Friday, December 23, 2011

Seasons Greetings from the Pan-American Post

The Pan-American Post is taking a break over the holiday season, and will be back on January 3rd with more news round-ups on the Americas.

Seasons greetings to all our readers.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Colombian Neo-Paramilitary Gang to Demobilize

One of Colombia’s foremost criminal groups is set to begin “demobilizing” today, according to El Espectador. About 450 members of the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) have agreed to turn themselves in. The first group, reportedly numbering 150, is set to meet with state prosecutors Friday in Villavicencio, the largest city in Colombia’s Eastern Plains.
ERPAC’s leader, Jose Eberto Lopez Montero, alias “Caracho,” previously insisted that he was keen to surrender and dismantle the organization. The question now is whether the Colombian state offered Caracho and his organization some kind of incentive in order to do so. So far authorities have denied offering the ERPAC anything beyond the reduced prison sentence that, under law, the ERPAC combatants may receive in exchange for voluntarily turning themselves in to justice.

The ERPAC was among the first of the new criminal groups which emerged from the ashes of the paramilitaries who fought for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The ERPAC adopted a name which placed them in the political tradition of the AUC, but they did not necesarily adopt the AUC’s policies towards guerrilla group the FARC. Instead, the ERPAC was among the first of Colombia’s post-AUC groups which established an alliance with the FARC, agreeing to respect each other’s territory and to buy coca base from the guerrillas.

The demobilization of the ERPAC will leave a vacuum of power in the Eastern Plains, their former stronghold. It could yet inspire other criminal groups, which the government has labeled “bandas criminales” (BACRIMs) to follow suit. The leader of another powerful criminal organization, the Rastrojos, is reportedly seeking to turn himself into US justice. That leaves another BACRIM, the Urabeños, whose founder originally fought in the Eastern Plains. It is unlikely that the Urabeños still have the latent contacts needed to establish a foothold here, as their base of operations is along the Caribbean Coast. But there is no doubt that they have an interest in moving into the ERPAC’s old territory.

The ERPAC’s surrender calls to mind the demobilization of the AUC. This process was mired in problems and allowed the BACRIMs to surge forth, after mid-level AUC commanders who did not demobilize simply kept on fighting and trafficking drugs. Given there are an estimated 1,200 members of the ERPAC, one question is what will happen to those who have not surrender. Those who remain are fighting for another ERPAC faction which is not loyal to the current leader, Caracho, so there probably was little chance of them surrendering anyway.

The Colombian government has long maintained that their official policy is to dismantle the BACRIMs through pressure from law enforcement. The ERPAC’s reported surrender may be one sign that in some cases, it is more convenient for large groups of drug traffickers to demobilize all at once, rather than having the police or military track them down one by one. But is seems for now the ERPAC’s surrender may have come about largely because their leader was determined to do so, and we don’t know what kind of incentives the state may have offered if any.

Caracho only took over the ERPAC last December, after the group’s benefactor Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” was killed in a raid by the security forces. Caracho had a tough time keeping the group together. In a interview and photo spread with Semana magazine in November, he spoke of his desire to dismantle the group if they were only charged with the crimes the state could prove they committed. In Caracho’s words, this meant only taking responsibilty for the homicides, kidnapping and mass displacements committed after December 2010, when he assumed control of the group.

The ERPAC’s demobilization may nevertheless have wide-reaching implications for Colombia’s policy towards the BACRIMs. As El Espectado puts it:

“ERPAC’s surrender calls into question the convenience and usefulness of submission. On one hand, a successful process with the ERPAC could motivate other groups to do the same. From there, the possibility of removing these illegal armed groups from the stage should not be so easily dismissed. On the other hand, the shadow of the demobilizion of the former paramilitaries is still very present and many fear the mistakes from this era will be repeated.”

News Briefs
  • The Peace Corps is scaling back in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador due to security concerns, reports the New York Times. The Northern Triangle nations are besieged by crime and violence, although the Peace Corps’ decision was reportedly not in response to any specific incidence against a Corps member. The presence of the Peace Corps is one measure of what countries in the region are perceived as having intolerable problems with violence. For comparison, the Peace Corps relaunched their program in Colombia in 2010, nearly 20 years after it was suspended due to insecurity.
  • A long rainy season means Colombia is again experiencing some of its worst flooding in years, with 170 victims registered so far according to AlertNet.
  • In Veracruz, the Mexican Navy took over security duties in a port city after the police force was collectively fired, reports the AP.
  • The AP on the latest wave of “narcocorridos,” or drug ballads, making waves in Sinaloa, Mexico.
  • InSight Crime has two parts (here and here) in a three-part series on crime in Costa Rica up right now. Elsewhere, NPR has a similar story on how drug trafficking gangs are now threatening the region’s most stable country.
  • Chile has millions of new voters on voting lists, which could shake up the country’s democracy in the next elections, says the AP.
  • Noam Chomsky wrote an open letter asking that Venezuelan opposition judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni be released. The Guardian has more.
  • The AP reports that police found the severed head of a notorious Jamaican gangster in Kingston.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mercosur Summit Concludes Despite Suicide of Argentine Trade Official

The summit meeting of the Mercosur trade bloc was briefly suspended Tuesday following the sudden death of an Argentine official. Deputy Trade Secretary Ivan Heyn, who was 33 years old, was found hanged with a belt in his hotel room in Montevideo. Uruguayan authorities said he had committed suicide, but had not left a note. He had taken part in summit meetings the previous day.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Heyn had been a “rising star” in a pro-Kirchner group known as La Campora, which is headed by the son of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner. The president was very distressed by the news, and had to seek medical attention, according to reports in Argentine media.

