Monday, April 30, 2012

French Journalist Reported Prisoner of FARC

A French journalist has gone missing in Colombia after the army unit he was accompanying was attacked by FARC rebels.

Frances’ foreign minister initially said that French journalist  Romeo Langlois had been taken prisoner during a clash between the Colombian army and the FARC rebels, buton Monday clarified that this was not known for certain. Langlois was embedded with troops on a mission to destroy cocaine labs in the southern Caqueta province. The unit came under fire from the guerrillas as they descended from helicopters on Saturday morning. Three soldiers and one police officer were killed and eight others wounded,according to the Colombian authorities.

Colombia’s Defense Minister Pinzon said that, according to army personnel, Langlois was hit in the arm by a bullet, and then removed his bulletproof vest and helmet and ran towards the guerrillas, identifying himself as a civilian.

Several soldiers went missing during the clash, but were later found by the army. The Colombian government has called on the rebels to respect the life of Langlois, as a war correspondent, and has launched operations to find him. RCN Radio reports that the authorities think Langlois may be liberated after completing a “journalistic project” with the group.

A friend of Langlois, who has worked with him on journalism projects in Colombia for more than a decade, told French media that Langlois “knows the FARC perfectly” and has many contacts amongst them -- “he knows the codes, the language.”

The AP notes that the last case of Colombian rebels taking foreign journalists hostage was 2003, and that they were released safely within days. The FARC recently pledged to cease the practice of kidnapping for ransom, and released their last remaining political hostages. The BBC said that the rebels may be stepping up attacks -- having killed another eight people in the same region the previous day -- in an effort to force the government into negotiations. The WSJ, in contrast, said that the latest attacks could hurt hopes for peace.

The case is particularly sensitive for France, given the kidnapping of Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, who also held French citizenship. She was held by rebels for six years from 2002 after being captured in the same province as Langlois, and was then rescued by the Colombian security forces. One analyst pointed out to French news site Atlantico that Betancourt had also held discussions with guerrilla leaders before her kidnapping, and said that, despite their promises to cease kidnapping, the FARC could still find a French citizen a valuable hostage.

News Briefs

  • A journalist with Proceso magazine was found murdered in her home in Veracruz yesterday. Regina Martinez, who often wrote stories on organized crime, had been asphyxiated and received heavy blows to her face and body,reports the AP. The city of Veracruz saw one of the biggest surges in violence in the country last year, with a 20-fold increase in murders in the first nine months of 2011. This was triggered by a battle for control of the key port between the currently-dominant Zetas and a group called the Matazetas (Zeta Killers),” thought to be a spin-off of the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation.
  • Brazil’s Congress has passed a bill which has been criticized as loosening regulations on the protection of the Amazon rainforest. It stipulates that some deforested land must be replanted, but leaves the amount in state government’s hands, which could mean replanting will be minimal in certain states where farmers’ lobbies are powerful, reports Reuters. The legislation is causing difficulties for President Dilma Rousseff, who has promised not to pass legislation decreasing protection for the rainforest, but must balance this against exploiting the country’s natural resources and expanding the economy. The WSJ notes what it calls “an unsettling fact for environmental groups;” that “Much of the Amazon forest slashed and burned in past decades is today extremely productive farmland.”
  • Meanwhile, the country’s Defense Minister Celso Amorim announced Thursday that they would increase military presence in the Amazon region to stop foreign powers trying to seize its resources, reports AFP.
  • Following the scandal over Secret Service agents using prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, the service has tightened its rules on behavior abroad,reports the NYT. Agents are now banned from having foreigners in their hotel rooms, except law enforcement agents or hotel staff, and from drinking alcohol in the 10 hours before their shifts. One of the Secret Service agents accused of wrongdoing before the Americas Summit has been reprieved. The agent had repeatedly insisted that he had not had anyone in his hotel room that night, and now investigators have found that  a member of the military falsely gave the agents’ room number when required to register his guest, reports the NYT
  • The NYT has a slideshow on life in a Cartagena brothel, which it describes as “a place of routines, including weekly tests for sexually transmitted diseases.” It notes local anger over the Secret Service agent’s reported treatment of the woman at the center of the scandal, refusing to pay the agreed price and swearing at her. “Just because you come from another country and you work for Obama, you shouldn’t be able to come here and treat someone with disrespect,” said one sex worker.
  • A Brazilian woman alleges that a group of three US marines and an embassy staffer ran her over in a van after a disagreement about buying sex in December. She says they “broke her collarbone, punctured her lung and left her lying in a Brasília nightclub parking lot,” reports the LA Times. The US government admitted last week that the men had been punished for the attack, though it did not give details of her injuries.
  • The NYT looks at dirty campaigning in the race for Mexico’s presidential election, where politicians are defying tight rules on negative ads by using social networking sites. “The weighty problems facing Mexico -- the drug war, feeble job growth, persistent poverty and the failings of the police and judicial system -- have received little attention and generated only vague pronouncements. Instead, the campaigns expand and refine their digital attacks, often using hard-to-trace and easily disavowed volunteers and supporters to do the dirty work.” A piece in the LA Times says that new reality TV-style videos featuring front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto and his family are a new blurring of the lines between politics and pop media in the country.
    The PRI candidate is considered something of a lightweight, and the WSJ profiles his campaign manager Luis Videgaray, who it says is generally seen as “the brains behind the candidate,” notes the piece.
  • The NYT reports on the massive support in Argentina for the government’s partial expropriation of Spanish-owned oil and gas company YPF, with some opposition senators coming “close to tears” in the legislature while expressing their gratitude for the move. It points out that the move taps into public resentment over the free-market policies of the 1990s which preceded the economic collapse.
  • The WSJ reports that the move owes a lot to Keynesian Deputy Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, who urged President Cristina Kirchner to go ahead with the nationalization.
  • Mexico’s federal attorney general’s office will open an investigation into allegations that Wal-Mart’s Mexican subsidiary paid $24 million in bribes to allow its expansion through the country, reports the NYT.
  • One of two Peruvian police officers who went missing during combat with Shining Path rebels following the kidnap of 36 oil workers earlier this month has been found alive, reports the AP.
  • The Miami Herald interviews a man who was removed by Cuban officials for shouting anti-government slogans during the pope’s visit to the island. Anotherpiece assesses economic reforms on the island.
  • Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the WSJ congratulates Chile’s government for “holding free university education at bay” in the face of the political pressure from the student movement. She says that this movement has been so successful because the government has failed to stand up for “freedom” against leftist “invitation[s] to tyranny,” such as the principle that “economic inequality is immoral and the state has an obligation to correct it.”
  • The LA Times looks at the career of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, known for his chubby figures.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Uribe to Campaign Against Chavez

