Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Colombia Dismisses Attorney General Amid Paramilitary Scandal

Colombia’s Attorney General Viviane Morales has been removed from her post, while her husband faces accusations that he had dealings with the paramilitaries.

The State Council voted to remove Morales on the grounds that her election in 2010 was illegitimate, as she only gained the support of 14 of 23 Supreme Court judges, when according to the constitution she would need that of two thirds. Morales argues that, as only 18 justices were present on the day of the vote, she did reach the legal threshold.

Her expulsion means that the fraught procedure of picking an attorney general must begin again. The position, which the Associated Press describes as the second most powerful in the country after the presidency, was held by an interim official for a year and four months until Morales was voted in in December 2010. The delay was due to the Supreme Court’s failure to reach the necessary consensus on any one candidate.

President Juan Manuel Santos will now present another shortlist of three candidates to the Supreme Court. Guillermos Mendoza, who was acting attorney general while the election took place, told the AP that Santos could choose Morales as one of his nominees.

Morales has been praised for her efforts to prosecute close allies of former President Alvaro Uribe, jailing his Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arias and chief of staff Bernado Moreno.

However, Morales’ re-marriage last year to ex-congressman Carlos Alonso Lucio led three of the country’s most prominent journalists to call for her resignation, on the grounds that Alonso has been accused of links to the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, and the Cali Cartel, as El Tiempo reports.

The attorney general’s recent issuing of an arrest warrant against former peace commissioner Felipe Carlos Restrepo for crimes including arms trafficking and working with the paramilitareis was viewed by some as overstepping the mark. Semana magazine argued that the charges did not fit with what is known of Restrepo, who played a major part in the demobilization of the AUC paramilitary group in the 2000s.

Restrepo has accused Morales of acting out of revenge, saying that her legal action against him came soon after he had accused her husband of dealings with paramilitaries. For Semana, the fact of bringing such heavy charges against an accusor of her husband looks very bad for the attorney general, regardless of whether they are justified.

News Briefs
  • Hamid Ghodse, president of the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), said that legalizing drugs was “not an option,” pointing out that, even with legal drugs, “crime related to the trafficking of tobacco and alcohol has not disapeared, and in fact is a large part of criminal activity,” reports Prensa Libre. His comments followed Guatemalan President Otto Perez’s calls for debate on the issue. Perez said he was glad that the UN had spoken on the matter, because “this is precisely what we want; to raise the debate.”
  • A Guatemalan air force helicopter crashed in the northern state of Peten, killing all 10 people on board. It had been on its way to help a civilian helicopter which crashed in bad weather. All three people on the first craft survived. In an indication of the difficulties Guatemala faces in fighting the war on drugs, Defense Minister Ulises Noe Anzueto said that with the crash, the army had lost one of its three functioning helicopters. He said that they had a few more that were out of service, but that the institution did not have the funds to repair them.
  • Venezuela’s vice president, Elias Jaua, said that President Hugo Chavez was in stable condition after Cuban doctors successfully operated to remove a tumor, though he did not say whether the growth was malignant.
  • A Puerto Rican congressman who had been running for mayor of San Juan has resigned from the House of Representatives and from the vice presidency of his opposition party, amid accusations of domestic abuse, reports the AP. Hector Ferrer has accused the government of political motives in pursuing the case against him, saying it was an “act of abuse and outrage on the part of the government branch.” He said his former girlfriend had been forced to make the accusations against him by a prosecutor, who threatened to take custody of their son away from her.
  • Argentina has called on 20 firms to stop importing British products, which Industry Minister Debora Giorgi said would “send a message to those who still use colonialism to get hold of other people's natural resources,” reports AFP.
  • The INCB report says that Mexico’s cocaine seizures in 2011 were less than a fifth of those in 2010, due to traffickers diverting their business through Central America and the Caribbean. However, seizures of marijuana and methamphetamine, which are produced in Mexico, remained stable.
  • The BBC has an analysis of the fight against Shining Path rebels in Peru, quoting expert Jaime Antezana who warns that the Peruvian government is focusing on the group as a terrorist threat rather than as a drug trafficking organization. "That means that they will just try to dismantle the armed structure [of the Shining Path]. Meanwhile, drug-trafficking keeps on going up."
  • Seven employees of  Casanare Avanzada, a construction company that was building an oil pipeline in east Colombia, have been kidnapped along with two drivers in the province of Arauca. The authorities said that their kidnappers were probably guerrillas. Both the ELN and the FARC operate in the area, andRCN said that the workers were “apparently” kidnapped by the FARC. If true, this would undermine the guerrillas’ promise just days ago that they would stop kidnapping for extortion purposes.
  • An opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle argues that the deadly conditions in Honduras prisons, where more than 350 inmates died in a fire this month, are caused by a culture of impunity amongst guards, and the failure to bring prisoners to trial, which leaves many languishing in jail for years without being convicted. The author criticizes the US government’s policy towards Honduras, saying that “the United States continues to send military and police aid to a government that violates inmates' human rights.”
  • The head of Haiti’s police force says that the institution is making progress on getting rid of corrupt police, reports the Miami Herald, stating that almost 1,000 officers were fired between 2005 and 2009. The statements were in response to complaints from a UN human rights official that the process of purging the police was not being carried out quickly enough.
  • The older sister of Raul and Fidel Castro has died in Havana at the age of 86, reports Univision.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Correa Pardons Journalists in Controversial Libel Case

