Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Well-Timed Capture of Drug Lord Boosts Venezuela-Colombia Friendship

In another boost to Bogota-Caracas relations, Venezuela announced the capture of one of Colombia’s most wanted criminal bosses just hours before talks were due to be held between the two countries’ presidents.

With relations between the neighbors broken under Colombia’s former President Alvaro Uribe, his successor Juan Manuel Santos has been working to rebuild ties. Facing a storm of criticism from Uribe, who has accused him of “sacrificing democratic values” by dealing with Chavez, Santos has argued that the two can overcome their differences -- these differences including Chavez’s sometime political support for the FARC rebels, who seek to overthrow the Colombian government.

It appears that Santos’ conciliatory attitude is paying off, with Venezuela handing over several suspected criminals in recent months, including some high ranking membersof the rebel group. Early Monday the news emerged that Venezuela had captured Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," a leader of one of the two rival factions of the Medellin mafia group, the Oficina de Envigado. As well as being responsible for soaring rates of violence in Medellin over the last three years, as he clashed with rival leader Erick Cardenas Vargas, alias "Sebastian,” he is also thought to have helped build links with Mexican groups like the Zetas. The U.S. had placed a $5 million reward on his head.

According to InSight Crime, the arrest was the result of cooperation between Colombian intelligence and Venezuelan authorities, with his arrest on Sunday timed to highlight improving relations between the two. Sebastian was caught in the city of Maracay, and had reportedly had a gastric band fitted in order to help him lose weight and change his appearance from that on his wanted poster. Venezuela has announced plans to extradite Valenciano directly to the U.S.

Santos thanked Chavez on his arrival in Caracas, calling the capture a “welcome gift,” while the Venezuelan leader classed it as a “happy coincidence.” The two presidents went on to announce further steps in cooperation, removing bilateral tariffs from some 3,500 products.

The episode and its timing are reminiscent of one incident revealed in a dossier analyzing FARC computer files, released by the UK Institute for Strategic Studies earlier this year. As the New York Times put it, at the time of the release;
In November 2002, the book reports, before a meeting between Alvaro Uribe, then Colombia’s president, and Mr. Chavez, the FARC asked the Venezuelan Army for permission to transport uniforms on a mule train through Venezuelan territory. The Venezuelan Army granted permission, then ambushed the convoy, seized eight FARC operatives and delivered them to Colombia, allowing Mr. Chavez to inform Mr. Uribe of the operation in person.
As the Wall Street Journal points out, the feted cooperation between Chavez and Santos could be put to the test in the coming months, as Colombia tries to hunt down the FARC’s new leader, alias “Timochenko,” who is thought to hide out in Venezuelan territory. Given Chavez’s well-documented sympathies for the FARC, and regional sensitivities about Colombian security forces operating over their borders, this could pose a real challenge for the two presidents, who famously proclaimed themselves “new best friends” after patching up relations last year.

News Briefs

  • Time magazine has a piece on the rise of “a democratic, socially concerned center-right” in Latin America, with Santos as one of the exemplars, alongside Sebastian Piñera of Chile. The author praises the move to the center on the part of Latin America’s right and left alike, with the emergence of a “modern, moderate, market-oriented democratic and globalized center-left.” Examples of this might include Brazil’s Lula da Silva or Piñera’s predecessor Michelle Bachelet. Meanwhile, Time argues, right-leaning Santos’ agenda includes traditionally leftist goals like land reform, and improved relationships with human rights organizations.
  • The New York Times reports that Nicaragua’s newly re-elected President Daniel Ortega has tightened his grip on the news media, now controlling almost half of the country’s television stations. The former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua told the newspaper that:
    "the Ortega family’s growing influence recalls the way Anastasio Somoza used nepotism to control the economy before Mr. Ortega’s Sandinistas overthrew his dictatorship in 1979.”
  • InSight Crime has a piece by Malcolm Beith which argues that Colombia’s war against drugs should not be held up as an example for Mexico. For Beith, when Mexico’s government launched its frontal attack on drug traffickers in 2006 it was already far ahead of where Colombia’s government stood in the 1990s, in the sense that Bogota had been distracted from drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar due to the need to fight guerrilla uprisings. Mexico, however, had long been gathering intelligence on the capos and making high-profile arrests. Another major distinction he highlights is that Mexican traffickers like “Chapo” Guzman are far less attention-grabbing than someone like Escobar, who ran for Congress and blew up a commercial airliner.
  • By contrast, Bloggings by Boz has a piece on why Plan Colombia should not be considered as a model for the war in Afghanistan. James Bosworth critiques the argument put forward by Michael O'Hanlon and Paul Wolfowitz, which says that the U.S. should aim in Afghanistan for the kind of “relative success” achieved in Colombia, where conflict continues but has been largely contained, and argues for an ongoing commitment of funds based on that example. For Bosworth, this comparison ignores the differences in scale between the two: “compared to Afghanistan or Iraq, Plan Colombia is peanuts. Over the past decade, there have been times the U.S. has spent more in a day on its two wars than was spent in an entire year in Colombia.”
  • Social conflicts in Peru have taken their first major toll on the Ollanta Humala administration, with a top official in the Environment Ministry resigning in protest against the government’s policies on the issue. As noted in previous posts, protests over the impact of large-scale projects, like mining and gas extraction, are a serious issue for Peru’s government. They could become one of Humala’s biggest problems as they tap into the issue of balancing social concerns against economic development. The Associated Press reports that Jose de Echave, a important figure in negotiations with protestors, resigned because the government “lacks an adequate strategy for dealing with social conflict.”
  • An insight into the reasons behind Peru’s social unrest is given in two recent features on the country. The Guardian Poverty Matters blogreports on an EU-backed project to bring electricity and Internet connection to rural parts of the country. Despite the economic boom driven by foreign investment in extracting Peru’s natural resources, one in four Peruvians currently lacks electricity, with many areas totally neglected by the government. As the blog puts it; “where national governments are not stepping in, Hans Allden, the EU representative to Peru, says solar panels are a cheap and environmentally friendly way to fill in the gap."
    Meanwhile the Associated Press has a feature on Peru’s fire fighters, noting that "Peru’s economy may be booming, but there is scant evidence of the export-driven mineral bonanza in Herhuay’s fire company … Peru’s firefighters are so cash-strapped and ill-equipped that vital lifesaving equipment too often fails at a burning building."
  • The Economist has an article, accompanied by a good map, on the changing face of Mexico’s conflict with organized crime, noting that some of the worst-hit areas have cooled down, while violence has spread to others which have long been thought of as safer. It notes that the murder rates across the country appear to have hit a plateau, after rising for several years.
  • Central American Politics looks at the issue of gender-based violence in Guatemala, where approximately 650 women have been murdered so far this year. The blog notes that the issue of abuse of women in the country is more generalized than statistics on “femicide” can represent, and asks whether the term obscures more than it reveals. “Focusing solely on their deaths [of abused women] neglects the long-term suffering that they endured in life.”
  • USA Today reports on the increased use of mounted patrols by authorities on the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the report, the horses are useful for alerting agents to things they might not notice, like a person hiding, and help them to sneak up on those trying to cross the border more easily than they could in a car.
  • The tiny nation of Guyana went to the polls Monday to choose a new president and parliament, in what Reuters characterized as a choice between the ruling party, which has brought economic development, and opposition parties, who promise to cut rising rates of crime and corruption. Results are expected Wednesday.

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