It seems that even after leaving office, Colombian ex-President Alvaro Uribe has held on to his famous grudge against Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Citing an El Tiempo article (which doesn’t appear to be online), El Universal reports that the former Colombian leader will attempt to influence the upcoming elections in Venezuela this October.  

Uribe is allegedly planning on campaigning against Chavez in a series of rallies to be held in three Colombian cities on the border with Venezuela: Maicao, Cucuta and Arauca. The campaign will likely have only a symbolic effect on elections, as the number of Venezuelans living on the Colombian side of the border is relatively small. While no hard figures on the number of Venezuelans living in Colombia are available, some estimates put the total at no more than 40,000, an almost negligible number considering the size of the Venezuelan electorate.

If anything, the rallies may actually hurt opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. The Chavez administration has occasionally portrayed him as a tool of Uribe, claiming that the former Colombian leader is building a region-wide front of politicians in opposition to Chavez.  While the election will likely mostly focus on the economy and security, a particularly inflammatory anti-Chavez campaign by Uribe could play into this narrative.

Whatever the effect of the rallies, they are a clear indicator that the sour relationship between the two leaders hasn’t improved with time. Tensions have been high between them since Uribe began to accuse Venezuela of harboring FARC guerrillas in the mid-2000s, and famously came to a head in 2010 when the two engaged in a shouting match at a summit designed to promote regional cooperation.

News Briefs

·         In the first visit to Brazil by a US defense secretary in seven years, Leon Panetta yesterday pushed Brazil to purchase $4 billion worth of fighter jets, reports the New York Times. As the AP notes, he praised Brazil’s emergence as a world power and characterized the deal as part of a deepening partnership between the two countries.

·         The LA Times’ World Now Blog highlights outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s efforts to take credit for the dramatic reduction in migrants to the US. Although Calderon claims the drop is due to increased development in Mexico, experts believe it has much more to do with the slow economic recovery in the US.

·         The AP has an interesting piece on a land conflict in Mexico’s largest urban park, Guadalajara’s Bosque de la Primavera. Officials have been battling a fire in the park since last weekend, and believe it was set by squatters seeking to take over park land, although the article also notes that real estate companies in the area have an interest in clearing land for development.  

·         Chile’s student movement held a massive march yesterday, with organizers reporting that more than 50,000 participated, according to El Ciudadano. The BBC points out that President Sebastian Pinera announced new measures to reform education on Wednesday, but these have been rejected by the movement.

·         A week after former Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice Eladio Aponte accused the Chavez government of asking him to manipulate rulings last week, alleged Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled has claimed that he personally paid Aponte thousands of dollars.

·         The Wall Street Journal with a look at Chavez’s trademark use of Twitter to communicate with his supporters.

·         After 15 hours of debate, the Argentine Senate has voted to approve President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s controversial plan to nationalize the YPF oil company. The BBC notes that the move is extremely popular in the country, and the bill will now go to the country’s lower house.

·         The Washington Post covers the effect that the move has had on the oil market, and outlines concerns over the move could having a negative impact on investment in the country.

·         Cuban-American Senator (and Mitt Romney’s potential running mate) Marco Rubio had an op-ed in yesterday’s LA Times in which he advocates a much more aggressive US policy towards Latin America based on promoting democracy, free trade, security and US energy interests.

·         CNN reports on the creative means by which Cuban artists are finding support online, mostly through a crowd-funding website called

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wal-Mart's Alleged Bribery Cover-up - the Mexican Response

In contrast to the outcry in the US over the New York Times’ claims that Wal-Mart’s Mexican branch paid bribes to officials on a large scale, the response south of the border has been muted.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Mexican officials are not planning to open their own investigation into the matter. The newspaper points out that the company would be unlikely to face serious penalties even if there was evidence of wrongdoing, as it would likely fall to each state to investigate payments to local officials, and the statute of limitations might have expired. Various officials responded vaguely to the newspapers' enquiries:
Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade said there wasn't yet enough information to launch an investigation. Attorney General Marisela Morales said her office didn't have jurisdiction. The Economy Ministry said it was a state and local matter because the alleged bribes weren't at the federal level, although it promised full cooperation with US authorities.
Part of the explanation for this reluctance may lie in Wal-Mart’s importance to Mexico -- as the WSJ points out, it is the biggest private employer in the country, with 209,000 people on its payroll, and is the the second biggest company on the stock exchange.