After provoking international outcry over his decision to pursue a 42 million dollar libel suit against three directors and the former opinion editor of Ecuadoran daily El Universo, President Rafael Correa announced yesterday that he intends to pardon the journalists. In a 30-minute address, Correa said he will “pardon the accused and grant them remission of the sentences that they rightly received,” although he also cautioned that “forgiveness is not forgetting.” In addition, Correa announced he intends to drop the libel case against Juan Carlos Calderón y Christian Zurita, who authored a book alleging that the president knew that his brother Fabricio Correa had been awarded public contracts.

After the announcement, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño told reporters that El Universo executive Carlos Perez can now leave the Panamanian embassy in Quito, where he was granted political asylum earlier this month after Ecuador's highest court found him guilty of libel. The Associated Press quotes Patiño as saying "He's got to be told he can go home now...there was never an arrest warrant. He makes out like he was persecuted." The opinion page editor, Emilio Palacio, has said that although he considers the pardon a “spectacular triumph,” he is still weighing whether or not to apply for asylum in the United States.

But while the El Universo case may be closed, the controversy surrounding it is far from over. As mentioned in last Friday’s brief, an Ecuadoran judge who reviewed the case has fled the country after claiming that lawyers tied to the Correa administration promised her “$3,000 a month and steady work if she would rule against the newspaper.”

As McClatchy notes, the case was ultimately given to Judge Juan Paredes. But when Paredes was asked how he issued his lengthy 150-page ruling against El Universo so rapidly (he allegedly wrote it in a little over 25 hours), he claimed that he relied on Encalada's previous casework. Encalada has denied this, saying that while she gave Paredes a memory stick that contained some analysis of the case, none of it was published in the final sentence.

She claims that the sentence was written by the Correa administration, a claim which seems to be supported by the fact that the sentence was written on a version of Microsoft Word registered to a “Chucky Seven,” which allegedly matches other documents written by Correa's lawyer Gutenberg Vera.

Ultimately, Correa’s pardon may help to quell some of the condemnations he has received in recent months from press freedom groups, but the El Universo case has raised serious questions about judicial independence and the state of Ecuadoran democracy that will be difficult for the president to shake. Considering that polls show domestic support for Correa is around 80 percent, however, his critics will have a hard time delegitimizing him in the eyes of Ecuadoran voters.

News Briefs

·         Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano defended US drug policy yesterday, saying "I would not agree with the premise that the drug war is a failure," and arguing against decriminalization. She made the remarks at a press conference in Mexico City as part of a tour of Mexico and Central America. She is scheduled to head to Guatemala today, where she will meet with President Otto Perez and no doubt discuss his recent pro-decriminalization remarks.

·         InSight Crime’s Steven Dudley offers some astute analysis of the FARC’s recent announcement that it will stop kidnapping civilians. According to Dudley, increased pressure from security forces have made it difficult for the Colombian guerrilla group to hold captives for long periods of time, and its profits from the drug trade render the proceeds from kidnapping nearly unnecessary.

·         The Miami Herald profiles the recent drop in drug violence in Tijuana, where residents, police and experts offer competing explanations over the relative calm that has fallen over the city.

·         The US government has announced that it will begin flying deported migrants back to their home states rather than simply dropping them off at the border. Last October, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said that the US was contributing to border violence by busing deportees to border cities.

·         As anxiety over Hugo Chavez’s health rises among his supporters in Venezuela, El Universal reports that the government has continued its official silence on the issue, with no word yet as the results of his medical procedure in Cuba. Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published another round of medical conjecture, with experts claiming that it is increasingly likely that Chavez is “facing an aggressive tumor.”

