Thursday, May 31, 2012

FARC Free French Journalist

After 33 days in captivity, yesterday the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) freed French journalist Romeo Langlois in a release overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, former Senator Piedad Cordoba and a representative of the French government. Langlois was then flown to the village of San Isidro in the southern department of Caqueta, where he addressed members of the press.

The journalist spoke relatively highly of his captors, saying he had never been mistreated or tied up, and told those gathered that the guerrillas had always treated him “like a guest.” El Tiempo notes that, upon returning to Bogota, the reporter said the only thing he missed during his time in the jungle was the feeling of being cold.

His lack of harsh words for the guerrillas did not go unnoticed by ex-President Alvaro Uribe, never one to miss out on an opportunity to speak his mind. Uribe spoke out against Langlois via his Twitter account yesterday, accusing him of “identifying with terrorism.” “Langlois: One thing is journalistic curiosity and another is identifying with terrorism,” wrote the former Colombian president in one tweet, following it up with “Langlois, what were you doing in Colombia, what relationship did you have with the Farc? Some of us are aware that you know how to lie.”

He did offer some criticism of the armed group for using his release as a propaganda tool, however. According to the AP, the FARC freed Langlois “on their movement's 48th anniversary on a specially built stage, hanging pro-peace banners in this remote southern hamlet and organizing a barbecue.” Langlois also vehemently denied reports that he had been wearing a military uniform at the time of his capture, rumor the rebels initially used to portray him as a “prisoner of war.”

On the whole, Langlois used his time in the spotlight to advocate for peace, reminding the press and members of the humanitarian team of the brutal reality of war in Colombia, which he characterized as “the poor killing the poor." “The conflict has become invisible, we [as journalists] have to think about how to cover it” he said, adding that “the government has sold the idea that this conflict is over, but it isn’t. He also told reporters that the guerrillas are “tired of war,” and had given him a letter to present to French President François Hollande, presumably asking for his help in pressuring the Colombian government to begin peace negotiations.

News Briefs

  • The New York Times covers an emerging scandal in Brazil, in which a Supreme Federal Court justice has accused former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of trying to postpone a trial over a vote-buying scandal in Lula’s Worker’s Party.  In turn, Lula accused Mendes of having potential links to imprisoned gambling kingpin Carlinhos Cachoeira, who is accused of paying off numerous officials in turn for political favors. The paper notes that this latest scandal is yet another obstacle to President Dilma Rousseff’s attempts to change public perception of widespread corruption in the government.
  • The Times’ Room for Debate Forum has a series of short op-eds featuring differing answers to the question: “Should Latin America end the war on drugs?” Guatemalan President Otto Perez, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope, and the Drug Policy Alliance’s Ethan Nadelmann are among the debaters.
  • While Mexican drug cartels have attempted to address the public though narco-banners and YouTube videos, it seems a new medium has been adopted in Culiacan. Suspected drug traffickers dropped thousands of leaflets from an airplane on the northern city yesterday, reports the AP. The leaflets accuse the governor of Sinaloa state of links to drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
  • The Sabritas company, which distributes snack products like Ruffles, Doritos and Cheetos, may have been targeted by organized crime. Five of the company's distribution centers were attacked and set on fire in the states of Guanajuato and Michoacan over the weekend, according to CNN.
  • Peruvian police on Wednesday arrested the mayor of Espinar for his role in leading heated anti-mining protests in the area, which resulted in the government declaring a state of emergency this week. Some 50 police stormed City Hall to arrest Mayor Oscar Mollohuanca while he sat in a meeting with local community groups, Peru’s RPP reports.
  • The Andean Information Network as a nice overview of the current divisions in Bolivia’s police force. Although President Morales appointed Víctor Maldonado as the new national police commander on May 21st, he does not have widespread support in the institution.
  • Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather has entered the Chavez health speculation game, reporting that the Venezuelan leader’s has a terminal form of cancer. Citing “a highly respected source close to Chavez” who has had access to his medical records, Rather wrote on the website for his HDNet show Dan Rather Reports that the president has an aggressive form of metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma cancer that has “entered the end stage.” Meanwhile, the International Business Times takes a look at the figures who might follow Chavez if he dies or is too weak to run in October’s election. The paper quotes Venezuela expert David Smilde, who says that the weak point in Chavez’s governance style may be his insistence on concentrating too much power at the top, much like another well-known leftist revolutionary. "Just look at Lenin," Smilde said. "Chávez has done the same thing, concentrating power at the top and expelling political opponents. When Lenin got sick and Stalin took over, he realized he had created a monster, but by then it was too late."
  • Reuters profiles the work of Guatemala’s bold attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, in prosecuting civil war-era human rights abuses and drug trafficking networks alike. While the number of cases resolved by the country’s traditionally rickety justice system has nearly doubled under Paz y Paz’s watch, she has made herself a number of enemies among the political and military elite.
  • The Guardian reports on how Haiti’s rush to develop its mineral resources could have a minimal effect on poverty in the country, as mining projects in the country have a history of benefiting only a wealthy few.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Peru Declares State of Emergency After Mining Conflict

Calm has reportedly returned to Peru’s southern Espinar province, after nine days of intense protests against a proposed mining project that left two people dead in clashes with police. At least another 25 people were reported arrested, including a leader of the anti-mining protesters.

The confrontations between police and protesters broke out Monday, reportedly leaving some 76 civilians and police injured. Police told EFE they were forced to begin firing into the crowd because they were being attacked by stones and other crude weapons. The scale of the conflict prompted the government to declare a 30-day state of emergency the following day, giving police the power to detain people without a warrant, while also suspending the freedom to assembly.

