Friday, August 31, 2012

Mexico Tribunal Rejects Bid to Annul Presidential Election Results

After Mexico’s supreme electoral tribunal turned down Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s bid to annul the July presidential election, Enrique Peña Nieto will likely be officially confirmed as Mexico’s president-elect in the next few weeks. As Reuters reports, all seven members of the Federal Electoral Tribunal rejected Lopez Obrador’s challenge, with one justice stating, "There is no proven vote buying, no evident coercion or illicit inducement.”

The AP argues that this flies in the face of the reality of the election, noting that the tribunal rejected evidence that Peña Nieto’s party the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) bought hundreds of pre-paid gift cards at a grocery store and distributed them before the election:

The Associated Press interviewed about a half dozen people among shoppers who mobbed one Soriana store two days after the elections to redeem the cards; almost all said PRI supporters had given them the cards, expecting they would vote for the party.

But members of the tribunal said there was not sufficient evidence of vote buying, and the AP affirms that they did not interview anyone who had received the gift cards. Justice Pedro Penagros: “Even though the existence of the Soriana cards is proven ... it has not been proven they were handed out, nor that they were in exchange for votes for Enrique Peña Nieto."

Animal Politico examines the tribunal’s decisions before the eight complaints formally submitted by Lopez Obrador’s leftist coalition, which extend far beyond allegations of gift card handouts. But the tribunal’s decision before these various complaints -- which include excessive campaign spending, voting irregularities on election day, and misuse of polls -- can be summarized as follows: not enough evidence.

The leftist coalition suffered another blow when the tribunal fined them for a TV spot that accused Peña Nieto’s campaign of using laundered funds, reports Proceso. The tribunal affirmed that such allegations were based on “insinuation and rumor,” rather than fact.

In reaction to the court’s ruling, Peña Nieto tweeted that “it was time to begin a new stage of work in favor of Mexico.” In order for him to be officially declared Mexico’s president-elect, the Federal Electoral Tribunal must issue its official declaration and formally notify Congress, no later than September 6, according to Animal Politico.

Supporters from Lopez Obrador’s leftist coalition issued strong criticism of the tribunal’s decision. Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) politician Ricardo Monreal called it a perversion of democracy, and added, “No one can justify what happened, it was the most shameless vote-buying in Mexico’s history.” Other leftist representative said they would refuse to recognize a Peña Nieto presidency.

While Lopez Obrador supporters are likely to continue to hold rallies protesting the court’s decision in the days to come, the question is how long such a movement can be sustained. As Proceso reports, members of Mexico’s “I Am 132” movement quickly organized a protest outside the Federal Electoral Tribunal building late Thursday night in reaction to the decision, prompting police to erect a barricade around the building. Political risk analyst Alejandro Schtulmann told the Wall Street Journal that the movement may not last for long: "It has lost credibility among the middle class, and doesn't have the same level of acceptance," Schtulmann told the newspaper. "There could be a spike in activity, but I don't think it's sustainable."

News Briefs
  • Wednesday, Guatemala’s highest court upheld its decision to allow the extradition of former president Alfonso Portillo to the US, where he is charged with laundering some $70 million. The court ruled in November 2011 that Portillo could be extradited, but the ex-president’s legal team challenged the decision in February. The US Embassy in Guatemala issued a statement praising the court’s ruling, calling it a step forward in Guatemala’s fight against impunity, reports the AP.
  • El Mundo reports that August was the least violent month so far this year in El Salvador, registering 93 fewer murders than August 2011 (while a tally for the total number of homicides does not yet appear to be available, in August 2011 police registered some 377 murders, recording an average daily murder rate of 16 killings a day). In contrast, in August 2012 the murder rate was just 5.24 homicides a day. Contrapunto notes that according to security minister David Mungia Payes, between January and August there were 952 fewer murders compared to the same time period last year (which registered about 2,857 murders). 
  • A sweeping new affirmative action law in Brazil will require public universities to reserve half their spots for poor and Afro-Brazilian students, reports the New York Times. While the law raised little controversy in Congress -- only one senator out of 81 voted against it -- some critics argue that the emphasis on affirmative action could “undercut the quality of Brazil’s public university system,” according to the Times. Other observers emphasized how the landmark law will make university more accessible than ever for students who were previously shut out. Former president Lula da Silva: “Try finding a black doctor, a black dentist, a black bank manager, and you will encounter great difficulty. It’s important, at least for a span of time, to guarantee that the blacks in Brazilian society can make up for lost time.”
  • Ecuadorian journalist Emilio Palacio of El Universal has been granted political asylum in the US. Palacio was among the four El Universal journalists whom President Rafael Correa sued for slander in 2011, after Palacio penned an editorial calling Correa a “dictator.” 
  • The Economist examines the legal case against former Mexico president Ernesto Zedillo, who oversaw Mexico’s transition to democracy in 2000. Zedillo is currently being sued by a group of 10 alleged indigenous survivors of a 1997 massacre in Chiapas, who have filed a suit in a civil court in the US and are seeking some $50 million in damages. But the Economist notes that there are plenty of fishy characteristics about the case. All 10 plantiffs are anonymous, and some residents in the tiny indigenous community where the massacre took place say that the plantiffs are not actually survivors. Neither are they “publicly supported by any of the many NGOs that are devoted to such causes,” the Economist notes. And their Miami-based lawyer specializes in corporate law rather than human rights. All this raises the question of whether the case against Zedillo is actually an attempt by his shadowy rivals to exact revenge against him for taking a stand against the PRI (which included ordering the arrest of former president Raul Salinas’ brother). The Economist adds that the case will likely have serious ramifications for President Felipe Calderon, as it could create a precedent allowing victims of Mexico’s drug war to sue him for the approximate 60,000 dead during his presidency.
  • Venezuela’s electoral council ordered that an opposition party take an ad off the air which depicted a dead body, in order to highlight Venezuela’s struggles with crime and security, reports the AP.
  • Richard Seymour in the Guardian praises the ways in which Chile’s student mass protests have joined up with other movements, including the labor unions, creating “an incredibly optimistic, energised and combative left that dares to challenge the country's social order in a fundamental way for the first time in decades.”

