Monday, October 31, 2011

Colombia Elections a Big Win for Non-Traditional Candidates, Parties

Colombians went to the polls Sunday to elect mayors, governors, councilors and members of state assemblies. One of the most significant developments was the victory of independent candidate Gustavo Petro, who, with 32 percent of the vote, won one of Colombia’s most important political positions: mayor of Bogota. Petro, a former member of the now defunct M-19 guerrilla group, ran as an independent in part to distance himself from his political party, the far-left Polo Democratico. Bogota’s previous mayor, Samuel Moreno, also from the Polo Democratico, is now in jail awaiting trial for allegedly accepting kickbacks for several public works projects.

Semana credits Petro’s victory to his senatorial experience, his oratory skills and his ability to present himself as Bogota’s true alternative candidate. His election appears to prove what many analysts predicted: the Bogota race was basically a referendum on corruption. By adopting this issue as his campaign’s central theme, and backed by a strong record as an anti-corruption crusader in Congress, Petro was able to win a tough race. His main opponent, Green Party candidate Enrique Peñalosa, is the popular former mayor of Bogota but may have been hurt when he accepted the endorsement of ex-president Alvaro Uribe. The decision angered many in his party and created the perception he was more of an establishment candidate than Petro.

Petro was among five leftist candidates who won mayorships in seven of Colombia’s major cities. Nationwide, voting trends did not indicate a shift to the left, but certainly showed that the non-traditional parties like the Greens and the Alianza Social Independente are gaining strength. In one important win, Green Party candidate and ex-mayor of Medellin Sergio Fajardo won governorship of Antioquia. Fajardo is credited for leading urban renewal and social initiatives in Medellin during his term as major, when violence dropped dramatically in the city. In other parts of the country, traditional political bosses, including some associated with “parapolitics,” won key positions, reports El Tiempo.

Election day saw few incidents of violence reported, despite a violent build-up which saw 41 candidates killed while campaigning. According to the government, violence dropped 86 percent compared to the last municipal elections, held in 2007.

For more analysis, La Silla Vacia lists the top ten trends made evident from the voting results. More English-language coverage from Colombia Reports, Miami Herald, LA Times, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal.

News Briefs

  • Computer hacker and activist group Anonymous released a video threatening to share intelligence on Zeta collaborators, after a member of their group was kidnapped in Veracruz. In the video, a speaker wearing a mask says Anonymous will expose police officers, journalists and other Zeta accomplices, stating, “You have made a great mistake by taking one of us. Free him.” It remains to be seen whether Anonymous will follow through with their threat and make such information public, and whether this could spark a violent reaction from the Zetas. Bloggings by Boz predicts such an outcome, noting that if purported anti-Zeta groups like the “Mata Zetas” make use of the information to target those working with the Zetas, this gives the Mexican criminal gang plenty of reason to respond aggressively to Anonymous’ threats.
  • The Washington Post profiles economic consultants in Argentina who release inflation statistics that differ sharply from the numbers released by the government. President Cristina Kirchner´s recent electoral victory appeared to signal Argentines are happy with her government’s economic policies. But other private consultancy firms, U.S.-based credit rating agencies, and international bodies like the IMF and World Bank are questioning the government’s economic statistics. But as the Post reports, such complaints by private and international firms may be connected to another issue, namely, Argentina’s refusal to prioritize paying back its loans to the Inter-American Development Bank, and to let the IMF evaluate the country’s economy. Foreign Policy also has an argument on why Kirchner’s populist economic policies are not sustainable.
  • Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva has been diagnosed with throat cancer. Today he starts undergoing treatment in a Sao Paulo hospital. The Wall Street Journal notes that the diagnosis casts Lula’s future as the main advisor to President Dilma Rousseff into question. Meanwhile, Venezuelan President and fellow cancer-sufferer Hugo Chavez sent a message of solidarity to the Brazilian politican.
  • The AP reports on drug trafficking in Honduras, an increasingly important transit country for U.S.-bound cocaine. The article summarizes the top reasons why drug trafficking organizations have become so reliant on offloading and storing cocaine in Honduras, and the detrimental effect on the country’s homicide and crime rates.
  • At the 21st Ibero-American Summit, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa caused a stir when he walked out during a speech by a World Bank representative. The Latin America Herald Tribunereports that Correa said his exit was a symbolic demand that the World Bank apologize for the damage neoliberal economic policies have inflicted in Latin America.
  • In Foreign Policy, ex-World Bank director and neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz co-authored an article arguing why the “Plan Colombia” approach is the best option for Afghanistan. The article is accompanied by a timeline of what the program achieved (and failed to achieve) in Colombia.
  • Al Jazeera released a video report on violence in Jalisco and Zacatecas, profiling the residents of three towns affected by the current turf war between the Zetas and Sinaloa Cartels.
  • In Puerto Rico, the number of unsolved murder cases is rising fast, according to the AP. One homicide involving an 8-year-old boy has become a media sensation on the island, where police forces are frequently criticized for carrying out ineffective investigations. Puerto Rico may be on track to register over 1,000 murders by the end of year.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Republican Candidates' Wilful Disregard for the Latino Vote

An op-ed in the Washington Post looks at the two front-runners for the Republican nomination, and their “repellent” positions on migration policy.