As the LA Times World Now blog observes, President Ollanta Humala may have exacerbated tensions when he described the protesters as “leftist radicals” over the weekend. The protesters argue that the $1.5 billion expansion of a copper mine project, handled by Swiss-based mining firm Xstrata, will pollute local rivers. Critics also say the project fails to do enough to bolster the local economy, and have demanded that Xstrata increase the amount of royalties paid to the government from 3 percent to 30, according to Americas Quarterly.

But Humala may have good reason to take a tough stance against the protesters. Another major mining project, the Conga gold mine in Cajamarca province, was basically derailed last year after fierce social unrest, which also drove the government to declare a temporary state of emergency.

News Briefs
  • The New York Times with an interesting feature on how the arrest of four formerly high-ranking military officers in Mexico may again shake US trust in Mexico’s military, a major recipient of aid under the Merida Initiative. The article describes an “awkward, tense” relationship between US law enforcement officials and the Mexican army, partly due to the common belief among some US officials that the military does not act on the intelligence tips that the US provides. Notably, in 2009, the US chose to go to the Mexican Navy with intelligence about the whereabouts of drug trafficker Arturo Beltran Leyva, which led to the successful raid which killed the crime lord. 
  • The AP profiles the Shining Path faction that has steadily grown in strength in the Apurimac and Ene river valley (known as the VRAE). The group has delivered a couple of embarrassing blows against Humala’s government this year, most notably the kidnapping of 36 construction workers last month, followed by the government’s botched rescue mission. The article sketches a brief biography of the Quispe Palomino brothers, leaders of the VRAE group, a second generation family of Shining Path combatants. The brothers have managed to rebuild the Shining Path’s strength thanks to their forced recruitment of young children and their profits from drug trafficking, taxing smugglers $3 for each kilogram of cocaine moved through their territory. 
  • Monday, Mexico’s four presidential candidates had a tense meeting with peace leader Javier Sicilia and other activists whose relatives were killed or disappeared during Mexico’s drug war. The BBC reports that Sicilia criticized all candidates, saving some of his harshest words for front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto, asking him "How many criminals have gone unpunished and are still in your party?" Animal Politico has a detailed summary of the panel, transcribing some of the activists’ most important questions and the candidates’ answers. Elsewhere, Reuters notes that according to the most recent opinion poll, Peña Nieto has suffered his biggest drop in support since the presidential campaigns officially began in March. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate’s numbers slipped two percentage points compared to the last poll, and now stands at 35.6 percent. 
  • Another recent poll shows Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with a slim lead over his rival Henrique Capriles, reports the Miami Herald. 50 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Chavez, compared with 45 percent for Capriles. Notably, the poll found that Capriles would win by double digit margins if Chavez were forced to withdraw from the race, and name a successor -- be it his brother Adan or his longtime political ally National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello -- to run in his place. Capriles appeared to increase the pressure on the Chavez campaign when he presented a vague plan for tackling insecurity, reports El Nuevo Herald. While his proposals lacked details, the issue is among the more sensitive ones for the Chavez administration, and the perception of rising insecurity may arguably convince more voters to cast their ballots for Capriles this October. 
  • El Nuevo Herald on a student protest movement in Mexico that initially began as demonstrations against what students said was biased media coverage of the presidential elections. The protests gained momentum after 131 students appeared in a Youtube video, criticizing PRI candidate Peña Nieto for ducking out of a tough question-and-answer session at an elite Mexico City university. The protest movement is now calling itself, “I Am 132.”
  • The Honduras Attorney General’s Office announced they had presented charges against three suspects detained Sunday, accused of involvement in the kidnapping and death of radio journalist Alfredo Villatoro Rivera.
  • An opposition senator in Bolivia said he had taken refuge in the Brazilian Embassy because he feared reprisals for denouncing links between public officials and the drug trade, reports AFP. According to BBC Mundo, some 20 opposition senators have left Bolivia seeking refuge in other countries since President Evo Morales came to power in 2006. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Senator Roger Pinto’s request “highlights the challenges Brazil faces stepping into a role as regional leader, a spot once reserved for the U.S. Granting Mr. Pinto asylum would surely rankle Mr. Morales, who has threatened to nationalize Brazilian oil and gas assets in the past. At the same time, if Brazil denies Mr. Pinto's request, it could fuel critics who say Brazil is indifferent to human-rights issues.”
  • EFE reports that the Mexican army found some 1.5 million liters of stolen fuel in Veracruz state. Oil theft has grown dramatically in Mexico over the past few years, with some authorities saying that criminal group the Zetas has grown increasingly reliant on the practice. 
  • InSight Crime profiles Honduras’ new police commander, who has been described as a fierce fighter of corruption and has even gained praise from Honduras’ top human rights commission, even though he is dogged by allegations of extrajudicial killings. 
  • AFP on the discovery of a “narco-sub” capable of carrying up to 12 tons of cocaine off Colombia’s Pacific coast. Colomba has seized some 76 submarine-like vessels since 1993, according to the military, although few of those have been fully submersible. 
  • The Guardian reports on how the Dominican Republic’s booming organic banana trade is actually dependent on poorly treated and badly paid migrant labour; many workers are Haitian. 
  • The Christian Science Monitor Latin America blog with a post, originally published at the Devil’s Excrement, describing an evening of medicine, gas, and food shortages in Venezuela’s capital.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

FARC to Free French Journalist, As President Legislates for Peace

Colombia’s FARC rebels have said they will free French journalists Romeo Langlois on Wednesday, after holding him prisoner for more than a month.