Thursday, August 30, 2012

'Anti-Terrorism' Bill Sparks Controversy in Peru

While activists generally point to the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela as the worst threats to freedom of speech in the region, Peru may soon join that list. On Tuesday, the administration of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala introduced a new anti-terrorism bill to Congress which is bound to raise a few red flags. If passed into law, the bill would mandate a four to eight year prison sentence for those who “publicly approve of, justify, deny or minimize the acts of terrorist organizations.”

Administration officials say the bill is necessary to combat the political work of Shining Path rebels. Although the guerrilla group today bears little resemblance to the peasant army that controlled large swaths of Peru in the late 1980s, it has proven difficult to eliminate entirely.

But the proposal has generated controversy, with critics pointing out that it could have serious consequences for freedom of expression in the country. Sociologist Carlos Tapia, a former member of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and early advisor to the Humala administration, told RPP News that he saw the bill as "useless, clumsy and above all dangerous to freedom of the press and opinion." Opposition congressman Javier Díez Canseco criticized it as “poorly thought out,” because it does not address those who justify human rights abuses committed by the state during the bloodiest years of the country’s internal conflict.

Humala’s own vice president, Congresswoman Marisol Espinoza, distanced herself from the bill before it was even submitted to Congress. On Monday Espinoza called for a wider discussion of the proposition, saying that it is “dangerous” and could potentially be used for political purposes.

The administration has stood by the bill despite this criticism, however. On Tuesday recently-appointed cabinet chief Juan Jiménez, himself a former human rights lawyer, insisted that it posed no danger to Peruvian society and urged lawmakers not to criticize the proposal before reading it.

Peruvian Ombudsman Eduardo Vega Luna has announced that his office will review the bill for any potential human rights violations.

News Briefs
  • After initially downplaying reports of riot police forcing detained student protesters to strip naked, the Chilean government has announced that it will discipline four police officers implicated in the incident, according to La Nacion. Police Chief Gustavo González said that the officers in question will face administrative sanctions for their actions, but said nothing about legal charges.
  • One of the largest public workers’ strikes that Brazil has ever seen has mostly come to an end. Reuters reports that some 90 percent of the public workforce on strike, which have been protesting since May, accepted the “tough terms” offered by President Dilma Rousseff.  These terms amount to a 15.8 percent pay raise, which the news agency claims will barely cover the predicted inflation during that time. The government will continue negotiating with the unions still on strike, which include those representing federal police, central bank and tax authorities. The BBC notes that Rousseff’s handling of the strike may have damaged the historically strong relationship between her ruling Workers’ Party and trade unions at a particularly vulnerable time, with municipal elections coming up in October.
  • President Rousseff signed a bill into law on Wednesday which will reserve at least half of the places in state universities for applicants from public secondary schools, in an effort to boost the number of black, indigenous and mestizo college graduates in the country. The affirmative action bill was finally passed by the Senate earlier this month after 13 years of debate, but has been controversial amongst Brazilians across the political spectrum, as The Economist pointed out in January.
  • The L.A. Times has a withering critique of police reform efforts in the last six years under Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Most Mexicans, the paper reports, believe that “Calderon's new and improved federal police force is just more of the same.”  Last week’s shooting of two US officials in the country (believed to be CIA agents) at the hands of federal police is only the latest of many examples of the shortcomings of security forces in the country, illustrating the colossal task awaiting incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto.
  • Colombia’s RCN Radio gained access to the text of the preliminary agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government to hold future peace talks. The agreement centers around six points: guarantees of rural development, participation in democratic institutions, demobilization, addressing the problem of drug trafficking, reparation to victims and implementation. It also reveals that official dialogue between the rebels and the government began in February of this year, despite President Juan Manuel Santos’ repeated denials of secret talks.
  • Indigenous rights advocacy group Survival International has received reports that a community of some 80 members of the Yanomami tribe based in a remote part of the Venezuelan Amazon were massacred by gold miners in July. The only remains of the victims, according to witnesses who visited the area after the incident, were “charred bodies and bones.”
  • The Miami Herald speculates on whether a series of recent disasters (prison riots, a collapsed bridge and a deadly explosion at the country’s largest oil refinery) will affect the re-election prospects for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
  • AP reports that Mexico’s Federal Electoral Tribunal has heard all of the challenges to the results of the July 1st  presidential election, and will issue a ruling on the matter by Friday.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Amid Criticism of a Slipping Economy, Fernandez May Face Criminal Fraud Probe

A federal prosecutor in Argentina says there is evidence to support a criminal investigation against President Cristina Fernandez for alleged fraud, reports the AP, noting, “Argentine presidents face formal legal complaints all the time but rarely do they get this far.” It is the first time that Fernandez would be investigated for an alleged crime during her presidency.

The complaint alleges that Fernandez’s use of her emergency decree powers in order to draw funds from Argentina’s central bank, which were then used to pay off foreign debt, are worthy of a legal investigation. The complaint also states that Fernandez committed “irregularities” by banning the purchase of US dollar bonds earlier this year.

Under the new regulations, Argentines can only buy dollars if they can prove that they are traveling abroad, buying property, vehicles or other equipment -- but they can still have their request rejected by the national tax agency. The restrictions sparked protests in Buenos Aires in June. Now, according to the legal complaint, the restrictions control the foreign exchange market in an “arbitrary, unreasonable, and illegal” way, and merit a criminal investigation, reports El Clarin.

The federal prosecutor, Carlos Stornelli, has a history of confronting the most powerful of Argentina’s political elite. He headed the investigation into former president Carlos Menem, who was arrested in 2001 over an arms exports scandal, involving the sale of weapons to Ecuador and Croatia.

Other Fernandez officials, including President of the Central Bank Mercedes Marcó del Pont, Secretary of Commerce Ricardo Echegaray, and Secretary of Domestic Trade Guillermo Moreno, are also named in Stornelli’s complaint, which was originally instigated by an opposition lawmaker.

If there is eventually a criminal investigation against Fernandez, it would be the culmination of the many criticisms that her administration has faced for its economic policy. The controversy dates back to 2010, when Fernandez first tried to use billions of dollars of Central Bank reserves to pay off foreign debt. When the bank president at the time refused, Fernandez forced him out of office by presidential decree. This forms the backbone of Stornelli’s complaint that the government’s maneuverings were in fact illegal.

Stornelli’s announcement follows a poll published August 26 that showed Fernandez’s popularity has sunk to 30 percent, reports Reuters. This is compared to a popularity rating of 64 percent in September 2011. Poll participants cited concerns about rising inflation, unemployment, and crime, and appears to indicate that “most people are not buying Fernandez's argument that external factors are mostly to blame.”