The newspaper has strong criticism for Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, who seem to be competing to outdo each other in hardline positions on the issue. As the Post sets out, Perry has attacked healthcare for undocumented immigrants, while Romney has attacked education benefits for their children.

For columnist Michael Gerson, these positions are not only immoral but counterproductive. As he asks:

How does it benefit the United States to purposely limit the educational and life prospects of a whole category of students? Isn’t it more costly to provide health care in emergency rooms — where universal access is federally mandated — than to permit treatment in public programs?
Gerson notes that both men have held more progressive positions on migration in the past. The candidates have seemingly been pushed into adopting hardline approaches by the Republican voters’ resentment of migrants, but, the author argues, this does not justify them; “It is the responsibility of political leaders to address this issue without inflaming it.”

As well as the broader implications for U.S. migration policy, and the lives of many thousands of undocumented people in the country, these policies are bad news for the Republican chances of winning the presidency. Gerson points out that “Hispanic political influence is not only increasing but concentrated in competitive states — a key to electoral success in states such as Nevada, Colorado and Arizona.” President Barack Obama has failed to take concrete action on the issue, despite promises, leaving it as an easy target for Republicans looking to score points.

The Council on Foreign Relations blog also picks up on this issue, asking if the GOP “can connect with the growing number of American citizens with links back to Latin America.” It puts the number of these citizens as 50.5 million, or one in six of the population. The CFR also points out the Republicans’ growing rhetoric against undocumented immigrants, highlighting the policies of Herman Cain, the boombastic businessman and sometime gospel singer now running for the nomination;

Herman Cain ratcheted up the rhetoric to an all time high, suggesting electrifying the border fence and killing anyone who tried to cross into the United States from Mexico.
For the CFR as for the Washington Post, this hardline approach simply does not appear to be in the interests of the party, quite aside from concerns about whether it even makes sense. The CFR points out that Republicans could connect with Latino voters on a number of issues, including faith-based positions and pro-business policies. It names Rick Santorum as the only candidate seems to want to avoid alienating the Latino vote, and, for the think tank:

If Rick Santorum is the only Republican hopeful that understands the importance of reaching out to Latinos, then the party is in trouble.

News Briefs

  • The latest edition of The Economist publishes the findings of the Latinobarometro poll, which surveys public opinion in 18 Latin American countries. The main trend the newspaper picks out is a decline in support for democracy since 2010, especially in countries which have seen high rates of violence - namely Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. It also notes increasing dissatisfaction with governments, which The Economist ties to the rise of a more aspirational, and thus more difficult to please, middle class. Crime is also a stand-out issue, with 28 percent of all respondents saying this is their biggest concern. This proportion jumps to 61 percent in Venezuela, the article notes; not surprising given the sharp increase in murder rates in recent years.
  • Also in The Economist is a piece about ongoing clashes over education reform in Chile, which it calls “the most serious political conflict for two decades in Latin America’s most successful country.” The newspaper argues that the students have some justification for their demands, as private households make up a bigger percentage of education spending that in any other OECD country. However, it judges that the government is correct to oppose an entirely state-funded system, which the president has said would be a subsidy to the rich. 
  • The New York Times reports on indigenous protesters’ occupation of the construction site of a proposed hydroelectric dam in the Brazilian Amazon state of Para, which is predicted to displace some 16,000 people. The protest lasted from morning until evening on Thursday, with estimates of the numbers of occupiers ranging from 300 to 600. There were no clashes with security guards, according to reports. The Brazilian government remains committed to the plan, despite a legal ruling last month that suspended construction work on the dam, set to be the the third biggest in the world. 
  • A group of Mexican businesspeople addressed both houses of the country’s Congress to argue in favor of drug legalization as a solution to the organized crime-related violence sweeping the country. The group, headed by Santiago Roel of the campaign organization Di Si al Debate (Say Yes to Debate), come from the violence-hit northern state of Nuevo Leon. They called for a debate on the issue to be, “rational and scientific, not religious or moral,” arguing that violence in the country is driven by a confusion of the fight against organized crime and the fight against the drug market. Roel said that the real driver of violence in Mexico is not the drug export business but drug retailing within the country, pointing to violence in cities like Monterrey and Torreon, which he said are not closely tied to drug exports.
  • Atlantic magazine profiles Enrique Peña Nieto, widely considered as the favorite to win Mexico’s presidency on behalf of the PRI party in the July 2012 elections. The PRI ruled Mexico for some 70 years until 2000, and now, says Atlantic, “Peña Nieto’s momentum—like the return of the PRI to power—already seems unstoppable.”
  • Mexico’s Navy announced the capture of a man suspected to be a leader of the Zetas drug gang in the Gulf city of Veracruz. Carlos "El Bam Bam" Pitalua was arrested along with five other alleged Zetas, in what looks like a sign that the government’s decision to send federal troops into the port city is having an impact. The city and state of Veracruz have become a focal point of the drug war in recent months, with high-profile incidents like the dumping of 35 dead bodies on a city street in September. This has been attributed to a clash between the Zetas, who have long held the state, and rival groups seeking to dislodge the unpopular and highly violent gang.
  • In more on Mexico’s drug war, the Washington Post looks at the long search for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa Cartel strongman who has evaded capture since skipping prison in 2001. The Post argues that Mexico’s most-wanted man is living comfortably, “though he is in hiding, he is not on the run.” The Calderon government is increasingly keen to catch Guzman, as the president’s six year term comes to an end. According to the Post’s sources, “Mexico now operates at least three full-time capture-kill units solely dedicated to ending the reign of Guzman.” This does not seem to fit with the relaxed attitude apparently shown by the authorities when Chapo’s wife reportedly traveled to the U.S. to give birth. When the New York Times asked Calderonwhy she had not been stopped and questioned, he turned the question back round on U.S. border officials. This kind of response does not help assuage suspicions that elements in the Mexican government have some degree of complicity with Guzman.
  • The Miami Herald reports on Cuba’s army, which has been leaderless since the death of Castro loyalist General Julio Casas on September 3. The newspaper looks at various potential candidates for the role, pointing out that the decision is a crucial one for Raul Castro, as the chosen successor will “instantly become the second most powerful leader on the island … Whoever Raul ultimately selects could easily be the man who will lead post-Castro Cuba in to a new era.” 
  • Also in the Miami Herald is an article on Brazil and Uruguay’s efforts to punish crimes committed while the countries were under dictatorships. As noted in earlier posts, this week Uruguay’s Senate overturned an amnesty for crimes of state officials during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship, while Argentine courts sentenced 12 former military and police officers including “Angel of Death” Alfredo Astiz, to long jail terms. For the Miami Herald, this signifies that the two countries are “catching up” to their neighbors, Argentina and Paraguay, which have convicted many former officials for their actions under repressive regimes.
  • On Cristina Kirchner’s re-election victory, the Washington Post asks whether the Argentine ruler will “use her new mandate to crush opponents or to adopt a more tolerant course.” The newspaper leans towards the former, pointing out that the Kirchner government has done its best to destroy the country’s two most important newspapers, and persecuted economists who contradict the official line.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Popular Mexico Drug War Blog Facing 'Security' Threats