An opinion piece in the WSJ puts this side of the case, arguing that Wal-Mart has brought benefits to Mexico, from jobs to cheaper goods, and that to achieve this its subsidy (allegedly) had to “play by local rules” and pay bribes, because that was the way to get things done quickly in that country. For the author; “Mexico's failure to provide itself with better governance hardly seems a reason to deprive Mexicans of the benefits of Wal-Mart.”

The Washington Post notes that the news has caused little outrage among ordinary Mexicans, saying that such practices are widespread in the country, where “crowded government offices remain the working grounds of shadowy facilitators known as ‘gestores.’”

The LA Times agrees, saying “greasing the palms of officials is routinely viewed as another cost of doing business by even the most humble street vendor.”

News Briefs
  • Following the outcry over Secret Service agents using prostitutes in Colombia before the Summit of the Americas, a Brazilian sex worker is planning to sue the US embassy over injuries she received last year in a dispute with an embassy staffer and three marines, reports the AP. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is in Brazil as part of his tour of South America, told press that the group had pushed the woman from a car during a dispute over payment. Sources told the AP that the sex worker broke her collarbone in the fall, and that the embassy had contacted her and paid her medical bills. Now, emboldened by the response to the Cartagena scandal, the woman has hired a lawyer.
  • On the case itself, the NYT reports that investigators now believe that, for at least two of the agents involved, the women they brought back to their rooms were not prostitutes. Another seemingly brought back a woman without realizing she was a prostitute, and asked her to leave once she demanded money.
  • The Miami Herald notes that the scandal is rippling wider and wider, and condemns those involved -- “the salaciousness of the details can’t mask the fact that this sex scandal actually represents a huge security breach that could have put the president in grave danger."
    In a view from Colombia, Colombia Reports criticizes the Washington Post andAP coverage of the scandal. It points out that focusing on the "uncontrolled sexuality" of "carnal Cartagena" as William Booth does in a piece titled “Cartagena’s night life spelled trouble for Secret Service” is missing the point. The author notes the levels of poverty driving women in the city into the sex trade, and says; “Let's stop blaming the women and stop blaming Colombia. The US agents slept with prostitutes because they wanted to sleep with prostitutes. End of story.”
  • Brazil has seen a fourth journalist murdered this year, when political reporterDecio Sa was gunned down in a restaurant in Sao Luis, capital of the northeaster state of Maranhao. Colleagues told the AP that he had certainly been killed because of his work -- “But he denounced so many people and so much corruption that it is impossible to say who was behind his murder.”
  • There have been violent clashes between police and protesters in Bolivian capital La Paz,as miners joined teachers demanding higher pay in a two-day strike organized by Bolivian Workers Central, reports the AP. According to the government, demonstrators threw dynamite sticks while trying to break through a police line in the central Plaza de las Armas, injuring five officers.
  • An illicit armed group in Haiti, which is agitating for the reformation of the country’s army, held a press conference to announce that they refused to disband, reports the AP. Armed members of the group disrupted a Congress session last week, after storming in and demanding a halt to plans to expel them from the former military bases they are currently occupying.
  • Guatemala has given new powers to a vice ministry that will focus on fighting drug trafficking, reports Prensa Libre. The body, part of the Interior Ministry, will be charged with targeting the trade, which was previously tackled in a more dispersed way by the police, said the interior minister. It will tighten security at Guatemala’s borders, to stop drugs and precursor chemicals entering.
    After his first 100 days in office, 82 percent of Guatemalans approve of President Otto Perez, according to a poll by Prensa Libre. The move most praised by respondents was having more soldiers and police on the streets, while the most disliked was his attempts to open a debate on drug depenalization. For his part, Perez gave his opening months a score of eight out of ten.
  • Rio Radar has a translation of an O Dia interview with Marcelo Freixo, a Brazilian politician who made his mark fighting the influence of militia groups in Rio de Janeiro, and is now running for mayor of the city. Freixo said that if he does not win he will have to leave Rio and maybe Brazil due to threats from militias. “If I don’t win this election, I will lose my protected status and be vulnerable; I would not be a public figure anymore.” He dismissed allegations that he fled Brazil for Spain last year as a publicity move, “These guys killed a judge with guns and ammunition that came from the police. A month later, I got threats detailing how they were going to kill me.”
  • Brazil’s Congress has delayed a vote on reforms to environmental protection law, which have been strongly opposed by those who say it would be a disaster for the country’s Amazon rainforest. The AP says that lawmakers are expected to pass it with a heavy majority, but that they are currently haggling over its details.
  • The LA Times reports that Argentina’s Congress is likely to approve the expropriation of oil and gas company YPF, with up to 74 percent of the population approving of the mood in a recent poll.
  • Venezuela’s government has accused opposition politicians of taking part in a scheme to launder drug money, reports the AP.
  • Chile plans to open the will of former ruler Augusto Pinochet, against the opposition of his family who have called the move “political persecution,”reports the AP. By law, the contents of the will cannot be made public, but the state may be able to use it to help recover illegally obtained money from the general’s estate.
  • Central American Politics says that reports of kidnappings in Guatemala might have dropped over the last three years not because of the deterrent effect of more cases being brought to trial, as InSight Crime suggested, but because criminals are increasingly relying on extortion rather than kidnapping.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In Shifting Migration Trend, More Mexicans Leaving the US for Mexico

According to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center, not only are there fewer Mexicans migrating to the US, but the number of Mexicans who are voluntarily or forcibly returning to Mexico has risen sharply. This basically means that migration flow from Mexico -- which saw about 3.5 million Mexicans immigrate to the US between 2000 and 2005  -- has “come to a standstill,” and may even have reversed, with just 1.4 million Mexicans migrating to the US between 2005 and 2010.

