Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Colombian Ex-Paramilitary Boss Spills Details of Govt Plot

A Colombian former paramilitary chief has testified that his organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), worked with the government and the country’s intelligence agency, the DAS, to carry out a plot to spy on and discredit the Supreme Court during the administration of former President Alvaro Uribe. He also said that the AUC helped spy on journalists and opposition figures.

Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” gave his statements to Colombian courts via videolink from the US prison where he is serving a sentence for drug trafficking. This is the first testimony he has given since suspending his cooperation with Colombian justice in 2010.

Key members of the Uribe administration have already been jailed as they await trial for colluding with the DAS to carry out illegal wiretapping of perceived opponents, though no mud has so far been made to legally stick to the former president himself. The victims included members of the Supreme Court, as well as journalists and opposition groups. But Don Berna’s testimony breaks new ground in providing testimony of the AUC’s involvement. As La Silla Vacia puts it;
Don Berna is the first of the heads of the paramilitaries to admit in court that there was a “partnership” between the paras and the government of Alvaro Uribe, in this case to discredit the Supreme Court.
The plot against the court was pushed forward, according to the ex-commander, with a meeting between Don Berna’s representatives and close presidential aides at the presidential palace in Bogota in 2008 to hand over information on the court to the government. As Colombia Reports explains, the court was at the time investigating the ties between the paramilitaries and allies of Uribe, in what was known as the “parapolitics” scandal. Don Berna said that "The idea was to find a way to discredit the court so that it would lose credibility in its investigations." He claims that he was transferred to La Picota prison in Bogota in the late 2000s not as a punishment, as the government claimed at the time, but to make it easier to work with the government in their plot against the Supreme Court.

Journalist Daniel Coronell, himself a victim of wiretapping, reported on the accusations, saying that, if Don Berna’s testimony is corroborated, "it becomes clear that the so-called meeting of the 'Casa de Nari' [presidential palace] (April 2008) was another link in a criminal operation that included wiretapping, surveillance and financial tracking against judges and journalists."

Don Berna said that the AUC had been closely allied with the DAS, which had offered logistical support and protection to his men;
When [now jailed ex-DAS director] Jorge Noguera was appointed, [AUC] commander "Jorge 40" told the majority of commanders that someone who had his full confidence had reached the top and that we could count on him for whatever we needed.
The ex-commander said that the DAS had given him equipment to carry out secret recordings of opposition figures, which were then handed over to the government. Former president of the court, Jaime Arrubla, said that Don Berna’s testimony proved what he and his magistrates had been claiming for years, and that people had called them paranoid.

The DAS’s dissolution has been on the table since the wiretapping scandal broke in February 2009, and is now being carried out.

Don Berna’s testimony implicates the Uribe administration still more closely in murky dealings with the AUC, and could be a precursor to Uribe himself facing legal consequences. As Colombia Reports puts it, “The former president has always defended his subordinates and has accused Colombia's Prosecutor General's Office and Interior Minister German Vargas Lleras of politically persecuting members of his administration.” The united front of his inner circle could, however, be starting to crack.

News Briefs

  • Mexico’s ambassador to Venezuela was kidnapped along with his wife in Caracas, and held for some four hours before being released in a slum area of the city, reports the Wall Street Journal. They were abducted while leaving a party around midnight on Sunday, in what is known as an “express kidnapping,” where the victims are only held for a brief period while their personal effects are stolen, and sometimes a small ransom negotiated. El Universal reports that government sources say the couple were released after negotiations involving the Mexican authorities, and the payment of a ransom. The incident follows the kidnappings of a Chilean diplomat and a US baseball player in November last year.
  • A new report by Global Financial Integrity calculates that Mexico’s economy lost some $872 billion between 1970 and 2010 to illicit financial outflows, including money laundering and tax evasion. This is worth more than 5 percent of the country’s GDP, and the group’s head called it an “enormously damaging drainage of resources.” Shannon K. O’Neil at CFR says that “The report’s most interesting finding is that this illicit capital is not necessarily or mostly drug money. Instead it comes from Mexico’s large underground economy. In these markets the goods being traded are not necessarily in and of themselves illegal. What’s illegal is the under-the-table way that they are bought or sold.”
  • Mexico is facing the most severe drought it has ever suffered, reports the New York Times, leaving some 2 million people without access to water. The Tarahumara indigenous people are among the worst affected, and are undergoing a serious food crisis. The Mexican Army said that the drought has also affected marijuana and opium poppy growers, with experts noting that traffickers are increasingly turning to synthetic drugs, like methamphetamine, which are more reliable.
  • Former Haitian dictator dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka “Baby Doc,” should not stand trial for human rights abuses including torture and murder, but only on corruption charges, according to a ruling by a judge in that country. The WSJ hints at political reasons behind the ruling, pointing out that current Haitian President Michael Martelly is widely considered to be sympathetic to the ex-leader, and has argued that a trial could cause further divisions in the country. Human Rights Watch criticized the decision, which will be reviewed by the attorney general, saying that it would “entrench Haiti's culture of impunity by denying justice for Duvalier's thousands of victims.”
  • Bloggings by Boz and the Mex Files look at the chances of Mexican presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, noting that his chances could be seriously improved by various errors on the part of rival Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, who has admitted to the existence of various children conceived with other women during his marriage to his now-dead wife.
  • IPS reports that support for Honduran leader Porfirio Lobo has dropped to its lowest points in his two years in power, averaging some 4.6 points out of 10 in a recent poll, with rising violence and insecurity at the heart of the discontent.
  • Upside Down World looks at a hydroelectric dam project in Santander, east Colombia, which, three years into its construction, “has already decimated the traditional local economy, wrecked the eco-system and disrupted the social and cultural life of the community.” Residents claim they were not properly consulted over the project, which is set to provide some 10 percent of the country’s electricity.
  • Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the WSJ argues that promises of reform by Cuba’s regime get more coverage than the death of a dissident on hunger strike; “while Raul Castro's announcements about 'reform' have made headlines and topped television news around the globe, we had hardly heard of Villar Mendoza or the resistance movement he belonged to.”