Langlois surrendered to the guerrillas when they attacked an army patrol he was embedded with on April 28. The FARC have repeatedly said they would free him, but the date of the release was only given in a statement dated Saturday on website www.resistencia-colombia.orgreports the WSJ. They will hand the journalist over to a committee made up of representatives of the Red Cross, activist group Colombians for Peace, and French delegates. Colombians for Peace leader, former Senator Piedad Cordoba, told press that “Tuesday at midday we should know the nearby city where we have to travel towards and Wednesday in the morning we’ll receive the exact coordinates,” reports Colombia Reports. Military operations will be suspended in the surrounding area until 7 a.m. Thursday.

On Monday the rebels released a proof-of-life video which apparently showed Langlois to be in good spirits, while having a wound he sustained during the clash attended to by rebels. "It's weird. Usually I ask the questions. I am the journalist, but ok," the French reporter is seen telling a female guerrilla, in the footage which appeared to be shot soon after he was taken captive, according to Colombia Reports, which has posted the video.

The holding of Langlois was seen by some as the FARC reneging on their statement that they would no longer carry out kidnapping for ransom, thereby holding up efforts for peace. The Economist looks at the efforts of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to push through a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to set more lenient criteria for dealing with ex-guerrillas if serious peace talks do get underway.

“These proposals have aroused the opposition of some strange bedfellows, including Alvaro Uribe, Mr Santos’s hardline predecessor, and Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based pressure group,” notes the Economist, with both sides arguing that the move could allow impunity for rebels who have committed crimes against humanity.

Previous legislation dealing with the disarming of paramilitary groups was deeply flawed, with only seven convictions achieved since the peace process in the mid 2000s. “But the debate in Colombian society about how to strike a balance between justice and peace will continue,” says the magazine.

News Briefs

  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has vetoed parts of a bill regulating the protection of the Amazon rainforest, including an amnesty for illegal loggers. Environmentalist groups had asked her to veto the entire thing, reports the BBC. On Monday she presented a final version of the bill, which will still reduce the amount of forest that farmers must conserve and cut penalties for those that break the law. This may have been as much as the president could do politically, reports the LA Times; “Rousseff often has difficulty corralling a coalition to support her positions and may not have been able to hold back revisions to the forestry law any more than she did, analysts say.”
  • The Miami Herald reports that an undersea fiber-optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela, trumpeted as a move to bring faster Internet access to the island, is in service, but only for the use of the government. Last week, the WSJ published a report asking what had become of the cable after it arrived to the island in February 2011, saying “maddening, nobody has explained what happened to the much-ballyhooed $70 million project.” According to a Venezuelan official, the cable is in operation, but its benefits have not been made available to the Cuban public.
  • The New York Times reports on a virtual reality program being used to treat residents of Ciudad Juarez, north Mexico, who have been traumatized by the violence of the drug war that has enveloped the city in recent years. Patients work with therapists and watch scenes of soldiers battling gunmen, a safehouse for kidnap victims, an armed robbery, or a police checkpoint, with the aim of forcing them to relive and cope with their ordeals. They have tasks like revisiting the site of their trauma - this is important, according to the therapists, “because unlike Iraq war veterans who eventually leave the battle zone, patients in Ciudad Juarez continue to live in danger.”
  • A member of the Knights Templar, a drug trafficking organization based in west Mexico, has been detained along with several other individuals over an arson attack on Sabritas, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, reports the AP. Warehouses of the potato chip company were firebombed on Friday and Saturday in the states of Michoacan and Guanajuato, in what authorities said was part of extortion attempts. It is noteworthy that the criminal group is apparently targeting such a large organization, as usually smaller businesses would be seen as presenting an easier target. 
  • The New York Times reports on Peru’s efforts to cope with the legacy of the brutal conflict in the 1980s and 1990s, with many alarmed by efforts to found a political party linked to the Shining Path guerrilla group -- “many of the hundreds of thousands of signatures the former guerrillas collected came from college students too young to recall the turmoil of the war.” See InSight Crime's look at the organization, Movadef, which has been banned from registering itself as a political party.
  • The NYT reports on the work of the Border Patrol at the US-Canada border on the Olympic Peninsula, far west of Washington state. The number of agents has risen 10-fold in six years, which according to some is because “the peninsula has ... become an unlikely new frontier in the effort to fight illegal immigration from Latin America.” The increased detentions of and pressure on the undocumented have driven many away, leaving local schools short of pupils, local shops with dropping custom, and trailer parks half-empty, says the report.
  • With more on migration, the NYT has a piece on stash houses for immigrants who make their way over the US border into Texas, which agents are now detecting more frequently, and have more people crammed into each one. Often the migrants are kept in overcrowded conditions, with 60 to a three-bedroom house, sometimes beaten and abused. The phenomenon has declined in Arizona and California in recent years, but officials were not certain of the reasons for this. Some told the newspaper that people smugglers were desperately trying to increase profits in the face of falling migration over the Mexican border.
  • The Economist looks at Danilo Medina’s win in the Dominican Republic presidential elections, saying that he may find himself governing under the shadow of predecessor Leonel Fernandez, from the same party, who has held office for 12 of the last 16 years. The current first lady will be Medina’s vice president, and there is every chance that Fernandez will run for the presidency again in four years. Their party, the PLD, dominates all branches of the government, appointing the members of the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal, as well as the body which oversees government accounts.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics looks at the State Department’s 2011 Human Rights Report, released Thursday, criticizing the Honduras section for stating that the government of that country took important steps to strengthen human rights last year. The Lobo government's appointment of a minister for justice and human rights is “at best a symbolic nod to human rights, without effect in the real world, and at worst -- as here -- serves as a kind of blind to serious assessment of the government's abysmal human rights record.”
  • The Washington Post has a beginners’ guide to the Mexican presidential elections, and a piece on leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is trying to “repackage himself as the wise uncle that Mexico needs to take itself into the 21st century.”
  • El Salvador’s Contrapunto has a piece on the presidency of Uruguay’s Jose “Pepe” Mujica, who it says donates 90 percent of his salary to charity.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mexico's PRI Party Faces Corruption Claims, Protests as Election Approaches