The conference concluded Tuesday, after a brief suspension of activities due to Heyn’s death. The planned photo of the heads of state was canceled following the news, and a press conference was suspended, reports Bloomberg Business Week.

Kirchner went ahead with a ceremony of receiving the rotating presidency, handed over from Uruguay, despite reports that she might return to Buenos Aires early due to the shock of Heyn’s death.

One of the main results of the summit was that the Mercosur member countries -- Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay -- will raise trade tariffs on imports by 35 percent, in an effort to protect the region’s producers from the global financial crisis, amid concerns about a flood of cheap goods from Asia. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff said that the measure was necessary to fend off "an avalanche of predatory imports that jeopardize growth and employment," reports Reuters.

The trade bloc, which has been in effect since 1991, signed a free trade pact with the Palestine territories, following a similar agreement with Israel in 2007. The WSJ noted that the tariffs and the Palestine deal were the only real agreements made at the summit, after efforts to make Venezuela a full member of the group were squashed by Paraguay’s Congress, where opposition politicians are blocking the move on the grounds that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was not sufficiently democratic.

The summit was a victory of a different sort for Chavez, as his first official foreign trip since his struggle with cancer this year. He told reporters that he was back in good condition after his illness; "I've overcome the most difficult phase of this cancer," he said. "I'm fully back on my feet and here to make a strong play for Latin America's integration and unity."

Mercosur also issued a ban on boats bearing the “illegal” flag of the UK-controlled Falklands Islands (known in Argentina as the Malvinas), prompting disapproving commentary from the UK government. Kirchner struck another blow against London with criticism of its governance of the territory, warning that “They are taking our energy and fishing resources out of the Malvinas and when they require more resources ... they who have [armed] forces will go and seek out those resources wherever and however they see fit." She called on the UK to enter into dialogue over the future of the territory.

News Briefs

  • The New York Times looks at Brazil’s establishment of a Truth Commission to look into abuses committed under previous governments, including the 1964-85 military dictatorship. Dilma Rousseff, who was herself tortured as a young guerrilla fighter against the regime, signed a law creating the commission in November. It is set to start work in January, but there are challenges from members of the military, who want to see it derailed, and from the existence of a 1979 law granting amnesty for many crimes committed under the military regime. Other countries in the region are ahead of Brazil in this regard, with Uruguay, for example, recently repealing an amnesty law for crimes committed under its military dictatorship. The NYT notes that Brazil, “despite emerging as Latin America’s rising power and the world’s fourth-largest democracy, still trails its neighbors in prosecuting officials for crimes that include murder, disappearance and torture.” 
  • The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has published a lengthy report on its recent trip to Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in Mexico and perhaps the world, and its counterpart across the border; El Paso in Texas. They found that Juarez’s drug violence has not spilled over into El Paso, “in part because the drug traffickers do not want it to do so,” while the movement of drugs across the border has remained at a constant level, despite a massive security build-up in El Paso. They also note a very pronounced drop in apprehensions of migrants trying to make it over the border, suggesting that fewer are trying. This is driven by the faltering US economy, the danger posed to migrants by drug gangs, and tighter controls from the authorities, WOLA says.
  • The Obama administration will cut the number of National Guard troops deployed to the Mexican border from 1,200 down to 300 in 2012. Their focus will shift from ground patrols to air patrols; “We are basically going from boots on the ground to boots in the air,” deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection told the Associated Press. An article earlier this month from the Washington Post questioned the effectiveness of the National Guard, saying that they have cost a lot of money and delivered only limited security gains.  The newspaper calculated that the troops cost more than $6,000 for each migrant apprehended, as noted in a previous post. In 2012, the cost will drop from $160 million to $60 million. Obama sent the troops in July 2010 in response to fears about crime and increased illegal migration in the border region.
  • Meanwhile, over the border in northern Mexico, police have unearthed 10 bodies from clandestine graves in Durango, close to the state capital. This brings the total number of bodies found in mass graves in the state this year to 287, reports the AP. Another set of corpses discovered in Durango in May were thought to be the victims of fighting between different factions aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, including a drug trafficking group known as Los M, according to InSight Crime.
  • The NYT hosts a debate on drug laws, posing the question “Should Teenagers Get High Instead of Drunk?” It notes the rising popularity of marijuana over alcohol, cocaine, and tabaco, and asks experts to give their opinion on the issue. One contributor says that “marijuana is about a hundred times safer than alcohol or cocaine” in terms of how likely it is for someone could die of toxicity, while another argues that “Contrary to much public perception, marijuana is a serious public health threat facing this age group. It is associated with difficulty in focusing and paying attention and in performing cognitive tests.”
  • The Committe to Protect Journalists released a report saying that at least 43 journalists died while doing their job in 2011. One trend it noted was the rise in violence against online journalists, with eight murdered for their work this year. It highlighted the death of Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro, an adminstrater of website Nuevo Laredo En Vivo, in northern Mexico. Her mutilated body was left in the city in September, along with a note saying that she had been killed for working against the Zetas.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics looks at the authorities’ attempts to cut the number of assassinations by placing tight restrictions on who can travel on a motorbike, preventing two men from riding one at the same time. The idea is that hitmen often work in pairs, with one driving and the other shooting while seated behind, though the blog says that so far many citizens are ignoring the new restrictions.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has declared that he had no part in the 2006 false demobilization of a group pretending to be members of the FARC rebel army. Former peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo is facing charges for allegedly collaborating in this process. Like the allegations that people systematically faking being displaced from their land or losing relatives in massacres, (though far more credible) the scandal over these fake demobilizations is another demonstration of the many obstacles facing Colombia’s peace processes. 
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that Colombia’s coffee harvest is under threat from a fungus afflicting the country’s crops, in what could be a heavy blow for that country’s farmers in a season of torrential rains.
  • The 2012 apocalyse predicted by the Mayans is good news for some, with southeastern Mexico set to take advantage of the unusual tourist attraction. The Associated Press reports that the tourist board is predicting 52 million visitors will come the area to experience the build up to the end of the world first hand -- twice the number the country as a whole normally gets in a year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Just in Time for Holidays, a New Obama-Chavez Row