News Briefs
  • A cocaine processing laboratory was discovered in Honduras’ Atlantida department, near the wreckage of a small aircraft, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. This appears to be the second drug lab ever discovered in Honduras; the first was reported found last year, also in Atlantida.
  • According to a notice from the Cuban Health Ministry, the cholera outbreak that infected 417 people and killed three has been eradicated, reports CNN.
  • President Felipe Calderon emphasized that a government probe would fully investigate the circumstances under which two US agents were shot at by Mexico federal police. The probe includes investigating whether the attack was deliberate, according to ReutersInSight Crime reports that the US shooting victims were CIA personnel who were participating in a training program for the Mexican Navy. The New York Times notes that while so far, there is no evidence that the agents were attacked because of their work for the CIA, the attack does suggest that various branches of the Mexican security forces, including the Navy and police, are not communicating as well as they should. Eric Olson of the Mexico Institute blames this lack of communication on "lack of trust" within the security forces.
  • An Ecuadorian judge blocked the extradition of a Belarusian who gained political asylum in Ecuador, although he is wanted for fraud and extortion in his native country, reports the AP. The case of Aliaksandr Barankov has been frequently compared to that of Julian Assange, and this recent ruling may put an end to criticism that Ecuador had unfairly threatened to remove Barankov’s asylum.
  • Bloomberg reports that clashes between police and coca growers may have left up to five people dead and over a dozen injured, although other Peruvian media has reported just three deaths. The Minister of the Interior said that while a confrontation did take place on Tuesday morning and that the police responded with tear gas, he could not confirm any deaths or injuries. The conflict was registered in Huanaco department, which is one of central Peru’s top coca-producing regions, although the Interior Minister said that no coca eradication was scheduled to take place in the district where protesters battled police. Meanwhile, in Peru’s other major coca growing region, known as the VRAEM, police reported rescuing 30 children from a Shining Path encampment, where they were supposedly being indoctrinated by the guerrillas.  Infosur with the story.
  • Colombia arrested five people for suspected involvement in the May bombing that killed two people and injured 50; the target was ex-president Uribe’s former interior minister, Fernando Londoño, reports EFE. The FARC were initially blamed for the attacks, but the guerrillas never claimed responsibility for what would have been the rebels’ first fatal bomb attack in Bogota in nearly 10 years. President Santos described those arrested as common criminals. 
  • The LA Times on the sometimes-anti-Semitic discourse used against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles on state television channels in Venezuela.
  • Foreign Policy in Focus with an interesting piece on Peru’s attempts at reconciliation, in the aftermath of its painful war with the Shining Path guerrillas. Peru is still struggling with issues related to historical memory of the war, including the treatment of political parties reportedly linked to the Shining Path, and how the conflict should be discussed in school textbooks, the article states.
  • For the ninth straight year, Argentina agreed to raise its minimum wage, reports Reuters.
  • A reminder from Amnesty International that August 30 is International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The human rights organization also praised a recent ruling in a Colombian civilian court, which sentenced a junior army officer for  60 years in  prison for the sexual assault and murder of underage civilians. Members of the Colombian security forces are rarely successfully prosecuted and sentenced for sexual violence crimes, making this particular case stand out, Amnesty International stated.
  • According to Infosur, Paraguay’s anti-drug police have seized a record amount of crack so far in 2012, an indication of the drug’s increased availability in the Southern Cone country.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Colombian Government Launches Peace Talks With FARC

After weeks of rumored negotiations, the Colombian president acknowledged that the government has agreed to restart formal peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC ), which collapsed in 2002. According to initial reports yesterday by RCN Radio and Telesur, the government signed a preliminary agreement with the FARC in Havana, Cuba. The agreement was apparently brokered with the help of Venezuelan, Cuban and Norwegian officials.

As yet, there has been no mention of a ceasefire between rebels and the military. The agreement reportedly lays the basis for future peace talks to be held in Oslo, Norway beginning on October 5. If these are successful, negotiations will continue in Havana. Caracol Radio reports that the talks in Oslo will be centered around six themes: rural poverty and development; participation in the political process; turning in arms; truth and reconciliation; drug trafficking and insecurity.

While President Juan Manuel Santos had long denied reports that his government was holding talks with the guerrillas, he acknowledged the Havana agreement in an announcement last night. Santos also extended the invitation to members of the country’s second-largest guerrilla army, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the leader of which recently told Reuters that his group would be interested in peace talks so long as they did not involve a ceasefire as a precondition. However, the president did not mention the terms of the talks or confirm the timeline outlined in previous media accounts.

A separate Reuters piece cites a Colombian intelligence source who says that U.S. President Barack Obama “is aware of the process and is in agreement.”

For now it appears that President Santos’ peace bid has the support of the vast majority of the country. An El Tiempo poll conducted last week notes that 74 percent of Colombians support negotiations with guerrillas. The move could thus be a boon for Santos’ flagging approval ratings, which have fallen in recent weeks to around 25 percent.  

Not everyone is happy with the new development, however. Ex-president Alvaro Uribe reserved some predictably harsh criticism for his former defense minister’s peace initiative. Speaking at an academic forum in Baranquilla, Uribe claimed that Santos’ “negotiations with terrorists” would only serve to boost the reelection campaign of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and will prompt “electoral propaganda from Chavez saying that he managed to sit the Colombians down for peace talks.”

For a more in-depth analysis of the peace talks: La Silla Vacia has a rundown of the eight key factors necessary to a successful peace process, InSight Crime examines what this could mean for the future of security in Colombia, and the Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris’ Ariel Avila lays out the case for negotiation in an op-ed for Semana magazine.