The PRI party, which held Mexico’s presidency for seven decades ending in 2000, says it will suspend a former governor accused of taking bribes from drug cartels, in an effort to assuage concerns that its return to power would mean a return to cooperation with criminal groups.

From 1999 to 2004, Tomas Yarrington was governor of border state Tamaulipas, one of the parts of the country worst hit by drug violence in recent years. In January this year, there were reports that he along with the two other most recent Tamaulipas governors, all members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) , were under investigation by Mexico’s attorney general for taking bribes from cartels.  In February, US federal documents accused Yarrington of accepting millions from the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, as the LA Times reported.

On Tuesday, US prosecutors moved to confiscate more than $7 million in property owned by the former governor or his associates in Texas, which they say were purchased with drug money. The following day, the PRI announced it was suspending his membership until the accusations were resolved, reports the AP. Yarrington denies the accusations, and has claimed that he does not own the properties in question,reports the AP.

The PRI is especially sensitive to such allegations as it has a good chance of winning back power in the July presidential elections. Its candidate Enrique Peña Nieto iscurrently leading in the polls, with 46 percent against 26 percent for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and 24.6 percent for Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party (PAN).

As the LA Times put it, the PRI “hopes to ride back to power behind its handsome young presidential candidate and a rejuvenated image.” However, the photogenic Peña is dogged by the questionable past of his party. Mexico’s drug trafficking industry grew to its present size and power under the PRI, which is widely considered to have cooperated with and turned a blind eye to the cartels. “This was not just a case of insufficiently robust policy or negligent law enforcement, but of deep-rooted political corruption,” according to InSight Crime.

Peña recently released a 10-point plan promising to respect civil liberties, in an effort to placate critics who say the party remains oppressive and corrupt. This has not quieted protests against the party. University students across the country are holding demonstrations claiming that the country’s two biggest television networks are working to get the PRI back into power. Thousands marched through Mexico City on Wednesday, with smaller simultaneous marches in cities across the country, reports the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal says that the marches “signal the first apparent threat to [Peña's] expected victory during an otherwise muted campaign.”

The protesters are angry about the election coverage of Televisa and TV Azteca, which control broadcasts to 95 percent of Mexican homes. Peña is married to a Televisa soap opera star, reports the WSJ, and “During the PRI's long run in power, Televisa largely acted as the party's propaganda arm.”

The protesters have complained about TV Azteca’s decision not to broadcast some presidential debates, which are considered a weak point for Peña. Meanwhile, reports by Televisa have suggested the protests were organized by Peña’s nearest rival, Lopez Obrador.

Peña is trying to distance himself from his party’s past. As InSight Crime notes, he has “repeatedly rejected any talk of a pact with organized crime, and has made a series of appearances in the US in which he essentially promised a continuation of [President Felipe] Calderon's direct combat of organized crime.”

News Briefs

  • Barack Obama has a strong lead over Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney among Latino voters, at 61 to 27 percent, reports NBC. This may be more to do with the Republicans’ wilful disregard for this demographic group than with Obama’s policies, as noted on previous posts. The NYT hosts a debate on securing the Hispanic vote, with one ex-government official commenting “While Romney may favor 'self-deportation,' Obama has actually deported more illegal immigrants than any president in history.”
  • The NYT has a story on Honduras’ Mosquito Coast, the site of a DEA-supported drug raid earlier this month which left four dead. Damien Cave reports that some residents of the remote village of Ahuas burnt down the houses of their neighbors after the raid in retaliation against those working with drug traffickers. In Gracias a Dios, the province where Ahuas is located, “most live in villages accessible only by boat or plane, scratching out subsistence lives … Government is essentially absent.” Unloading drug flights provides much-needed work for residents.
  • The Washington Post reports that the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel are “engaged in all-out war, and the most spectacular battles are being fought for the cameras,” with many victims likely innocent unconnected with the drug trade. The Post says that the drug gangs are seeking to outdo each other by leaving piles of headless bodies in public locations, in what the authorities call a “gruesome version of text messaging.”
  • Guatemalan ex-military leader Efrain Rios Montt is set to face a second trial for genocide over the 1982 Dos Erres massacre. A judge ruled Monday that Rios, could stand trial over the killings, despite his lawyers’ argument that he was not present when they took place. The decision was met with applause from the families of victims who were in the courtroom, reports the BBC. The 85-year-old is facing further genocide charges, placed against him in January.
  • An Argentine judge said that an explosive device found in a Buenos Aires theater, where Colombian ex-President Alvaro Uribe was due to be attending a function, was only a noise bomb designed to make a loud explosion, and would not have caused injuries, reports Reuters.
  • As expected, Secret Service Director Mark J. Sullivan told Congress that agents’ use of prostitutes in Cartagena before the Conference of the Americas had not caused a security breach. He maintained that it did not point to a systemic issue in the service, blaming “the environment” in Cartagena for the agents doing “dumb things,” as the NYT reports.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics takes a look at newly appointed police chief Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla Valladares, who it says has been accused of being a member of "Los Magnificos," a group of former and current police officers which carried out an assassination campaign against Honduran youths. It points to a profile of Bonilla by El Faro, also available in English via InSight Crime. “El Tigre is a colossal, fat man, almost 1.9 meters tall, with a hard face, as if it were sculpted out of rock, which reminds you of the Mexican Olmec heads. Among his colleagues he is famed for his bravery, and he likes to be known in this way. ‘Everyone knows you don’t mess with me,’ he says often.”
  • Mexican authorities have arrested a suspect in the killing of Bradley Roland Will, a US journalists shot dead while covering protests in Oaxaca, southern Mexico,reports the NYT. There is no evidence yet linking the arrested man to government agents or to the protesters, according to the report.
  • A gunfight in a prison in the northern Mexico state of Tamaulipas has left three inmates dead and six wounded, reports the AP.
  • The LA Times reports on an economic boom in Brazil's historically poor northeast.
  • Sao Paulo transport workers on the metro and commuter train network went on strike yesterday, paralyzing the city and backed up 155 miles of roads, which the AP said sparked a “new round of anger at the government’s failure to invest in infrastructure.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bomb Discovered in Buenos Aires Theater Ahead of Uribe Visit

