Friday, March 30, 2012

Mexico Should Attack 'Most Violent' Cartel: Report

Mexico may make serious headway in its fight against organized crime by designating one criminal group as the “most violent,” and then focusing most of the government’s resources against them, according to a new report by the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Doing so may create more incentives among Mexico’s criminal groups to reduce violence, in order to avoid being designated as the “most violent” threat to public society, the report argues. If Mexico is able to focus its law enforcement efforts (with US support) against the “most violent” group, this could also weaken the designated group’s economic power, if those involved in the group’s criminal network seek to distance themselves.

The report’s argument appears to support Mexico’s designation of the Zetas as their top security priority, as the Zetas are frequently described as Mexico’s most aggressive criminal organization. But as the Mexico Institute points out, this approach also brings several key risks. The first is that the government would have to use some solid criteria for determining which group is truly the “most violent.” Especially considering that many of Mexico’s murders go unsolved, attributing a given amount of violence to a single group brings its difficulties. The report states that the “most violent” designation should be “clear, publicly announced, and transparent,” but it is unclear whether the government can make a strong enough case for singling one group out above the others. In Acapulco alone, there may be as many as 14 different groups fighting for control of the drug market, the report notes, “making it hard to assign blame for the violence to any specific group.”

The other risks of this approach is that it would justify criticism that Mexico is pursuing one group while “favoring” others. This carries echoes of the accusations that President Felipe Calderon’s administration took a “soft” approach to the Sinaloa Cartel, something which the government strongly denies. And considering that Mexico’s underworld is already so fractured, it is unclear whether focusing law enforcement efforts against one group would be enough to disrupt the market.

Nevertheless, the report argues, Mexico still has a fairly limited capacity to confront its organized crime problem. From a practical standpoint, it might be in the government’s best interest to prioritize one group above the rest, although the risks of such an approach may outweigh the potential gains.

News Briefs

  • During his first trip to Latin America,Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey spoke of the possibility that drug smuggling networks in Latin America could one day possibly be used to smuggle a terrorist’s bomb into the US, reports the AP. Dempsey also commented that the strategy used to defeat drug cartels could be similar to the US approach to dismantling the al-Qaida network. Dempsey made the comments in Brazil, his final stop in a four-day visit which also took him to Colombia and Venezuela. The Wall Street Journal reports that Dempsey told Colombian officials he wants to “expand” the Pentagon’s advisory role to the Colombian conflict, but that this will not include selling sensitive military technology like drones to the Colombian military.
  • The Economist calls Mexican presidential frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto “the man to beat,” currently leading the race by about 15 percentage points. The magazine judges that his rivals have little possibility of catching up -- PAN candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota may not be able to shake off “the PRI-style scandals that have contaminated the PAN.” Andrés Manuel López Obrador, candidate for left-wing party the PRD, may have substantial rural support that is not being accounted in the polls, but the magazine still describes his campaign as “languishing.”
  • A community leader in Honduras told the AP that four farmers and at least another 11 people were wounded in an ambush conducted by unidentified gunmen on Thursday. The ambush took place in Bajo Aguan, one of the areas most affected by disputes over land ownership, “particularly concerning thousands of acres of privately held oil palm plantations.” The AP notes that “the attack came three days after five soldiers were wounded in a confrontation with 30 armed attackers in the same area of the Aguan River Valley.” Elsewhere, 13 people died during a reported prison riot and fire in San Pedro Sula. Honduras Culture and Politics notes that Honduran media coverage avoids discussion of the policy of overcrowded prisons, which leads to such tragedies.
  • Time magazine with one photo essay on the role of religion in Cuba (and on the lighter side, another one about a traditional Mexican fashion trend). For more coverage of the aftermath of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba, Foreign Policy has a sharp critique, observing, “the Pope's trip is a profound disappointment to many who were hoping for a stronger signal that the cries of the Cuban people were being heard for a better future over their dysfunctional and spiritless existence under the Castro regime.”
  • The Latin American Herald Tribune reports that Cuba’ farmland redistribution process, a reform first approved in 2008, is suffering serious delays. Under the process, more farmland is supposed to be granted to individual property owners (in handouts no larger than 13 hectares), in order to make more productive use of arable land. But while some 1.4 million hectares have already been handed out, many of the new property holders have little experience in agriculture, and the government has no “follow-up” process to ensure that the land is being worked efficiently.
  • Thursday was the 27th anniversary of the killing of two Chilean students by police while protesting the Pinochet regime; in recognition, Chilean youths typically hold a day of staged violence, reports the AP. Hundreds of protesters in Santiago clashed with police, even though some activists now say that the annual violence associated with “the day of the young combatant” drains the legitimacy of other social movements asking for change. Brazil saw another annual protest Thursday, in recognition of the anniversary of the 1964 military coup. The AP notes that in order to mark the occasion, former military officers usually gather in a Rio de Janeiro military club, “extoll[ing] the growth of Brazil during the military years,” and they are frequently joined by hundreds of protestors outside.
  • Univision reports that Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu may be in Colombia next week to oversee the FARC’s promised release of 10 kidnap hostages. Menchu made the announcement on her Twitter account, but the Colombian Defense Ministry has said that no foreigners -- other than Brazil, who will provide logistics -- will be involved in the process.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pope's Cuba Criticism is Quieter Than Many Had Hoped

Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up his visit to Cuba yesterday after presiding over a morning mass in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, followed by a meeting with former leader Fidel Castro. During their half-hour long encounter, the two men allegedly joked about their old age, and Fidel probed the pope about his day-to-day responsibilities.

