourth round of chemotherapy.
  • Plaza Publica has a fine analysis, complete with multiple graphics, on some of the trends made clear in Guatemala’s September 11 elections. The Partido Patriotica, which many predict will capture the presidency via candidate Otto Perez Molina, won the most seats in the more violent municipalities, and proved popular among middle-class, non-indigenous voters. Rival party LIDER performed better in rural areas among the poor.
  • IDL Reporteros asks why the Peruvian state is set to spend about $22 million on buying new software tracking the sale of precursor chemicals used to make cocaine, when the government reportedly already has the technology which can do the job. The further restriction of the precursor chemical trade may yet become a central part of President Ollanta Humala’s narcotics strategy. The administration has previously signaled it may move away from a strategy that prioritizes the elimination of coca.
  • The Economist profiles Ricard Teixeira, Brazil’s larger-than-life head of the national football league, who has been chasing accusations of corruption and graft for years. The intersection between football and other, shady activities is not exclusive to Brazil: in Colombia, Bogota football club Santa Fe has had to face down accusations that drug traffickers laundered money via the team. For sports fans, the magazine features other football-themed articles for Ecuador and Colombia.
  • For its October issue, the Atlantic tracks the career of Mexican politician Enrique Peña Nieto prepping for his 2012 presidential run. One of the main questions facing Nieto’s campaign is how much he will seek to distance himself from his PRI colleague, President Felipe Calderon.
  • In Brazil, the investigation into the death of state judge Patricia Acioli is making ripples. Yesterday the head of Rio de Janeiro state police resigned, following the arrest of eight military police detained in connection to the murder.
  • Verdad Abierta describes how rival guerrilla groups the FARC and the ELN finally brokered a peace pact in 2010, afters years of bitter fighting in the oil-rich Arauca department. This was one of the last regions in Colombia where the FARC refused to acknowledge their truce with the ELN. The pact was originally negotiated in partial recognition that if the two groups continued to fight each other, they could not withstand further offensives from the security forces and neo-paramilitary groups.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Could Paramilitarism turn Mexico into Another Colombia?

The Wall Street Journal looks at the rise of “vigilante justice” in Mexico, following the release of a video over the weekend by a group calling themselves the “Mata Zetas” or “Zeta Killers.” In the video, members of the group present themselves in a highly theatrical manner: masked, gloved and dressed in black, they sit in a line facing the camera, press conference-style, each with a bottle of water carefully placed in front of them.

As noted in Tuesday’s brief, this is not the first public statement from the group, which announced their presence in a video in July, in which they promised to expel the Zetas from Veracruz. There have been other groups who have used the same name in the past, including one apparently operating in Cancun in 2009.

In what appeared to be a carefully prepared statement, the group declare that they are “the armed wing of the people,” describing themselves as a “paramilitary” force which does not extort, kidnap, steal or disturb the nation’s well-being. In a particularly curious twist, the Zeta Killers claim to respect the Mexican authorities and their fight against organized crime.

This it at least partly pure rhetoric on the part of the group, who are thought to be part of the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation, which is associated with the Sinaloa Cartel - long Mexico’s biggest drug trafficking organization. But, for the WSJ, the appearance of the Zeta Killers represents a worrying development in Mexico’s security situation, as

The rise of any paramilitary gangs could propel Mexico into an even more violent stage of a drug war.
The WSJ draws parallels with the rise of paramilitarism in Colombia, where the AUC army grew out of local self-protection groups that were set up to protect civilians against leftist guerrillas. The AUC declared itself to be a force on the side of law and order, but ended up being responsible for some of the worst abuses of the recent decades of the conflict, with a big role in trafficking drugs out of the country.

Despite the alarming appearance of the Zeta Killers, who were likely responsible for a massacre of 35 alleged Zetas members whose bodies were left on a Veracruz street last week, the Mexican conflict does not seem likely to morph into anything resembling that of Colombia in the heyday of the paramilitaries. The situation is far less politically polarized, and the self-proclaimed paramilitary force are presumably motivated as much by a wish to push the aggressive Zetas gang out of their territory as by any real disgust at the Zetas’ unpatriotic activities.

However, the WSJ is right to raise concerns about the phenomenon of groups taking the law into their own hands in Mexico. In the face of raging violence from gangs who seem able to act with impunity, some communities are forming vigilante groups to protect themselves. One well-known example is the town of Cheran, in southern Mexico, where indigenous peoples formed a militia to patrol the town, repelling both the security forces and the Familia Michoacana drug gang.