Monday, January 30, 2012

Colombia President Calls Drug War a “Stationary Bike”

President Juan Manuel Santos expressed more support for the legalization of illicit drugs while speaking at a panel at the Cartagena Hay Festival of Literature and Arts. As Semana reports, his remarks followed a comment by another panelist, Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramirez, who stated, “I know this cannot be an opinion of the state and the president of a republic cannot express this, but as an ordinary citizen, I can. The solution is decriminalizing drugs.”

Santos responded: ¨And I say it as president of a republic: this solution would be acceptable to Colombia, if the rest of the world goes along.”

Colombia Reports has a video of the remarks.

Santos has emerged as one of the most explicit supporters of drug legalization in the region. This is partly possible because, as the former defense minister and as a president who has continued Colombia’s tough military campaign against drug-trafficking groups the FARC and the so-called “bandas criminales” (criminal bands - BACRIMs), it would be hard to accuse him of being “soft” in the drug war. As Semana notes, Santos made reference to this experience while speaking at the Cartagena panel:

“He said that while in the Defense Department, he learned that the DEA’s measure of success, in the US, was measuring the price of cocaine in the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, in New York. ‘So if the price of cocaine went up in these cities, we could all give ourselves a little pat on the back,’ he said.”

Referring to such experience appears to be a key part of Santos’ strategy when discussing drug legalization in such explicit terms. He is able to present himself as a drug war insider who has seen all the rules of the game, and knows what does and does not work. “[The drug war] is like a stationary bike. You look up and around and you’re in the same place. The scenary’s changed but the problem persists.”

But while Santos has spoken in favor of drug legalization many times over the years, in terms of actual policy, his approach is not that radical. Other top figures in the Santos administration, including the prosecutor general and the Minister of the Interior, have also said the issue deserves to be debated. But the administration has not pushed to legalize drugs inside Colombia, nor has Colombia done much to raise the issue at international bodies like the United Nations. As Colombia Reports points out:

“The Colombian President has promoted a discussion on a possible revision of the war on drugs on several occasions, but has always reiterated that Colombia does not want to take the initiative to avoid being stigmatized. According to Santos, the debate should be started by drug consuming nations rather than the drug producing nations.”

One sign that Colombia truly intends to promote more debate on a liberalized drug policy would be if the country expressed more explicit support for Bolivia’s campaign to decriminalize the coca leaf. This is probably the best example of a Latin American country pushing for a more liberalized global drug policy in terms of actual policy, instead of

The Pan American Post has more analysis on Santos’ rhetoric on drug legalization from November 2011, when the president told a British newspaper he would “welcome” a more open policy.