Although hopes were high that Pope Benedict would openly condemn the Cuban government’s human rights failures during his visit to the island, His Holiness offered little in the way of direct criticism of the regime, instead adopting a more measured tone in his political remarks.  While he appealed to Cuba to loosen restrictions on religion and called for respect for “basic freedoms,” he did so in veiled language, taking care not to overtly attack the government. 

The New York Times characterizes this as “walk[ing] the tightrope that spans the old and new Cuba,” with Pope Benedict pushing for more reform while also portraying the Church as on the side of the Cuban people. Specifically, the pope urged the Castro government to allow the Church to establish its own schools and broadcast outlets, and called for Good Friday to be declared a national holiday, much like Christmas was made a holiday after the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998.

At the same time, the pope scored points with the government by denouncing the 50-year-old US economic embargo, saying it “unfairly burdens” the Cuban people. He also refused to meet with opposition activists during his visit, and made no mention of imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross despite the US State Department’s request that he do so.

Ultimately, this pope’s visit proved to be less groundbreaking than the historical visit of his predecessor, an event which is credited for inciting significant changes to laws on religious expression in Cuba.  Still, as the Havana Note points out, Benedict’s visit “was more about consolidating spaces the Cuban Catholic Church has won in society and about gaining more such space.” Those who had hopes that Pope Benedict would fully embrace the opposition movement on the island may have been asking too much of him.

News Briefs

·         El Universal reports that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has returned home after a five-day-long radiation therapy session in Cuba, which he says went well. He will again travel to Havana on Saturday for another round of treatment, and will apparently need three more rounds after that. In an interview with Voice of America, Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter argues that Chavez will be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming election in October, despite his illness. Meanwhile, a public opinion survey conducted by Consultores 21pits opposition candidate Henrique Capriles against potential replacements for Chavez. According to the poll, if Chavez’s health should fail to the point where his party is forced to choose another candidate, the presidency would almost certainly go to the opposition.

·         Ex-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has announced that his throat cancer is in “complete remission,” and he now intends to return to politics. In a video posted to his foundation’s website yesterday, Lula said he wants to take up politics again because “Brazil needs to continue to grow, develop, generate jobs, improve the lives of millions and millions of Brazilians who managed to enter the middle class... as well as those who dream of joining the middle class."

·         El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes yesterday denied reports that his government had negotiated the apparent peace agreement between rival street gangs MS-13 and M-18, saying the truce had been brokered by the Church and civil society groups. However, El Diario de Hoy notes that Funes confirmed rumors that the government transferred 30 imprisoned gang leaders to lower-security facilities around the same time that news of the agreement surfaced, which casts doubt on his story.

·         Although the next general election is more than two years away, La Razon reports that Bolivian President Evo Morales’ ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has officially endorsed him as their candidate in the December 2014 elections. AP points out that his eligibility for re-election is contested, as it is unclear whether the term limits set forth in the country’s new constitution apply to his term in office prior to the 2009 constitutional referendum.

·         The Mexican senate has approved a constitutional amendment which allows people to celebrate religious events in public, according to El Universal. AP notes that restrictions on religious observance in public have roots in strict anti-clerical laws which drove Catholics to rebel against the government in the late 1920s.

·         Non-involved parties will not be permitted to take part in the hostage turnover slated by Colombia’s FARC rebels for next week, reports El Colombiano. Although Colombianas y Colombianos por la Paz (an NGO which has helped negotiate the release) had wanted to invite international delegates such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin rejected this, saying the incident shouldn’t be made into a “media circus.”

·         The Associated Press reports on the brutal murder of a gay man in Chile, allegedly committed by a neo-Nazi gang. The case has prompted President Sebastian Pinera to press the lower house of congress to pass an anti-discrimination law, which evangelical groups see as a step towards accepting gay marriage.

·         After serving in office for less than a year, Puerto Rican police chief Emilio Diaz Colon has stepped down, according to the AP. InSight Crime notes that the territory has seen a major spike in homicides and drug trafficking in recent years, and its police force has been dogged by rampant corruption.

·         An investigation into the crimes committed during Argentina’s “Dirty War” has revealed an entire warehouse filled with rusty Ford Falcon cars, a model which was rumored to be favored by government death squads. The warehouse belonged to the Argentine navy, and raises questions of an attempted cover-up. Reuters claims they will be searched for traces of blood and hair.

