Friday, January 20, 2012

Haiti Police Convicted of Prison Massacre in Rare Victory for Justice

In a development which highlighted the impact of a 2010 investigation published by the New York Times, a Haitian judge found eight policemen guilty of using excessive force to quell a prison riot.

The verdict was described as a historical step forward for rule of law in Haiti, where the criminal justice system has little capacity to prosecute and convict offenders, especially if they are members of the security forces. The decision should rightfully be treated as a small victory for Haiti's dysfunctional justice system. But the real test is whether the courts will uphold the verdict or whether the convictions will later be overturned, as typically happens with cases involving high-profile defendants.>

The guilty police officers only came under public scrutiny after the New York Times published an in-depth report on a prison massacre that took place in Les Cayes city. Just days after the January 2010 earthquake, inmates rioted in an overcrowded penitentiary, after wardens refused them the right to sleep in the more spacious prison courtyard. A group of inmates then tried to escape and during the ensuing chaos, police shot at least 12 detainees and wounded dozens more.

The Times investigative piece later prompted the creation of a joint United Nations commission, which found the police had indiscriminately fired upon the inmates. After a court in Les Cayes began processing charges against 13 police officers involved in the massacre, the case became a symbol for the many problems riddling Haiti’s criminal justice system.

Thursday’s verdict was unusual just for being issued at all. During the three-month trial, the judge trying the case received threats, while at least 21 police officers implicated in the massacre fled the country, reports the AP. Even after the ruling was issued, the lead prosecutor in the case described the decision as “not satisfying,” a view echoed by other human rights activists. Haiti’s ombudsman told the Times that had the eight defendants been civilians instead of police officers, “they would have gotten life.”

For the Les Cayes case to significantly bolster public confidence in the judicial system, the eight guilty police officers may actually have to complete their sentences. As the AP points out, during the last case involving high-profile defendants, in which paramilitaries were tried for massacring civilians in 2001, the verdicts were issued and later overturned.

The other case which would really test Haiti’s capacity for rule of law is the investigation and prosecution of former dictator Jean Claude Duvalier. Compared to the Les Cayes case, a Duvalier trial would be a particularly drawn-out and polarizing affair. But it would provide the landmark case needed to truly prove that no public official, not even “Baby Doc,” may avoid the rule of law. Still, such advances in the justice system looks years and years away, and the Les Cayes ruling is but a hiccup in the right direction.


News Briefs
  • Andrew Selee at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute lays out the top five questions for Mexico and US-Mexico relations in 2012, from the outcome of the presidential elections (both north and south of the border) to Mexico’s slow recovery from the global recession. Elsewhere, the Economist critiques the few accomplishments of Mexico’s Congress during President Felipe Calderon’s term.
  • Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris has an insightful report on an area described as the second most-conflicted war zone in Colombia: Catatumbo, Northern Santander. Only the southwest department of Cauca, where FARC commander alias “Alfonso Cano” was killed last November, registered more violent attacks than Catatumbo in 2011, according to Nuevo Arco Iris’ count. As detailed by Verdad Abierta, Catatumbo saw eight violent incidents in the past two weeks alone, most consisting of attacks against the police. Nuevo Arco Iris argues that because Cano’s heir, alias “Timochenko,” has traditionally been based in departments like Northern Santander which border Venezuela, this means the FARC are more likely to replicate in Catatumbo the same war strategies so successfully deployed in Cauca. These include constant hit-and-run attacks and usage of IEDs against government forces, in order to protect the FARC security rings charged with sheltering the top command, in this case, Timochenko. Verdad Abierta notes that because large plots of coca are still found in Catatumbo, this could entice criminal bands like the UrabeƱos to try to enter this region, traditionally controlled by the guerrillas, and thus incite more violence.
  • From San Antonio News, an article gives a rare detailed description of the training grounds used by Mexican cartel the Zetas, based on court testimony by a former hitman. In these training camps, Zeta recruits were forced to prove their dedication by killing people, those who could not do so were assigned to work as lookouts, know colloquially as “halcones.”
  • The Nation has a long piece worth reading, vividly arguing that the influx of US investment and trade in Mexico spurred the displacement of thousands; these undocumented migrants then allowed US companies to reap even greater profits by working for low wages and no union rights on US soil. The article focuses on meat-packing company Smithfield, whose North Carolina factories relied heavily on migrant labor until the migrants tried to mobilize with the local union. South of the border, Smithfield’s subsidiary Granjas Carrol also employed thousands of farmers left out of work because of NAFTA policies. The two meat-packing firms are classic examples for how companies took advantage of US economic and immigration policy, spurring up migration rates and only cracking down on unlicensed workers once they were faced with popular resistance, according to the Nation.
  • Chile has withdrawn a law which would have allowed police to use media images as potential evidence to lead to convictions. Critics said such legislation would basically turn photographers and video journalists into walking targets, if their work could be forcefully turned over to police without a court order. The AP reports that Chilean legislators backed off from pushing through the reform even as other countries, like Ecuador and Argentina, have recently pursued policies described as threatening to press freedoms. The proposed measure is part of a wider package of reforms currently floating in Chilean Congress, all intended to make it harder for protesters to occupy public spaces and easier for authorities to prosecute those who promote “public disorder.”
  • Caracas Chronicles has an entertaining opinion piece endorsing Venezuela presidential contender Henrique Capriles. The post lays out five reasons why Capriles is Venezuela’s strongest opposition candidate, and also provides some helpful background on Capriles’ political experience and his campaign strategy so far.
  • The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control blacklisted a major lottery company in Guatemala, the AP reports. According to El Periodico, the lottery company’s Facebook page boasts of creating more than 2,700 jobs, and distributing $2 million in lottery winnings in the past three years.
  • The AP reports on the findings by a Venezuelan prison watchdog group, which counted 560 killings in penitentiaries last year. Another 1,457 inmates were injured in riots, the group reported. This may be the most only available count of prison deaths in Venezuela, as the government does not release its own statistics.
  • The Independent has an interesting post looking at a proposal in Honduras which would dictate the creation of new charter cities, but would prevent them from democratically electing city councils up to a certain point. The blog post calls this an “undemocratic approach to development” and compares the approach with other tactics seen in Greece and Italy.
  • The Miami Herald reports on the closure of an oil refinery in the Virgin Islands, a top customer of Venezuela’s state oil company. This blocks Venezuela from refining hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil, and could prompt a shortage of the fuel supply inside the country, according to the Herald.