The report’s findings contradict some of the trends observed by the Pew Center in previous reports, which did not find that a significant number of Mexicans were returning to Mexico. “We really haven’t seen anything like this in the last 30 or 40 years,” Pew Center senior demographer Jeffrey Pascal told the New York Times.

Of the 1.4 million people who migrated from the U.S. to Mexico since 2005, most did so voluntarily, but a significant number were deported, the report finds. The report estimates that anywhere between 5 percent to 35 percent of those 1.4 million were sent back to Mexico by US authorities. Because neither the US nor Mexico keeps reliable data on who is sent back, or what happens to deportees once they return in Mexico, Pew Hispanic was unable to make a more accurate estimate, the report states.

One question is whether the increased flow rate of Mexicans leaving the US is a temporary shift in migration patterns, in reaction to a bad US economy, increased border enforcement, and deportations, or whether this represents a permanent reversal of Mexican migration trends. A sociology professor who studies Mexico demographic trends at UC San Diego told the LA Times that the new report may indicate that immigration from Mexico will likely never surge again, the way it did during the 1990s, even if the US economy bounces back.

The Pew Center hints at the reasons for why Mexican immigration patterns may be reversing so dramatically. The decline of the US economy and the rise in deportations are probably the factors which best explain why the return rate continues to rise. In another key finding, more Mexicans who were deported from the US say they will not try to return: in 2005, just 7 percent of deportees surveyed said they would not try to re-enter the US; in 2010, that number had risen to 20 percent, the Pew Center reports.

News Briefs
  • In an interview with the AP, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto failed to name any major distinctions between his proposed security strategy and President Felipe Calderon’s. He set no goals for reducing violence in Mexico, and said that his security approach would focus on creating a single state police force and fighting money laundering, similarly to Calderon. He opposes drug legalization, adding "So far no one has convinced me that this is the solution.”
  • A policy review from the Inter-American Foundation argues that the quality and intensity of the ties between Latin America and the US has diminished, resulting in plenty of missed opportunities for Washington. Hemispheric relations have shifted in the past seven years, thanks to Brazil’s rising economic power, Mexico’s focus on its internal problems, and the election of more “pragmatic” rather than ideological governments in many countries, the report states. The US needs to address longstanding issues on the agenda like its policies towards immigration, drug control, and Cuba, in order to look ahead and set a new agenda more focused on energy and economic cooperation, the Dialogue argues.
  • As an accompaniment to its investigation into Wal-Mart de Mexico’s payment of bribes, the New York Times with a feature on the tolerance towards bribery in Mexico. The country has extensive laws against bribery, but they are rarely enforced, and while there have been a few cases of American prosecutors pushing through with cases against US companies that have paid bribes abroad, “Mexican bribery investigations are few and far between.”
  • Venezuela President Hugo Chavez spoke publicly for the first time in nine days since arriving in Cuba for a new round of treatment for cancer. In a 30-minute phone call to a Venezuelan TV show, Chavez said he planned to return to Venezuela by Thursday. The New York Times notes that while Chavez has been forced to become “uncharacteristically quiet” during his recovery period, his Twitter account has become an even more important means of communication. During the TV interview, Chavez also commented for the first time on the allegations of former judge Eladio Aponte, now a reported informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Chavez called Aponte “a delinquent,” reports the LA Times World Blog, a view similar to that expressed by Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami, who said Aponte fled Venezuela in order to avoid trial for corruption and ties to drug trafficking. 
  • A television personality was gunned down in Tegucigalpa, the 18th journalist and/or media professional to be killed in Honduras since President Porfirio Lopez assumed office in 2010, reports Voz de America
  • The US will sell 10 helicopters, including five Black Hawks, to Colombia, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced. The strengthening of the Colombian air force -- including the expansion of its helicopter fleet, which now numbers 120 -- has played a key role in the Colombian government’s fight against rebel group the FARC. Tuesday, Panetta is set to meet with the Brazilian Secretary of Defense in Brasilia, in order to discuss the facilitation of arms sales between the US and Brazil, reports Mercopress.
  • The LA Times with a brief note on internal dissent within Mexico’s PRI party, with many potential candidates demanding a cleaner election process for selecting candidates for local office. The post notes that thanks to a long history of rival factions within the PRI, such internal dissent is not a new phenomenon. 
  • The New York Times on Mexico’s changing relationship with state oil company Pemex, in which the government is becoming much more aggressive about regulating the company’s practices. 
  • Proceso reports that a National Action Party (PAN) candidate was attacked in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, by a group of armed gunmen, one of the most striking examples so far of criminal groups targeting political candidates during the 2012 election season. 
  • IPS News on a historic lawsuit in Chile, in which families with relatives who were “disappeared” during the 1973-1990 dictatorship are suing former members of Chile’s secret police.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Fallout Continues from Argentina Nationalization, as Spain Fights for Compensation

Spain is working to impose sanctions against Argentina in retaliation for Buenos Aires’ expropriation of oil and gas company YPF, owned by Spanish company Repsol.

Madrid has imposed a rule that all biodiesel mixed into its fuel must come from within the EU, cutting imports from Argentina, which were worth $991 million in 2011. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner was defiant, however, saying "If Spain's government wants its own businesses to pay more for biodiesel, that's a sovereign decision," reports the WSJ. Last year, Spanish imports from Argentina stood at $2.7 billion, while Argentina’s imports from Spain were $1.31 billion.

A week ago, President Cristina Kirchner revealed plans to take a 51 percent stake in YPF, which had been controlled by Repsol, leaving the Spanish company with only a 6.4 percent share. Spain has strongly protested the move, and is trying to force the government to give Repsol proper compensation.