News Briefs

  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was rushed to hospital with signs of kidney failure, according to El Nuevo Herald newspaper, whose sources said that the cancer-stricken leader was in “quite serious condition” when he was admitted. Kidney problems can be a product of chemotherapy, according to the report. Chavez’s government responded to the reports in typically robust style, with Information Minister Andres Izarra Tweeting that El Nuevo Herald’s journalists were the ones who should be admitted, “into a madhouse.” The socialist president has repeatedly played down his illness, saying recently that it had not affected any of his internal organs, and claiming that the opposition were taking advantage of it to portray him as incapable of running in the 2012 elections.
  • In more U.S. coverage of the effects of organized crime in Mexico, NPR warns that “eduation is the latest casualty” in that country’s drug war. The radio station takes a look at the situation in resort city Acapulco, where teachers are striking in protest against the authorities’ failure to protect them from extortion, kidnap and harassment by drug gangs. One striker told NPR that many groups were suffering the same pressure, from taxi drivers to shopkeepers, but the teachers were the ones taking a stand. The state government is considering sending in retired teachers to break the strike. In what is likely an attempt to intimidate the protesters and force them to back down, a sack containing five severed heads was left outside one primary school in the city on Tuesday morning.
  • President Obama has nominated Roberta Jacobson to take the role of the administration’s top official on Latin America. Jacobson is set to become the new assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, replacing Arturo Valenzuela, who stepped down in July. Valenzuela had presided over a lackluster policy towards the region, and had been criticized as ineffectual and pushed to the sidelines of policy formation, according to a Foreign Policy blog. Jacobson has served as acting assistant secretary since Valenzuela’s departure.
  • Bolivia’s embattled President Evo Morales has seen tens of thousands take to the streets in protest against a crackdown on indigenous groups. Police reportedly used heavy-handed tactics to cut off a march against the construction of a road in a protected zone to the east of the country. Morales quickly backpedalled in the face of the public outrage, suspending construction of the highway, as noted in Wednesday’s brief, and denying that he had ordered police to stop the march. The Associated Press notes that “It remains unclear who ordered air force planes to fly to a tourist town near where the march was broken up to collect detainees.” Bolivia has a tradition of strong street protests, which have often toppled governments, and Morales has already lost at least four top officials in the fallout.
  • The Guardian newspaper reports from Brazil on this year’s spate of murders of environmental activists in Para state, in the Amazon, noting that the killings showed that authorities are unable to protect the area’s environmentalists. The newspaper reports on the lawless nature of many parts of the jungle, which are inaccessible to environmentalists and even dangerous for government officials. One environmental official, speaking from a particularly remote part of Para, warned that, “If NGOs such as Greenpeace tried to come here they would definitely be eliminated." However, in a victory for those fighting to protect Para’s environment, a federal judge on Wednesday halted work on the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam planned for the Xingu River. The dam was set to be the third largest in the world, and formed a key part of the government’s energy plans.
  • A planned conference of governors from states along both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border had a disappointing turnout, with New Mexico being the only American state to send a representative for the third year in a row. The 2010 conference was also hit by controversy, as Mexican governors pulled out in the wake of Arizona’s tough immigration laws. Latin Intelligence notes that the conference has suffered from “a sprawling agenda and size” as well as from political polarization. Andrew Selee of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute told the AP that “The governors are in a position to set the agenda for border issues, but they haven’t quite figured out how to do it.”
  • Protesters blocked rivers in west Colombia’s Choco department on Wednesday to take a stand against aerial coca eradication. Representatives of indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups in the region said that they did not support the cultivation of coca, the crop used to manufacture cocaine, but that the aerial spraying damaged legal crops, as well as the environment, and the health of locals.
  • In Mexico, the Supreme Court failed to overturn a Baja California state measure banning elective abortion, despite seven of the 11 justices voting that it was unconstitutional. This effectively puts the issue in the hands of state governments.
  • Guatemalan website Plaza Publica issued a statement rejecting what it said was an electoral smear campaign falsely issued in its name. The material was reportedly printed with Plaza Publica’s logo and address, and accused presidential candidate Otto Perez of having played a part in a financial corruption scandal involving funds of the country’s Congress.
  • Sexual violence is on the rise in Guatemala, according to a report from Prensa Libre, with the Attorney General’s Office receiving an average of six complaints a day. According to Doctors Without Borders, the under-reporting rate for sexual assault could be as high as 70 percent.