In a written interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Universal and summarized in English by the Associated Press, President Obama had some stern words for President Hugo Chavez, commenting on Venezuela’s ties with Iran, as well as government actions that “threatened basic democratic values and failed to contribute to security in the region.”

Reuters has more on the back and forth and gives context for the history of Obama-Chavez relations. The presidents shook hands at the Summit of the Americas in 2009, but beyond the symbolic gesture of goodwill there has been little easing of the tension between the two countries. In May 2011, the US imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan state oil company for trading some $50 million worth of industry equipment with Iran. The sanction was largely a symbolic move, as it did not limit Venezuela oil sales to the US.

2010 saw a diplomatic row after Chavez said Venezuela would not accept the US-appointed ambassador, Larry Palmer, in the diplomatic post. Palmer caused controversy in Venezuela for stating that the Venezuelan military had “low morale” during his confirmation hearing in the US Senate. Chavez responded by saying he would send Palmer back to the US if he tried to enter Venezuela. The US then pulled the nomination, and since then Caracas has been without a diplomat. In December 2010, the US revoked the Venezuelan ambassador’s visa in a clear reaction to the Palmer affair.

Beyond the usual back-and-forth between the US and Venezuela, the AP notes that with both countries facing presidential elections next year, it may be in Obama’s interest to take a tougher stance towards leftist governments in Latin America, while Chavez may play US criticism to his advantage. The El Universal interview could yet be the first of several spats waiting to be played out in 2012.

News Briefs

  • The Mercosur summit is set for the next two days, and one of the topics most likely to be discussed is the proposed full membership of states outside the Southern Cone, including Ecuador and Venezuela. .A brief summary of the top issues to be discussed at the conference can be found at Americas Quarterly. Chavez, believed to be still recovering from cancer surgery and chemotherapy, is set to travel to Uruguay for the summit, his first official foreign trip in over six months, reports Reuters.
  • Late Monday evening, Lori Berenson boarded a plane from Peru to the US, after she was temporarily blocked from leaving the country last Friday. Berenson is a US citizen who served 15 years in Peruvian prison on charges that she aided a terrorist group. As noted in yesterday’s post, it is unclear whether Berenson was stopped from leaving the country because of a bureaucratic mix-up, or whether authorities deliberately tried to prevent her from traveling.
  • AS/COA offers its take on the bill passed last week in Argentina which limits how much rural property foreign companies can hold. At least two other members of Mercosur, Brazil and Uruguay, have either passed or are considering a similar law. As AS/COA points out, the legislation is mostly motivated by concerns over food security.
  • Among the several year-end round ups now appearing in US media this week, Christian Science Monitor lists the top ten immigration stories of the past year.
  • Mexico City is closing its largest open air landfill, reports the BBC.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lori Berenson Prevented from Traveling to US, After Serving 15 Years Prison in Peru

In the latest reverse in her long case, Lori Berenson, a US citizen who has served 15 years in prison in Peru for allegedly aiding terrorists, was prevented at the last minute from boarding a plane to the US for her first visit home since leaving prison.

Berenson was convicted in 1996, at the age of 25, of collaborating with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a Marxist rebel group which carried out bombings and kidnappings. She formed connections with members of the group when she traveled to Peru after dropping out of MIT, and allegedly used her journalism credentials to gain access to the Congress building in preparation for an attack by the organization. She was reviled within the country for declaring that the MRTA was not a terrorist organization but a revolutionary movement.

Her case has been through many twists and turns; after being sentenced to life without parole she was given a retrial and a reduced sentence of 20 years, then was released on parole in May 2010. In August a judge announced that the ruling had been overturned and she was ordered back to serve the rest of her sentence. She was then released again in November of that year, but the terms mean that she must remain in Peru until 2015.