·         Commemorating the anniversary of a harsh military crackdown in the wake of Chavez’s failed 1992 coup, Defense Minister Henry Rangel has assured Venezuelans that the military will never again be deployed against civilians in the county. His remarks come amidst concerns that the Venezuelan military may intervene to keep Chavez in power if he loses the upcoming elections in October.

·         Argentine President Cristina Fernandez took on criticism of her handling of last week’s deadly train crash yesterday. According to the AP, she has also hinted at re-nationalizing the country’s railway system.

·         La Republica reports that Peru’s captured Comrade Artemio has been transferred to a maximum security naval prison. He will be tried on drug trafficking and terrorism charges, due to take place this summer. More from the BBC.

·         In the latest development in ongoing diplomatic dispute between Argentina and the UK over the Falkland Islands, two British cruise ships were denied entry into the port city of Ushuaia yesterday in keeping with a provincial law banning “British vessels, ships partly owned by British companies and ships flying flags from British territories” from entering.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Haiti Loses Prime Minister, in Blow for Post-Quake Reconstruction

Haiti’s prime minister,  Garry Conille, resigned his post, in what appears to be another heavy blow for the country’s efforts to rebuild itself after a devastating earthquake two years ago.

According to the New York Times, Conille “said he knew his job was finished when he called cabinet ministers to a meeting a day earlier: None showed up.”

The Wall Street Journal described his departure as a “paralyzing blow” for the country’s reconstruction. The delay in appointing a prime minister when President Michel Martelly came to power was a major reason behind delays in reconstruction work. His first two choices for the position were struck down by parliament, meaning that there was effectively no government for the first five months of his term.

The Associated Press reports that the resignation could cause foreign donors to lose faith in the current government:
observers fear  [it] will prompt international donors to withhold aid pledges and prevent action on the contracts.
Despite large donations from foreign governments and individuals, aid efforts have been very slow and the subject of much criticism.

Conille’s departure was reportedly the result of clashes between him and President Martelly. According to the BBC, the UN has intervened in power struggles between the two men in recent weeks.

The AP said that there were two people in the running to take over,  Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Lamothe and Ann-Valerie Milfort, interim head of the now-defunct Interim Haiti Recovery Commission.

News Briefs 
  • Colombia’s FARC rebel group have announced that they will stop kidnapping civilians, and would free the 10 remaining soldiers and police who are being held, some of them for as long as 10 years. President Juan Manuel Santos said the move was "an important and necessary step, though not far enough, in the right direction." However, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the rebel group said it reserved the right to take “prisoners of war,” and did not make any mention of freeing civilian hostages. An unknown number of people are thought to be being held by the FARC, with some estimates putting the number in the thousands. The statement, published on the site of FARC-linked website Anncol, suggests that the group could be coming closer to opening talks with the government. Santos has said that the group must release all hostages and end the practice of kidnapping before negotiations can begin.
  • With President Hugo Chavez’s position looking increasingly precarious, Venezuela’s allies are beginning to make plans for a time when his oil-financed handouts could come to an end, reports El Nuevo Herald. The leftist leaderannounced last week that he was going to be operated on again for a growth in his pelvic that was probably cancerous, suggesting that the rumors that his cancer was more serious than he claimed may have some truth to them. The news comes at a very sensitive time for Venezuela’s politics, with the presidential election approaching in October. The opposition coalition MUD recently held a primary election to choose a single candidate to stand against Chavez, and chose Henrique Capriles with a higher-than-expected turnout. Capriles, who appears to stand a better chance than anyone else in recent years of unseating Chavez, is expected to roll back current aid levels to countries like Cuba and Nicaragua. Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter told the newspaper that Cuba’s free-market reforms were part of an effort to mitigate any future drop in Venezuela’s help to the island.
  • Mary Anastasia O’Grady has a piece in the WSJ on Guatemalan President Otto Perez’s proposal to discuss the liberalization of drug laws. She notes that “the rhetoric we are hearing against the drug war is not coming from anti-American, left-wing demagogues trying to promote populist, nationalist ideals by stirring up the mob. Today's most vocal proponents of a change in regional drug policy are center-right governments.”
  • Statistics from the Mexican government show that drug violence has “affected” just over half of the country’s municipalities. This is another demonstration of how localized the violence is, with some areas exceedingly violent and others peaceful, meaning that the country overall has a fairly low murder rate, at less than a third of that in El Salvador. In Monterrey, for example, there werereportedly 1,600 deaths in 2011 due to the dispute for control between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.
  • A bus carrying a group of 22 cruise passengers was stopped by a group of armed, hooded men, and its pasengers robbed in the Pacific state of Jalisco, in a blow for the government’s efforts to advertise the country as a safe tourist destination.
  • Security think tank Stratfor has seemingly faced another attack from hackers, with WikiLeaks publishing what they say is a set of confidential emails between members of the organization. One interesting exchange relates to Chavez’s health, saying that sources had said his cancer had spread to the lymph nodes.
  • The New York Times profiles the work of an activist in Honduras whose son was murdered, allegedly by police. “Her biting criticisms have become as much a staple of daily newspapers as the crossword puzzle. She has called the police force a monster and said it would be the fault of the police chief if she were assassinated,” according to the report.
  • Ecuador is set to hold presidential elections in February 2013, having been put back a month to allow reforms to the electoral laws to take effect. Reuters reports that President Rafael Correa is the favorite to win, though he has not declared yet whether he will seek re-election.
  • Brazil has said that it will provide more funds to help ease the Eurozone debt crisis, but that this should be accompanied by more power for emerging nations in the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
  • The NYT has a piece by Paul Theroux on crossing the Mexico-US border at Nogales, in Arizona, accompanied by a wonderful photo essay.