News Briefs
  • The New York Times profiles the uneasy truce between El Salvador’s two largest street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. Five months in, the truce appears to be holding steady despite several recent high-profile murders of gang leaders, contributing to a 32 percent drop in homicides in the country.  Although some analysts fear that the government’s facilitation of this truce a dangerous level of political agency to the maras (see InSight Crime’s take on this), President Mauricio Funes assured the public yesterday that his government has not negotiated directly with gang leaders
  • The Times with a look at Mexico’ s slow progress on the justice reform front, and U.S.-facilitated trainings for judicial officials. Thanks to a $5 million program developed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Mexican Attorney General’s office, 7,700 government prosecutors, investigators and forensics specialists have been trained in conducting more open, accusatory trials.
  • Police in Nicaragua say they have seized more than $9 million from 18 individuals attempting to pass themselves off as members of a Mexican news crew, the AP reports. The individuals were arrested last Wednesday on suspicion of having criminal ties.
  • The Brazilian Supreme Court has reversed a lower court’s decision to place a hold on Brazil’s Belo Monte dam project in the Amazon on the grounds that local indigenous groups were not properly consulted. The AFP notes that this is just a preliminary decision, and that it could be reversed if the Court rules in favor of local tribes.
  • A Nuevo Herald investigation has found that the daughter of Cuban Vice President Marino Murillo, who some have suggested could succeed Raul Castro in office, has defected to the United States. 24 year-old Glenda Murillo Diaz reportedly crossed the border into Texas on August 16, and is now residing in Tampa, Florida.
  • The fire at Venezuela’s Amuay refinery, where a deadly blast killed more than 40 on Saturday, has nearly been extinguished according to Venezuelan officials. Reuters reports that firefighters have put out the flames raging in two of the three affected storage tanks, and the third will follow shortly. Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez claims that the facility, which is the second-largest oil refinery in the world, will resume production by the end of the week.
  • More information has come out about Tropical Storm Isaac’s toll on Haiti. At least 24 were killed as a result of the storm, according to the Miami Herald.
  • Infobae reports that Chile’s security minister admitted that some police officers forced a number of detained student protesters to remove their clothes last week in an apparent attempt to humiliate and demoralize them. The names of the authorities responsible were not released, however, and no charges have been brought against them.
  • For those unfamiliar with Chile’s student protests, BBC Mundo has a nice overview of the main issues at stake, as well as an explanation of the historical importance of the student movement in the country.
  • Mexico’s Caravan for Peace, led by poet Javier Sicilia, is on a tour of the United States. The Caravan has been stopping in major cities since August 12, and is scheduled to reach Washington, DC on September 12. The AFP interviews activist Daniel Gershenson, who provides a firsthand account of the movement’s work in the U.S. so far.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Venezuela Refinery Explosion Raises Questions of Maintenance

An explosion at Venezuela’s largest oil refinery left 41 people dead, a number that could rise with a reported 121 people wounded.  It is not yet clear how large was the blast radius of the explosion, but it destroyed a nearby National Guard barracks and damaged over 200 homes, reports Reuters. Fires continued to rage at the Amuay refinery Sunday night, although Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said the refinery could resume production in two days.

The impact of the blast was felt far outside of Venezuela, as the Amuay is the second-largest refinery in the world, capable of processing up to 900,000 barrels a day: gasoline prices spiked to a four-month high in the New York Mercantile Exchange, reports Bloomberg. According to the LA Times, the Amuay exports close to 360,00 barrels a day to the US.

Ramirez blamed the explosion on a gas leak, raising the question how preventable the accident was. A report by the AP includes an eyewitness account that describes the smell of gas Friday night, hours before the explosion took place at around 1 a.m. The secretary general of a local workers’ union told the AP, “We warned that something was going to happen.”

The tragedy looks likely to spark further debate over whether the government has invested sufficient resources in maintenance and safety at oil refineries. The manager of Amuay said that maintenance issues were not to blame, a statement that was echoed by President Hugo Chavez when he visited the installations Sunday, after declaring three days of national mourning. The PDSVA has spent $3 billion in oil refinery maintenance in the past three years, the Amuay refinery manager added.

But the Christian Science Monitor reports that the blast is indicative of how much the PDSVA has allowed standards to slip. The PDSVA has registered 19 accidents so far this year, including an oil spill last February which saw the loss of some 80,000 barrels of crude. One engineer told the Monitor that based on the PDSVA’s own data, the company is only operating at 65 percent capacity due to poor maintenance.

Blog the Devil’s Excrement argues that Amuay explosion is not just a question of neglected infrastructure. It also highlights a fundamental problem of the Chavez government, which emphasizes ideology and loyalty over competence, the blog states. This has contributed to the mismanagement which helped cause the Amuay disaster, according to the writer. Devil’s Excrement also examines the PDSVA’s annual report, which found that the Amuay had nine scheduled stops of maintenance in 2011, but seven of them were postponed.

The tragedy is likely to lead to further questions about the overall capacity of Venezuela’s refineries. El Nuevo Herald reports that Venezuela is now importing processed gasoline and other oil derivatives from abroad, purchasing some 2.2 million barrels from the US in 2011.

More from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, while the BBC has a slideshow of the damage.