Argentine police found and deactivated a small bomb in a downtown Buenos Aires theater yesterday, just one day before former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe was scheduled to speak at a management conference there. AFP reports that maintenance and security personnel found the bomb on the second floor of the Grand Rex Theater, where Uribe was set to host a cocktail party.

The discovery comes just a week after a bombing in Bogota aimed at Uribe's former interior minister, Fernando Londoño killed two people and injured Londoño himself.

The federal judge charged with investigating the incident, Judge Norberto Oyarbide, told reporters that the small device was fixed to a cell phone and hidden in a lamp. It was reportedly timed to go off at 4:30 p.m. local time, when the venue would be full of people. "It was a simple device but strong enough to cause the death of people nearby," Oyarbide said.

Security at the theater has been heightened in response to the bomb scare, and Uribe plans to go ahead with the event, but this has done nothing to stop speculation over those behind the attempt. Reuters notes that the top suspects are left wing Colombian rebels in either the FARC or ELN, although neither group has claimed responsibility. The news agency quotes Colombian security analyst Alfredo Rangel, who notes that “The guerrillas have tentacles that reach into other countries. It is to be expected that the FARC would have contacts with extreme leftist groups in Buenos Aires that could have helped with this attack."

Had the bombing gone as planned, it would likely have been extremely harmful to Argentina’s international image, which has already taken a beating due to criticism of President Cristina Fernandez’s economic policies, more confrontational stance on the Falkland Islands issue, and concern over Argentina’s deepening relationship with Iran.

Uribe, meanwhile, has been uncharacteristically silent about the episode. Argentina’s Clarin newspaper reports that the usually vociferous ex-president has not mentioned the bomb scare on his Twitter account, which he updates frequently and has used as a soapbox in the past.

News Briefs
  • More details have emerged about the controversial drug operation that took place in the eastern Honduran town of Ahuas earlier this month. The Associated Press has interviewed residents who claim that the DEA-backed operation which reportedly ended in the death of four innocent civilians was followed by a raid of the town. Locals say that masked drug agents searched their homes and interrogated them, and also claim that many of them were Americans and spoke in English. The allegations raise questions about the United States’ role in fighting drug trafficking in Honduras, and are sure to fuel criticism of US presence in the country.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on Brazil’s ongoing economic slowdown, and President Dilma Rousseff’s attempts to remedy it. On Monday Rousseff announced the latest in a series of stimulus measures intended to boost growth, including $1 billion in tax cuts on car sales as well as relaxed rules on auto financing.
  • Meanwhile, the AP profiles Argentina’s economic woes. While the government projected that the GDP would see 5.1 percent growth this year, analysts say it will be more like 2.5 to 3 percent, a far cry from last year’s 8.9 percent rise.
  • IPS takes a look at attempts by the Caribbean nations of CARICOM to lobby Mexico (current chair of the G20) to promote their interests in the upcoming G20 summit in June. At the top of their agenda is reforming international finance institutions like the World Bank and IMF.
  • Dominican ex-president Hipolito Mejia denounced the results of the recent presidential elections yesterday, calling it "the product of manipulation and an abuse of power." He did not, however, formally challenge the results or call for a recount.
  • Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan is scheduled to testify before Congress today, where he is expected to tell lawmakers that security protocol was not breached during the Cartagena prostitution scandal.
  • The United Nations Committee Against Torture yesterday called on Cuba to provide information about the recent deaths of several political prisoners, as well as the arrests of some 2,400 protestors last year, reports the Miami Herald.  Ironically, Cuban state media outlet Prensa Latina published an article yesterday entitled “Cuba: Over 50 Years without Tortures or Abuse to Prisoners.”
  • AP with a look at how Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul, has made her own mark on Cuban politics in her fight for LGBT rights.
  • The LA Times has a heartwarming piece on FARC hostage Sgt. Jose Libardo Forero, held for 12 years, and his little pet pig named “Josefo,” who Forero credits with keeping him sane during captivity. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Venezuela Sends More Troops to Border after FARC Ambush

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has ordered the armed forces to reinforce the western border after 12 Colombian soldiers died in an attack by rebels, who the authorities said fled into the neighboring country.