Spain’s foreign minister said Sunday that the government would press the EU to impose trade sanctions on Argentina, and would call on bodies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization to help pressure the country to pay proper compensation, reports the newspaper.

However, as Reuters points out, “tough action is difficult against a country that has been shut out of world debt markets and has ignored international fines in previous disputes.” A piece in the WSJ says that even if Repsol wins compensation in the World Bank’s arbitration center it could have trouble collecting its payment. Argentina has more pending cases against it in center than any other country, but has not delivered compensation in any case it has lost, requiring companies to collect through an Argentine court. Last month, the US suspended the country’s trade benefits as a sanction for this failure to pay up.

According to Spain’s foreign minister, the two governments have not had contact since YPF was seized. The AP says that the spat could cause lasting damage to traditionally strong ties between the two countries.

The Washington Post says that Argentina’s move underscores the “gulf that exists between a group of nationalist countries led by charismatic populists and the economic centrists who govern much of the rest of the region, most notably in Brazil.” It says that the Argentine government now appears closer to those of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, all of whom are consolidating the power of the executive over markets and the press, rather than to neighboring Brazil.

Another piece in the WP says that Argentina was prepared to draw international outrage for the expropriation, as the move could solve its money problems, giving it access to billions of dollars worth of cash. Venezuela’s government backed the move, with the oil and mining minister telling reporters that;

You cannot permit that a country with important internal consumption and with Argentina’s growth projections watches as transnational companies exploit and take away oil while not investing to increase production capacities.
Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the WSJ takes a different view of the motivations behind the nationalization, saying that the expropriation “demonstrate the special nature of kirchnerismo, an economic model that enriches friends of the government while driving the nation toward poverty.”

News Briefs

  • The New York Times breaks the story that Wal-Mart’s Mexican branch paid bribes to public officials in that country on a massive scale to obtain permits for their stores, and that the company then tried to hush up the case. No Mexico-based executives were disciplined, and Wal-Mart did not report the matter to law enforcement even though its internal investigation found evidence of the bribe-paying. “Confronted with evidence of corruption in Mexico, top Wal-Mart executives focused more on damage control than on rooting out wrongdoing,” says the newspaper. After the publication of the NYT report, the head of Mexican NGO Transparencia Mexicana called on the government to open an investigation into the claims, reports the AP, while government officials declined to comment.
  • The NYT reports on food shortages in Venezuela, where some residents line up before dawn to buy goods on days when subsidized government stores have had their once-a-week delivery. The report blames the Chavez government’s price controls, which are meant to make basic goods more affordable, but often have the opposite effect, meaning that products like milk, chicken, vegetable oil and sugar are often hard to come by. When prices are set artificially low, suppliers cannot make a profit, and so farmers, manufacturers and retailers cut back on production at all levels of the supply chain.
  • Three more Secret Service agents have quit over the scandal about a group using prostitutes while in Cartagena, Colombia, for the Americas Summit. This brings the number who have left the agency over the case to six, reports the NYT. The Miami Herald and the Washington Post are among the newspapers that have sent reporters to Cartagena to investigate the prostitution scene. TheWP reports that the city is “swimming in prostitutes,” calling it an embarrassing but very real part of the country’s tourism industry. The women at the center of the case, whose dispute with a client brought media attention to the agents’ transgressions, has left her home after pictures of her were published by a US paper, says the report. The Miami Herald says that most residents see the agent in question as a “villain” for trying to get out of paying the sex worker, a single mother, the agreed fee after spending the night with her. The AP reportson the media frenzy in the Caribbean port, saying that “With no other decent leads locally, scoop-hungry journalists fought all week” to talk to the taxi driver who drove home the woman and her friend after their encounter with the US agents. He has now apparently gone into hiding.
  • The Miami Herald calls for Haitian authorities to crack down on illicit armed groups who are calling for the restitution of the disbanded army. The groups, which the newspaper refers to as "paramilitaries," are thought to have 2,000-3,500 members, led by former army officers. The Miami Herald says that both the government and the UN forces in the country have failed to take a strong enough stand against the force or disarm them, noting that this “poses a threat to the government because no one knows who’s behind them or what their intentions are.”
  • The LA Times reports on the case of former Juarez Cartel leader Jesus Audel Miramontes-Varela, who became one of the FBI’s biggest informants after his arrest in Colorado in 2010. The Mexican gang boss handed over detailed information about drug smuggling routes, and gave the location of a mass grave containing 20 bodies -- “Then he disappeared, almost certainly into the federal witness protection program.”
  • A retired Mexican army general has been shot dead in the capital city, in the second assassination of a former general in the last year. The LA Times blog notes that Mario Acosta Chaparro had been accused of ties to the Juarez Cartel, though he was later cleared. The blog also reports on the massacre of 15 people in a bar in the north Mexican state of Chihuahua on Friday night.
  • Bloggings by Boz notes that the approval ratings of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have dropped to 57 percent, down from 73 in November 2010, even as he has garnered praise on the international stage for his handling of the Summit of the Americas. The main thing hurting the president is domestic concerns about unemployment, while fewer Colombians now express confidence in his security policy. Meanwhile, El Tiempo report that allies of former President Alvaro Uribe, now a bitter opponent of Santos, are urging the ex-leader to seek election as vice president in the 2014 election, in order to overcome the ban on him standing for another term.
  • Americas Quarterly reports on a mass demonstration of indigenous people in Paraguay, who traveled from across the country to the capital Asuncion to demand rights to their ancestral lands.
  • In Los Angeles, residents with Salvadoran roots attended a ceremony to name an intersection after Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, murdered during the civil war in 1980, reports the LA Times.
  • The AP has a piece on actor Sean Penn’s humanitarian work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, reporting that he has now become part of “what passes for Haiti’s establishment,” appointed as ambassador-at-large by President Michael Martelly.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Honduras Reacts as Thousands Occupy Land

Honduras’ former President Manuel Zelaya marched Thursday through the country’s capital, joined by supporters and members of his political party, Libre, expressing solidarity for the recent nationwide land seizure. Wednesday morning, some 3,000 families occupied over 12,000 hectares of arable land in as many as seven different departments (see map). Police were deployed to evict some of the occupiers, particularly in the northern Cortes department. But as of Thursday, at least 7,000 hectares of land remained occupied by 1,500 families, reports the AFP.