On Friday it was reported that Berenson had been granted permission to travel to the US for Christmas with her young son, her first time out of Peru since her arrest in 1995. She arrived at the airport on Friday evening, but was unable to board the plane.Some reports in the Peruvian press initially suggested that she had simply arrived late for the flight. She told press that she had been turned away by agents who claimed she needed a document for immigration, though she said she had all the necessary papers.

Various Peruvian authorities have claimed the affair was not their fault, as the NYT reports:
Peru’s antiterrorism prosecutor, Julio Galindo, had filed a complaint late Friday to the court that had granted Ms. Berenson permission to travel, arguing that it violated the law. … A spokesman for the Judiciary Department, however, said the prosecutor’s complaint should not have prevented her from leaving the country.

Ms. Berenson’s lawyer, Aníbal Apari Sánchez, told The Associated Press that the government had made a political decision to halt her departure, which he called “an abuse of authority.”
Berenson’s treatment has been much criticized, from the circumstances of her 1996 trial to the several years she was held in remote, maximum security prisons, much of the time confined to her cell for 23 hours a day and sometimes in solitary confinement. The inconsistencies and quick about-turns that have followed her first release demonstrate the shortcomings of the Peruvian judicial system, which appears to be playing politics with her case.

There have been suggestions that President Ollanta Humala might pardon Berenson, but this latest developments seem to indicate otherwise, with Berenson’s lawyer (and estranged husband) saying the Interior Department had stepped in to stop her leaving the country.

Central American Politics argues that the president should take action to stop further legal wrangling:
Perhaps now is a good time for President Humala to step in and say that we are done, that he doesn't want her treatment to become an embarrassment for the people of Peru.

News Briefs

  • Humala is also facing pressure to deal out legal mercy in another quarter, with the publication of polls suggesting that 66 percent of Peruvians who would back a pardon for ex-President Alberto Fujimori. The former leader (whose special military tribunals were behind the life sentencing of Berenson) is currently serving 25 years in prison for human rights abuses committed while in power. His family claim that he is suffering from cancer and depression, and could “die at any moment,” while Fujimori himself has argued that no one deserves to die in prison. One congressman told press that the new prime minister, Oscar Valdes, was in talks with Fujimori’s camp, and that the ex-president could be free by Christmas.
  • Meanwhile Humala has seen his approval ratings fall, as El Comercio reports, from 56 down to 47 percent in the last 30 days, amid fierce conflict that sets local communities against projects to exploit the country’s natural resources. He has seen the biggest drop, of 20 percent, in the east of the country, where many of the protests are based, and where many expected that the left-leaning candidate would take the side of those opposed to the schemes, or at least a more measured approach. However, Humala has seen his popularity rise at least with Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal, who praises his efforts to resist “risks to development coming from a hard left operating under the guise of ‘environmentalism.’” She claims that one of the leaders of the protests is a former member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, using this to suggest that the environmental concerns of the protesters are somehow “suspect.”
  • An article by Dorothy Kronick published on Al Jazeera looks at the wave of violence in Venezuela, noting that most of the thousands of killings that take place in Caracas each year are due to petty crime rather than being part of a larger conflict:
    “unlike Mexico, where the military is battling well-armed and well-organised drug trafficking organisations (which also fight amongst themselves), Venezuela is not in the midst of a drug war. Nor is Venezuela contesting an insurgency or fighting a foreign power or otherwise engaged in combat. Rather, the killing in Caracas is decentralised and diffuse. Thousands die in small-scale gang disputes. Petty theft often ends in murder.”
    Caracas Chronicles blog welcomes the tone of the article, but suggests that politics had a lot to do with the recent conflict at the Central University of Venezuela, which Kronick uses as an example of the senselessness of the violence.
  • The Guardian has a piece on Brazil’s “narco-tourists” which it says are a “new generation of drug mules” -- middle class, educated Brazilians who travel to Europe and bring back synthetic drugs like ecstasy and LSD, using a foreign holiday as a cover story.
    “Brazil's narco-turistas bear little resemblance to South America's traditional drug mules – desperate, cash-strapped locals, Africans or Europeans, who smuggle stomachs or suitcases of cocaine from airport to airport for a fraction of their cargo's worth.”
  • The LA Times reports on new schemes used by drug traffickers to bring their profits home from the US, by laundering them through legitimate businesses; according to the report, “teams of money launderers working for cartels use dollars to purchase a commodity, and then export the commodity to Mexico or Colombia.” This dodges suspicions raised by paying for goods like a house or car in cash, and instead hides the money within relatively small transactions.
  • A retired Colombian Army general has been acquitted of the forced disappearance of a rebel fighter following the 1985 siege of the Palace of Justice, seat of the Supreme Court in Bogota, reports the AP. Families of other people who were disappeared that day, most of them civilians, condemned the verdict and said the general had been the mastermind behind the murder of their relatives, reports Colombia Reports.
  • The Global Post has an article on another disturbing phenomenon currently taking place in Colombia, where there is a gathering backlash from powerful groups against the government’s moves to compensate victims of violence and displacement, as noted on previous posts. The report looks at the issue of supposed “false victims,” who the authorities say falsely claimed to have lost relatives in an infamous massacre carried out by paramilitaries, with the collusion of state forces, in 1997. The Global Post notes, “Some human-rights groups say the government is suffering from massacre denial,” and that the questioning of the massacre -- which undoubtedly took place, as did many others whose survivors were never compensated -- could have a negative effect on efforts to seek justice for conflict-era killings in countries like Guatemala and Chile.
  • The Miami Herald has an op-ed arguing that the Mexican cartels do not constitute a “terrorist insurgency,” and that Republican efforts to label them as such are crazy and dangerous. The author’s point would be supported by the Zetas themselves, who declared in a publicly hung banner last week that they were neither guerrillas nor terrorists -- see analysis from InSight Crime.
  • The LA Times reports on efforts to exhume poet Pablo Neruda, to determine if there is truth to claims that he was poisoned by the forces who overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973.
  • In more news on exhumation, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is demonstrating his respect for his spiritual mentor Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century independence hero, by again disturbing his mortal remains, this time to rehouse them in a fancier coffin decorated with gold, diamonds, and pearls, as the AP reports.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mexico Apologizes for Rights Abuses, but Justice Seems Far Off