Friday, February 24, 2012

US Judge: El Salvador's Ex-Defense Minister Can Be Deported

A Florida immigration judge has ruled that there are sufficient grounds to begin deportation proceedings against General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, a defense minister of El Salvador during the country’s bloody civil war. Although the ruling was not published, lawyers familiar with the case told the New York Times that Vides took part in the abduction, rape and murder of four American churchwomen when he was leader of the National Guard in 1980.

This is not only the first time that Vides has been held accountable for these crimes in a court of law, but also the first time that United States immigration prosecutors have held that a top foreign military commander can be deported because of human rights violations. Although the Department of Homeland Security’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit  has deported over 400 human rights abusers since its creation in 2003, Vides is the highest ranking military official to ever face deportation.

These prosecutions are the result of provisions in the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA), which are intended to human rights violators from entering or residing in the US. As the Center for Justice and Accountability’s Carolyn Patty Blum told the Times, the case against Vides is “highly significant,” as it is “the first case where the Department of Homeland Security has taken this relatively new law and applied it to the highest military commander of their country to seek their removal.”

But while the ruling is important to the future of human rights organizations seeking to deport high-level officials, there is still no guarantee that Vildes will have to leave the country any time soon. As Reuters notes, deportation proceedings could take several more months if he decides to appeal.

News Briefs

·         After last Sunday’s deadly prison riot in Monterrey, the Mexican government has announced that it will build eight new federal prisons this year in an effort to ease overcrowding in the country’s prison system. Considering that pre-trial detention is one of the main causes of the overcrowding, however, this measure is only likely to be a temporary fix.

·         The Houston Chronicle takes a look at how the prison riot has affected the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) politically.

·         The BBC highlights the state of American undocumented immigrants living and working in Mexico. Not surprisingly, these “illegals” face a far easier time in Mexico than their Mexican and Central American counterparts do in the US.

·         As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez leaves for Cuba today to seek medical treatment for a growth which is probably malignant, the Associated Press questions whether he is risking his life by not seeking treatment in the US, Europe or (more realistically) Brazil, which allegedly have better quality cancer care facilities. Chavez himself showed no such doubt during a live broadcast on state television yesterday, during which he pounded the table in front of him and roared “I will live! I will live!

·         Senator Jim Leahy (D-VT) has told the AP that he met with Cuban President Raul Castro yesterday in a visit to the island yesterday, and also spoke with imprisoned US contractor Alan Gross. Although Leay said that efforts to free Gross “still have a long way to go,” he claimed that the meeting with Castro was cordial. The Cuban leader mentioned the case of five Cuban intelligence agents imprisoned in the US, although he did not explicitly suggest swapping Gross for them.

·         In the latest controversy in Ecuador President Rafael Correa’s $42 million libel case against El Universo, The Miami Herald reports that a judge who reviewed the case has fled the country and is claiming that government lawyers tried to bribe her. According to Judge Monica Encalada, lawyers tied to the Correa administration promised her “$3,000 a month and steady work if she would rule against the newspaper.”

·         After a train crash in Argentina killed 50 and injured more than 700 on Wednesday, the country’s auditor general has blamed the disaster on corruption and a cozy relationship between government regulators and the railway company involved. The Wall Street Journal reports that both allies and opponents of the Fernandez administration alike are calling on the president to revoke the company’s operating license.