News Briefs
  • In an incident that the Washington Post called “embarrassing” for a country that has received heavy financial support from the US for training its police force, on Friday morning Mexico federal police opened fire on a US Embassy car, injuring two US-government employees. The identity of the shooting victims is still a mystery: according to the Post, they were not military personnel, DEA, FBI, or ICE. Two federal police officers have been detained; a lawyer for one officer said the incident took place while police were chasing suspected criminals (according to the Post, they were looking for car thieves). Perhaps underlining the delicateness of the situation, the US Embassy called the incident “an ambush” in a statement. The Wall Street Journal notes that the incident will only raise more doubt over the capacity of the federal police, following the shooting between federal agents in Mexico City’s airport last June. The question now is whether the attack will raise further tensions between the US and Mexico. Mexico Institute Director Andrew Selee called it the first case of “friendly fire” between US and Mexico and added: “It probably won't have a large impact on policies of cooperation, but it may raise some tensions in day-to-day cooperation and a few questions in Washington.” US representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) echoed Selee’s remarks to the AP: "If the Mexicans are cooperating with U.S. officials to find out exactly what happened here then I don't think this will affect the U.S.-Mexico relationship.” 
  • Tropical storm Isaac inflicted some serious damage in Haiti, with the impact especially felt by the homeless survivors of the 2010 earthquake, the New York Times reports, accompanied by a slideshow. The Miami Herald notes that while the storm killed at least seven people, destroyed homes, and blocked roads,  the bad weather did not cause as much destruction as expected.  However, the storm did cause a boat full of 152 Haitian migrants to run aground in the Bahamas. Isaac was originally expected to hit Haiti as a hurricane, not as a tropical storm, leading to concerns that the storm damage would devastate the island, and help cause another upsurge of cholera on the island. 
  • Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos said that amid his cabinet reshuffle, he will be keeping his defense minister in place, a relatively surprising decision considering the criticism Santos has received for his security policies, reports Reuters
  • Robert Saviano, author of “Gomorrah,” examines international money laundering in a New York Times op-ed. In light of revelations that both Wachovia and HSBC failed to do enough to monitor suspicious financial transactions from Mexico, Saviano argues that the relationship between banks and organized crime has never been so complicitat the very highest levels of international finance. He cites a study by Colombian economists last year that found that much of Colombia’s drug money is laundered outside the country in financial centers like New York and London. Saviano also notes that according to the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), cash from the drug trade may have helped some banks regain their footing during the 2008 financial crisis. 
  • The New York Times profiles former Brazilian president Lula da Silva, noting that asides from battling throat cancer, he faces a new political fight as the Supreme Court reviews one of Brazil’s biggest corruption cases, involving da Silva’s former chief of staff. 
  • The LA Times reports on female killings in Mexico state, where president elect Enrique Peña Nieto previously served as governor. Peña Nieto and other Mexico state authorities have been criticized of neglecting such cases, prompting Peña Nieto’s government to establish a special prosecutor's office dedicated to handling femicides just before he left office in 2011. 
  • The New York Times reports that fire departments based along the US-Mexico border are straining to respond to the number of emergency medical calls received from points of entry. In cities like Calexico, California (which borders the Mexico city of Mexicali), the fire department responded to 725 calls last year, a burden which the department budget is not prepared to meet, according to the Times. 
  • Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady notes that the grenade attacks against Monterrey-based daily El Norte took place shortly after the newspaper published an investigative report on organized crime. El Norte published an article in early July, alleging that the state department of motor vehicles could be selling license plates to a car theft ring, as the car thieves are in need of legal license plates to pass off the stolen vehicles as legitimate. Shortly afterwards, the newspaper was attacked -- an act of violence which may not be a coincidence, O’Grady argues. 
  • The New York Times profiles the volunteer guards who monitor Chile’s student protests, keeping an eye on what happens when the protesters clash with police.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Is Colombia's Cabinet Reshuffle Part of Peace Plan?

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asked his entire cabinet to hand in their resignations, amid plummeting approval ratings and rumors that he is holding peace talks with the rebels.

After remaining above 70 percent for his first year in office, Santos’ approval rating dropped below 50 percent as he reached the halfway point of his four year term this month. This is thought to be due in large part to the perception that security is worsening, with dissatisfaction stoked by former President Alvaro Uribe, who is doing his best to stir discontent among the population and institutions like the armed forces.

Sources in the presidential palace told El Tiempo that Santos wanted a cabinet that was more focused on peace and on social issues. It said that former presidential candidate Horacio Serpa was tipped to be the interior minister, and that he could help create the right climate for peace negotiations. Lucho Garzon of the Green Party is also likely to take a place in the new line-up. Justice Minister Ruth Stella Correa backed this theory, saying that Santos might be seeking to set up a cabinet “more closely linked to the subject of peace,” Semana reports.

La Silla Vacia says that Santos may be trying to create a strong team capable of withstanding attacks from the Uribe camp if peace talks with the rebels do begin. Uribe has accused the current administration of conceding too much to the guerrillas, and claimed they are secretly holding talks with FARC leaders in Cuba.

Santos may also be trying to definitely distance himself from the Uribe era, getting rid of those more closely linked to the former president, as El Tiempo notes.

La Silla Vacia has a list of the ministers who are expected to stay and those who are expected to go, including those in the ministries of health, transport and education.

The first changeover announced was that Energy and Mining Minister Mauricio Cardenas would replace Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry, which Reuters called a “surprise move,” given Echeverry’s good performance over the last two years. Colombia’s economy expanded 6 percent in 2011. Echeverry told the Financial Times’ Beyond Brics blog that the change was at his request, as he wanted to leave the post for personal reasons. This will mark the second change in mining minister in Santos’ two years in power.

News Briefs 

  • The WSJ takes a look at Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who it says has taken the opportunity offered by the Julian Assange asylum case to command the world stage, casting himself as a statesman and defender of press freedom. Carlos Perez, an owner of Ecuadoran newspaper El Universo who was sentenced to three years in prison for a column criticizing the government, told the WSJ that Correa and the WikiLeaks founder have little in common. "Assange is a hacker who thinks that governments should make information transparent, while Correa thinks the government shouldn't give out any information at all." The Christian Science Monitor reports from Guayaquil, where Correa told press that his position on Assange was not a contradiction. “There is this image of the media as being about Woodward and Bernstein and the struggle for freedom of expression, but that’s not the case here. The press in Latin America is totally corrupt.”
  • The AP reports on the split between the leaders of Mexico’s Zetas gang, saying that it appears Miguel Angel Trevino Morales “Z-40” has won against his former partner Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, “Z-3.” A US agent told the news agency that Trevino had gained more loyalty from the Zetas members because he was the one fighting on the streets with them, while Lazcano took more of a background role.
  • The leader of the Knights Templar drug gang has released a video in which he calls for the country to form a common front against the Zetas, “and particularly against Z-40.” He also claims that his organization is not a drug cartel, saying; "Our only function is to help the people, preserve our state ... and keep our country free of people causing terror ... It sounds a little controversial, but this is what we want: to live in peace." In the background were a Mexican flag, a statue of a knight, and pictures of Che Guevara. InSight Crime says that the Knights are one the criminal groups in Mexico most dedicated to propaganda.
  • Francisco Toro writes for the NYT Latitude blog on a rare challenge to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on one of his live TV broadcasts, when a group of steelworkers criticized a halt in construction work on a local factory, and demanded a return to collective bargaining. Toro calls this kind of confrontation on Chavez’s shows, which feature carefully selected government supporters, a “rare spectacle.” 
  • International Crisis Group’s blog has a report from Villa Nueva, Guatemala, which is the site of a US-backed model police precinct. The program, which aims to counter corruption among officers and provide training in community-oriented policing, was implemented in 2004, but the municipality has only started to see firm security improvements in recent months, helped by the local government’s work to improve services like street lighting and rubbish collection.
  • In the WSJ, a former State Department official argues that under the Obama administration the State Department’s “Background Notes” on foreign countries have become mere PR puff pieces for the president. James M Roberts argues that 70 percent of the latest Brazil briefing is now about the Obama administration’s programs in the country, and that right-leaning governments such as Chile’s come in for greater criticism than left-orientated ones.
  • An analyst from Eurasia Group told World Politics Review that a Belize was pursuing a high-risk strategy with its threats to default on its debt, and that Prime Minister Dean Barrow is gambling that he will be able to rely on funds from multilateral institutions. “Overall, this is a very risky move given Belize’s debilitated infrastructure and vulnerability to natural disasters -- which explain in part why the country is so saddled with debt in the first place.”
  • The Washington Post interviews Colombian author Hector Abad Faciolince, whose memoir about the murder of his father by paramilitary groups in the 1980s has recently come out in the US. Abad says that his book, “Oblivion,” aims to keep his father’s story alive in “a country without memory.” 
  • The NYT has an editorial on the plight of Haitians living in inadequate accommodation as tropical storm Isaac moves towards the island. About a third of the million made homeless in 2010 still live in temporary camps. “The slogan “Build back better” — so often repeated as the principle guiding the immense international aid and reconstruction effort — must seem like a cruel joke.” The AP reports that the storm is unlikely to gain enough power to strike Hispañola as a hurricane.
  • Brazil’s Supreme Court has freed a rancher accused of ordering the killing of US nun and rainforest activist Dorothy Stang in 2005. Regivaldo Galvao was freed on appeal in 2010, but had been ordered back to prison while the appeal process was completed, reports the AP.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mexico Supreme Court Ruling on Military Trials Not Yet a 'Binding' Precedent