The editors of Blog del Narco and Mundo Narco, best known for publishing uncensored, grisly images of Mexico’s drug conflict, say they had to move to anew website after the Mexican government complained to their former hosting platform, Blogger. According to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, since October 24 it became difficult to access the blog through several Internet browsers, including Google Chrome. In a statement published on the website and distributed through Twitter, the anonymous blog founders said they were changing domain names due to “questions of security.” Much of the site’s archives appear to be lost or moved in part over to Blog del Capo.

With a reported three million visits a week, the Blog del Narco was one of Mexico’s best well known websites which track drug violence, compiling video, breaking news and graphic photos. The blog is less than three years old but in some ways became synonymous in the international media for the anonymous documentation of drug-related deaths. Blog del Narco also monitored the expansion of drug gang tactics to include uniforms, armored cars and other high-power weaponry. In some cases, criminal gangs would reportedly distribute videos and other promotional material (like photos of a hitman and his attractive stream of girlfriends) directly to the website. Imitation sites like Diario del Narcoand La Policiaca both perform the same service as Blog del Narco, often using similar design. But no anonymous website on Mexican violence became quite as public as the Blog del Narco did.

If Blog del Narco did in fact begin experiencing technical difficulties due to interference from the government or “other people who want to censure us,” as one editor told the Knight Center, it would coincide with recent threats by criminal gang the Zetas against similar media sites. The Zetas were reportedlybehind the killing of two people in early September, who were left hanging off a bridge in Nuevo Laredo alongside a banner which threatened “Internet snitches.” The sign explicitly named Blog del Narco and two other websites. Shortly afterwards a site administrator at Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, a chat site where residents swap security tips, was killed, her decapitated body dumped by a road.

As for Blog del Narco’s implication that the “government” wanted the site shut down, there could be some weight to this argument considering that earlier this year, many of Mexico’s larger media organizations agreed to follow self-imposed guidelines when reporting on the drug violence. These measures included refusing to publish “propaganda” by drug cartels. A broad definition of “propaganda” could include the same raw coverage supplied by Blog del Narco, which refused at the time to pay attention to the mainstream media pact.

It is possible that Blog del Narco, while in some cases the alleged favored vehicle for some thugs to distribute their videos and photos, could also be viewed as a threat by criminal groups nervous about having their illicit activity documented and discussed online. Blog del Narco performed the key service of recording the extent of Mexico’s drug violence, even as many other local newspapers feared to do so. But the blog also served a useful purpose for drug gangs looking to promote themselves as violent, powerful, and willing to stop at nothing. Mexico’s drug conflict has a key propaganda component, and Blog del Narco, as the most visible of the drug violence blogs, played a key role in the cartels’ efforts to brand themselves online.

At its best, the website was a useful symbol for the power of non-traditional media and the importance of recording the brutal toll of Mexico’s drug conflict. At its worst, the website invited criticism that it was little more than an “amarillista” (yellow journalism) tabloid gone digital.