·         The BBC profiles Argentina’s “dissenters,” the minority who believe that their government’s claims to the Falkland Islands are invalid. Because of the politically charged nature of the issue, these individuals are often intimidated into silence.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

US Promises More Security Aid to Placate Central America

Top State Department drug official William Brownfield is on a tour of Honduras and Guatemala for talks on new schemes to cut insecurity and fight crime.

The assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement arrived in Honduras on Sunday, and presided over various aid handovers, including signing an agreement to give $2.2 million to anti-gang programs, and the donation of 30 police motorbikes. He oversaw the launch of a police Model Precinct Program in Tegucigalpa, aimed at training officers and implementing community policing practices, and a Model Prison Program, designed to raise standards in Tamara prison outside the capital.

Yesterday, he flew to Guatemala, where he visited Model Precinct schemes that have already been implemented there. In a joint press conference with President Otto Perez he repeated the US’s rejection of drug legalization, with Perez has suggested as an option for the region, but said the US was “ready, willing, and able” to have a discussion on the subject.

He promised more help for the country’s struggle with drug trafficking, saying the annual aid package would go up from $120 million to $140 million. This is set to include the extension of a program to help build up the country’s air force, including the donation of six helicopters. He also pledged help for anti-gang programs and prison reform.

Meanwhile, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Maria Otero arrived in El Salvador Monday, and travels to Belize today. The State Department said her visit would focus on issues of citizen security and community policing.

Brownfield announced the trip two weeks ago, saying that he would focus on delivering concrete and solid initiatives to the governments of Central America, with US-backed schemes to train police officers, border guards, and prison guards. Referring to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the region's countries worst hit by crime and violence, he said “The three governments have all the right in the world to tell the international community that the time for talks has passed, the time for action is here.”

InSight Crime comments that Brownfield’s efforts to bring “concrete” anti-crime programs to Central America may be “a response to recent moves by Guatemalan President Otto Perez to bring the issue of drug legalization to the table.” In his comments announcing the visit, the official called on the region’s leaders to be patient, saying that it could take five years to get out of the current “crisis.”

Some analysts have said that Perez’s agitation for debate on drug liberalization might be, in part, a ploy to demonstrate his frustration with the current situation, and push the US to give more aid. If so, it has seemingly borne fruit. Central American Politics comments, however, that it’s not clear whether Perez’s actions were decisive in bringing the promises of more aid:
there's a good chance that Perez would have been able to get this type of assistance just by asking. If this was his ultimate goal, there was no need to threaten decriminalization.