In a key step towards changing the law that would allow Mexican military to face trial in civilian courts, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a portion of the military law on trial proceedings is unconstitutional. As noted in yesterday’s post, one section of the military justice code claims soldiers must be tried in military courts for crimes against civilians. But the Supreme Court ruled 8-2 that this is unconstitutional and wrongly extends the reach of the military courts.

Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch emphasized the ruling’s importance to the AP: “This is the most important step the Supreme Court has ever taken toward ending the longstanding practice of sending abuses by soldiers to military courts.”

As the BBC reports, Mexico’s Supreme Court has already ruled that civilian courts should handle accusations of military abuse. The July 12, 2011 ruling unanimously stated that members of the military accused of extrajudicial killings, torture, and other abuses should not be tried in military tribunals, where there have been few prosecutions and and even fewer convictions for such crimes.

But because the ruling was not based on an individual case, it did not set the precedent needed to actually change the law. Amnesty International urged for Wednesday’s ruling to become a “binding precedent” in Mexico. But according to Mexican law, four other separate rulings are needed before this is actually achieved.

Wednesday’s ruling was based on the case of 29-year-old Bonfilio Rubio Villegas. He was shot a military checkpoint in Guerrero state in 2009. As the LA Times reports, “Military authorities originally said the bus refused to stop for the soldiers and that they fired warning shots in the air. But four soldiers at the checkpoint later said the bus had indeed stopped and that soldiers had, in fact, fired on the bus.”

News Briefs
  • A decision by Paraguay’s electoral court set general elections for April 21, 2013, reports the BBC. President Federico Franco has said he will step down when the new president is elected and takes office on August 15, 2013. The Organization of American States (OAS) has already agreed to observe the vote, according to Mercopress. Senators, legislators of the lower house in Congress, and governors will also be elected next April. . 
  • A poll by one of Peru’s most respected polling firms found only 15 percent support for the controversial Minas Conga mining project in northern Cajamarca province, Peru. The poll surveyed 250 people in Cajamarca province; however, other nationwide polls have found much more split support for the proposed mine, with 45 percent of those surveyed in favor of the project and 40 percent against, according to Reuters. Cajamarca will remain under an official state of emergency until early September, due to the clashes between protesters and police in July, which left at least five people dead. In a move that coincided with the poll findings, Peru’s national mining association released a study Wednesday claiming that direct and indirect economic benefits resulting from mining investment could be as much as $54 billion, reports Dow Jones newswires
  • McClatchy newspapers take note that the Zetas appear to be splitting, with much of the fighting apparently concentrated in the central states of Zacatecas and San Luis de Potosi. Analyst Alejandro Hope cautions that the extent of the split is still unclear, and could have been triggered by the June arrest of the brother of Zetas leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, alias “Z-40.” Samuel Logan of Southern Pulse adds that the split “has been developing for awhile,” although it is only just becoming public. While Treviño Morales is thought to be confronting a rival faction led by Zetas commander Ivan Velazquez, alias “Z-50,” in Zacatecas and San Luis de Potosi, it is not yet clear whether the split extends to the Zetas’ other top commander, Heriberto Lazcano. 
  • Analysis by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs finds that the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) has done little to reduce poverty or improve food security in the region: the main beneficiaries are US exporters of cheap agricultural goods. Since the free trade agreement was imposed in 2002, Central America has been flooded with cheap grains and other products from the US, and seen their own rural economies badly debilitated as a result, the non-profit argues. 
  • According to Reporters Without Borders, a journalist who published an article in Colombia’s Semana magazine about Ecuador’s issues with free speech was attacked by a man carrying a steel bar. The journalist, Orlando Gomez Leon, who is also an editor at Ecuadorean newspaper La Hora, said that he’d previously received phone calls threatening him to “stop saying bad things about Ecuador.” Gomez was not injured during the attack, but the windows of his vehicle were smashed, according to the RWB account. 
  • The man accused of plotting the assassination attempt that killed Argentine singer Facundo Cabral may be extradited from Guatemala to Costa Rica, where he is wanted on money laundering charges, a Guatemalan judge ruled Wednesday. However, according to the ruling, the suspect, Alejandro Jimenez, alias “El Palidejo,” must first face trial in Guatemala, where is he being held on a more serious charge: ordering the attack that killed Cabral. The ruling highlights the international nature of the case and raises the question of what might end up happening to Jimenez after his trial in Guatemala . EFE reports. As Americas Quarterly notes, Wednesday also saw the beginning of the trial of nightclub owner Henry Fariñas in Nicaragua. Fariñas was driving Cabral’s vehicle and is believed to have been the intended victim of the assasination attempt. He is charged with drug trafficking and money laundering. 
  • A religious sect in Mexico is preventing the government from entering the community and running the school system, reports the AP. Followers of the sect are banned from using modern technological devices like cell phones, and must follow traditional Catholic doctrine. But it is the community’s resistance to formal schooling -- including government-imposed curriculum and teachers -- that has caused the sect to clash most strongly with state authorities. 
  • Infolatam argues that President Olllanta Humala’s family is turning into a political liability. His brother Alexis has been scrutinized by the press because he reportedly bid and won government contracts worth up to $190,000 -- even though under current law, relatives of the president are forbidden from doing business with the government. Both Humala’s recently appointed prime minister, Juan Jimenez, and Humala’s wife have implied that the president will do little to protect Alexis if he faces a formal investigation. Infolatam notes that this is only the latest family conflict for President Humala. Another brother, Antauro, is serving a 19-year prison sentence for temporarily occupying a police station and demanding the resignation of then-President Alejandro Toledo in 2005. Humala’s father, Isaac, has also attracted attention for publicly defending Alexis yet offering a harsh criticism of First Lady Nadine Heredia, calling her “drunk on power.” 
  • Three Republican lawmakers from Texas are continuing to lobby the Pentagon to hand over surplus military equipment from Afghanistan to law enforcement based along the US-Mexico border. From UPI. And as the AP reports, the US is already testing other defense technology that had previously proven effective in Afghanistan: namely, helium-filled balloons equipped with cameras, used for surveillance along the southwest frontier..  In other border news, the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has a working paper laying out a set of objective measures for appraising security along the US-Mexico border. 
  • The New York Times reports that eight former police and military officers in Chile have been charged in the disappearance of a hiker during the Pinochet regime, the only US citizen to have disappeared during the dictatorship.
  • A new study by the United Nations Agency for Human Settlements finds that Guatemala is the Latin American country with the widest income disparity, while Venezuela has the smallest, reports the BBC
  • Data analyst and blogger Diego Valle with some striking visuals illustrating the spike in Mexico’s murder rate, based on the most recent homicide statistics released by the national geography institute, known in Spanish as INEGI. 
  • The Miami Herald on the financial advantage enjoyed by President Hugo Chavez during his campaign. The opposition has also argued that Chavez has blurred the line between official campaign advertising -- which according to law should be limited to just three minutes of television spots a day -- and the government promotional spots. 
  • The former chief of Guatemala’s police was found guilty for orchestrating the disappearance of a university student in 1981, the highest ranking police official to ever be sentenced for crimes committed during Guatemala’s civil war. From the BBC.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