Yesterday the Mexican government admitted its negligence in failing to protect the rights of a young indigenous woman who was raped and tortured by a group of soldiers in Guerrero state in February of 2002. As El Universal and the AP note, Interior Minister Alejandro Poire delivered the official apology in compliance with a 2010 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling which ordered Mexico to apologize and have civilian prosecutors investigate both the case of Rosendo and that of another women who was raped by security forces in 2002.  

According to Rosendo’s testimony, she was washing clothes alone in a river in southern Guerrero when eight soldiers approached her and asked her about the whereabouts of a suspected member of the Revolutionary Popular Army EPR), a small guerrilla organization that operates in the area. When she responded that she didn’t know the suspect, two soldiers tortured and raped her.

This is the second time in two months that Mexico has officially accepted responsibility for failing to protect and investigate wrongs committed against its citizens in the past decade.  On November 7, officials offered a similar apology to the relatives of three women who were killed in Ciudad Juarez in 2001.

But while this may at first glance seem like an illustration of progress in the state of human rights in the country, Mexico still has a long way to go.  A Human Rights Watch report published in November alleged widespread human rights abuses committed by the military and police, documenting 170 cases of torture, 39 “disappearances,” and 24 extrajudicial killings since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006.

As the Center for International Policy’s America Program blog notes, activists in Mexico are especially vulnerable. In just the past three weeks, at least three human rights defenders have been attacked, apparently as retribution for their work.

News Briefs

·         Mexico’s Proceso reports that police have found five bodies buried at the headquarters of a student group in Guadalajara. Authorities identified three of the bodies as high school students who went missing last week after accusing the Federation of Guadalajara Students of extorting their efforts at selling snacks on the edge of the local university campus. The Associated Press provides an interesting analysis of the incident, which it calls a “rare glimpse into the rough-and-tumble student organizations.”

·         The AP reports on the rising violence in Guatemala by offering a rather odd profile of Guatemala City. The wire agency portrays the Central American capital as a place where “motorists hide behind tinted windows, while security guards wielding shotguns stand outside banks and grocery stores. Hair stylists work behind barred doors. Even crowded buses, with passengers often hanging from the windows, carry guards.” However, anyone familiar with a major Latin American city knows that such sights are not exclusive to Guatemala.

·         For a more in-depth look at the security situation in Guatemala, the Central American Business Intelligence Black Box blog has an analysis (in Spanish) of homicides in the Alta Verapaz Department, where a “state of siege” was declared in order to combat the increasing incursion of Mexican drug trafficking groups. According to government homicide statistics, the state of siege significantly reduced murders in the area.

·         Honduran President Porfirio Lobo issued some strongly-worded criticism of the US on Wednesday over American authorities’ insistence on investigating the murders of journalists in the country.  According to La Prensa, he argued that if the US wants these cases investigated, then it should provide the resources for an investigative team. Lobo has also threatened to pull Honduras out of the US Millenium Challenge Corporation if the aid agency does not certify Honduras on those grounds.

·         Just over two weeks after his capture, Venezuelan officials have extradited former Colombian drug kingpin Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," to the US. The incident is a rare case of coordination between Venezuelan and US justice officials, and was likely mostly orchestrated by Colombia.

·         NPR’s All Things Considered takes a look at internet access in Cuba, where even six months after the installation of an underwater fiber-optic cable connecting the island nation to Venezuela was installed, few people have access to the web.

·         In other Cuba news, National Journal reported yesterday that Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have agreed to remove language from a spending package which would effectively reinstate the Bush-era rules limiting travel to the island. Havana Note has more on what this means for the future of US-Cuba relations.

·         Hugo Moyano, head of the Argentine General Labor Confederation and a former staunch political ally of President Cristina Fernandez, is fast converting into one of her biggest critics. Blasting Fernandez for not being union friendly, Moyano announced yesterday that he is resigning his post within her Frente Para la Victoria party as interim president in the province of Buenos Aires.

·         The latest issue of the Economist is out today, and features an in-depth analysis of Fernandez’s presidency. According to the publication, economic uncertainty will ensure that her next term will be far more difficult. The magazine also profiles President Ollanta Humala’s recent government “reshuffle” in Peru.