  • The Washington Post reports on an initiative to bring world-famous art to rural areas of Cuba, with works by artists including Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro touring the country in a traveling exhibition funded by a U.S. philanthropist.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bolivia's Evo Morales Faces Credibility Crisis

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Bolivian President Evo Morales has suspended the construction of the highway crossing the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park (TIPNIS), which caused massive protests on Monday. However, the political fallout from the harsh police crackdown continues. Immediately after the incident, in which around 500 police officers raided a protest camp and detained several indigenous protestors, Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon resigned in protest. The director of Bolivia's migration agency, Maria Rene Quiroga, also resigned yesterday, and was soon followed by Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti, who has publicly been blamed for the harsh repression. For his part, Llorenti has claimed that claimed that he did not order the police response, blaming it instead on Deputy Minister Marcos Farfan, who also stepped down on Tuesday.

But although these high-level officials claimed to have no part in ordering the intervention, evidence suggests that it was in fact ordered by members of Evo’s cabinet. According to a government document obtained by La Razon, the intervention was requested by Justice Minister Nilda Copa, her vice minister, and two Interior Ministry officials acting on behalf of Llorenti. So far Copa remains in office, but as Bolivian press turns against her it is unclear how long she will continue to do so.

According to the Andean Information Network’s Kathryn Ledebur, this kind of suppression represents an “turning point” for the Morales administration, as it shows a tremendous disconnect between his government and the largely indigenous social movements that have formed a major part of his base. Under the new Bolivian constitution, indigenous groups must be consulted in development projects undertaken on their territory, something that the four indigenous communities in the region say the government has not carried out.

Instead of unilaterally forcing the project, the Morales government has announced that it will hold a referendum in Cochabamba and Beni, where the highway would be constructed, in order to determine whether it will go forward. While this at first glance appears to be a major concession to the demands of the protestors, Ledebur claimed in a WOLA podcast yesterday that it does not amount to a true consultation with indigenous groups. The majority of voters are not members of the affected groups, and are thus likely to support the highway.

Whether or not the TIPNIS project is approved, there can be no doubt that the weeks of protests against it have damaged Morales’ reputation. Despite the murky constitutionality of a re-election bid, Morales has claimed that he will run again for president in 2015, but his support seems to have dwindled in recent weeks. According to a recent poll by Bolivia’s El Dia, Morales’ popularity fell seven points in September, from 44 to 37 percent.

News Briefs

·         In other Bolivia news, Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies has published its Fall 2011 issue of ReVista: The Harvard Review of Latin America. Bolivia is the central focus of the journal, which focuses on a number of different political, environmental and economic trends in the country. Particularly relevant is Miguel Centellas’s piece, “Beyond Caudillos,” which focuses on the development of democratic political processes in Bolivia.

·         The AP reports on Haitian President Michel Martell’s plans to restore the country’s military, which was disbanded in 1995. The wire agency has obtained a government document that reportedly details a plan to spend $95 million to train an initial force of 3,500 troops, with the goal of eventually replacing the UN peacekeeping force in the country. 

·         In an indicator of his lingering influence, two supporters of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier stormed an Amnesty International press conference yesterday, which was held to present a report which detailed torture, murder and other crimes committed by state officials during his regime. According to the AP, the Duvalier supporters brought the event to a halt, and eventually intimidated victims into refraining from giving testimony.

·         U.S. presidential candidate Michelle Bachman raised eyebrows earlier this week by controversially claiming that the Hezbollah, the Islamic insurgency based in Lebanon, had set up training camps in Cuba. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Minnesota congresswoman cited “reports” which show that the group could potentially establish “missile sites or weapons sites” just 90 miles south of Florida. Both the source and credibility of these reports remain unclear, to put it mildly. Not to worry, however: Bachman maintains that she is the candidate “who understands problems that are going on internationally.”

·         The Confederation of Students of Chile (which represents 25 student federations among the country’s main universities) has accepted the government’s call to dialogue, the AFP reports, but said it will continue to call on its members to refrain from attending classes. The government has been hit hard by the protests, and has recently attempted to cast itself as more sympathetic to their demands. In a recent UN speech, President Sebastián Piñera said the students were protesting for “a noble, grand and beautiful cause.” However, it seems these recent attempts have not affected his abysmal approval ratings. According to a recent Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Contemporánea (CERC) poll, only 22 percent of Chileans support the leader.