Zelaya expressed support for the land occupation and stated that this was primarily the campaign of land rights organizations like Via Campesina, and that Libre was supporting rather than coordinating the movement. Via Campesina leader Rafael Alegria told AFP that they expect to meet with President Porfirio Lobo on Friday.

Other protests associated with the Libre party were reported in cities across the country, reports El Heraldo. But some of the protests appear to have involved labour unions and other activist groups, who were demonstrating against Honduras’ increased cost of living, as well as a range of other issues.

Honduras’ government and business sector is already speaking out against the “land invasions.” The former director of the government’s agrarian agency said that the primary goal of the movement was political, and has more to do with disrupting President Porfirio’s government rather than seeking rural reform. “The end is to make the government uncomfortable, coerce them and show the government’s weaknesses,” the official told El Heraldo. “This means it’s not an agrarian problem, it’s a political problem...”

Critics who say that the land movement is primarily an anti-Porfirio initiative state that the most prominent leaders involved, including Via Campesina’s Rafael Alegria and labour activist Juan Barahona, are members of the Libre party and known Zelaya supporters (as one El Heraldo headline put it, “Anarchist and political interests behind invasions in northern Honduras.”)

Labor leader Juan Barahona countered these critiques, stating that there is no political objective to the land occupations, and that it is fundamentally an issue about land rights.

President Lobo’s position is unclear. The head of one prominent business association, the ANDI, said Thursday that Lobo supported the land “robberies” if he planned to meet with the peasant organizations (the ANDI director is a known critic of President Lobo). His allegations prompted a quick rebuttal from a presidential spokesperson and the current head of agrarian agency the INA, but the rebuttal did not clarify Lobo’s position before this latest wave of land conflict.

So far, even as police has evicted the land squatters, there has been few reports of violence between the protestors and the government. Violence is a typical by-product of Honduras’ tense land conflicts: the AP reports that 55 people (including farmers and members of the security forces) have been killed in land disputes in the past two years.

News Briefs
  • Colombia’s Director of Police Oscar Naranjo will retire, President Juan Manuel Santos announced Thursday. Naranjo reportedly says he is stepping down in order to allow other police officers ascend in rank. Naranjo was named Police Director in 2007 and is considered one of Colombia’s most popular and effective public officials. In 2010, the International Association of Chiefs of Police named him the best police officer in the world. La Silla Vacia reports that Naranjo’s exit will instigate a “race” among those hoping to replace him: the top candidates include the current head of security of the presidential headquarters, the Casa de Nariño, and the man whom La Silla Vacia identifies as Naranjo’s personal pick, Rodolfo Palomino, currently the police fourth-in-command. Meanwhile, the popular Naranjo says he has no intentions of running for office, reports Semana
  • Former Venezuelan Supreme Court judge Eladio Aponte spoke with a Miami-based online TV station Soi TV about corruption in President Hugo Chavez’s administration. El Universal has a full transcript, while the 41-minute video is available on Youtube. As previously reported, Aponte was stripped from his position in March after evidence emerged that he helped known drug trafficker Walid Makled access a government ID. He left Venezuela for Costa Rica, and recently left that country in a DEA-chartered flight, reportedly prepared to share intelligence with US authorities on the Venezuela military’s involvement in drug trafficking. During the TV interview, Aponte said that Venezuela’s justice system is manipulated like “plasticine,” and that the government frequently instructs judges how to rule on legal cases. He added that he was once forced to release a military official charged with smuggling cocaine. The Chavez government has said that the US plans to use Aponte as a political tool to attack it. Reuters has a nice summary of the affair. 
  • The Washington Post with profiles of the Secret Service supervisors forced to retire after a group of agents brought prostitutes back to their hotels rooms in Cartagena last week. 
  • Infolatam reports that Bolivia’s President Evo Morales is trying to convince indigenous communities in the TIPNIS national park to sign an agreement committing not to participate in an upcoming protest. Bolivia was set to build a highway that passed through the TIPNIS reserve, but Morales was forced to cancel the project after a series of massive protests last year. 
  • As government and business officials prepare to meet this weekend at the World Economic Forum in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Fox News Latino with a report on how Asia is overtaking the US as Latin America’s primary trading partner. 
  • Jamaica will establish a task force intended to fight lottery scams, reports the AP. The “lotto gangs” call people overseas, frequently elderly US residents, and inform them that they have won the lottery,  and need to wire funds to Jamaica in order to collect the winnings. The AP reports that these scammers could be collecting as much as $300 million a year. Along with the task force, the government will introduce tougher legislation against lottery scammers, reports the Jamaica Gleaner
  • From Chile, CIPHER with a two-part series (one and two) on an intelligence document authored by a jailed ex-military officer and Pinochet supporter, addressed to President Sebastian Piñera. CIPHER notes that some of the suggestions made in the intelligence briefing -- to replace one government official with another -- later came to pass.
  • Rio de Janeiro residents rioted and burned a bus after a young girl was injured as a result of police gunfire, reports the AP.
  • Residents in Cheran, Mexico, took 16 police temporarily hostage, demanding that authorities investigate a recent attack that left eight people dead in the town. Last year, Cheran barricaded itself in protest of illegal loggers, who cut down the trees which the community depends on. Some Cheran residents have said that the loggers have the backing of criminal gang the Familia Michoacan. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

As Secret Service Investigates Cartagena Case, Sex Worker Speaks Out

The New York Times interviewed a sex worker at the center of the scandal over Obama’s Secret Service agents using prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia.