News Briefs
  • A Cuban minister has issued a rebuff to the visiting Pope’s calls for “a more open society,” telling press “We are updating our economic model, but we are not talking about political reform,” reports the NYT. The Pope is set to end his trip with a meeting with Fidel Castro on Wednesday, says the AP. He met with Raul Castro for 40 minutes on Tuesday, and asked him that Good Friday be declared a public holiday in Cuba, reports EFE. The religious leader flies back to Rome later today.
    Meanwhile the AP reports on questions over the fate of a man who was removed from the Pope’s mass on Monday after shouting anti-government slogans -- Cuban dissident groups say they don’t know who he is, and are worried that he might be facing punishment.  
  • A group of armed gunmen attacked an army convoy in the Bajo Aguan region on Honduras’ Atlantic coast, wounding four, according to officials. The region is the site of a long-running land conflict, and the AP reports that an army general said the assailants could be farmers who received military training from Venezuelan and Nicaraguan instructors. Farmers’ groups have denied this, and President Porfirio Lobo later said the event had “nothing to do with the land conflict.” InSight Crime notes that local drug traffickers could be involved, and that the area is used by the Cachiros gang who transport drugs up to Guatemala for the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels.
  • The AP reports on a “rare” street demonstration against police violence in Jamaica, organized by NGO Jamaicans for Justice. Police in the country have killed around 50 people so far this year, 30 of them this month, according to the press agency. The government welcomed the protests, saying it was an “encouraging signal that the society is growing intolerant of the subculture of violence that has developed over a number of decades.” The police commissioner admitted police killings had risen, saying that officers were now using more high-powered weapons.
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rejected an updated US State Department travel warning which says violent crime is “pervasive” in the country, reports the AP. The warning quotes NGO the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (VVO) as saying that 2011 was the most violent year in Venezuela’s history, and notes that police officers have been involved in kidnappings. Chavez responded by asking “Where is there more public insecurity in the streets, in Venezuela or the the US, murders kidnappings, drug trafficking, assaults?”
  • Despite widespread public concern with insecurity in Venezuela, incumbent Chavez has a 13-point lead over rival Henrique Capriles for the October presidential vote, according to a new poll by Datanalysis. Reuters reports that voters are split 44 to 31 in the survey, to be published this week. This clashes with the results of a poll by Consultores 21 released last week, which put the two candidates neck-and-neck, with Chavez at 46 to Capriles 45. Reuters comments on the polarized and highly charged nature of the presidential race, noting that Chavez calls his rival "the candidate of the right" or "the loser candidate," while Capriles calls the president "the candidate of the Socialist Party." Caracas Chronicles comments that the two pollsters often diverge, saying that “large numbers of undecideds appears to be a feature of Datanalisis polls, but that Datanalisis and C21 tend to converge once election time nears.”
  • The second day of protests against a planned gas pipeline ended in violence in Sechura, northern Peru, reports the AP. Two young protesters died in clashes with police, while 17 civilians and 10 police were injured, reports RPP. The protesters blocked streets and burnt cars, forcing police to retreat. The strike has now been suspended, and representatives of the local community will meet will government ministers to discuss the situation. In February there were more than 200 ongoing social conflicts in the country, according to government figures, many of them driven by local populations objecting to large-scale projects to exploit natural resources.
  • Thousands of campesino protesters arrived in Guatemala City yesterday after marching 214 km from the province of Alta Verapaz. They are demanding land reform, cancellation of the province’s debts, and a halt to mining and hydroelectric projects. Many spent the night in the Plaza de la Constitucion, and their leaders have met with representatives of the government, which is considering the demands, reports Prensa Libre.
  • La Silla Vacia says that, although it may be tempting for Colombia’s leaders to follow the “Tony Blair route to peace,” referring to the ex-UK prime minister’s work to end the conflict in Northern Ireland, the conflicts are too different for this to be a useful model. It says that there is less cooperation between Colombia and Venezuela than between the UK and Ireland, while the FARC has far more fighters and lacks a political wing like the IRA’s Sinn Fein.
  • Reuters has a piece on the troublesome family of Peru’s President Ollanta Humala; “One of his brothers was recently shown on television smoking pot in prison. Another brother told the media that Humala's wife actually runs the country. And a third embarrassed him by negotiating gas deals with Russia without permission.” Humala’s father, meanwhile, “founded an ethnic nationalist group that seeks to reclaim the glory of Peru's Incan past in a country conquered by the Spanish.”
  • In the Dominican Republic, four people accused of belonging to hackers’ collective Anonymous have been ordered to spend three months in jail while their case is investigated, reports the AP
  • The Miami Herald reports on the Bogota Theater Festival, a biannual event which kicked off last week. When the festival was founded, in 1988, there were doubts about its viability due to the violence engulfing the country. One of the first performances was hit by a bomb placed by a right-wing group, says the reports, but now, along with improved security conditions, the festival is helping turn “this often cold and bleak capital city into a cultural Mecca.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pope's Visit to Cuba Raises Hopes of Reform

The Pope has arrived in Cuba after the first leg of his Latin America trip in Mexico, amid a weight of expectations of what his visit could mean politically for the country.

Pope Benedict XVI was greeted at the airport by President Raul Castro, who clasped his hands but did not kiss his ring, reports the New York Times.

There has been speculation that the Pope might criticize the Cuban regime -- last week he told reporters on the plane on his way to Mexico, “Today it is evident that Marxist ideology, in the way it was conceived, no longer corresponds to reality.”

The trip has raised comparisons to the last papal visit to the island, with the NYT commenting that the 1998 visit “yielded an era of greater religious expression.” On that trip, John Paul II famously said "May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."

In his first remarks in the island, Benedict XVI said that he carried in his heart the aspirations of all Cubans, including “prisoners and their families,” reports the Associated Press. The AP notes, however, that unlike on John Paul II’s trip, the current Pope did not specifically mention political prisoners. Dissidents were pressured not to attend the Monday mass, with one man removed when he began shouting anti-government slogans -- “Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!” -- and tried to enter the area reserved for foreign press, reports the Miami Herald.

The pontiff called on the country to “strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity.”

The Miami Herald said that the Pope’s words:
were subtle and appeared to take into account the liberalizing reforms that Raul Castro has enacted since taking over from his older brother in 2006.
Tens of thousands lined the roads as the “popemobile” drove from the airport, with thousands more gathering for his mass.

Today the Pope will pray at the Virgin of Charity icon in the town of El Cobre, before flying to Havana to meet with Raul Castro and possibly Fidel.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the Wall Street Journal argues that “The pope on his visit to Cuba today will see and hear what the military dictatorship wants him to see and hear, not the kind of public debate he would witness in a normal country.”

A piece in the NYT notes that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is in Havana for cancer treatment, has not arranged a meeting with the Catholic leader, despite his public image becoming more religious since he announced his illness last year.