·         Prensa Latina reports that Honduran general Romeo Vasquez Velasquez will run in the country’s general elections as the presidential candidate of Alianza Patriótica Hondureña party. The article claims that his advisers are instructing him to leave his position at the head of the state-owned Honduran Telecommunications (Hondutel). These same advisers are also reportedly warning him of the possibility that his decision to run could spark legal action against his role in the 2009 coup, in which he directed the armed forces and was denounced by several human rights organizations. Although this has not been confirmed by local press, Honduras Culture and Politics notes that this is a sign that “the coup and its aftermath clearly changed the role of the military in modern Honduras.”

·         El Universal reports that the Mexican Supreme Court is assessing the constitutionality of a statewide ban on abortions in Baja California. The court has ruled in favor of abortions in the past, but it is unclear where each of its members stand on the issue of a ban. According to the Mexican paper, the position of the court is expected to be made clear later today.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

U.S. Congress Still Wants “Operational Control” of Borders

Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security announced the approval of HR 2199, the “Secure Border Act of 2011.” The key mandate of the bill is to “achieve operational control of and achieve security at the international land borders of the United States.” The most important term here is “operational control.” As laid out by Congress in the Secure Fence Act of 2006 (pdf), the concept is defined as “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States.” As the 2011 bill reaffirms, Congress wants the Department of Homeland Security to essentially seal off the border.

So just how impossible is this task? As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) laid out in a report released last February, over half of the Southwest border (1,127 out of 1,951 miles) are considered to have low border security. The area deemed by the U.S. Border Patrol as under “operational control” is just 873 miles. Within this chunk of border, the agency considers just 15 percent (129 miles) to be “controlled,” which the agency defines as a high level of ability to stop illegal activities, not the capacity to prevent “all unlawful entries.” The other 85 percent (744 miles) are “managed,” meaning the Border Patrol can stop illegal entries over 100 miles into U.S. territory.

The Border Patrol has been operating with a different definition of “operational control” since 2007, defining the act as “the ability to detect, respond, and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority for threat potential.” Here, the key part of the definition is “threat.” Since the achievement of total “operational control” of the U.S. borders is impossible, the Border Patrol is basically measuring success according to their ability to control high-risk areas, not their ability to stop every illegal entry into the U.S.

Head of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said in February that the very concept of “operational control” is a “very narrow term.” A better description might be “politically loaded” or “unrealistic.” But as evident from the advance of the latest “Secure Border” bill, Congress is not looking to develop new measures to gauge border security anytime soon.

News Briefs

  • In other U.S.-Mexico border news, the non-governmental task force appointed by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (iCE) in order to review the controversial Secure Communities enforcement program released their expected findings and recommendations.
  • Colombian think-tank Foundation Ideas for Peace (FIP), an Open Society grantee, released a study arguing that the security forces have not lost the initiative in the war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As Just the Facts and Semana have pointed out, this is the opposite conclusion drawn by another conflict think-tank, the New Rainbow Foundation (Nuevo Arco Iris). While Nuevo Arco Iris counts the usage of anti-personnel mines and snipers as offensive actions by the FARC, the FIP discounts them, arguing they are part of an inherently defensive strategy used by the guerrillas to protect their strategic movement corridors, and are not evidence of the rebels’ military resurgence. As a result, when tallying up the total number of FARC actions (which the FIP divides into six categories, including “combat with security forces,” “attacks on infrastructure,” “ambush” and “sabotage”), the FIP concludes that the security forces are still carrying out a far higher number of combats with the rebels, compared to the FARC’s total number of actions. Nuevo Arco Iris used a similar approach in a report released last July, but because they counted incidents involving landmines and sniper fire, their conclusion is that the FARC’s military actions have been on the rise since 2009.
  • Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” once considered by Forbes to be the world’s most wanted man after Osama Bin Laden, is the father of twins girls who were born outside Los Angeles just over a month ago. The LA Times reports that Guzman’s 22-year-old wife, beauty queen Emma Coronel, is a U.S. citizen and crossed over the border without detention or arrest, as there are no current charges against her.
  • The LA Times has a brief feature on Mexico city mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who announced last week that he will renounce office on January 1 in order to be eligible to run for president. Ebrard, a key figure of the Mexican left, is a member of the democratic socialist party known as the PRD and may face a tough campaign ahead of him. According to one Mitofsky poll in early September, just three percent of those surveyed would elect him president.
  • The Mexican government will investigate a communique released by the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, a splinter group of the Sinaloa Cartel), in which they describe their commitment to eliminating rival cartel the Zetas in the region. In the video, the group calls themselves the “Mata Zetas” and justify their actions against their rivals by claiming they don’t “extort or kidnap.” This is very similar rhetoric that other rivals of the Zetas, including the now-defunct Familia Michoacana, have invoked when conducting their PR campaigns on the Internet. The Mata Zetas first announced themselves via video last July, declaring their intention to expel the Zetas from Veracruz. The group is being blamed for the recent killing and dumping of 35 bodies on a Veracruz highway.
  • The Associated Press has a follow-up on the killing of social media user Maria Elizabeth Castro, reportedly involved with discussing criminal activity on a Nuevo Laredo-based webforum. The AP interviews an editor at Primera Hora, the newspaper where Castro apparently worked as the advertising supervisor. The paper hasn’t had a crime reporter for the past two years, the editor told the AP. This is partly indicative of why websites like Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, where Castro was reportedly active, have grown in popularity in Mexico: to share reporting on criminal activity, as an intimidated press has withdraw from covering the problem. Meanwhile, users of the anti-crime website have vowed to continue their activity after Castro’s death.
  • Hugo Chavez, back in Venezuela after his fourth round of chemotherapy, criticized the opposition for reportedly portraying him as in “grave condition” and therefore incapable of running the country, let alone running again for president next year.
  • The Miami Herald examines Haiti a year after the cholera outbreak which claimed thousands of lives. Humanitarian aid groups have begun to withdraw their cholera treatment efforts, even though some health experts say Haiti could experience another outbreak before the end of the rainy season, the Herald reports.
  • Bolivia has suspended the construction of the highway crossing the Amazonian rainforest, which caused such violent protests yesterday and prompted the Minister of Defense to resign. Analyst James Bosworth writes that if Morales had pushed through with the road project, his government was at risk of falling “before the end of the week.” Meanwhile, authorities have apparently detained a doctor who reported police abuse against medics treating injured indigenous protesters.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mexican newspaper editor decapitated in warning to social media sites