·         This week’s issue of The Economist accuses the Argentine government of having doctored its inflation figures since 2007.  As a result, the London-based magazine announced it is removing the government’s statistics from its economic indicators page.

·         In the wake of the recent capture of Shining Path leader “Comrade Artemio,” the Peruvian government is stepping up its operations in the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE) region, a stronghold of the other branch of the guerrilla group.

·         Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega has warned that, due to a forecasted slowdown in economic growth worldwide, the global "currency war" to keep countries’ exchange rates competitive is likely to intensify, the Wall Street Journal reports. However, Mantega assured Brazilians that the country is “well prepared” and has "a large arsenal of instruments" at its disposal prevent depreciation of the country’s currency.

·         The Americas Quarterly blog profiles an interesting study by Edward Telles and Liza Steel on the intersection of race and social class in the region. According to the study, “the most pronounced pigmentocracies are Guatemala and Bolivia, which seem to reflect the low status of their especially large Indigenous populations.” Interestingly, the researchers found that darker skin color had little to no influence on educational attainment in Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica. The full study, entitled “Pigmentocracy in the Americas: How is Educational Attainment Related to Skin Color?” can be accesed via the Latin American Public Opinion Project’s website.                                                                                                                                               

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Chavez's Health Puts Venezuela's Political Future on the Line

As more details emerge about the state of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s health, the political future of the country grows more uncertain. In a call to evening talk show Dando y Dando on Tuesday which did not make it into the first round of international coverage yesterday, Chavez revealed that there is a “high probability” that the growth in his pelvic region is cancerous. Although the president insists that his doctors remain “optimistic” about his prognosis, this suggests that his cancer could be resistant to treatment.

Chavez also admitted that he is “not going to be able to continue with the same rhythm,” and said that he would have to “rethink my personal agenda and take care of myself, confront what must be confronted.”

Because of this, the Associate Press suggests that it is increasingly likely that Chavez will have to name a successor, something that he has avoided doing during his 13 years in power. As the Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter told the AP, “a fierce power struggle and jockeying for position” is all but unavoidable in Chavez’s ruling Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

So far, government officials have denied this. Vice President Elías Jaua told state TV yesterday that there will be no need for him to assume Chavez’s responsibilities during the upcoming surgery, and denied any kind of internal succession conflict in the government.

Still, if Chavez’s health should deteriorate further, he will not be easily replaced, and it would not bode well for the future of the PSUV in next October’s presidential election. As Reuters, quoting risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group, notes: "Chavez will be reluctant to cede power, and if Chavez were to step aside temporarily and anoint a successor to run in his place, it would send a very negative signal about his health prognosis and, more importantly, his power.”

News Briefs

·         The Venezuelan opposition Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) has followed the lead of its presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski in wishing Chavez a “swift recovery and long life.” Still, the opposition criticized the president for the secrecy surrounding his health, faulting him for not releasing “precise, clear and medically reliable” information about his condition.

·         Girish Gupta writes for the Global Post about Capriles’ chances in the upcoming October 7th election, noting that his center-left views could put him at risk of not being able to effectively distinguish himself from Chavez in voters’ minds.

·         The BBC looks at Mexico’s efforts to “rebrand” itself. In order to draw in more tourism and foreign investment, the Calderon administration has hired British policy advisor Simon Anholt to revamp the country’s public image.

·         After a woman pushing a baby stroller in El Paso, Texas was wounded by an assault rifle bullet fired from across the border in Ciudad Juarez on Tuesday, resulting in a veritable media frenzy, El Paso’s reaction suggests media accounts of the “first cross-border shooting victim” were overblown. Residents and authorities alike have largely shrugged off the incident, saying they’re “accustomed to hearing gunfire across the border in Juarez” and don’t intend to take any additional safety measures, according to the AP.

·         A report authored by members of an 80-member European Union observer team to Nicaragua’s elections last November alleges a lack of transparency in the proceedings, and calls on the Nicaraguan government to reform its electoral process.

·         After Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes voiced measured support for Guatemalan President Otto Perez’s calls to legalize drugs last week, and called for a national dialogue over the issue, El Faro reports that members of both of the country’s main parties (the FMLN and ARENA) have largely rejected any kind of debate over drug decriminalization in El Salvador. Meanwhile, Perez is continuing his efforts to spark debate over the issue throughout Central America. Prensa Libre reports that next Monday his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, will begin a tour of the region to call for dialogue over drug policy and “alternative methods of combatting counternarcotics and organized crime.”  Yesterday Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa announced that Mexico would be willing to join in an international discussion over drug legalization, although she cautioned that it would not solve the problem of drug trafficking in the hemisphere.