News Briefs

  • The Miami Herald features a Venezuelan power broker playing the same role, in some ways, played by Howard Dean during the second term of the Bush administration. Ramon Guillermo Aveledo is the man charged with organizing the opposition’s electoral strategy and ensuring that the coalition of anti-Chavez parties stay united and focused on winning votes. The Herald credits Aveledo for masterminding the gains made by the opposition last year in Congress.
  • The Brazilian Senate approved legislation that will make it easier for interest parties to request and receive information from government bodies. Similarly to the Freedom of Information Act in the U.S., the law may make it easier for Brazilian media to access government records, even those previously deemed classified. President Dilma Rousseff is expected to sign the bill into law in the next few days.
  • Twelve former military and police officers in Argentina were given life sentences in prison for crimes committed during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. BBC reports that among those sentenced is naval officer Alfredo Astriz, behind the imprisonment and murder of three leaders from civil society organization Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The victims include one of the organization’s founders and two French nuns. Astriz was also convicted for the kidnapping and killing of writer Rodolfo Walsh. The two-year trial in Argentina concludes just as neighboring Uruguay voted to revoke amnesty for dictatorship-era crimes.
  • NACLA’s blog on border issues reports on a speech given by retired U.S. military official and ex-”Drug Czar” Barry McCaffrey. McCaffrey, who authored a report earlier this year recommending that the number of Border Patrol agents along the Southwest frontier be doubled, discussed U.S. drug policy at an event hosted by George Washington University. NACLA critiques McCaffrey’s answer to one question by an event attendee representing the Drug Policy Alliance. McCaffrey was asked about collusion between the Mexican government and the Sinaloa Cartel. According to NACLA’s analysis, McCaffrey’s answer (“Well, almost nothing in life works with a yes or a no”) will do little to assuage these suspicions.
  • As Hurricane Rina moves across the Caribbean, IPS reports on the measures taken by Central America to improve emergency-response to weather disasters.
  • Verdad Abierta has two new interesting reports about Colombia’s conflict. One concerns sexual violence committed by paramilitaries, which account for nearly 20 percent of the total number of sex crimes registered between 2001 and 2009. The other report highlights a little-documented phenomenon which could pose a significant threat to the legitimacy of Colombia’s Justice and Peace process. According to some authorities, the government may have provided reparations to people posing to be victims of one of Colombia’s most brutal massacres, registered in 1997 in Mapiripan, Meta. These cases of “false” victims can be best described as an isolated phenomenon, but could still have the negative effect of casting doubt on the effectiveness of the Justice and Peace process.
  • Brazil’s Sports Minister Orlando Silver resigned just a few weeks after local magazine Veja published a report alleging that he embezzled millions of dollars. He is the sixth Cabinet official to resign so far this year, alongside the Defense Minister and the President’s Chief of Staff.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Uruguay Senate Votes to Revoke Amnesty for Dictatorship-Era Crimes

By a narrow 16-15 margin, the Uruguayan Senate yesterday voted to overturn a 1986 amnesty law which shelters a number of state officials from prosecution for human rights crimes committed during the country’s 1973-1985 military dictatorship. As Uruguay’s El Pais reports, the move was backed by the governing Broad Front coalition, and is scheduled to be voted on by the Chamber of Deputies today.

Lawmakers from the two other large parties in the country (the Blancos and Colorados) railed against the measure, citing the fact that voters in the country have twice affirmed their preference to keep the impunity law on the books through referendums.  The Supreme Court has also ruled in favor of the amnesty law, saying that the crimes of the dictatorship are common crimes, not crimes against humanity, and therefore the amnesty is not contrary of Uruguay’s commitments under international law.

This is the third time that the amnesty law has come so close to being annulled, after two previous attempts narrowly failed. The lower house previously voted in favor of annulment in October, but the bill failed to pass in the Senate. The reverse problem occurred in May, after the Senate approved the measure but it was struck down in a tie vote in the Chamber of Deputies.

If approved, the annulment would meet the terms of a March 2010 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which found the amnesty law to be inapplicable in the case of the 1976 abduction and disappearance of Maria Claudia García Iruretagoyena de Gelman, daughter of Argentine poet Juan Gelman.  

The amnesty law would not only affect state officials accused of human rights abuses, however. As retired Col. Guillermo Cedres pointed out to the AP, it would also pave the way for the prosecution of former Tupamaro guerrillas. "Once this process of eliminating the law is over and we have seen the consequences, we will present accusations to the justice system against those responsible for assassinations who were never tried,” Cedres said.

News Briefs

·         InSight Crime has published special report on the influence of armed groups and drug trafficking organizations on Colombia’s upcoming October 30th local elections.  The three-part report focuses on changes in neo-paramilitary groups’ electoral strategies, the patterns of violence against candidates, and the government's response.

·         Meanwhile, Colombian President Santos issued some surprising criticism of prohibitionist drug policies, at least as they apply to less harmful drugs such as marijuana. In an exclusive interview with Metro International, Santos called on the world to “discuss new approaches,” adding that the global war on drugs is being fought “within the same framework as we have done for the last 40 years.” The president then stated that legalizing softer drugs could be a way forward, "provided everyone does it at the same time."

