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.”