·         The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas blog profiles efforts by supporters of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to counter criticism of his recent assault on local media outlets. A group of self-styled “Correistas” have launched a campaign to gather support for a petition calling on the global press to cease its allegedly biased reporting against the president. The campaign has the support of government officials like Secretary for Public Administration Vinicio Alvarado, who has warned that elements of the press are seeking to “damage Ecuador’s international image.”

·         The main border crossing between Chile and Peru is open once again after officials in Chile closed it on Monday because rains had washed more than 100 landmines into the main highway connecting the two countries.

·         Seventeen Argentine intellectuals have come under heavy fire from both the Argentine public and government for questioning their country’s claims over the Falkland Islands, The Guardian reports. In a paper entitled “Malvinas: An Alternative Viewpoint,” the group of important thinkers, journalists and writers rejected Argentina’s portrayal of the UK as usurpers who have illegally controlled island since 1833.

·         Mercopress highlights a report by Mexico’s Economic Research and Teaching Centre (CIDE) which analyzes the salaries of lawmakers throughout Latin America. According to the CIDE’s data, Brazil and Uruguay have the most expensive legislative branch per capita in the region.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Speculation Abounds After Chavez's Cancer Reappears

While visiting a truck factory in his home state, President Hugo Chavez said that he will undergo surgery again, as doctors have found a new legion in his pelvic area (see video here). “I am in good physical condition to meet this battle,” he stated. He added that the lesion is “two centimeters in diameter.” According to Communications Minister Andres Izarra, Chavez chose to make the announcement at the end of Venezuela’s Carnaval time, so as to not overshadow the festivities. Chavez later said that the operation will likely take place in Cuba in the next few days.

Over the weekend, some Venezuelan journalists swapped rumors on Twitter that Chavez had traveled to Cuba for his third operation. Broadcast and radio journalist Nelson Bocaranda was one of the first to do so (he was also the first journalist to break the news last year that Chavez was in Cuba undergoing surgery). Communications Minister Izarra went on to say that asides from the fact that Chavez did travel to Cuba for a check-up, these rumors were untrue. “The President has decided which information to share, there are some things he has kept back. There is a debate over whether public figures have a right or not to privacy and I believe they do have one,” he said, according to El Universal.

It is a debate that will likely intensify in the coming weeks as Venezuela’s campaign season rolls on. Foreign Policy analyzes what the announcement means for Venezuela’s opposition, with a blunt headline that questions, “how do you campaign against a cancer victim?” The article notes that opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles has mostly avoided the topic up until now. However:

“Behind closed doors, his advisors are concerned. The uncertainty prevents consensus on strategy. They fear that if they make cancer an issue, Chávez will use his storied communication skills to play the sympathy card and eke out a win -- either for himself or a designated successor. They are also wary of the disease forcing Capriles off his well-rehearsed message of reconciliation and progress in a post-Chávez Venezuela.”

Other media speculated about what this latest announcement implies about Chavez’s health and his ability to campaign and govern. The Miami Herald notes that without more details, it is difficult for doctors to speculate about the seriousness of Chavez’s condition. But the return of another tumor does signal that the cancer is aggressive and resistant to treatment, the newspaper reports. “All of these political things aside, he is someone who is fighting for his life," a professor of oncology told the Wall Street Journal. The Associated Press had similarly grim predictions, noting that despite Chavez’s resistance and pleas for privacy, the curability of his cancer is again a major factor in the race.