·         El Universo, the opposition newspaper which Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa controversially sued for $30 million on libel charges, reported earlier this week that journalist Wilson Cabrera has been prevented by immigration officials from traveling to the U.S. in order to attend the 143rd Assembly of the Inter American Court of Human Rights. Although officials claim Cabrera is wanted for legal charges and is thus barred from leaving the country, the paper found no evidence of a pending case against him. More on the incident from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

·         Despite the occurrence of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s first major corruption scandal since his inauguration, little damage has been done to his political alliances. As El Comercio reports, Alejandro Toledo of the Peru Posible (PP) party reiterated his support for Humala, and said that the PP would continue to stand with the ruling Gana Peru party. As mentioned in Friday’s brief, one of Humala’s vice-presidents, Congressman Omar Chehade, is accused of using his position to favor a private firm.

·         Bolivian President Evo Morales has reached an agreement with the indigenous protestors against the proposed highway through the TIPNIS region. According to the AFP, although Morales had canceled the plan on Friday, the protestors presented a list of 15 other demands that they wanted addressed. These demands were reportedly negotiated for hours before an agreement was reached early Monday.

·         However, it seems that not everyone is happy with Morales’ decision to cancel the TIPNIS project. As Bolivia’s La Razon reports, local coca-growing unions and separate indigenous groups which make up Morales’ base in the area are now mobilizing in support of the highway, which they say would make it easier to transport agricultural goods out of the region.

·         The New York Times highlights the difficulties that Haiti faces as it moves forward with plans to develop a professional military. The paper profiles the Organization of Demobilized Soldiers for the Reconstruction of Haiti, a rag-tag group of former soldiers who meet weekly to receive informal military training.

·         Amnesty International released a report yesterday detailing human rights abuses committed by the police in the Dominican Republic. The report, entitled “Shut up if you don’t want to be killed’: Human Rights violations by the police in the Dominican Republic,” alleges that the killing and torture of suspects at the hands of police officials is widespread, despite official claims that such incidents represent the actions of a few bad apples.

·         The L.A. Times published an editorial on Monday condemning the U.S. government’s attempts to undermine the Cuban government via Radio and TV Marti, which the periodical refers to as “a reminder of America's failed policy toward Cuba”

·         The AP reports that former President Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, who stands accused of committing crimes against humanity for his role in the country's 1960-1996 civil war, has been taken to a military hospital on Tuesday in order to determine if he is healthy enough to face charges.  Although public prosecutors have been working hard in recent months to prosecute the intellectual authors of war crimes, it seems that time is not on their side. As Mike Allison at Central American Politics notes, “time appears to be running out on them as these two generals are in their eighties and another one might be preparing to move in to the presidential palace in a few months.”

·         Brazil’s Supreme Court Court ruled yesterday in favor of the right of two women to be married, representing a major step forward for gay rights in the country. As the AP notes, the court had previously stopped short of upholding gay marriages in May after it issued ruling which affirmed the legal status of same-sex civil unions.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

US Infiltrates Mexico's Cartels, Amid Worries Over Sovereignty

The New York Times reports on U.S. infiltration of Mexican drug cartels, saying that Washington’s network of informants in the country has grown significantly in recent years. These agents have been involved in two dozen killings or captures of high-level cartel bosses, according to the report, but their presence remains a sensitive issue for the Mexican authorities:
Typically, the officials said, Mexico is kept in the dark about the United States’ contacts with its most secret informants — including Mexican law enforcement officers, elected officials and cartel operatives — partly because of concerns about corruption among the Mexican police, and partly because of laws prohibiting American security forces from operating on Mexican soil.
This ties in to Mexican worries about sovereignty -- in a country where many are highly wary of domination by their powerful neighbor, U.S. agents are not allowed to carry guns when they are working over the border. This policy was blamed by some for the death of Immigration and Customs agent Jaime Zapata, who was shot dead, apparently by members of the Zetas drug gang, in February, in circumstances that remain unclear. The NYT report credits informant networks for helping to track down some of those involved in Zapata’s death. 

The level of tensions over U.S. presence in Mexico were laid out by reactions after the Mexico Attorney General’s Office said in April that some 500 U.S. agents were active in the country, something El Diario de El Paso described as a “virtual invasion.” Meanwhile Mexico’s Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna recently tried to downplayU.S. presence in the country, arguing that DEA agents are not authorized to carry out independent operations. "We only exchange information, there is no independent operation," he told a Mexican House of Representatives hearing.

New attention has been called to the role of these informants following recent revelations about the alleged plot by Iranian agents to pay members of the Mexican cartel to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington. According to U.S. accounts of the affair, the Iranians made contact with an individual with high-level contacts with the Zetas, who happened to also be a U.S. informant.

The newspaper highlights some of the ethical issues around using these informants, who are often involved in the drug business themselves. It notes the case of Jesus Zambada Niebla, alias "Vicentillo," a Sinaloa Cartel operative, currently in a U.S. jail awaiting trial, who claims that he trafficked drugs with the knowledge of U.S. agents to whom he gave information about rival traffickers.

As the NYT points out;
Few informants, law enforcement officials say, decide to start providing information to the government out of altruism; typically, they are caught committing a crime and want to mitigate their legal troubles, or are essentially taking bribes to inform on their colleagues.