El Salvador Resolves Constitutional Crisis under US Pressure

A dispute between El Salvador’s legislature and judiciary has been resolved with an agreement to re-elect two-thirds of the Supreme Court judges, and put a pro-ruling party figure as court president.

The crisis broke out in June, when the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber ruled that the National Assembly’s election of judges to the Supreme Court in 2006 and in 2012 had been unconstitutional. In both instances, the members of the legislature had voted on court members twice in a three-year session. As Tim’s El Salvador Blog sets out, this meant that two thirds of the Supreme Court judges would be illegitimate. The legislature could have held new elections,  but “refused to go along with this attack on its powers,” choosing instead to appeal the  Central American Court of Justice (CACJ).

The CACJ ruled in favor of the legislature, but the Constitutional Chamber rejected the decision, saying that it was the highest authority on constitutional matters.

Funes announced Sunday that the political parties had reached an agreement that those judges elected in 2009 would stay in place, while those from 2006 and 2012 would be re-elected. Supreme Court president Ovidio Bonilla will be replaced by Jose Salomon Padilla.

El Faro reports that the talks began on July 24, spurred by pressure from the US Congress and State Department, after two US senators called on the Obama administration to consider cutting aid to El Salvador.

Members of the FMLN ruling party had wanted Bonilla, elected by the legislature in April, to stay in place, and the removal of at least one of the Constitutional Chamber’s magistrates, according to El Faro.

As El Faro sets out, on July 16 Bonilla declared that he was taking over a Supreme Court president, breaking in to the court with the help of a locksmith. This meant that the court had two people claiming to be its head, with Florentin Melendez in the position of interim president. Bonilla’s replacement, Salomon, is also close to the FMLN.

This deal may not resolve the frictions between the legislature and judiciary. As WOLA pointed out in July, "Underlying the immediate crisis is the challenge posed to all the political parties by the newly independent and activist bloc of judges on the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court."

More from ConfidencialLa Pagina

News Briefs

  • In Venezuela, at least 25 people died and many more were wounded in a battle for control between two rival gangs in Yare I prison outside Caracas, reports the AP. The fight broke out during visiting hours on Sunday afternoon. El Universal reports that it was sparked when a gun went off accidentally during peace talks between leaders of one sector of the prison, who are mostly ex-police officers, and the inmate bosses of another sector. The fighting continued for several hours, and many of the dead were left unrecognisable after being hit by grenades. Most of the casualties were in an area called “The Pit,” where inmates who weren’t able to pay their weekly extortion fees are sent by the gang leaders. Prison Minister Iris Varela said "We are taking all the necessary steps to avoid a repeat of such an incident, and we are proceeding with the disarming of the prison population," reports the BBC.
  • Mexico’s Supreme Court has ruled that crimes committed by soldiers against civilians must be tried in civil courts, overruling a piece of military code that attempted to give military courts jurisdiction over all crimes committed by the armed forces, reports the APReuters comments that the judgement could “[clear] the way for sterner prosecutions against military misconduct in the country's drug war.”
  • The Mexican army has unearthed burned human remains in seven clandestine graves in the Pacific state of Michoacan, along with an oven two meters long, reports Milenio. The AP points out the Michoacan is home to the Familia Michoacana drug cartel. According to Provincia, the authorities think there were at least six victims, and that they were business owners who were extorted and then kidnapped. Meanwhile a group of Argentine forensic scientists are excavating a mass grave of unidentified migrants in Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border, reports the AP. The bodies were buried by the Mexican authorities after being found near popular migrant routes over the last 12 years.
  • Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog has a post arguing that the Chavez government has turned its back on the poor, lacking the political will to carry out poverty-reduction programs once its political survival was no longer at stake. It says that many social programs have collapsed, and that poverty has actually risen in the last four years, while many remain unemployed and excluded from education. “Of course, there are fewer people living in poverty than before, but what the government’s discourse and propaganda hides is that almost 30% of the country’s population is still poor.”
  • Chavez is set to launch a new ad campaign for the upcoming presidential election that portrays the president, who has been fighting cancer, as youthful and energetic. According to the Miami Herald, the images show “Hugo Chavez dunking a basketball. Hugo Chavez dancing rap. Hugo Chavez with a teenager haircut, boxing, riding a motorcycle, screaming with joy while doing a wheelie.”
  • A Chilean judge has ordered the arrest of eight former members of the police and military accused of the kidnap of a US citizen in 1985, reports the AP. Boris Weisfeiler went missing while hiking near the Argentine border, and according to the indictment the officials suspected he was trying to sneak into the country to help overthrow military leader Augusto Pinochet. They are accused of taking him to a torture and detention center and executing him.
  • Eight members of the Honduran police’s elite anti-kidnapping unit have been suspended in connection with the murder of four young people who were tortured, asphyxiated with plastic bags, and thrown in a river, reports Honduras Culture and Politics.
  • The United Nations refugee agency has called for an inquiry into the murder of its honorary liaison on the island, human rights activist Clover Graham, who was found with her throat slashed on Sunday. Two people were recently convicted for the murder five years ago of her son and his girlfriend, who also has their throats cut, reports the BBC.
  • InSight Crime analyzes public banners hung in west Mexico in which the Knights Templar gang declare war on Zetas leader Z-40.
  • The charity headed by actor Sean Penn has offered to demolish Haiti’s presidential palace, which was badly damaged in the 2010 earthquake, reports the Miami Herald. Soon after the quake the French government offered to rebuild the palace as it was, but, according to the newspaper, many Haitians “balked at the notion.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Former Colombian Security Chief Pleads Guilty to Paramilitary Ties