News Briefs
  • Colombia’s armed forces killed 36 FARC rebels in a pre-dawn bombing raid on a camp in the central Meta province, reports the AP. This follows the killing of 33 guerrillas last week in another aerial raid on a camp in the northeast province of Arauca. El Colombiano reports that these blows to the rebel army are the first results of the government’s strategy of targeting attacks on 10 regions identified as making up the group’s strategic rearguard. This offensive comes as there are moves towards peace, with the FARC promising to release 10 political hostages, some held for more than 14 years, and to cease kidnapping civilians. El Espectador reported Monday that rumors are growing that President Juan Manuel Santos might be working on peace talks with the rebels, and that on his recent visit to Cuba he had discussions with Chavez and Raul Castro on the subject, with Cuba cited as a possible destination for the rebel leaders when the conflict is over. Colombian armed forces commander General Alejandro Navas rejected the idea that the heavy blows to the rebels could damage the liberation process, saying “the rules of the game are very clear.”
  • A recording has been released which apparently shows Mexican presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota complaining that the government is recording her phone calls, reports the AP. Vazquez is the candidate of President Felipe Calderon’s PAN party, though they are not close allies, and the call seemingly took place during the lead up to the primaries, says the newspaper. In the recording, released by website La Silla Rota, she reportedly tells a campaign aide to “say hello” to Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, “who is recording us instead of recording El Chapo.” Vasquez’s team has presented a wiretapping complaint to the Attornery General’s Office.
    A recent poll shows Vazquez with 21 percent against PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto’s 33 and the PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at 14.
  • Three land activists from the Movement for the Liberation of the Landless (MLST) were shot dead in the southeast Brazilian state of Minas Gerais when gunmen stopped a car they were traveling in. The grandson of two of the dead was in the car when they were killed, but was not hurt. The couple had been taking part in the occupation of land owned by sugar manufacturers. Police are working on the hypothesis that the execution-style killings were a product of an internal conflict over leadership of the group. The MLST issued a statement to protest against this theory, and warned that at least three other members of their group were on a death list due to land disputes, reports Veja.
  • The Economist blog reports that cracks are beginning to show in Venezuela’s ruling PSUV party in the absence of its cancer-stricken leader Chavez. The president’s brother Adan recently published an article alleged treachery among the inner circle, while there are rumors that the national assembly presidentDiosdado Cabello is a sworn enemy of Chavez’s vice president Elias Jaua.
  • US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield has announced an “action plan” to fight the drug trade in Honduras, reports El Nuevo Herald. On a trip to the country, he said that the US would post an ex-ambassador to work with the government on the plan, to achieve the “elimination” of drug trafficking in Honduras.
  • El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes has not appeared in public since legislative elections held March 11, reports El Diario de Hoy. This could be connected with the controversy unleashed by reports the government has made a deal with the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, involving transfers of jailed gang bosses in the days before the election. El Faro, which broke the news of the alleged deal, reports on confusion around a drug reform summit held in Guatemala on Saturday; Funes issued a statement the day before saying the meeting had been canceled, which was quickly denied by the Guatemalan government. The meeting went ahead as planned, but Funes did not attend, nor give a further explanation.
  • The NYT reports that the alleged Salvadoran government deal with the gangs was confirmed to it by anonymous sources in the government and intelligence community, who said that “a high-ranking colonel — part of a new team of former military officers promising to take on crime — put the idea in motion shortly after arriving at the Public Security and Justice Ministry in November, with the goal of reducing homicides by 30 percent and reaping political gains.”
  • El Faro reports on the case against two El Salvadoran former guerrilla leaders accused of killing poet and journalist Roque Dalton in 1975. Joaquin Villalobos and Jorge Melendez were senior members of the ERP rebel group when Dalton, another member, was murdered, accused by the group of being a CIA informant. Now internal ERP documents have come to light which reportedly say that the accusation was a ploy to have him killed, as part of a leadership struggle within the organization. The documents will be used as evidence in the case against the two. Melendez is now a government official, while Villalobos is a political consultant living in the UK.
  • The Financial Times looks at Brazil’s moves to overturn a ban on foreign investors buying farmland, which it says has hit investment. The proposed law will allow private individuals to buy land on a case-by-case basis, but keep the ban against ban foreign state-owned companies, sovereign wealth funds and non-governmental organisations.
  • The Red Cross plans to build a hotel and conference center in Haiti, and use the profits to fund its work on the island, reports the AP. It will be built on a $10.5 million plot of land the NGO purchased after the 2010 quake.
  • The NYT has a report, with video, on the endangered Chaco thorn forest in Paraguay. The forest covers an area the size of Poland, and has “118-degree temperatures so forbidding that Paraguayans call it their ‘green hell.’” Some 10 percent of its area has been destroyed in the last five years, much of it by cattle ranchers from Brazil.
  • NPR has a report on a US anthropology professor who examines and documents items left behind by migrants in the Arizona desert. “For him, these scraps are important. This place is important. He says one day it will be seen as sacred ground.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

No Game-Changers in Guatemala Drug Summit

Guatemalan President Otto Perez held a controversial regional summit in Antigua, Guatemala on Saturday to discuss drug legalization and other potential alternatives to the U.S.-led “war on drugs.”  While the meeting was attended by the leaders of Panama and Costa Rica, the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua were absent, reflecting their disapproval of Perez’s stance on drug legalization.