The soldiers were ambushed while on patrol near the city of Maicao, in the northeastern province of La Guajira on Monday, leaving four soldiers injured in addition to those killed.

The Colombian Army told the Associated Press that a group of 60-80 rebels had attacked from Venezuelan territory and then retreated back over the border. The authorities have attributed the attack to the FARC’s 59th Front, according to a statement by the Air Force. The 59th Front are based in the Serrania del Perija, a mountain range that runs through the east of the country near the Venezuelan border (see InSight Crime’s map of FARC fronts), and are known to move up and down the border on the Venezuelan side.

Chavez was quick to respond, saying on television that;

"We have stepped up air patrols as of this morning... because we maintain our position, that we will not permit incursions of any armed force, whatever its type might be, into Venezuelan territory," reports the AFP.

"This conflict is not ours.” he added. “We defend peace and insist that our territory is not used by either side in the conflict."

The rebel group has in the past been able to use Venezuela as a site to hide out and recuperate, but since Chavez renewed relations with the neighboring country in 2010 his administration has been increasingly tough on the group, capturing several members.

NGO Nuevo Arco Iris told the AP that the FARC were trying to regain territory in La Guajira which it lost during the 1990s. It is a profitable location for extorting ranchers and miners. The territory is home to many indigenous groups -- the AFP reports that “local mayor Eurpides Pulido condemned the attack, which rocked a quiet and isolated area in which indigenous ethnic Wayuu, Kogi, Ika, Kankuamo and Wiwa people live.”

The attack follows other heavy blows struck by the rebels against the armed forces, with 11 soldiers killed in Arauca, on the Venezuelan border, in March, and 15 killed in the southern Caqueta province in April

The FARC have also been blamed for a bombing in Bogota last Tuesday. El Pais reports that intelligence sources say the group paid 2 billion pesos ($1.1 million) for the attack, ordered by “El Paisa,” who heads the Teofilo Forero Column. Meanwhile the ELN rebels attributed the attack to the “extreme right” in a public statement released over the Internet.

News Briefs

  • Danilo Medina has been celebrating his victory in Sunday's Dominican Republic presidential elections, despite the fact that the opposition is claiming electoral meddling and his main rival has refused to concede, reports the AP. He made a speech to members of his Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), which currently holds the presidency, promising to move forward with his political program, including ending the power blackouts which often hit the island country. Meanwhile the the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD’s), candidate Hipolito Mejia warned that the country was going back to the time of autocratic government, claiming that the PLD had exploited state resources, using military and police repression and vote-buying to ensure victory in the election, reports local media. The Financial Times comments that “Medina’s victory is likely to mean continued stability for one of the Caribbean’s fastest growing economies.”
  • Three Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents are under investigation for allegedly hiring prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, in a separate incident to the one that kicked off the Secret Service furore, reports CNN. Senator Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said "we may be uncovering a troubling culture that spans more than one law enforcement agency.”
  • A piece published by Al-Jazeera looks at the work of the US to expand the use of surveillance technology by security agencies in Latin America, warning that this can lead to abuse in democracies which lack robust laws against the misuse of such infrastructure. It looks at the example of Colombia, where a scandal over the wiretapping of political opponents, Supreme Court judges and journalists under President Alvaro Uribe continues to unfold, and says that the US is currently working on plans to triple the size of Mexico’s surveillance system. “In its zeal to fight the war on drugs, the United States could wind up leading those struggling democratic nations down the dangerous path of further erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law,” warns the report.
  • In response to protests against the likely return of the long-ruling PRI party to power in Mexico, presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto has released a 10-point democracy pledge, promising to respect rights such as free speech, religious liberty and to respect the independence of the judiciary, reports the AP. During his party’s 71 years in power, which ended in 2000, it was accused of corruption, stealing elections, and crushing dissent, making some Mexicans nervous about the prospect of it winning the presidency in July, as Peña enjoys a double-digit lead over his rivals.
  • IPS reports from Santa Cruz Barillas in northwest Guatemala, where locals protesting the construction of a hydroelectric dam clashed with the security forces earlier this month, causing President Otto Perez to declare a state of emergency. One farmer died in the turmoil, and IPS says that 17 community leaders have been arrested. The report notes that one place where a 500-member military brigade is being set up with the stated aim of fighting organized crime, the town of San Juan Sacatepequez near Guatemala City, is the site of social conflict over the construction of a factory. Plaza Publica has published a map showing the location of mining concessions in the country, commenting that wealth in Guatemala has historically been closely tied to land ownership and the exploitation of natural resources.
  • An archbishop who negotiated the truce between rival gangs in El Salvador, which cut murders by some 60 percent over the last two months, has declared that it is time for the Church to step back and the government to take over, reports El Diario de Hoy. Fabio Colindres warned that the Church cannot solve insecurity, and said that the authorities have to continue the mediation process. Last week, Security Minister David Munguia Payes admitted in an interview with El Faro that the work of the negotiators had been part of his strategy for bringing down violence, despite the government’s attempts to distance itself from the truce when it was first announced.
  • The WSJ reports on the Haitian authorities’ crackdown on illicit training camps by groups campaigning for the restitution of the country’s army. By Monday morning, the barracks being used by some 2,500 would-be troops had been emptied by the police, who had support from UN peacekeeping forces, though these forces did not actively take part in the raids. The bust took place after the groups, described as “paramilitary-like” by the AP, had carried out a march early Friday, during which two US citizens were arrested. Prosecutors told the AP that the men could face three years in jail if convicted of conspiracy charges, and that one of them had confessed to having ties to criminal groups.
  • The LA Times blog reports on the killings of six journalists in Mexico in a month, the most recent being Marco Avila, a police reporter who was kidnapped on Thursday in Sonora, and found dead the next day.
  • Argentina could enter a recession this year, according to sources quoted by the AP, while other economists predict growth of 2.5 to 3 percent -- a drop from last year’s 8.9 percent growth. Analysts blame recently imposed currency and trade restrictions, high inflation, price controls and capital flight for the country’s problems.
  • Brazil has doubled its number of high-speed Internet connections to 72 million in the last year, according to President Dilma Rousseff, reports the AP. The government is rolling out a plan to bring cheaper broadband to lower income households, and has signed up 6 million so far. In Cuba, on the other hand, plans to boost the country’s Internet access via an undersea fiber-optic cable seem to have been quietly shelved, reports the WSJ; “maddening, nobody has explained what happened to the much-ballyhooed $70 million project.”