News Briefs

  • Foreign Affairs looks at the Venezuelan presidential contest, in light of the decision of a prominent opposition candidate, Leopoldo Lopez, not to run. The magazine judges that this greatly improves the chances of Henrique Capriles, a popular former governor often presented as a rising star of Venezuela’s opposition, and whom Lopez endorsed. The magazine notes: “If he does win the primary, Capriles Radonski's most valuable quality is that no one can accuse him of belonging to Venezuela's political past. At 39, he is younger than Chávez... Moreover, he has avoided explicitly criticizing Chávez's ideological agenda. He understands that competing directly against Chávez's popular social agenda is an unwinnable fight. So instead, he relies on credibly delivering political reconciliation, fighting crime, and promoting a more effective and less politicized perspective of social programs.”
  • Blog the Devil’s Excrement also has useful analysis on Lopez’s withdrawal from the presidential contest, judging the move to be “politically masterful.” Lopez was already lagging in the polls behind Capriles, but more significantly, thanks to a ruling by the Venezuelan court which banned him from holding public office, but which was overturned last year by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, it was unclear whether Lopez could actually assume the presidency if he won the election. According to Devil’s Excrement, Lopez’s decision to withdraw guarantees a better chance for his Voluntad Popular party, which looks set to combine forces with Capriles’ party Primero Justicia. Foreign Policy has its own take on the Venezuelan presidential contest, judging that no matter who wins, “Venezuela’s political and economic conditions are likely to worsen.”
  • The New York Times has a feature on urban graffiti in Sao Paulo, one of the most visual symptoms of Brazil’s social ills. According to the article, the graffiti subculture, known as pichação, is unlike other forms of urban street art found in the rest of the world, thanks to its reliance on heavy rollers instead of spray paint. The practice is also risky, with some graffiti artists willing to scale skyscrapers in order to paint them.
  • Raul Castro aggressively defended Cuba’s one-party system during the Communist Party’s national conference, reports the AP.
  • The Miami Herald details the history of church-state relations in Cuba, in anticipation of the pope’s visit to the island this March.
  • Reuters has a feature on the piles of trash accumulating along the US-Mexico border. The garbage is increasingly harder to clean up because migrants are increasingly forced to use more remote border crossings, the article says.
  • Fox News Latino examines Mitt Romney’s position on immigration policy, after the former governor spoke at a conference of conservative Hispanic leaders in Miami last Friday. On a similar note, Foreign Policy has a long piece arguing that the Republicans will likely lose the Hispanic vote in the November presidential elections, because they have been forced to adopt the “anti-immigrant narrative being driven, in large measure, by the views of the Republican base -- and in particular the Tea Party wing.” In more news related to the US presidential campaign, Romney just received the endorsement of Puerto Rico’s governor, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports.
  • World Meets US has a good translation of an Op-Ed first published by La Jornada, detailing the ways in which US military contractors have benefited from the Mexican drug war. According to the article, under the Merida Initiative contracts with US companies reached $6.4 billion by 2008.
  • A fire in a Peruvian drug rehabilitation center killed 27 people Saturday, reports the AP. The tragedy calls attention to the lack of resources dedicated to drug addiction treatment in Peru, according to EFE.
  • Mercopress profiles the son of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, Maximo Kirchner, steadily becoming a greater political influence in Argentina thanks to the expansion of his political youth group, La Campora.
  • The AP on Chavez’s threats to nationalize banks which refuse to finance government-backed agricultural projects.
  • The Independent reports on the corruption scandal dogging Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, with more than 60 people facing allegations of fraud and taking kickbacks. The Mothers was one of the most prominent groups to protest Argentina’s military dictatorship.
  • Time reports on Cuba’s offshore oil exploration, causing many US officials to wring their hands over the risks of a possible spill that could affect Florida’s shores.

Friday, January 27, 2012

El Salvador Proposes Hardline Anti-Gang Policies

El Salvador’s security and justice minister has called for the country to unify behind a plan to destroy the “maras” or street gangs, which he claims are behind 90 percent of all murders committed in the country.

El Faro has an interview with retired General David Munguia Payes, formerly defense minister and now head of the country’s security cabinet, who has promised to cut murders by 30 percent in 2012. He told the website that it is necessary to unblock legal “bottlenecks”  and put gang members in prison, saying that it could be necessary to lock up 10,000 people.
Our system of laws, which has very high guarantees of civil liberties, would be ideal for a society which had normal behavior, but it can’t process the entire quantity of crimes that are being committed … Our proposal is to fix this system, to open those bottlenecks, so that the system can process the large amount of crime that we have, to put the criminals where they should be, and take them off the street.
The minister denies proposing an “iron fist” strategy against crime, arguing that instead the plan is “to squeeze where you have to squeeze and let go where you have to let go.” Munguia suggests a targeted anti-gang strategy similar to that of Rio de Janeiro’s Police Pacification Units, in which the security forces would arrive in an area, break down criminal structures, and gain the confidence of the population, before leaving a reduced police presence there. He also argues for dedicated anti-gang units of the police, and the use of states of emergency to place a curfew on minors and allow police to enter homes without a warrant.

Munguia’s comments will fuel concerns that the country is pursuing an increasingly militarized security strategy, as set out in Wednesday’s post.

As El Faro points out, Munguia's arguments rest on the key statistic that gangs are responsible for 90 percent of homicides. The website points out, however, that the minister has not given evidence for this figure, and that police say gangs committed 20 percent of murders, while govt forensic office (IML) put it as 10 percent.

Munguia told the site, however, that in many cases it is obvious that a victim has been killed as a result of gang warfare:
When you find a young guy dead with tattoes … if this dead person is between 14 and 35 there is a large possibility that they are a member of a gang … Or if they were killed in the zone of influence of a gang...
One of his arguments is that in Guatemala and Honduras most murders are carried out by gangs and the armed wings of drug trafficking groups, but “here we don’t have armed wings of drug trafficking. In this country those that kill are the gangs.” However he does say that the gangs in El Salvador dispute for territory with trafficking groups like the Perrones and the Texis Cartel.