In another blow to freedom of expression in Mexico, the decapitated body of a newspaper editor was found in the border city of Nuevo Laredo on Saturday, along with a message saying that she had been killed because of her use of social media sites to denounce crime. A sign, propped next to her body, gave the username she supposedly used online, and addressed website Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and “social networks,” saying “I’m here because of my reports, and yours … [and] for trusting in the Ministry of Defense and the marines.” It was signed with the letter Z, which stands for the Zetas drug gang, Mexico’s most violent criminal organization.

Nuevo Laredo en Vivo is a local site which includes phone numbers for giving tips to the authorities, and a neighborhood watch-style section about crime, where people can post information such as locations where drugs are sold, and where drug gang lookouts are stationed, and sightings of any suspicious activity, according to Borderland Beat.

The victim has been identified as Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro, editor of newspaper Primera Hora. Her death comes two weeks after the tortured bodies of two young people, a man and a woman, were found hanging from a bridge in the same city. A message hanging next to them said that they had “snitched” via another website, and said “this will happen to all Internet snitches.” It was also signed by the Zetas.

The Zetas appear to be trying to intimidate those who use social media sites to report on organized crime. Sites like Blog del Narco, which was named in the bridge message, have become an increasingly important source of information on organized crime, and some even feature videos put online by the criminal gangs themselves. A Saturday piece in the New York Times, written before the discovery of Macias’ corpse, highlighted the importance of social networking sites like Twitter for exchanging information on the increasingly violent drug conflict, when traditional media sources have often been intimidated or corrupted into silence. The newspaper notes the use of networks like Twitter to share warnings on criminal activity, reporting that, even before police or press had arrived at the scene, Twitter users were telling people to stay away from the location in Veracruz where cartel gunmen dumped 35 dead bodies on Tuesday. Dubbing the trend “the explosion of electronic crime-sharing,” the NYT contrasts this to the role of social networks in the Arab Spring, or in Chinese protests:
In those countries, social networks have been used to route around identifiable sources of repression and to unify groups dispersed over large areas. In Mexico, Twitter, Facebook and other tools are instead deployed for local survival.
The issue has received even more attention following the case, now dropped, against two Twitter users who were facing long jail terms on terrorism charges after spreading false reports about cartel activity on the site, which authorities said had caused panic that contributed to car accidents.

Although Macias’ murder appears to be linked to her use of online forums, her job as a journalist likely played a part in sealing her fate. The killing follows the murder of two female journalists in Mexico City less than a month previously, and the killing of a radio journalist in Sinaloa state days before that. All three deaths have been linked to organized crime. In Veracruz, Daniel Flores Guillén, a journalist with a local newspaper, has been missing since September 22.