Perez, for his part, has attempted to frame the meeting as a success, pointedly telling local media that the even the countries who didn’t send heads of state to the summit sent delegates in their place.  The Guatemalan president offered several unique proposals at the summit, including the endorsement of a regional court designed to prosecute organized crime groups and the suggestion that the US compensate Central American countries for every kilo of illicit substance they seize.

As if these propositions were not radical enough, AP notes that the Guatemalan president also argued that legalization should be accompanied by government regulation of drug production and distribution. He proposed that Central American nations establish controlled corridors for drug shipments, complete with checkpoints which could be monitored by border officials.

However, the conference did not result in any kind of joint statement regarding drug policy, and it is unlikely that the Central American nations will be able to present a unified front on the issue at the upcoming Summit of the Americas.

News Briefs

·         Meanwhile, William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for narcotics and law enforcement, is currently in Honduras to discuss drug policy with President Porfirio Lobo. Brownfield is also scheduled to stop in Guatemala on the 27th, where he will doubtlessly voice concerns about Perez’s views on drug decriminalization.

·         Pope Benedict XVI leaves Mexico for Cuba today, a country which has seen tremendous changes in religious in the 14 years since the last papal visit, as noted in the LA Times. Despite this, the New York Times reports that Pentecostal and evangelical churches are growing faster than the Catholic church in the country. To combat this, the pope is likely hoping that the Cuba visit will be as successful as his time in Mexico, where he charmed crowds by donning a sombrero and calling for an embrace of Catholic values in the face of drug violence.

·         The Wall Street Journal profiles the different strategies of two Catholic priests in Cuba as they press for more reforms on the island.

·         Representatives from El Salvador's two largest street gangs (Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18) have confirmed reports that they have reached a truce in an effort to lower the country's homicide rate, which they allegedly negotiated with the help of the Church. Former congressman Raul Mijango has also claimed to have acted as a mediator in the talks, and presented a joint statement he claims was written by gang representatives to the Salvadoran press last Thursday. More from InSight Crime.

·         Colombia’s largest rebel army, the FARC, has announced they will push back the scheduled release date of its last ten hostages by two days, from March 3st1 to April 2nd. The government has accepted the change.

·         Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has declassified a highly critical internal analysis of the military’s mistakes during the 1982 Falklands War. It documents extremely poor planning on the part of the military junta governing the country at the time, which apparently thought that Britain would respond to the Argentine invasion of the islands diplomatically.

·         Mercopress with a look at souring US-Argentina relations, with Congress considering ending special trade benefits with the Argentines.

·         A Mexican human rights NGO has filed an official complaint with the National Human Rights Commission, alleging that the remains of some 10,000 victims of the country’s drug war have still not been identified.

·         Peruvian President Ollanta Humala denies reports that relations between his country and the UK have chilled after Peru canceled a visit by a British navy frigate.

·         AP reports that a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck central Chile last night. While several people were left without power, there were no reports of casualties.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Nicaragua's President Slams Drug Depenalization

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega recently stated during a public event that drug depenalization “just doesn’t make sense,” reports EFE.

“Depenalization is like saying, we’ve lost,” he said. “It would be legalizing crime, because promoting drug consumption, facilitating drug consumption, is a criminal act.”

This is in marked contrast to other presidents in the region, like Guatemala’s Otto Perez, who is urging that the topic be discussed during Saturday’s meeting between Central American leaders. Since February, Perez has publicly said that he wants to open a discussion the next time that the region’s presidents should meet. Perez initially seemed to find an ally in El Salvador President Mauricio Funes, who said that he was open to “promoting discussion” of Perez’s proposal. Funes then clarified that he was not in support of any dramatic changes to regional drug policy.

Similarly to its neighbors, Nicaragua serves as an important transit point for cocaine shipments heading from South American to the US. But in contrast to Guatemala and El Salvador, Nicaragua hasn’t suffered the same degree of drug-related violence. This could help explain why Ortega has chosen to openly oppose Perez’s proposal in such stark terms. Drug violence has not yet become a serious enough problem in Nicaragua to warrant discussion of more radical solutions, as Perez’s proposal seems to imply.

Nicaragua also enjoys particularly strong relations with the US when it comes to drug control. The State Department has described the Nicaraguan Navy as "one of Central America's most effective agencies in narcotics interdictions.” This could be another reason why Ortega seems to be adhering to the same position expressed by Vice President Joe Biden during a visit to the region in early Mexico. The US has allocated about $5.2 million in military and security aid to Nicaragua in its 2013 budget. Ortega likely kept this in mind when he expressed his views on drug policy.