A piece in IPS identifies a wider range of culprits for the high murder rate; “drug traffickers, organised crime, rogue death squads, state security forces and domestic violence.” It quotes Mauricio Figueroa, head of the Quetzalcoatl Foundation, as saying Munguia's information is "considerably mistaken, unacceptable and not credible,” and that he is trying to use gangs as a scapegoat to introduce new versions of iron fist policies that were employed by previous governments.

El Salvador finished 2011 with a murder rate of 70 per 100,000. By Munguia’s arguments, if the maras were broken up, the country would then have a rate of around 7 per 100,000 -- which would make it one of the safest places in Latin America.

As Tim’s El Salvador blog points out, the impunity rate throws Munguia's statements into doubt:
you have to question anybody who says they know the proportion of murders committed by gangs or drug-traffickers when the PNC [national police] says it has been able to solve only 34% of the murders in the country.

New Briefs

  • Efrain Rios Montt, a former military strongman who ruled Guatemala for over a year in the 1980s, has refused to speak in a court hearing over atrocities committed by the army during his time in power. The New York Times reportsthat prosecutors gave presentations on tortures, rapes, and mass killings committed by forces under his command, but that, when asked for a comment, the 85-year-old said “I prefer to remain silent.” After 12 hours of hearings, the judge ruled that Rios must stand trial on genocide charges over the deaths of some 1,771 people, part of the destruction of entire communities of Mayan indigenous groups during the country’s civil war. As noted in Monday’s post, even Rio’s appearance in court “is a victory for those who have sought to hold high-ranking military officials responsible for their abuses in the country’s civil war.”
  • A 20-story building and two others collapsed Wednesday in central Rio de Janeiro, with at least seven bodies recovered from the wreckage so far. Rescue workers are searching for another 20 people still missing amongst the rubble. The Wall Street Journal reports that it appears that the buildings were weakened by construction work, which may have been taking place without a permit and in violation of building codes. The tragedy is a massive setback for the image of the city, due to host the soccer World Cup and Olympics in the next four years. Rio Real blog notes the “shocking truth” that “ in Rio de Janeiro (and perhaps all of Brazil?), renovations are the full responsibility of the project engineer and the building owner. No government inspections are carried out– except for when the building first goes up.” It lists the other catastrophes Rio has seen in the last year, “exploding manhole covers, trolley, ferry and bus accidents, metro stoppages and electrical blackouts”, which are preventing the city reaching its full potential.
  • With more from Brazil, the Economist looks at the situation of the country’s Afro-descendents, who according to the 2010 census now makes up 51 percent of the population. The article reports that this group earns around half that of white people, on average, while a battle over affirmative action splits both the left and right wings of politics. Some argue that these schemes are themselves racist, dividing “a rainbow nation into arbitrary colour categories.” The Economist concludes that “A combination of stronger legal action against discrimination and quotas for social class in higher education to compensate for weak public schools may work better.”
  • The Economist also has a piece on why Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in Central America, despite its poverty. It notes that the country’s rejection of iron fist policies, with the mass jailing of gangs, may have been a factor, as this can backfire by providing a massive population of criminalized youths, as in neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala.
  • With more on the issue of gangs in Central America, the New York Times has an op-ed on Honduras, in which it argues that the US media generally attributes the violence in that country to the phenomena of gangs and drug trafficking, when in fact “the coup was what threw open the doors to a huge increase in drug trafficking and violence, and it unleashed a continuing wave of state-sponsored repression.” It highlights the murder of more than 300 people by state security forces since the coup, as reported by human rights group COFADEH, and of more than 13 journalists since President Lobo took power. This follows a spate of reports and opinion pieces in the US media on violence in Honduras, some of which provide valuable insights and some of which, as pointed out on yesterday's post, do not.
  • The Washington Post has a piece on the growing role of security contractors in Mexico as the drug war rages, their wages paid by US aid programs, the Mexican government, or private firms. However, as the report notes, tight gun laws mean they cannot legally carry arms.
  • Nicaragua has passed legal measures which impose greater penalties on those committing violent attacks against women. The country saw 76 females murdered in 2011.
  • The US government knew that the Argentine government was stealing babies from dissidents during the military dictatorship, according to testimony from a former diplomat.
  • Some 30 pounds of cocaine was delivered in fake diplomatic cases to the UN headquarters in New York. They had been sent from Mexico, and authorities think they went astray and ended up in the UN mailroom by mistake.
  • The Associated Press points out that presidential hopeful Mitt Romney rarely mentions his Mexican heritage, even when trying to woo Hispanic voters. His father was born in Mexico, and Romney still has relatives living in Chihuahua.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gingrich Proposes Cold War Approach to Latin America

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich took a break from attacking GOP rival Mitt Romney yesterday to criticize President Obama on his Latin American policy. Speaking to an audience at Florida International University, Gingrich accused the Obama administration of not being doing enough to promote democracy in Cuba. “They worry about an Arab Spring in Egypt, where we give billions of dollars of aid every year, they worry about an Arab Spring in Syria,” said Gingrich. “I don’t think it’s occurred to a single person in the White House to look south and propose a Cuban Spring.”