News Briefs

  • The New York Times with a blog post critiquing a high-speed rail project in Venezuela’s western plains, funded by the Chinese government. The train connects some of Venezuela’s most rural and sparsely populated towns, “a train from nowhere to nowhere,” the Times quips. The newspaper argues that even if the rail is a symbolic investment in Venezuela’s impoverished interior, the $200 million project is an ineffective way to meet the needs of the struggling farmers that the rail line is supposed to serve.
  • Blog Caracas Chronicles with an interesting although brief look at the Brazilian campaign operative currently working for Chavez presidential campaign, a man who has coordinated victories for Brazil’s Lula and Dilma Rousseff, and who was also involved in the successful campaigns of El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes and Peru’s Ollanta Humala.
  • Reuters reports that a woman pushing a baby stroller in downtown El Paso, Texas, was “struck by an assault rifle bullet fired from across the border” in Ciudad Juarez. According to Reuters, the bullet was apparently fired during a gunfight in Juarez, as police tried to stop an attempted carjacking.
  • The judge overseeing the case of Guatemala military dictator Efrain Rios Montt has stepped down due to a complaint filed by the defense, the AP reports. The move follows a request by Montt that the case against him be dropped. The military strongman is standing trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
  • The LA Times with a brief note on Colombia’s decision to withdraw a plan which would expand the power of military courts when trying alleged human rights abuses. The decision was criticized by former President Alvaro Uribe via Twitter, says Colombia Reports.
  • Inmates in the Apodaca prison, where alleged Zetas members killed at least 44 members of the Gulf Cartel earlier this week, attempted to start a fire inside the penitentiary, Reuters reports. The fire was apparently in response to the announcement that three inmates, all members of the Zetas according to Excelsior, would be moved to a new location.
  • Jamaica’s top security official said that gang feuds are behind the island’s rising violence rates, a conclusion supported by a recent report by the United Nation Development Program. Jamaica registered 1,125 homicides in 2011, a drop from 2010 but still significant enough to rank as the world’s third highest homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants.
  • Colombian think-tank Indepaz released a study profiling the actions and presence of criminals bands, or BACRIMS, across the country. Indepaz measures BACRIM presence in 406 municipalities in 31 departments, a slight increase from the group’s 2010 study. The report follows another study released February 8 by think-tank the Nuevo Arco Iris Corporation, which stated that the BACRIMS are currently active in 209 of Colombia's 1,103 municipalities, in much of the same area once controlled by paramilitary group the AUC.
  • The Miami Herald reports on increased surveillance measures in Argentina, intended to fight terrorism but raising concerns from civil liberties groups. The measures include a new central government database which will keep fingerprints and facial scans on file.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

'Plan Colombia' Advisor to Uribe Called to Testify Over Alleged Paramilitary Links

In the latest development in Colombia’s ongoing parapolitics scandal, a top official who helped implement the US security aid package known as “Plan Colombia” has been called for questioning over allegations that she had ties members of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).  El Espectador reports that Sandra Suarez is scheduled to provide voluntary testimony to the Colombian attorney general’s office tomorrow, where she will be questioned about possible links to AUC commander Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge-40.” Suarez was first appointed by President Alvaro Uribe in 2002 as the president’s top advisor on Plan Colombia.

In October 2007, imprisoned DAS agent Rafael Garcia told officials that Suarez conspired with Jorge 40 and three former governors to expand the influence of the paramilitary group along the Caribbean coast in 2006, when Suarez was serving as the minister of environment and development in the Uribe administration. Soon after these allegations were made, Suarez resigned from her position as Uribe’s main envoy to Washington over the passage of the Colombian FTA, although she insisted that her resignation was due to the lack of political will to pass the FTA at the time.

Suarez is the latest in a series of top officials in the Uribe administration who have been accused of paramilitary links. Last month AUC commander Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna” testified that he met directly with Uribe aides to set up clandestine monitoring of members of the Colombian Supreme Court. However, Suarez’s case is especially worrisome given her proximity to Washington as both trade envoy and Plan Colombia advisor. If prosecutors decide to pursue a case against her, it could be very difficult for American officials to continue to maintain that they had no knowledge of abuses of power and illegal acts committed by the Colombian government under Uribe.

News Briefs

·         The LA Times reports on the Colombian government’s decision to abandon a proposal that would expand the role of military courts in trying military abuse cases. Instead, the government plans to ask Congress to pass a bill stating that that human-rights abuses including torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and rapes are not are not under military jurisdiction.

·         Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has called for a bilateral ceasefire with the Colombian government, and expressed a willingness to accompany it with peace talks. However, as Semana notes, the proposal is not likely to move forward unless the rebels release all of their hostages.

·         More details have emerged about Sunday’s deadly prison riot in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Apparently the “riot” was in fact a massacre of Gulf Cartel members committed by inmates affiliated with the Zetas. Reuters cites Nuevo Leon Governor Rodrigo Medina as saying that all 44 victims who were clubbed and stabbed to death in the incident belonged to the Gulf cartel, and the 30 or so perpetrators were Zetas. After the incident, the attackers fled the prison facility with the help of the guards. The prison’s director, his top aides, and 18 guards have all been fired and are under criminal investigation. The Associated Press uses the incident to highlight the entrenched state of corruption in Mexican state prisons, which are ill-equipped to deal with a wave of high-level criminal arrests resulting from the current security strategy.

·         The sister of Mexican President Felipe Calderon was hit with corruption allegations yesterday, after a recording leaked to Mexican press which reportedly capture her planning to buy votes ahead of her unsuccessful bid for governor in the state of Michoacan in 2011. In response to the recordings, members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) filed an official complaint against her.