News briefs
  • Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding announced that he would step down in November, after four years in power. He will be succeeded by whoever his Labour Party selects as leader in its conference that month, prior to a general election in 2012. Golding’s reputation was tarnished by his government’s unwillingness to arrests crime baron “Dudus” Coke, whose extradition was requested by the U.S. in August 2009. InSight Crime sets out the details of Golding’s involvement with Coke, pointing out that a vast majority of the Jamaican public think Golding lied in an enquiry over the case, according to polls. Meanwhile the Jamaican Gleaner argued that the prime minister’s departure was a master stroke for the Labour Party, allowing it to rebuild its reputation ahead of next year’s election.
  • In Bolivia, there were violent clashes as police broke up protests by indigenous groups who oppose the building of a road in a protected rainforest area. AFP news agency reports that tear gas was fired close to the village of Yucumo, in the north-east of the country some 150 miles from La Paz, and that protest marchers heading to the capital were stopped and were loaded onto buses by police, who said they would take them back to their home towns. The marchers had reportedly managed to take Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca hostage, forcing him to march with them, and broke through police lines. This is another sign of tensions between populist President Evo Morales, elected as the country’s first indigenous president, and the indigenous groups that had formed his support base, as Morales pushes through plans that many indigenous groups criticize as harming the environment.
  • Conservative commentator Mary Anastasia O’Grady, of the Wall Street Journal, asks which way Peru’s new President Ollanta Humala is going to turn on the economy. Humala presented a much more leftist face when he ran for the presidency in 2006, before overhauling his image and moving towards the center for this year’s election. O’Grady questions how deep this conversion goes, criticizing Humala’s failure to give a strong denial when she asked him in a recent interview whether he would alter the constitution. As a candidate, he had proposed to change the constitution and increase state control over the economy, and at his inauguration, the new president promised to “honor the spirit” of the 1979 constitution, now defunct, which contained provisions for large-scale land reform. For O’Grady, the president now seems to be intentionally leaving a certain ambiguity around the subject of his economic plans. However, as she points out, Humala’s actions, in the form of appointments to crucial economic posts, indicate that he intends to govern as a Lula-style centrist on the economy, while carefully moderating his rhetoric to try not to antagonize his supporters on the left.
  • The U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control issued a report on “Responding to Violence in Central America.” It highlights the fact that violence, as represented by murder rates per capita, is more intense in some Central American countries than it is in Mexico, though the region gets far less attention (and U.S. cash) than its northern neighbor. The report states that it will not recommend large amounts of new U.S. aid, instead calling on the countries of Central America to generate more of their own funding for security. This echoes Hillary Clinton’s comments at a Guatemala City conference in June, when she called on the rich and businesses in Central America to pay their fair share of taxes to bankroll the fight against crime in the region. Instead of fresh funds, the report focuses on partnerships with agencies in the isthmus, such as installing law enforcement bodies linked to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in all countries of the region, and increasing support for programs to protect witnesses, judges, and prosecutors, in order to strengthen justice systems.
  • In Colombia, police seized a submarine belonging to the FARC guerrilla group, which was intended to be sold to drug traffickers, namely Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, according to reports. The vessel was found near the Pacific port of Buenaventura. Smuggling drugs in submarines, or semi-submersible vessels via the Pacific to Mexico or Central America is an increasingly popular method for Colombian traffickers, as the vessels are difficult for the authorities to spot.
  • In some brighter news from Colombia, the LA Times has a feature on the increase in home ownership in the country, which it attributes to rising security.
  • In Venezuela, Leopoldo Lopez officially launched his bid for the presidency, after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights overturned a ban on him running for public office. He hopes to be picked as the candidate of the opposition coalition MUD for the elections, to be held in October 2012.
  • The New York Times reports on a protest by teachers in Acapulco, south Mexico, against extortion by criminal gangs. Exortion is becoming an increasingly contentious issue in Mexico, as gangs turn to the crime as an easy source of revenue in the face of crackdowns on drug trafficking.
  • Also in Mexico, a new study by the government reveals that many police officers still earn less than $350 a month, with state officers in the troubled border state of Tamaulipas on the lowest salaries in the country. These low wages are thought to be a key factor in driving corruption.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that arrests of illegal migrants on the U.S.-Mexican border has declined by a third in two years, to reach its lowest level in 40 years. The newspaper comments; “the real immigration story these days is how many fewer illegal migrants are trying to get into the land of the free.”