He then proposed a more active approach to Cuba. Recalling the Cold War, Gingrich pointed to the Soviet containment policies adopted by Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II  as examples of using “every non-military tool” to promote regime change.

The GOP candidate than turned to Venezuela, calling the Chavez government a “major growing problem.” He claimed that Chavez was facilitating an Iranian penetration into the region, and even warned of the potential for Iran to develop military bases “and other assets” in the hemisphere. Surprisingly, Gingrich evoked the Monroe Doctrine, saying that Iran’s influence in Latin America constituted the first overt violation of the 19th century era policy since the 1820s.

This is not the first time that a presidential candidate in this election season has mentioned the Monroe Doctrine. At the CNN Foreign Policy Debate in November, Governor Rick Perry called for a “21st Century Monroe Doctrine” to be applied to the region.

Such inflammatory rhetoric coming from Gingrich, who some polls suggest may be the new Republican frontrunner, is alarming. For one thing, as detailed in the January 13th Post, Iran’s influence in the country is extremely limited, and does not constitute a major security threat to the U.S. In his dire warning of Iranian penetration, he overlooked the recent tensions between Iran and Brazil, the emerging powerhouse in the region.

His proposal for Cuba is similarly off the mark. U.S. intervention in Cuba on the scale of its recent activities in Libya or Egypt would likely be widely unpopular. In fact, the long history of U.S. intervention is one of the main sources of support for the government in Cuba.

News Briefs

·         On the same day as Gingrich’s speech, Fidel Castro had some harsh words for the Republican primary race, describing it as a “contest of idiocy and ignorance.” In a column published Wednesday on Cubadebate, the former Cuban leader said he was appalled by the way in which the candidates were competing to demonize the Cuban state. He also claimed that international media accounts of the death of political prisoner Wilman Villar have been largely untruthful.

·         Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is back in office after receiving surgery to remove her thyroid gland. The Associated Press reports that the president signed a series of agreements with the country’s provinces as her first official act since temporary leaving office on January 4th.

·         According to the BBC, the backlash against a police eviction of more than 6,000 people from an illegal settlement in Sao Paulo continues to grow. Amnesty International has said the move violated "a raft of international standards.”

·         A search of several congressional offices in Mexico has revealed several hidden listening devices. Although the specific congressmen who found bugs in their office has not been revealed, El Universal claims that lawmakers from all three major parties (PAN, PRI, and PRD) were wiretapped. Because the technology of the bugs appears to be slightly dated, officials believe that they may have been in place for years. It is not clear who is behind the wiretapping, but the Calderon administration denies having any part in it.

·         A new report by U.S. security firm STRATFOR says the Zetas are the largest drug cartel in Mexico, controlling more than half of the states in the country. As InSight Crime has reported,  Mexico crime analysts have been making this claim for a while, and it does not mean that the Zetas are more dominant than their rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel.

·         Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reports that judges in the country have prohibited Marllory Dadiana Chacón Rosell and three other Guatemalan citizens from leaving the country after the U.S. government accused her of drug trafficking and money laundering. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Chacon is “one of the most prolific narcotics traffickers in Central America.” The Guatemalan press has had a field day with the accusations, with elPeriodico even going so far as to call her the country’s “Narco Queen.”

·         Venezuela’s attorney general, Carlos Escarra, passed away yesterday from a heart attack. Escarra was a longtime ally of Chavez and took part in writing the new Venezuelan constitution that was approved in 1999. More from Venezuela’s El Universal.

·         The Chavez administration today announced that it had formally begun Venezuela’s withdrawal from the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. The AP says the government claims that the decision was made in order to “protect national sovereignty” in the face of several multi-million dollar claims from companies which have been nationalized.

·         An electric surge in Costa Rica caused a blackout in neighboring Nicaragua on Tuesday night, leaving almost the entire country without power. Tensions are still high between the two countries after a 2010 border dispute, and the blackout incident has caused some to question whether it was in fact accidental, as Costa Rican officials claim.

·         Michael Allison has an insightful response to yesterday’s Miami Herald editorial in which the paper called for the U.S. to “get serious” about the security situation in Honduras and Central America as a whole. According to him, the Herald overlook the role the U.S. played in militarizing the region during the civil wars of the 1970s and ‘80s, as well as the country’s continued support for corrupt governments like Honduras’.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

El Salvador Accused of Militarizing Security

El Salvador’s left-leaning President Mauricio Funes has angered many by appointing an army general to head the police force (PNC), which critics say is constitutionally defined as a civilian body. The move has stoked fears of a new militarization of El Salvador’s security apparatus.

The president’s choice of retired Major General Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivera stirred particular criticism amongst his own party, the FMLN. The party was formed from a coalition of guerrilla organizations which fought the 1980-1992 civil war against a military junta ruling the country.