News Briefs
  • The AP with a look at an exclusive document obtained via the Freedom of Information Act: the federal plan explaining what the US response would be if there were another significant oil spill in Caribbean waters. This has special relevance to the concerns of some US officials who say the beginning of deep sea drilling in Cuban waters could affect US shores if something were to go wrong.
  • After Colombian armed forces reportedly killed 33 FARC rebels in a camp in northeastern Arauca, the head of the air force now says the attack was organized thanks to intelligence gathered from FARC deserters.
  • Foreign Policy with a critique of Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Latin America, and his assertion that the US would never seriously discuss altering its stance against drug legalization. The magazine notes, “Going into the U.S. presidential election season, Biden's message to Latin America was inevitable: The Obama administration isn't about to pick a fight with suburban swing voters more worried about the temptations facing their teenage children than the carnage in Mexico.”
  • The AP on what may happen to the indigenous families squatting near the football stadium meant to host the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro.
  • Malia Obama’s recent trip to Mexico, where she reportedly worked at an orphanage in Oaxaca, pleased many of the country’s tourism officials, reports the New York Times.
  • Following the controversial exit of Colombian chief prosecutor Viviane Morales, the Supreme Court has selected lawyer Eduardo Montealegre as her replacement, whom Colombia Reports describesas a former ally of ex-President Alvaro Uribe.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Indigenous Protest Marchers Arrive in Quito, Warn Against Govt Attacks

A group of indigenous protesters has arrived in Ecuador’s capital Quito after a two-week march to protest against large-scale mining projects in the Amazon region. Some 2,000 people entered the city, some joining for the last 10 km of the route, reports La Hora.

The marchers are angered by President Rafael Correa’s government giving the go-ahead to a Chinese company’s $1.4 billion project for open-face copper mining in the land of the Shuar people, in the southeast. The government has said that Ecuador will get 52 percent of the profits from the planned extraction.

The march began 350 km south of Quito, in the Amazon town of El Pangui, on March 8, reports Associated Press. They arrived in the capital a day ahead of schedule, entering the city on Wednesday afternoon. This morning, some woke up at 3:30 a.m. to carry out rituals in a central park of the city, reports La Hora. They are planning to regroup at 9:00 and visit government buildings.

Indigenous and environmental groups have decried government efforts to repress protesters. Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), told Hoy that the marchers were on alert for attacks, and that communities throughout Ecuador were waiting to hear news of any aggressions. “If we receive ... attacks in the city of Quito on the part of the government, obviously we are going to defend ourselves across the country,” he said.

Correa has declared that the protesters have the right to demonstrate peacefully, but said they would be outnumbered by his supporters, reports the AP. “They’ll be welcome, and if they’re 500, we will be 50,000.”

The groups were denied permission by the transit authorities for buses to transport indigenous people to the capital for the protests, while government supporters were able to hire buses easily, reports the website. Another community leader told Hoy:
At this time [the authorities] have taken over the streets, the highways, in the cities and we're like strangers in our own country. They don't let Indians get on buses, hire buses.
The AP reports that a study found that some 205 activists have faced criminal charges under Correa’s presidency, mostly sabotage and terrorism.  A spokeswoman for the environmental group Accion Ecologica told the news agency that the government’s aim in  is to “intimidate those most critical of what the current regime considers to be priority projects.”

News Briefs
  • A Guatemalan court has sentenced five former members of a paramilitary group to 7,710 years in prison each, for the massacre of 268 indigenous people during the civil war, in 1982, reports BBC. The men, four of them members of the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PAC) and one military officer, got 30 years for each victim, plus 30 years for crimes against humanity, although the maximum sentence they would be able to serve under Guatemalan law would be 50 years. The judge found that their victims had been raped, tortured and murdered, and then their bodies burnt to hide the crime, with “malice” and “premeditation.” Many of the dead were women and children. Amnesty International welcomed the verdict as a sign that “slowly but surely, justice is beginning to prevail,” for crimes committed during the war. The decision follows the sentencing earlier this month of a former special forces soldier to 6,060 years over another 1982 massacre.
  • Amnesty International has released a critical report on human rights in Cuba ahead of the Pope’s visit. It said the rights situation on the island had deteriorated, and that the government “wages a permanent campaign of harassment and short-term detentions of political opponents to stop them from demanding respect for civil and political rights.” The report placed four Cuban inmates on its list of prisoners of conscience, and said that the regime’s release of dozens of political prisoners last year did not signal a change in human rights policy.
    Meanwhile, the annual report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom found there had been “some improvements” to religious freedom in Cuba, though it kept the country on its watch list, due to continuing“serious” violations, reports the Miami Herald. Vatican officials say that the Pope’s visit to Cuba should help democracy on the island, reports the AP
  • The LA Times reports on the growing power of the Catholic Church in Mexico, noting that it has become more involved in politics over the last decade, under the rule of the conservative PAN party, and says the Pope's visit is part of work to build on this.
  • Bloggings by Boz notes that Guatemalan President Otto Perez is lowering expectations on the chances for a move forward in the drug legalization debate, ahead of Saturday’s meeting of Central American presidents. He has also askedbusiness representatives from around the world to help proposed alternatives to the militarized approach to the drug war.
  • Plaza Publica has a report on the Guatemalan government’s efforts to regulate private security firms. It notes that it is the country with the greatest disparity between private and public security agents, with 120,000 private against 25,000 public.
  • The latest revelations on the “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking scandal say that agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)allowed a suspected arms trafficker to go free in order to catch two drug cartel members, who were in fact already working as FBI informants, reports the LA Times. Republicans investigating the program, which has been much criticized for allowing guns to be trafficked into Mexico in order to track the criminals receiving them, said in an internal memo to committee members:"This means the entire goal of Fast and Furious — to target these two individuals and bring them to justice — was a failure." 
  • The New York Times has a feature on a project to hang giant portraits of crime victims on the walls of buildings in a crime-hit Mexico City suburb. Damien Cave identifies it as part of a movement of “victim visualizers,” who campaign less for concrete policy changes than to make people aware of the effects of wide-scale violence, often through social media.
  • The Chilean government must pay compensation to a judge whose children were taken from her custody because she was a lesbian, after a ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, reports the New York Times.
  • Uruguay’s government has apologized for the death of the daughter-in-law of Argentine poet Juan Gelman, who was taken to the country after being arrested in Argentina in 1976 under the military regime, reports the AP. She was seven months pregnant when she was detained and taken to Montevideo, and her child was adopted by a member of Uruguay’s security forces.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek says that the lack of fatalities in Tuesday’s earthquake shows that Mexico City has learned the lessons of the devastating 1985 quake, which killed 9,000.
  • The LA Times reports on a festival that takes place each year in Ixcateopan, southeast of Mexico City, to mark the birth of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor, whose bones are supposedly buried in a local church.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Potential for Fracturing Emerges in Venezuela's Ruling Party