News Briefs

  • Alma Guillermoprieto has a piece on El Salvador’s gangs in the latest issue of the  New York Review of Books. She discusses the growth of the bands known as “maras,” which she links to the end of the country’s long civil war, when “what used to be a furious open conflict gave way to an ever- growing, pervasive sense of menace.”
  • The Wall Street Journal follows up on the re-election victory of Argentina President Cristina Kirchner on Sunday, warning that the winner will have little time to celebrate “before she faces pressure to start maneuvering to avoid becoming a lame duck.” She is blocked by the constitution from a third consecutive term in power, and can no longer rely on husband Nestor, who died last year, to alternate terms with her. In order to stay relevant and avoid the lame duck label, Kirchner will need to groom a successor or feed rumors that she plans to change the constitution to allow her to stay in office, the newspaper points out. One analyst consulted by the WSJ points to charismatic Vice President Amado Boudou, described by the Associated Press as a “hoodie-wearing, Harley-riding rock ‘n roll guitarist,” as a potential heir to the president.
  • Two members of Colombia’s FARC rebel group have been sentenced to 10 and 15 year prison terms by a New York court for the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in Panama in 2008, reports the NYT. An interesting aspect of the case is the defendants’ assertion that they had themselves been kidnapped by the guerrillas as children, and forced to become part of the organization. The judge said that, while he believed their claim, the men had still taken part in the rebel group’s activities as adults. The ruling highlights a problem for the courts and for the Colombian Armed Forces in dealing with members of the FARC, and similar guerrilla groups, many of whose members are recruited as minors as young as 8 years old, and who may face execution if they try to desert.
  • Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the Wall Street Journal looks at unanswered questions around the death of Cuban dissident Laura Pollan, leader of the Ladies in White movement, who died earlier this month. O’Grady, a strong critic of the Castro regime, says that the Cuban opposition has suspicions about the event following incongruities in reports of the cause of death, and cites the fact that Pollan’s sickbed was surrounded by state agents who denied family visits for some time, and that her body was cremated only two hours after she passed away. The columnist also cites reports that the Ladies in White protesters had had their skin pricked with needles by government agents, warning that the Cuban government “learned its trade from communist Eastern Europe, where the practice of eliminating enemies while in state custody was refined.”
  • Venezuela’s government has denied persecuting Doctor Salvador Navarrete, a doctor who made claims in the media that President Hugo Chavez only has two years left to live. Navarrete left the country for Spain five days after his statements were published, and issued a public statement saying he had been forced out by government pressure. Venezuela’s health minister rather plausibly argued that the doctor’s departure had been planned for some time, saying that the whole affair was a “media performance,” and that Navarrete “wanted to go to Spain as the hero against Chavez.” The minister also claimed that Navarrete had never been Chavez’s doctor.
  • In more news from Venezuela, a group of inmates have released most of the more than 50 prison workers they had been holding hostage since October 14, leaving a group of only 12 still in captivity. The releases came after the authorities agreed to move some 30 prisoners to other prisons, as the inmate leaders had demanded, reports the Associated Press. The stand-off was sparked by the transfer of a gang boss, who is campaigning to be moved back to his old prison, and is only the latest symptom of the chaos in the country’s direly overcrowded penal system, which has become a huge embarrassment for the Chavez government.
  • Two women have been sentenced to long jail terms in Guatemala after being convicted for taking part in the 2006 kidnapping of a baby girl who was trafficked to the U.S. for adoption in 2008. Prosecutor Lorena Maldonado expressed her satisfaction at the sentencing, saying it would help the birth mother in the fight to recover her child, stating that “there is a criminal structure in Guatemala that steals children.” A Guatemalan court has ordered that the girl be returned to her birth family, though its not clear that this would be legally binding on the Kansas City-based adoptive parents. They told CBSthey had thought the adoption was legal, and were trying to decide the best way to move forward with the case. The Associated Press reports that the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala has found “grave irregularities” in 100 adoption cases of 3,000 reviewed.
  • report in the WSJ looks at the high number of arrests of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America who are detained by agents close to the U.S.’s northern border. Experts consulted by the newspaper said that these individuals would not have crossed over from Canada, and suggested rather that border agents may be overstepping their remit, and asking for proof of immigration status even from those who are not trying to cross the U.S.-Canada border, but are merely traveling nearby.
  • Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, has a piece in the Huffington Post about today’s UN General Assembly vote in which member states are expected to condemn the U.S.’s economic embargo on Cuba. Stephens points out that the resolution, the 20th such annual move by the UN, will likely be ignored in the U.S., arguing that few voices in the government is asking questions about the effectiveness of the “indefensible” sanctions.

Monday, October 24, 2011

CFK Wins Argentine Elections

With more than 97 percent of the vote counted, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner has emerged as the clear winner of the country’s presidential elections, gaining 53.8 percent of the vote and avoiding a runoff.  Her closest rival, Hermes Binner of the Broad Progressive Front, trailed behind by 36 points, gaining only 16.9 percent of the votes. As El Clarin points out, Fernandez’s win was the largest in the country’s history, surpassing the 1983 victory of Raul Alfonsin with 52 percent.

As Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out, the New York Times and much of the other English-language press has been highly critical of Fernandez, framing her victory as simply the result of clever populist maneuvering. From the NYT:
Still, by re-electing Mrs. Kirchner, 58, voters seemed willing to look past some troubling signs. Inflation has soared to over 20 percent in the past year, second only to Venezuela’s among major Latin American economies, economists said. And the government has continued to govern with a heavy hand and little tolerance for opponents, including among the news media.
Coverage in the Wall Street Journal and L.A. Times is similarly tilted, although less blatant. The wire agencies, on the other hand, do a good job of putting Fernandez’s victory in perspective, focusing on her government’s emphasis on poverty reduction and welfare spending. The AP notes:

The goal of this "project" is to profoundly change society by using Argentina's resources to raise incomes, create jobs, restore the country's industrial capacity, reduce poverty and maintain an economic boom that has seen the country grow and reduce poverty.
Ever since her husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner took office in 2003, the income gap between poor and wealthy in the country has been reduced by half. Meanwhile, unemployment in the country is the lowest it has been in 20 years, and the Argentine economy has grown at a rate of about 8 percent a year. Ultimately, as Reuters points out, Fernandez’s victory is due more to “voters [crediting] her unconventional policies for a long economic boom,” than to the political machinations of her campaign.

News Briefs
  • The Washington Post reports on the reduced emphasis that the Calderon administration is placing on drug crop eradication in Mexico. Owing to a scarcity of resources and the domestic unpopularity of such efforts in rural areas, soldiers who were previously involved in eradication have been increasingly reassigned to focus on urban security in crime hotspots like Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, and Tijuana. In 2010, security forces cleared 43,000 acres of marijuana, down from 77,500 acres of marijuana in 2005.
  • In response to major public outcry, Bolivian President Evo Morales has scrapped his plans to develop the controversial highway through the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) region. Before meeting with a delegation of protestors on Friday, Morales changed the language of the proposed law in order to make it illegal to construct the highway, or any other major roadway, in the park. It is not yet clear whether the president will continue to pursue the Brazilian-funded highway project through another route.
  • The Economist’s Americas View blog takes a look at Leopoldo Lopez’ s legal battle to be able to run in the Venezuelan presidential elections next year. Although the country’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision to overturn a ban on Lopez holding public office is inapplicable, it has also said that it will not rule on whether or not Lopez can hold office until he wins. According to the author, “By leaving open the possibility that the ban might later be overturned, its president may be signaling a willingness to facilitate a transition to a post-Chávez government if necessary.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the increase in charter flights to Cuba, as airlines take advantage of looser travel restrictions. It is estimated that some 400,000 people will have taken charter flights between Cuba and the U.S. by the end of this year, up from 250,000 in 2010. Also by the end of the year, four of the largest U.S. airlines (American Airlines, JetBlue, United and Delta) will offer their planes for a combined 25 weekly flights to charter companies. The article claims this stems from optimism about the prospect of full-scale tourism being allowed to the island.
  • In other election news, Nicaragua’s Confidencial reports on alarming irregularities in the Nicaraguan electoral process. According to the non-governmental Institute of Development and Democracy, over 70% of Nicaragua's electoral registration lists contain the names of deceased individuals
  • Security forces in Colombia have registered their heaviest loss in once single incident in more than a year, with ten soldiers having been killed in a FARC ambush on Saturday in Tame, a municipality in the Arauca department.  As El Colombiano notes, the same number of soldiers was killed on Friday in the southwest of the country in a separate attack, indicating that the rebels may be attempting to cause a spike in violence in the leadup to local elections on October 30.  
  • In other election news, Nicaragua’s Confidencial reports on alarming irregularities in the Nicaraguan electoral process. According to the non-governmental Institute of Development and Democracy, over 70% of Nicaragua's electoral registration lists contain the names of deceased individuals.
  • A new Freedom House survey on public perceptions of change Cuba was released on Friday, offering some surprising findings. According to the report, 41 percent of the 190 Cubans surveyed believe the country is “making progress,” compared to only 15 percent when Freedom House last conducted a survey in December 2010. Another major development is the fact that the most commonly-preferred reforms in Cuba have changed. Whereas economic reform has traditionally topped the list, this year respondents said listed freedom of expression and the freedom to travel above economic restructuring.
  • Security forces in Colombia have registered their heaviest loss in once single incident in more than a year, with ten soldiers having been killed in a FARC ambush on Saturday in Tame, a municipality in the Arauca department.  As El Colombiano notes, the same number of soldiers was killed on Friday in the southwest of the country in a separate attack, indicating that the rebels may be attempting to cause a spike in violence in the leadup to local elections on October 30.  
  • In other election news, Nicaragua’s Confidencial reports on alarming irregularities in the Nicaraguan electoral process. According to the non-governmental Institute of Development and Democracy, over 70% of Nicaragua's electoral registration lists contain the names of deceased individuals.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chilean Students Burst into Senate Hearing, Demand Referendum