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ruling Party Keeps Power in Dominican Republic Vote

The governing Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) looks set to stay in power in the Dominican Republic, as its candidate Danilo Medina seems to have won the election in the first round.

The polls closed at 6 pm Sunday. In its eighth bulletin, issued in the early hours of this morning, the electoral council said that, with 94.35 percent of the vote counted, Medina had 51.30 percent, reports La Nacion Dominicana. His rival, former President Hipolito Mejia of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), was on 49.91. If either candidate gains more than 50 percent of the vote, then they win the election in the first round. Medina is set to be named as the winner in the coming hours, according to the newspaper.

The other candidates lagged far behind, with none gaining more than 1.4 percent.

The vice presidential candidate of runner-up Mejia, Luis Abinader, said there had been irregularities in the vote, and that his party would give a report on them on Monday,reports the Miami Herald. The party has accused the electoral council itself of carrying out fraud on Medina’s behalf.

The Organization of American States said however that isolated incidents of vote-buying had not been enough to change the outcome, calling the vote a success. TheAssociated Press reports that elections appeared  to go smoothly, with voters forming orderly lines at the booths. One civil society observer said that both main parties had been buying votes on a large scale, according to the AP.

Current President Leonel Fernandez was blocked from standing again, after serving two consecutive four year terms. He also held office from 1996 to 2000, with Mejia taking power 2000-2004.

The Miami Herald characterizes Medina as the stability candidate, and Mejia, who lost office amid a 2004 economic crisis, as a “garrulous populist.” Reuters says there is little difference between the two candidates, both of whose parties have leftist roots, but both of which now favor open markets and a close relationship with the US.

The Wall Street Journal reports on voting difficulties for Haitians living in the Dominican Republic.

News Briefs

  • Semana magazine examines the case of Colombian politician Sigifredo Lopez,who was arrested last week accused of collaborating with FARC rebels in the 2002 kidnapping of himself and 11 colleagues. The provincial lawmakers were kidnapped from a government building in the center of Cali by a group of rebels, who posed as a military unit evacuating them over a bomb threat. All Lopez’s fellow captives were killed in 2009 when the rebels holding them mistook another FARC unit for the army, and executed their hostages. The FARC has a policy of killing prisoners if the government tries to launch a rescue attempt. Lopez says he survived because he was being held separately as a punishment for arguing with the rebels.
    Semana asks why, if Lopez planned the abduction, he would have then faked his own kidnap and stayed in the jungle with the rebels for nearly seven years. It also notes that since his release Lopez has been accused of taking money from a right-wing neo-paramilitary group to fund political campaigns, something that would seem to clash with an alliance with the left-wing rebels. A guerrilla boss who is accusing Lopez of collaborating in the kidnap, meanwhile, has changed his story several times.
    Semana says that Colombians tend to turn their backs on kidnap victims, noting the deep unpopularity of Ingrid Betancourt and the difficulties former captives often face in restarting their lives after they are freed.
    Lopez maintains that he is innocent. His arrest comes after pieces of video recording which allegedly show him giving the rebels information to help with the abduction were found on the computers of slain FARC leader “Alfonso Cano.” Semana says that, if Lopez is shown to have been involved in the kidnapping, “Colombians will be able to say that we still have not hit rock bottom.” The NYT, meanwhile, says the story is “emblematic of the senseless brutality of this country’s long conflict.”
  • The NYT has published a piece describing the horror of a drug raid in Honduras, backed by the DEA, which killed four people on May 11. It describes the death of a 14-year-old boy, dressed in new clothes for a trip into a village on the Mosquito Coast, who was shot dead in front of his mother, along with two pregnant woman and a man. According to US officials, these people, all seated in a boat, were “probably” involved in the drug trade. The Honduran government has said that it is hard to believe that the dead were innocent, because their boat was out on the river in the early hours of the morning, next to a boat that was carrying cocaine. A Honduran Army investigation has concluded, however, that the victims were innocent. Both the Honduran and US governments maintain that US agents did not fire. The NYT piece, which lets the victims of the attack give their side of the story, follows sharp criticismof the newspaper’s previous coverage of the incident, as noted in Friday’s post.
  • A fourth high-ranking Mexican army official was detained last week over accusations that they were involved with the Beltran Leyva Organization, a drug trafficking organization. The NYT says that some analysts have questioned the timing of the arrests, which concern events from last decade and come weeks before the presidential election.
  • The Mexican army has arrested a leader of the Zetas drug gang over the murder of 49 people whose mutilated bodies were left on a highway outside the northern city of Monterrey last weekend. Daniel Jesus Elizondo, alias “El Loco” was arrested Friday, but the capture was only announced Sunday. The local authorities initially accused the Zetas of being responsible for the killing, but public banners signed in the name of the group in the days after the massacre denied that they were involved, and suggested that they were being framed by rivals, as InSight Crime discusses. This theory seemed to be confirmed when the authorities arrested several alleged members of the rival Gulf Cartel, but the new arrest throws it into question once more. 
  • The NYT has a piece on the regeneration of the city of Medellin, Colombia, noting the work that architectural projects have done to raise the city’s image and help cut crime. One recent example is a 1,300 foot escalator going up the hillside in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods of the city, which is helping make the lives of residents easier and connect them to the center.“Architecture alone obviously doesn’t account for the drop in homicides, but the two aren’t unrelated, either,” says the NYT. The city’s utility provider, EPM, is legally has to provide water and electricity to all houses, including those illegally built in hillside slums. This means that “unlike in Bogota, where the worst barrios lack basic amenities, in Medellin there’s a safety net.”
    With slideshow.
  • The NYT reports that the Cuban government’s suggestions of reform to tight restrictions on who can leave the country have raised hopes among residents of the island, and says this could be a milestone in Raul Castro’s reform efforts. It notes, however, that “Cubans question whether the government will part with such a lucrative bureaucracy or risk letting go health workers whose overseas missions earn Cuba billions of dollars each year.”
  • The LA Times reports on the arrest of Victor Emilio Cazares, an alleged Sinaloa Cartel operative captured at a Mexican checkpoint in April, despite having changed his appearance with plastic surgery.
  • Haitian authorities have cracked down on irregular armed groups calling for the restitution of the country’s army. Two US citizens were among those jailed for marching in support of the new army, reports the WSJ.
  • The NYT profiles Brazilian soccer player-turned-politician Romario de Souza Faria who has held a seat in Congress since 2010, campaigning hard for the rights of disabled people.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Outrage Over Honduras Drug Op Spreads