·         Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo, who has become known internationally as the face of the country’s education reform protests, has been voted the “Chilean of the year.” In a poll conducted by Radio Cooperativa, Imaginaccion consultancy firm and Federico Santa Maria Technical University, Vallejo beat the next most popular candidate, President Sebastián Piñera, by fifteen percentage points. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cocaine Profits Less Than 1 Percent of Colombia GDP, says UN Rep

A new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), available in Spanish at the Colombian field office homepage, argues that the country’s shifting cocaine trade is becoming less profitable for local groups and more violent.

The study, “New Dimensions of the Colombia Drug Trade,” by Richard Rocha Garcia, is a follow-up to his 2000 book, “The Colombian Economy After 25 Years of Drug Trafficking.” That book gained attention by estimating the amount of Colombia's GDP made up by the cocaine industry. According to Rocha, that number reached a peak in 1967, when cocaine made up 6.3 percent of Colombia’s GDP.

That number dropped to 1.4 percent in 2001 and reached 0.3 percent in 2009, according to Rocha’s new book.

“The golden age, when the large [Colombian] drug cartels monopolized the wholesale market, is over,” he told the Miami Herald. “Now those profits are being appropriated by Central America, Venezuela and Mexico.”

The book’s introduction notes that while Colombia has made apparent progress in its coca eradication efforts, global demand for cocaine remains steady and cocaine use in Europe is going up. The coca and cocaine trade is still one of the primary causes of violence in Colombia and is responsible for the deforestation of more than 3,000 square miles since 1981, the report adds.

According to UN statistics, Colombia is still the region’s largest producer of coca and cocaine. Earlier this year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) testified to the US Senate that Peru has surpassed Colombia as the world’s largest potential producer of pure cocaine, an estimate based on the number of Peru’s higher-yielding coca fields.

News Briefs
  • Just the Facts has a helpful update on the extension of two Defense Department programs that provide counter-drug aid to foreign security forces. This includes one program, Section 1033, which started out as at temporary statute that provides almost exclusive aid to riverine patrols in Peru and Colombia. Adam Isacson writes, “This “temporary” authority has become a classic example of how hard it is to bring a military aid program to an end. Once the Defense Authorization bill passes, and renews Section 1033 through 2013, what began as a $20 million-per-year riverine counter-drug aid program for two countries will have become a $100 million-per-year general counter-drug aid program for 35 countries.”
  • The Washington Post reviews Brazilian President Dilma Roussef’s year in office, focusing on her campaign against corruption which has seen the ouster of six ministers from her 38-member cabinet. This is in addition to another 136 lawmakers under criminal investigation. The article notes that Brazil’s political culture is vulnerable to corruption -- the taking of bribes and kickbacks -- partly due to the high number of political parties which occupy seats in Congress. Many parties become intent on controlling government ministries. This gives party members the power to assign jobs to thousands of people, allowing them to pay back the electoral backers expecting a favor in return for their political support.
  • In Brazil, authorities are considering implementing a new plan in which citizens could surrender guns in exchange for World Cup tickets, the Guardian reports. The plan is one of the more creative proposals meant to drive down Brazil’s murder rate. According to a new study released by Brazilian think tank the Instituo Sangari, Brazil’s murder rate has risen 124 percent in the last three decades. The study includes an interactive map breaking down murder rates by state.
  • The Latin American Herald Tribune reports on two significant judicial reforms in Mexico: a soldier will be tried in a civilian rather than military court, while the lower house of Congress passed a reform that makes female homicides punishable by up to 60 years in prison. Elsewhere, NACLA has a report on the use of clandestine detention centers in Mexico to unlawfully hold citizens.
  • The Guardian’s Comment is Free section has a piece examining allegations that Argentina’s economy is much weaker than the government says. The article uses anecdotal evidence to support the assertion that Argentina’s inflation rate is much higher than the official figures, which puts the number at under 10 percent, in contrast to estimates by other (frequently US-based) economists who say it may be as high as 25 percent. The fundamental debate is whether Presient Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s economic reforms -- which made conservative policymakers shudder -- have been effective or not.
  • NPR reports on the ongoing difficulty of finding a working wireless connection in Cuba, months after the government promised to install a new fiber-optic cable to Venezuela.
  • Time’s Person of the Year is “the protestor,” which includes a brief profile of Mexico’s Javier Sicilia. He is the only person from Latin America named in the list even though the year did see significant protests elsewhere in the region, most notably in Chile, Bolivia and Peru.
  • The London Review of Books offers another take on Noriega’s return to Panama, from a writer whose grandfather was the US director of military intelligence inside the country during the dictator’s rule.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

US Alleges Hezbollah-Zetas Drug, Money Laundering Nexus

The latest scare about Hezbollah’s links in Latin America comes in the form of charges against a Lebanese man who U.S. authorities say has ties to Hezbollah and to Mexico’s Zetas.

Ayman Joumaa, aka “Junior,” is accused of selling Colombian cocaine to the Mexican trafficking group and laundering money on their behalf, while using the profits to finance Hezbollah, a militant group based in Beirut.

According to the latest indictment, Joumaa and his partners sold 85 tons of cocaine to the Zetas between 2005-2007, which was later trafficked into the U.S., and laundered some $850 million in their profits for the group, some of it through the Lebanese Canadian Bank. The latest charges do not mention Hezbollah, though Joumaa was accused earlier this year by the Treasury of being part of a drug trafficking and money laundering ring which financed the group, reports ProPublica.