According to the woman, who describes herself as an escort, she and a friend were approached by the group of Americans in a bar. She said that the agents did not say they were in town with Obama, and that they were “very discreet.”

By the woman’s version of events, she and one agent had agreed a price of $800 for sex, but the next morning he offered her only $30. There was a dispute, and he used foul language and ordered her out of the room, she says. The woman asked a local police officer to help her, and the US man and his colleagues eventually handed over $225 -- less than the amount she says she has to pay a man who helps her find customers.

Three of the 11 Secret Service agents involved in the scandal are leaving the agency -- resigning, being fired, or retiring, reports the NYT. All are on administrative leave. Ten military service personnel in Colombia are also under investigation. The 21 men are thought to have brought 21 women back to the hotel -- some of the men claim they did not know the women were prostitutes.

In their investigations of the incident, the Secret Service are trying to ascertain facts such as whether the men handed over any security information, and whether they had gone out with the intention of finding prostitutes. Senator Charles Grassley said it does not appear that sensitive information was compromised by the women coming back to the hotel.

Obama said Tuesday that he has confidence in Secret Service director Mark Sullivan, who acted quickly in response to the situation.

However, as commentators have pointed out, it seems highly unlikely that the use of prostitutes by the Secret Service in Cartagena was an isolated incident. Senator Susan Collins, of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told Reuters that the service was going through its records for hints of any similar past incidents, and argued that they should look for cases of employees being told off by supervisors, even informally. "Think of all the missions and countries that the Secret Service visits in advance of the president's trips," she said. Senator Charles Grassley told reporters, "My concern is, is this a culture that goes beyond 11 people?"

At Colombia Reports, Adriaan Alsema puts the incident in context of Colombia’s development, noting that the $35 million the country spent on the Summit of the Americas “unfortunately turned out to be a very expensive campaign to promote the country's already-flourishing sex tourism industry.” Instead of showcasing Colombia’s remarkable transformation over the last decade, the summit put the spotlight on the sex business, which he says has “an adverse effect on the development of Colombia's tourism industry, the country's economy as a whole and worse of all the dignity of Colombia's women,” tens of thousands of whom make a living as sex workers. He calls on the government to implement a more effective labor policy, to work break the links between tourism and the sex trade, and provide more programs to help women who want to get out of prostitution.

News Briefs

  • Spain is threatening to retaliate for Argentina’s proposed nationalization of oil and gas company YPF, which is owned by Spanish firm Repsol. This could affect trade, energy and resource relations between the two countries, reports the Wall Street Journal. From Brazil, the NYT’s Simon Romero reports that commentators in that country are perturbed by the news, with one financial expert comparing it to President Juan Peron’s nationalizations in the 1940s and 50s. There are concerns that Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras, which has extensive operations in Argentina, could also be vulnerable to expropriation. Romero reports on mixed responses from across the region, with Chile’s economy minister saying it could hurt investor confidence in Latin America, while Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon also criticized the move. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica, in contrast, both expressed their support. The concerns about investor confidence are backed by a report in the NYT, which says that the move could hit the plans of Spanish companies, many of which have been trying to reassure anxious investors that Latin America will help them stay afloat.
    As context, the WSJ offers a history of state takeovers in Latin America.
  • The AP says that Asian investment in Latin America could be a second gold rush for the region, with Asian investors flooding into “manufacturing, construction and other industries, particularly in up-and-coming countries such as Brazil, Peru and Mexico.”
  • InSight Crime says reports that one of Colombia’s biggest drug traffickers has turned himself in to the US authorities are probably false. Javier Calle Serna, alias "Comba," heads the Rastrojos gang along with his brother, and the pair have been reported to be negotiating their surrender for some months. Javier Calle Serna is not in US custody, as media have reported, according to InSight Crime’s sources. The website says the rumors might be aimed at causing panic in the Colombian underworld.
  • Rio Real looks at Rio de Janeiro government plans to develop the city’s favelas, investing in public transport, sewage systems, and public health, as well as cutting the territory occupied by the settlements. Julia Michaels says that the culture of the favela has a sense of community and shared space that could be destroyed through the urban integration programs. She says that the “authoritarian style of some aspects of Rio de Janeiro’s transformation inspires distrust,” and that some fear the moves are inspired by the Olympics, not by a drive to improve quality of life in Rio.
  • The Haitian government and UN officials in the country have criticized the storming of the legislature by armed men agitating for the revival of the country’s army, reports the AP.
  • IDL-Reporteros has transcripts of radio conversations between representatives companies working on the Camisea gas pipeline, and Shining Path rebels, who had kidnapped 36 of their workers. The last conversation was on Friday, when the interlocutors decided to switch to communicating by cell phone. IDL-Reporteros notes that the talks apparently continued, and that the next day the hostages were freed. There have been suggestions that the companies paid a ransom, though this has been denied by them and by the government.
  • In Guatemala, the remains of 99 victims of the civil war have been dug up in a military base in the city of Coban, reports the AP.
  • A US citizen was found with 280,000 rounds of ammunition in his vehicle, trying to cross into Mexico from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Police said it was the largest ammo seizure in the city crossing in recent memory, reports the AP.
  • Today, WOLA releases a study on security and migration on the Mexico-US border.
  • A dispute over illegal logging in Cheran, south Mexico, has flared up, with gunmen shooting dead eight local men, reports the Miami Herald.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Venezuela Judge Turns DEA Informant

A former Supreme Court judge in Venezuela is now in Washington D.C. cooperating with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), possibly sharing intelligence on high-ranking military and government officials involved in the drug trade.