·         The US and Mexico have signed an agreement which, if ratified by lawmakers in both countries, will set forth common safety protocols for oil and gas development along their maritime border in the Gulf of Mexico. The New York Times notes that a similar agreement was negotiated in the 1970s, but that the US Senate refused to ratify it in 1980.

·         Frustrated with authorities’ slow pace in identifying the bodies, a large crowd of relatives of the victims of last week’s deadly Honduran prison fire forced their way into a Tegucigalpa morgue yesterday to claim the remains of their loved ones, according to the AP.  BBC reports that the crowd (most of whom were women) broke into a refrigerated container and tore open several body bags before authorities drove them away.

·         Nicaragua Dispatch has an interesting interview with Kevin Whitaker, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. According to Whitaker, “Nicaragua today looks in some respects like the past. It’s the movement towards (a government model) where civil societies’ contributions are not valued and the only civil society contributions that are made come from groups belonging to the ruling party.”

·         The Economist’s Game Theory blog looks at recent measures taken by the Argentine government to crack down on corruption in the national football association.

·         Border officials in Chile have been forced to close the country’s main border crossing into Peru after a torrential downpour washed several anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines onto the main road. The mines are left over from a period of tension between the countries in the 1970s.

·         With the Carnaval celebrations in full swing in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, The LA Times’ Vincent Bevins reports on the less commercialized but more historically grounded Carnaval of Pernambuco, a poor state in northeastern of Brazil.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mexico Prison Riot Staged As a Cover for Jail Break?

A prison fight between rival criminal organizations the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas may have been intended to distract authorities while other inmates escaped, officials said Monday. At least 44 people were killed during the Sunday riot, in which prisoners used stones, clubs, and other sharp objects as weapons, reports the New York Times. El Universal described it as the worst massacre in the history of Mexican prison fights. EFE calls it the most serious prison tragedy in the past five years. The Apodaca penitenciary is found just outside Monterrey in Nuevo Leon state, one of the most violent in Mexico due to the ongoing Zetas-Gulf feud.

Nuevo Leon security spokesman Domene Zambrano said that after conducting a review of the prison population, there appeared to be "absences." This lent credence to the theory that the gang fight may have actually been intended to allow some inmates to escape, he said. However, it would be “premature” to say how many prisoners were missing, and whether they belonged to either the Gulf Cartel or the Zetas, he added.

17 prison officials, including the director of security, are being questioned about the gang fight, according to Milenio. It is unclear which gang provoked the confrontation, but it appears that prison guards would have had to allow the instigators to cross over to another section of the prison, in order to fight their rivals.

The Wall Street Journal notes that the Apodaca prison -- which houses 2,700 inmates, although it is built to house just 1,700 -- again calls attention to the endemic problems facing Latin America’s prison population: overcrowding, corrupt staff, and inhumane living conditions. The Apodaca riot followed another deadly prison fight registered last January in Tamaulipas, in which at least 31 inmates died. And, with the recent death of the 359th victim of the deadly prison fire in Honduras, the Apodaca disaster proves again that violent, inhuman prison conditions is a regionwide problem.

News Briefs

  • The New York Times on Venezuela’s classical music program, designed to train children from some of its poorest barrios. The program, known as El Sistema, is one of the most popular in Venezuela, and has sparked accusations from some prominent Venezuelan classical musicians that President Hugo Chavez is using the training program for political ends.
  • Both the LA Times and NPR have profiles of Josefina Vazquez Mota, the first female presidential candidate for a major political party in Mexico. The LA Times notes that rather than casting herself as a champion of progressive women’s causes, Vazquez Mota appears to be highlighting her “everywoman” background, which includes emphasizing her conservative Catholicism and opposition to abortion.
  • Mercopress reports that Argentina is now using “satellite imagery” in order to determine whether foreign vessels are conducting exploration activities with permission in Argentine waters near the Falkland Islands.
  • Gatopardo has a long journalism piece asking “what would Arizona do without Mexicans?”
  • An opinion piece in the Washington Post argues that the US should provide Cuba with the resources it needs in order to better allow both countries to respond to and prevent an oil spill disaster. Spanish oil company Repsol recently started deep sea drilling in Cuban waters, where an oil spill could affect Florida and the southeast US coast.
  • La Prensa Libre reports that former Guatemala military strongman Efrain Rios Mott has requested that the case against him be closed. A judge has ordered that the former dictator stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.