This week’s round of student protests in Chile climaxed yesterday in the country’s Senate building, where dozens of students stormed into a Senate committee hearing on education to have their demands heard by lawmakers. El Ciudadano reports that about 50 demonstrators burst into the meeting around 12:30 yesterday, calling on legislators to introduce a bill that would allow the future of Chile’s education system to be determined by a national referendum. Four protestors immediately jumped onto the table and unfurled a banner reading “Plebiscite now” as others began chanting slogans against the widely unpopular Education Minister Felipe Bulnes, who exited the room almost immediately.
The activists then stayed in place for eight hours, setting up a live webcam recording of the incident and vowing to occupy the room for as long as it would take to have their demands for free national education met. Finally, members of the center-left opposition agreed to introduce a bill calling for referendum, and the students allowed themselves to be escorted out of the building and arrested by law enforcement officials.
The opposition legislators involved in the deal are taking significant criticism from their pro-government counterparts, much of which has been aimed at Senate President Guido Girardi, who promised the protestors that they would not be removed by force from the building. As La Tercera notes, senators in the majority Coalition for Change have called for Girardi to be censured for what some are calling “a grave dereliction of duty.”
While the proposal for a referendum is unlikely to pass both houses of the center-right controlled Congress, it is clear that if the vote were held the results would probably favor of the protestors’ demands.  Polls have placed public support for the student movement at about 80 percent, and President Sebatian Piñera has seen his approval ratings drop to around 20 percent as a result of his hardline stance against student demonstrators.

News Briefs

·         It appears that the predictions of drug policy analysts in the region have finally come true: Peru has surpassed Colombia as the world’s largest producer of cocaine for the first time in a decade. Yesterday DEA intelligence chief Rodney Benson announced at a Senate hearing that the country is estimated to produce 325 metric tons of pure cocaine annually, making it the number one source of the drug. Although the latest UNODC statistics put cocaine production in Colombia as even higher, the remarks prompted Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to call a press conference in which he reaffirmed his government’s commitment to coca eradication in the country.

·         El Comercio reports that one of Humala’s vice-presidents, Congressman Omar Chehade, is accused of using his position to favor a private firm. According to the paper, a former police commander has claimed that Chehade asked him to evict protesting workers outside of a food processing plant without a court order. Somewhat surprisingly, Humala has endorsed the investigation, telling local press he would “not accept any irregularities.” Under the Peruvian constitution the president appoints two vice-presidents, and because Chehade is his second it is likely that the political fallout from any corruption revelations will be less damaging than it would be if his first vice-president, Marisol Espinoza, was under investigation.

·         For at least the third time, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has announced that he is cancer free. As the New York Times reports, Chavez told state media that a brief checkup in Cuba had informed him that “No abnormal cellular activity exists.” This stands in stark contrast to comments made earlier in the week by a doctor who claimed to have once been his personal surgeon. As reported in Monday’s brief, Dr. Salvador Navarrete estimated that Chavez had less than two years to live.

·         Meanwhile, AFP reports on Chavez’s response to the death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who he eulogized as a “martyr” who resisted the “imperial aggressions” of NATO forces.

·         In Colombia, officials have announced that an airstrike resulted in the death of a top FARC leader in the southwest of the country. According to El Colombiano, José Neftalí Umenza, alias "Mincho" had been a member of the FARC for 40 years, and was the commander of the group’s 30th Front. The paper cites Security Minister Juan Pinzon as saying that Neftali was deeply involved in drug trafficking, and was singlehandedly responsible for 30 percent of the FARC’s total funding, though this seems unlikely.

·         La Razon reports that the activists protesting against Bolivian President Evo Morales’ planned highway project in the TIPNIS region struck down two more invitations from the administration to dialogue on the matter, on the grounds that the government was not opening the exchange up to enough of the movement’s leaders. AP has more on the protestors, which have set up an “Occupy La Paz” type camp in a park just in front of the presidential palace.

·         Mexican President Felipe Calderon has made several swipes at the United States in recent weeks, but his latest may take the cake. According to the Spanish-language transcript of a recent interview with the New York Times, Calderon suggested that “El Chapo” Guzman, the world’s most powerful drug lord, could be living “calmly” in the U.S. along with other high level drug traffickers. "He is not in Mexican territory, and I suppose that Chapo is in American territory," Calderon said, adding: "The surprising thing here is that he or his wife are so comfortable in the United States, which leads me to ask, well, how many families or how many Mexican drug lords could be living more calmly on the north side of the border than on the south side? What leads Chapo Guzman to keep his family in the United States?'"

·         Calderon has also caused a separate media stir with his comments on U.S. deportation policy. On Thursday, the president has accused the U.S. of dumping convicts at the border in order to save costs. Calderon claims this is fueling the violence in the north of country, as some individuals with criminal records turn to a life of crime in the border towns where they are released. As an example, the AP mentions Martin Estrada Luna, who became the alleged leader of a local Zetas outfit in Tamaulipas just 18 months after he was deported.

·         Fifty-seven years after Jacobo Arbenz was toppled in a U.S.-supported coup, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom issued an historic apology to the Arbenz family yesterday. Calling the coup a “great crime,” Colom asked Arbenz’s son Juan Jacobo for forgiveness on behalf of the state. The apology came after a series of negotiations between the government and the Arbenz family, negotiated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Perhaps the most interesting part of the apology was Colom’s recognition that the country  “had not recuperated from [the incident] yet.”

·         The Miami Herald reports on the gender gap in Latin American politics. Although many countries in the region have elected female heads of state, the “glass ceiling” is still very much present.

·         The Peruvian government has released incredible video footage of an encounter between travelers and members of a previously uncontacted Amazonian tribe, who cautiously approached the individuals with bows and arrows at the ready.