The backlash surrounding US involvement in a controversial drug operation in Honduras continues to grow. The AP reports that residents of the country’s northeastern Mosquito Coast, where the operation took place earlier this month in the municipality of Ahuas, have burned down government buildings in protest and demand that DEA agents leave the area. Locals, including Ahuas mayor Lucio Baquedano, claim that DEA and Honduran law enforcement fired on innocent civilians on a boat in the May 11 incident and ultimately killed four civilians, two of whom were pregnant women.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, has called on US and Honduran authorities to investigate the use of lethal force in the incident, saying “If evidence demonstrates that security forces violated international standards, they must be held accountable.”  

According to the Washington Post, relatives of the victims claim that the victims were on board the boat in order spend Mother’s Day in town.

Both the US and Honduran governments deny any wrongdoing, claiming that the two traffickers were killed and that the operation yielded 1,000 pounds of cocaine.  American officials also maintain that the DEA agents involved never fired their weapons.

But community leaders in the predominantly indigenous region dispute that claim. The BBC claims that several indigenous groups have released a joint statement, declaring “For centuries we have been a peaceful people who live in harmony with nature, but today we declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory.”

Honduras Culture and Politics offers a more in-depth look at these organizations, and also provides a highly critical analysis of the coverage presented by the New York Times, which puts a good deal of faith in the testimony of an anonymous US official who insinuates that local villagers may have been paid to facilitate the drug trade. According the blog, however, “The difference between our reaction and that of the Times is this: if you are likely to be shooting at people from a "poor village", you shouldn't be shooting. Period.”

News Briefs
  • Elsewhere in Honduras, inmates at a prison in San Pedro Sula have taken rioted and taken over control of the facility from guards, reports the BBC. The AP says that at least one inmate has been killed and 11 others are wounded. Police say they are refraining from entering the prison “in order to avoid a bloodbath.”
  • Mariela Castro, Cuban gay rights advocate and daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, has been granted a US visa in order to attend a conference in San Franciso organized by the Latin American Studies Association. Although members of the Cuban-American community in Miami have criticized the move, the AP notes that Castro was granted a visa in 2002 under the Bush administration. The bigger scandal, as detailed by the Washington Post, is the denial of visas to other prominent Cubans invited to the conference.
  • A judge has ordered the two Mexican generals arrested on suspicion of colluding with drug traffickers to be detained for forty days, according to El Universal. A statement issued by the Attorney General’s Office said that several witnesses, fellow military officers included, have already given testimony against the two.
  • The Wall Street Journal looks at the drop in the price of Venezuelan bonds after a recent spike, due mostly to the fact that Chavez seems unlikely to succumb to his cancer before the upcoming elections, which he is likely to win. Reuters, however, notes that the country’s economy is growing briskly, mostly due to pre-election public spending.
  • Violence in El Salvador continues to decrease, with 76 homicides registered in the first half of this month. National police claim that this number is less than half of the total murders that occurred during the same period last year. Meanwhile Guatemalan President Otto Perez has announced that the homicide rate in that country is down 18 percent, while Prensa Libre puts the decline around 2.15 percent.
  • Colombian lawmaker Sigifredo Lopez has been arrested for allegedly assisting the FARC to kidnap several other legislators (including himself) in 2002, 11 of whom were later executed. His motives are still unclear, reports the AP.
  • Some 70 students were arrested by police in Chile on Wednesday, as education reform rallies again rocked the capital city of Santiago.
  • Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto has an interesting overview of the shift in the hemisphere’s drug policy debate at the Summit of the Americas, which she refers to as “the rebellion in Cartagena.”