The appointment of Salinas has caused an outcry because one of the conditions set out in the peace accords was the establishment of a civilian police force, and the dissolution of the old police bodies which were run by the defense ministry. As El Faro puts it;
For the first time in the history of the PNC a soldier is taking the reins of an institution which was conceived as separate from the military establishment responsible for the grave violations of human rights during and before the civil war.
El Faro notes that the police force is divided between those officers who came from the army and those who demobilized with the FMLN, with the FMLN-aligned faction arguing that the military lack the experience of policing work to head the organization.

This latest appointment follows Funes’ naming on November 22 of retired GeneralDavid Munguia Payes as minister of justice and public security. Munguia is the first military man to hold the position since the end of the war, and replaced a former FMLN guerrilla. Funes also dismissed the head of the State Intelligence Agency (OIE) in December, leaving as the acting head Colonel Simon Alberto Molina Montoya, a former advisor to Munguia. Another Munguia associate has now been appointed in his place, with Molina as deputy head. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) comments that “Since Perdomo has no professional experience in the area of intelligence, many expect that active-duty Colonel Simon Molina Montoya, who is the newly-appointed 2nd in command of OIE, will be calling the shots.”

Taking these appointments together, El Faro comments that:
In two months the president has dismantled the civil scaffolding of the public security cabinet in order to bring in soldiers.
The president has responded to his critics by denying that a militarization is taking place, and implying that their objections are based on the political implications of his decisions, namely the removal of FMLN figure from high-ranking positions. He said that the discussion
may be revealing the loss of shares of power within institutions that need not be under the control of any particular party. The police are an apolitical body and respond to the interests of the state.
However, the warnings about a militarization of public security seem to be borne out by the new police director’s statements that, “It is necessary to use units of the navy in [troubled parts of the country] to restore order, econonmic activity, and reduce crime."

Some have accused Funes of acting at the beck and call of the US, with the FMLN’sRoberto Lorenzana commenting at the time of Munguia’s appointment “This was not a decision that the President made; he is simply a spokesperson. It’s a decision that was made somewhere in the US capital.” However, it is possible that it could also be related to Funes’ wish to assert his will against that of his party. As Al Jazeera reported, a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks commented that the previous security minister had been chosen more by FMLN “hardliners” than by Funes himself.

Funes has spoken in favor of bringing a more military element into security in order to battle the soaring rates of crime. As Just the Facts notes, the president has in recent months;
warned that the country is in a “new war” whose “enemy” is “strongly armed criminal bands.” Funes added that critics who worry about “militarization” have “prejudices” that are “anchored in the past.”
However, many disagree that bringing in the military is the solution to organized crime. Benjamin Cuellar of the Central American University told the BBC that "betting on the Armed Forces as a solution to our problems" would land El Salvador in a war on drugs which "is already lost and whose victims will be on our doorstep".

When Funes came to power in 2009, he was the first FMLN candidate to win the presidency since the party was formed in the peace deal that ended the civil war in 1992. The party was helped to power by Funes’ status as a moderate who had not fought in the war, unlike many of its members. However, this same independence now seems to be behind him taking steps to remove FMLN officials from power -- whether to follow his own agenda and shake up the security apparatus to bring about a safer El Salvador, or to follow the agenda of Washington.

News Briefs

  • Opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez has pulled out of the race for Venezuela’s presidency and placed his support behind Henrique Capriles. The opposition coalition MUD will hold a vote on February 12 to select a single candidate to go up against the towering President Hugo Chavez, and Capriles is currently in the lead. The Associated Press notes that Lopez had been lagging in the polls, but that his support will give a significant boost to Capriles' chances. This move will help the opposition, long viewed as divided and incapable of rallying behind a single candidate to beat Chavez, to have a chance of winning power in the October elections. One analyst quoted by the Wall Street Journal said that with Lopez’s pull-out, "It is almost a certainty that Henrique Capriles will face President Chavez in October's watershed elections."
  • Colombian rebel group the FARC have released the names of three military hostages who they say they will release in the coming days, some of whom have been held for over 12 years. This follows the rebels’ murder of four hostages amid a botched rescue attempt in November, and could be a good sign for peace, as the release of all hostages is the main condition placed by the Santos government before negotiations can begin. There are still several military and police hostages being held, and an unknown number of civilians.
  • Enrique Peña Nieto, front-runner in the Mexican presidential elections, has seen his reputation take another blow, when he admitted that he had had two children outside of his previous marriage. He said that they had been conceived during a “crisis” in relations with his wife, who died in 2007 leaving him with their three children. This will be a blow to the image of Peña Nieto, whose popularity is based in part on his image as a handsome young widower, who remarried to a soap actress three years after his wife's death. The mother of one of his children born outside of marriage went on Facebook to accuse him of being a bad father who does not know how many children he has
  • The New York Times Latitude blog has a piece on how Venezuela’s Chavez is using the distribution of social housing to win support. The author reports that: “Every resident I met on a visit last week expressed gratitude and support for Chavez. I didn’t hear the jittery, coerced support of a North Korean; I heard what sounded like deep personal affection for our leader -- coupled, I soon realized, with generalized disdain for the government he leads.”
  • Chavez suffered an embarrassment when his teenage daughter Rosines apparently posted a picture of herself online with her face partly concealed behind a fan of dollar bills, the trading of which is tightly controlled by her father’s government.
  • The New York Times reports that Brazil may be falling behind on its record of protecting the Amazon rainforest, granting more concessions to large-scale development projects and now putting forward a bill to reform the Forest Code.
  • The LA Times has an article on the curious case of Bogota’s disappearing manhole covers. The Colombian capital loses some 10,000, or 4 percent of its stock, each year, according to the report, and now one manufacturer has managed to track many to the city of Neiva, defying the mafias that deal in the stolen parts.
  • The Miami Herald comments on violence in Honduras, calling on the US government to take action against the wave of crime in that country, given that “elements of the U.S.-backed government are complicit in the violence and criminality.”
  • In the country’s latest step to bring about justice for the victims and perpetrators of abuses in the 1970s dictatorship, Uruguay’s president has approved a payment of more than half a million dollars for a woman who was taken from her dissident parents and illegally adopted, reports the Associated Press.
  • Colombia’s government has declared that it will not cancel a propsed expansion of the Fuero Militar, which allows military officials accused of human rights abuse to be tried in special military courts, despite criticisms from Human Rights Watch, reports Colombia Reports.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mass Favela Eviction Highlights Squatters' Fight in Brazil