Ex-judge Eladio Aponte, who left Venezuela for Costa Rica on April 2, was flown out of the Central American country Tuesday night on a DEA-chartered flight.

An unnamed source told El Nuevo Herald that Aponte is “providing detailed information on drug trafficking operations in Venezuela.” Aponte reportedly pointed the finger at General Henry Rangel Silva, the recently appointed Minister of Defense whom the US Department of Treasury says has worked with Colombian rebel group the FARC in trafficking drugs. Aponte also reportedly said that one of President Hugo Chavez’s closest allies, Diosdado Cabello, recently named the head of the ruling party, also has links to the drug trade. Aponte also named General Cliver Alcala, another military official sanctioned by the US for allegedly establishing a drugs-for-guns trade with the FARC.

One question is how reliable Aponte’s allegations may be, or whether he has a political ax to grind. Aponte was removed in office on March 20, after evidence emerged that he helped Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled secure official documents needed to run Makled’s businesses. Notably, Aponte was once in charge of assigning judges in Venezuela’s border states with Colombia, where many of the main cocaine-trafficking routes are found.

If Aponte is now in the US collaborating with the DEA, this may have been the exact outcome that some Venezuelan officials arguably wanted to avoid with Makled. After Makled’s arrest in 2011, he spoke openly about the involvement of the security forces and part of the political establishment in drug trafficking, claiming to possess compromising videos that showed members of the Chavez government involved in drug deals. When the Colombian government chose to extradite Makled to Venezuela instead of the US, where he is also wanted on drug charges, it may have been a significant political win for those officials who wanted to avoid having Makled’s intelligence fall in US hands.

Opposition politician Juliio Montoya told El Nuevo Herald that Aponte, Makled, and others in the military and political establishment created a drug cartel that rivals the power of Colombia’s Medellin Cartel. But even as Aponte has proved willing to collaborate the DEA, the challenge will be deciphering whether his charges are fully accurate, or whether he is playing a larger political game.

News Briefs

  • Haiti’s President Michel Martelly was diagnosed with a blood clot in the lung, possibly the cause of the chest pains which prevented him from attending last weekend’s Summit of the Americas, reports the AP. While receiving treatment in a Miami hospital, several dozen former soldiers and other gunmen stormed Haiti’s parliament, stating that they were opposed to the government’s plan to shut down their illicit training camps. According to the Miami Herald, the ex-soldiers arrived in busloads and many were armed.
  • 14 dismembered bodies were found in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, reports the LA Times. Authorities said that the victims either belonged to the Zetas or the Gulf Cartel, groups that have traditionally battled for control of the city, reports Milenio. The deaths could be related to the Sinaloa Cartel’s reported attempt to establish a foothold in Nuevo Laredo, as signaled by a banner discovered a few weeks ago, which hinted at the Sinaloans’ intentions to fight the Zetas for dominance in the area.
  • A new poll shows Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate Enrique Peña Nieto with an approximate 20 percent lead over his rival, National Action Party (PAN) candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota. The poll has Peña Nieto leading with 40 percent support, reports Reuters.
  • The Council on Foreign Relations considers a poll that states 80 percent of Mexicans are poor, observing that this number consists of the 52 million Mexicans which the government officially considers below the poverty line, added to the 40 million citizens which the government census considers “vulnerable to becoming poor.”
  • InSight Crime debunks reports that the Zetas have established an alliance with the Mara Salvatrucha street gang in Guatemala.
  • Reuters on how President Hugo Chavez’s health struggles may be affecting his political campaign, noting that the president has kept on a heavy workload even while flying back and forth between Cuba and Venezuela for treatment. One analyst summaries the dilemma succinctly: "He needs to be the strong Chavez like always, leading his followers in the street with his enthusiasm and charisma. But he also needs to take care of himself because the election is not just for one day, it's for six years.”
  • Bolivia made five arrests in connection to the deaths of two journalists in El Alto, one of the most violent suburbs in La Paz. The two were strangled to death in February in an assault believed to be connected to street crime, not their journalistic work.
  • Colombian newspaper El Espectador reports that one of the leaders of Colombia’s most powerful new generation criminal gangs, the Rastrojos, turned himself in to US authorities Tuesday night. The brothers who lead the Rastrojos, Javier Antonio Calle Serna (who reportedly turned himself in) and Luis Enrique, have been in negotiations with US authorities, including the DEA, for months.
  • The New York Times on the ongoing investigation into misconduct by US Secret Service agents in Cartagena during last weekend’s Summit. The Times says that investigators have already established the identities of the prostitutes whom as many as 11 US agents took back to their hotel, as the women were required to leave their IDs at the hotel desk. Prostitution is legal in Cartagena, and the Times visits a couple of expensive bordellos where the agents may have met the women, and talks to several female escorts who “say all the international attention might be good for business. They shrug their shoulders at all the fuss.” The mayor of Cartagena and other city officials echo a similar view in an AP interview. The article notes that prostitution comes in many forms in Cartagena, from expensive escort services to child prostitution. The city is a such a magnet for the sex trade that “Prostitutes are even bused in from elsewhere in Colombia for conventions that attract large groups of foreigners.”