According to the indictment, Joumaa’s group would charge 8 to 14 percent for its money laundering services.

The story speaks to some of the U.S.’s worst fears about its enemies in the Middle East gaining ground in Latin America. ABC points out that
U.S. officials have long known about [Hezbollah] operating in South America’s tri-border area in Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina where the group runs drugs and large scale counterfeiting networks, according to U.S. officials. In recent years there has been more recent concern about the group establishing a footprint in Central America.
Slate looks at the other side of the deal, pointing out that Lebanon would be a good place for the Zetas to launder money, as it has highly secretive banking regulations, while there is a large Lebanese community in Mexico, many with links to the bank sector.

The case is reminiscent of a supposed plot revealed by U.S. authorities in October, which involved a representative of the Iranian intelligence service making contact with people he thought were members of the Zetas, in order to order a hit against Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington. As with that case, which some commentatorsfound did not quite add up, it is worth treating with caution attempts to link Mexican trafficking groups to Muslim militants, which have often appeared to be more based on Washington’s fears than on evidence. An example of this is given by scaremongering statements from the Republican presidential hopefuls, as covered in earlier posts. Rick Perry, for example, warned in a recent debate that “Hamas and Hezbollah are working in Mexico, as well as Iran, with their ploy to come into the United States,” while Michelle Bachman has spoken out against alleged Hezbollah missile sites in Cuba.

However, U.S. officials were cautious about asserting direct links between the two groups in the latest case, pointing out that “It’s not like there’s a sit-down between the leaders of Hezbollah and the Zetas," as ProPublica reports.

The New York Times has a useful diagram showing the flows of money in the Lebanese Canadian Bank’s alleged money laundering operations.

News Briefs

  • Two Mexican students were shot dead in a police crackdown on a protest that blocked a section of highway between the resort town Acapulco and Mexico City. The protesters were demanding improved facilities at a local teacher training college, but the situation escalated and a gas station was set on fire, triggering the violent response from the security forces, reports the LA Times blog. There has been controversy and recriminations between different branches of government over who is responsible for the tragic deaths. The federal government has placed the blame on Guerrero state police as being the ones who fired the deadly shots, and said there would be an investigation. Guerrero state Attorney General Alberto Lopez said that there were “outside elements” involved in the protest, and reported finding an AK-47 assault rifle and grenades at the site, reports the Washington Post. However, he was fired, along with the chief of the state police, hours after making those statements, by the state governor.
    Amnesty International has called on the Mexican government to launch a full investigation into the incident, noting that there is photographic evidence of police officers aiming automatic rifles at demonstrators.
  • The U.S. Senate has blocked the appointment of Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador. Aponte has been the subject of controversy, amid allegations that she had a relationship in the 1990s with a man accused of being an spy for the Cuban regime, while her support for gay rights in a recent op-ed was also reportedly a sticking point for Republicans. She has held the position of ambassador for over a year, after being appointed during a Senate recess, but now will have to leave at the end of this year. The Obama administration sharply criticized the vote, accusing the Republicans of playing politics, reports the Washington PostTim’s El Salvador Blog regretted the move, saying “It is truly a shame that ignorance, homophobia, and political partisanship got in the way of confirmation of the most qualified ambassador to serve in El Salvador in many years.”
  • A Venezuelan court has ordered a two-year extension of the house arrest of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who Human Rights Watch says is a political prisoner. She was detained in December 2009 after ordering the release of a banker accused of corruption, angering President Hugo Chavez.
  • As former dictator Manuel Noriega returns to Panama to serve a jail term for crimes committed while in power, the New York Times asks whether the country’s economic boom has driven out the “old ghosts” of corruption and organized crime. Some commentators warn the country could be heading back to being a kleptocracy, while little has been done to alleviate rural poverty.
  • The Wall Street Journal looks at the phenomenon of “Pablo Escobar tourism” in the kingpin’s hometown of Medellin, Colombia. The tours visit his grave, the house where he died, and some feature a talk with his brother Roberto. Their popularity with “20-something backpackers” poses a condundrum for Colombia and for Medellin, says the WSJ, as they have “worked hard to reduce violence and shed their image as a land of gun-wielding cocaine smugglers.“
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has launched new schemes to increase government aid to the elderly and to children, with the poorest families set to receive some $100 per month per child, while pensions will see $2 billion in spending next year. Luis Vicente Leon, of opposition polling firm Datanalisis,told the Washington Post that the handouts were linked to the elections coming up in October 2012; “We can expect a campaign underscored by money.”
  • Three U.S. representatives have called on the government to investigate whether the Venezeulan consulate general in Miami was involved in “a potential cyber attack on the United States involving affiliates of the Iranian, Cuban, and Venezuelan regimes,” following reports in a documentary by Univision. The State Department said the reports were “very disturbing,” while Chavez said they were a lie, and were being used as an excuse to attack his country, reports El Universal.
  • Chavez has been the subject of yet more controversy, with news that a figurine of the socialist leader features in a public nativity scene in Caracas. NPR reportsthat the president is standing close to the manger which contains the infant Christ, suggesting that he is one of the Three Wise Men. Simon Bolivar, 19th century independence hero and Chavez’s spiritual inspiration, also makes an appearance, as does a representation of a cable car that the president had built in Caracas.
  • A group of 18 Cubans landed in Honduras after making a 10-day boat trip that was meant to take them to the U.S.
  • El Faro looks at a project by New Yorker journalist Alma Guillermoprieto to build an online memorial to 72 migrants who were murdered by drug traffickers in Tamaulipas, Mexico, in August 2010, in circumstances that remain murky. Guillermoprieto’s online tribute has now been turned into a book, which features the stories of the 72 who died that day, some of whose identities remain unknown.
  • The New York Times has been caught up in a debate about the use of the term “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants, and says it will now update its style guide to recommend that the term be avoided.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Arrests of Undocumented Immigrants at Historic Low