The fallout continues from the mass eviction of thousands of families from Pinheirinho, a favela just outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The operation, which police initiated Sunday, saw violence continue Monday, as protesters blocked roads and burned vehicles. Some standoffs reportedly provoked a forceful response from the security forces, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. According to the Guardian, 15 people have been arrested, while no deaths have yet been confirmed. Across Brazilian social media, some users called the event a “massacre,” but there is little evidence that this is the case. Al Jazeera has a video report from the region, while both the Guardian and Folha have interesting photo galleries displaying the homemade defense equipment used by Pinheirinho residents.

As the Guardian points out, land evictions are not unusual in Brazil, but the Pinheirinho case was striking for the number of people reportedly evicted -- some 6,000. The incident also calls attention to the issue of property redistribution and squatters’ rights in Brazil, where some 11.5 million people are thought to live in illegal or sub-standard housing,

Brazil has a significant housing deficit of between six to eight million houses, according to Habitat for Humanity. The housing shortage issue is a key cause for the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), one of the largest social movements in Brazil and frequently described as one of the most successful land occupation movements in Latin America. Officially founded in 1984, the MST has reportedly taken over some 35 million acres in Brazil, settling over 370,000 families. The group plays a major role in defending squatters’ rights, and now claims to represent nearly 2 million landless people.

The organization condemned the Pinheirinho evacuation, but unlike other squatters’ communities which were organized by the MST, it is unclear whether the Pinheirinho settlement originally began as an informal MST encampment. According to reports, the area was first populated in 2002. The land is technically owned by a “bankrupt property company,” reports the BBC.

The Pinheirinho evictions may possibly become a key cause for the land reform movement in 2012. There have been questions over how influential the MST remains as a political force, especially given the success of government poverty reduction programs, like Bolsa Familia, initiated under President Lula da Silva. The MST has been highly involved in rural land reform issues in recent years, particularly the defense of small farmers as soybean and sugarcane agribusinesses continue to expand. Over the past decade, many of the most high-impact land occupations engineered by the MST were intended to protest the activities of agribusinesses like Monsanto. Still, there is a good chance the MST will become more prominently involved in the Pinheirinho cause, despite the fact the group is less associated with urban squatters’ movements at this point.

President Dilma Rousseff has not issued any formal statements on the Pinheirinho evictions. The outrage may not last long enough to put land reform back on the top of the presidential agenda. While the MST supported Rousseff’s presidential campaign, there is little sign so far that she will take a proactive approach towards housing or land issues. But the attention paid to the Pinheirinho riots could pressure her to do so. As detailed in a Mercopress report, six out of ten Brazilians are now thought to belong to the middle class. As the Pinheirinho violence indicates, such estimates may be a simplification, and for many Brazilians there is still a long way to go.

News Briefs
  • From the New York Times, indications of a small rift between Brazil and Iran. The former “top media advisor” to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Folha that Rousseff “has been striking against everything that Lula accomplished.” Blogger Greg Weeks has some useful insight on the issue, noting: “As sanctions tighten, Iran really wants to showcase how it has ties to major countries like Brazil, but I wonder whether Rousseff wants to stick her neck out that far.”
  • The Associated Press on how authorities in Mexico unraveled a child trafficking ring that tried to supply Irish couples with babies.
  • Election intrigue from Mexico as an influential teachers’ union party has split from the PRI party, meaning rivals the PAN may quickly begin courting the party as a new coalition partner, the LA Times reports.
  • Through the Inter-American Dialogue, Current History has a long piece titled “The Shifting Landscape of Latin American Regionalism.” Bloggings by Boz has a four point summary of the article, which examines the role of regional organizations like the OAS and UNASUR, in light of greater Chinese economic influence in Latin America, as well as Brazil’s rise to power.
  • For those with a subscription, the New Yorker reports on Tijuana’s efforts to refashion its image through its emerging restaurant scene.
  • Tim’s El Salvador Blog and Salon discuss allegations that Mick Romney’s private equity firm benefitted from wealthy Salvadoran families, some with links to death squads. “I'm not sure that taking money from the corrupt Salvadoran wealthy class to help them make money outside of the region makes someone a friend of Latin America,” Tim’s El Salvador Blog notes.
  • The United Nations is set to investigate allegations that UN personnel committed sexual abuse in Haiti. From Americas Quarterly.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Former Guatemalan Dictator to Address Genocide Allegations in Court