Although officials in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) deny that there are any internal divisions within their ranks, the case of an expelled governor suggest that cracks are emerging in the party. As noted on Friday, the PSUV suspended Monagas state Governor Jose Gregorio Briceño for accusing National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello of exerting undue influence over his state, and was reviewing his case to see if it warranted expulsion.

On Monday, the governor was officially removed from the party for his comments, allegedly for  engaging in "a series of behaviors that violate the rules laid down in the red book, the statutes and principles of the party.”

Briceño, however, cites a different reason for his expulsion. He claims that he was barred from the PSUV because he refused to toe the party line about an oil spill into the local Guarapiche river. According to him, the Chavez administration told him to re-open water plants near the river just one day after the oil leak, when there were still significant quantities of oil pouring into the river. “I did not accept this because it was too risky,” Briceño remarked to local media.

Now that he has been expelled, some in the party are no doubt closely watching his moves ahead of the December 16 gubernatorial elections.  With the future of Chavez rule is in doubt, he may be tempted to join with the opposition Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) in an effort to gain favor with the party should its candidate win in the upcoming general elections in October. As political analyst Ricardo Rios told the New York Times last week, if Briceño does decide to join with the opposition, then other PSUV might soon follow for the same reason.  In an interview with the AFP published yesterday, the governor said he was an independent for now, but “would not rule out” an alliance with the MUD.

News Briefs

·         Amid debate amongst ALBA countries over whether or not to attend the upcoming April 14-15 Summit of the Americas without Cuba, Chavez has said that he thinks the bloc should go, as long as they make it clear that this will be the last summit that doesn’t include the communist island country.

·         Mexico was hit by a powerful magnitude-7.4 earthquake yesterday, which centered mostly in the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Although El Universal notes widespread structural damage, there have been no reports of casualties, which may have been due to the high level of quake preparedness in the area. The AP reports that the affected region has seen 15 earthquakes of magnitude 7 or stronger since 1973, proving an incentive for buildings to be built to withstand them.

·         Dolia Estevez, a Noticia MVS correspondent in Washington, has claimed that sources within the US government informed her that Mexican President Felipe Calderon plans to leave the country as soon as he leaves office, as he fears that he may be killed by drug trafficking organizations. Though this is not the first time that this has been reported, Calderon has consistently denied such reports. More from Vanguardia.

·         Colombia’s Semana reports that the Colombian armed forces killed 31 members of the FARC in the northeastern department of Arauca. President Juan Manuel Santos called the attack a “major hit” to rebel group.

·         Guatemalan Finance Minister Pavel Centeno resigned yesterday, claiming that the opposition was preventing necessary legislative reforms. El Periodico suggests that the move may have been made as part of a strategy by President Otto Perez to force congress into action.

·         Citing solidarity with Argentina’s position on the Falkland Islands, Peru has canceled a planned visit to one of its naval bases by a British frigate. While the AP claims that the decision was made in response to criticism from Argentine media, Argentina’s La Nacion reports that Argentina threatened to accuse Peru of not complying with its obligations under an UNASUR agreement signed last week relating to the Falklands, and threatened to withdraw an invitation for Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to visit in May.

·         Congressmen in Suriname have proposed an amnesty law that would end the trial against President President Desi Bouterse, who stands accused of ordering the disappearance and murder of political adversaries during his dictatorship in the early 1980s.

·         El Faro profiles police corruption in Honduras, highlighting the October murder of two university students, likely at the hands of police officers.

·         Dr. Oscar Biscet, president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, has written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the upcoming Papal visit to Cuba represents a unique opportunity for him to encourage political reform on the island.