Despite the high level of attention that attention the immigration debate is receiving amongst the Republican presidential candidates and the U.S. Congress, the Wall Street Journal reports that the number of arrests of undocumented migrants is at its lowest level in nearly forty years. According to the article:
“The U.S. arrested 340,252 migrants along the Mexico-U.S. border in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30—down 24% from the year before and the lowest level in 39 years, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security.  
In the previous fiscal year, agents apprehended 447,731 illegal crossers in the Southwest, compared with 1.6 million in 2000, the peak year. The last time the border was this quiet was 1972, when agents caught 321,326 people.”
The paper credits this reduction in migration to a number of trends: namely an uptick in border security efforts, the surge in drug-related violence in northern Mexico, and a better economic climate in Mexico.” But while it may be true that Mexico’s drug war and stiffer immigration laws such as the “Secure Communities” initiative are contributing to the lack of immigration, an improved economic climate is probably a lesser factor.

According to the latest poverty statistics from the National Social Development Council (CONEVAL), the number of Mexicans living below the poverty line (2,114 pesos or $158 per month in urban areas, 1,329 pesos or $99 per month in rural areas) increased by 3.2 million between 2008 and 2010, and now stands at 52 million. This amounts to more than 46 percent of the Mexico’s 112 million citizens.

Considering this figure, reports which tout a massive economic shift in Mexico as a major contributor to the drop in migration -- such as the WSJ’s and other recent articles in the New York Times and the Sacramento Bee -- are likely exaggerated.

News Briefs:

·         The Mexican government has caught a key figure in the Zetas drug gang. According to Reuters and El Universal, Raul Lucio Hernandez Lechuga, alias “Lucky,” was a founding member of the Zetas, and was responsible for running the group’s operations in the states of Veracruz, Puebla and Oaxaca.

·         The AP reports that an examination of official telegrams sent between the governments of Brazil and Chile during the early 1970s has cast new light on their level of cooperation. According to an analysis of 266 telegrams conducted by Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo, Augusto Pinochet’s regime received significant financial and diplomatic help from the Brazilian military government.

·         Argentina’s La Nacion features an interview with President Barack Obama on U.S.-Argentina relations. In it, Obama urges Argentina to pay its external debt in order to “send a strong message to the world” that the South American country is interested in attracting foreign investment.

·         The Guatemala Solidarity Network has an informative report on child malnutrition in Guatemala. According to  the UK-based organization, half of the country’s children are malnourished.

·         The BBC claims that former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s throat cancer treatment is going well, and the ex-leader is expected to make a full recovery.

·         The Miami Herald analyzes Cuba’s oil drilling ambitions, which have apparently sparked talks between officials on the island and the U.S. government about emergency oil spill plans.

·         Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will be traveling to Cuba this March, a visit which will be the first time that a pope has come the island since John Paul II 1998 visit. Pope Benedict will also visit Mexico on his journey, in order to “proclaim the word of Christ” Reuters reports that the Cuban Catholic church celebrated the news with a procession devoted to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, in a sign if improving ties between church and state on the island.

·         The BBC and Mercopress have more on Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s cabinet shuffle, which was mentioned in yesterday’s post. Apparently Humala has lost support from former president Alejandro Toledo, whose endorsement was instrumental in securing the election. Toledo’s Peru Posible party will still caucus with Humala’s Nationalist Party, but will not accept any cabinet posts if they are offered due to Humala’s perceived “militarization” of the government.

·         Honduras Culture and Politics takes a look at the United States’ recent delivery of Maule MXT-7-180 aircraft to the Central American country. The blog’s author questions why the aircraft weren’t delivered under the administration of Manuel Zelaya, when they were first requested.

·         Colombia Reports profiles a particularly festive attempt by the Colombian military to encourage guerrilla demobilization during the holiday season.  With the help of British PR firm Lowe and Partners, the army released hundreds of illuminated spheres along remote jungle rivers which bear the message: "Do not miss this Christmas. Colombia and your family are waiting for you. Demobilize At Christmas -- everything is possible." A video of the effort, dubbed “Operation Rivers of Light,” is available here.

·         Human Rights Watch has issued a condemnation of a government proposal in Colombia which would allow military judges to determine whether soldiers should be tried for alleged rights abuses. According to HRW director Jose Miguel Vivanco, the passage of this measure would “dramatically reverse recent progress Colombia has made in providing accountability for military abuses."