On Saturday, a Guatemalan judge ordered General Efrain Rios Montt to appear in court this Thursday  in relation to allegations that the former military dictator ordered the massacres of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans during his 1982-83 term.  As the New York Times reports, during the 17 months of his rule, the Guatemalan military conducted a “scorched earth campaign” in its civil war against small groups of left-wing guerrillas, which resulted in entire villages in the Guatemalan highlands being slaughtered.

Although human rights groups have been accusing Rios Montt of ordering this brutal strategy for the past 29 years, this is the first time that he will have to appear in court because of it.  He has been a member of Congress since 2000, which has given him immunity from prosecution. However, this immunity ended when his term expired this month.

While his appearance in court alone is a victory for those who have sought to hold high-ranking military officials responsible for their abuses in the country’s civil war, there is still no guarantee that the former de facto leader of Guatemala will be brought to trial. After he appears in court on Thursday, the judge will have to decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence to try Rios Montt on genocide charges. While prosecutors have told the Associated Press that they are confident the case will move forward, Rios Montt’s lawyer told the Prensa Libre that he is “sure there is no responsibility, since he was never on the battlefield.”

However, the Times notes that “military documents have shown that the military was operating under a rigid chain of command,” in which field intelligence was transmitted up the chain of command to top military commanders. For instance, a 1982 intelligence report leaked in 2009 supports this claim, suggesting that rural massacres were in fact a deliberate, well-documented element of counterinsurgency strategy at the time.

News Briefs

·         Both this Sunday’s Miami Herald and McClatchy feature insightful articles on the state of organized crime in Honduras, which is heavily linked to police corruption. The Herald uses the recent killing of ex-deputy drug czar Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde, who made waves by accusing the police in the country of widespread collusion with criminals, as proof that it is dangerous to say that “elements of the Honduran National Police are closely tied to drug cartels which, in turn, are protected by politicians, judges and prosecutors.” McClatchy meanwhile focuses more specifically on the connections between police and organized crime groups, reporting that “in Honduras entire units of the national police appear to work for drug and crime groups, preying on the public and gunning down foes.”

·         The Associated Press reports that the family of a 20 year-old Honduran man who was denied asylum in the United States and later killed by gangs is petitioning the U.S. government to provide posthumous asylum. According to the family’s lawyer, the petition is an attempt to get the government to recognize that the “entire system let him down”

·         An unidentified gunman in Mexico’s southern Guerrero state killed thirteen people on Saturday, among them were eight people attending a funeral for a shooting victim.

·         The Wall Street Journal reports on the center-left candidate in Mexico’s upcoming July presidential elections, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. While he has long been known as a populist firebrand in the country, Lopez Obrador appears to be moderating his tone, courting business interests by promising to break up powerful monopolies in the country.

·         After a year in which he seemed both politically and physically weakened, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez appears to have beaten cancer and is back to his controversial self. The New York Times reports on Chavez’s ongoing self-reassertion into Venezuelan politics, which is taking place in an election year. But while the Times reports that “popular discontent with his government has grown,” a series of polls in late December suggest that Chavez remains more popular than his opposition.

·         Human Rights Watch released its World Report 2012 on Sunday, in which the organization accuses the U.S. of not enforcing human rights conditions on aid to Colombia. The report notes that “Thirty percent of US military aid is subject to human rights conditions, which the US Department of State has not enforced.”

·         The Ladies in White, a prominent Cuban opposition group, has blamed the state for the Thursday death of Wilman Villar Mendoza, a political prisoner who died of health complications related to a hunger strike.  The Cuban government has denied any responsibility for the death, and claimed that it took all the appropriate measures to try to save him.  It also claimed that Villar was not imprisoned because of his political activities, but rather because he physically assaulted his wife.

·         The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the growing crack epidemic in Brazil, which is partially fueled by regional drug traffickers’ desire to expand the market for their product elsewhere. President Dilma Rousseff has said her government will spend around $2.5 billion by 2014 to fight crack use around the country, but it is unclear whether that will be enough to curb the growing demand for the drug.

·         Police in Sao Paulo have broken up a community held by landless workers on the outskirts of the city, displacing some 6,000 residents according to the BBC. The site had been established following a 2002 land invasion, and had since developed into a bustling neighborhood, complete with shops and churches.