A retired Colombian police general who served as the security chief in the Uribe administration has pleaded guilty to allegations that he had ties with right-wing paramilitaries while in office. General Mauricio Santoyo turned himself in to United States authorities last month after the Virginia’s Eastern District Court charged him with collaborating with drug traffickers and paramilitary groups.

In court yesterday, General Santoyo denied the drug charges but pleaded guilty to taking bribes from United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries in exchange for helping them evade law enforcement. He admitted that this relationship lasted from 2001 to 2008, overlapping with his 2002-2005 tenure as the security chief of then-president Alvaro Uribe. The former police general will be sentenced on November 30, and is slated to receive a prison term of no less than 10 years.

Santoyo is just the latest in a string of officials in the Uribe administration to be found guilty of criminal activity. Other politicians close to him, like intelligence chief Jorge Noguera and Congressman Mario Uribe (a cousin of the ex-president), have been arrested for conspiring with the AUC.

Despite these arrests, Uribe has maintained that he has never had any knowledge of their paramilitary ties, claiming that such allegations are part of a smear campaign by his political rivals. In the case of Santoyo, Uribe told local press yesterday that if he had had any “bad information” about the police official, he would never have promoted him. Colombian politics blog La Silla Vacia questions this claim, arguing that public prosecutors had raised several concerns about Santoyo in the early 2000s.

The allegations against Uribe are becoming harder and harder to deny, as several imprisoned AUC heads themselves have recently claimed to have ties to him. In January alias “Don Berna” told investigators that he met directly with Uribe aides, who asked him to secretly monitor members of the Colombian Supreme Court. In May another jailed AUC commander, Salvatore Mancuso, claimed to have had a hand in Uribe’s 2006 reelection, providing logistical and financial support to his campaign. He also said that he had met with Uribe in person, although he did not provide details of the meeting.

News Briefs
  • The Carter Center released a statement on Monday announcing that it had declined an invitation from the Venezuelan National Electoral Council to accompany the upcoming October 7th elections. Venezuelan electoral officials have stopped hosting full international observer missions (which have greater access to monitoring the electoral process) and now only invite foreign groups to participate in smaller, largely ceremonial "accompaniment" visits. Carter Center representatives were reportedly offered an “intermediate option,” but received the invitation too late. As Jennifer McCoy of the Center’s Americas program told the AP, “My understanding is that the (electoral council) has come to the conclusion that they no longer need international observation to give confidence to the process.” She also stressed that the move is not unusual in the region, as neither Brazil or Argentina invite foreign observers to their elections.
  • One week before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the L.A. Times has obtained a copy of the party’s updated platform on Cuba. While it calls for the continuation of restricted trade with the island, it does not contain language calling for the reversal of President Obama’s easing of travel restrictions and remissions.
  • The defense lawyer for one of the “Cuban Five,” convicted of passing on sensitive information to the Cuban government in 2001, filed an affidavit on Monday claiming that the U.S.-sponsored Radio/TV Marti “secretly paid millions of dollars to journalists” to bias the jury against his client, according to the Miami Herald.
  • Reuters takes a look at Julian Assange’s “cramped but connected” life in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. The WikiLeaks founder is staying in a small office converted into a bedroom, which he has filled with bookcases, a treadmill, a bed, and (of course) a computer. In order to make up for the lack of sunlight he receives, the wire agency reports that Assange has installed a vitamin D lamp.
  • While Ecuador has gained praise for its decision to grant Assange political asylum, the AP points out that a Belarusian citizen held in Ecuador who may be in danger of losing his asylum and being extradited back to his native country. Although he is wanted in Belarus on charges of fraud and extortion, Aliaksandr Barankov has been hailed by some as a financial crimes whistleblower, having exposed a fuel-smuggling ring with ties to the government of President Alexander Lukashenko. Barankov was granted refugee status by Ecuador in 2010, but improved ties between the country and Belarus have increased pressure on the Ecuadorean government to extradite Barankov.
  • A Honduran law passed in May 2012 designed to help clean up the country’s notoriously corrupt police force has been challenged as unconstitutional by the Honduran Public Prosecutor (Fiscalia de Defensa de la Constitucion). Honduras Culture and Politics has more on what this means for the slow pace of police reform in the country.
  • Mexico analyst Patrick Corcoran finds a flaw in a recent inflammatory article in El Proceso claiming that U.S. officials are training a Navy SEAL team to assassinate drug lord “Chapo” Guzman. As Corcoran notes, the article only quotes one anonymous source, which is a definite “red flag.”
  • The L.A. Times profiles blind CD vendors on Mexico City’s rail system; the vendors are part of the country’s informal economy, which accounts for some 30 percent of total employment.
  • With the Panama Canal undergoing an expansion, The New York Times reports that major U.S. port cities on the East Coast are struggling to accommodate an expected increase in shipping, although some ports have decided that the jump in traffic is not worth costly upgrades.
  • Finally, the Wall Street Journal with a look at Puerto Rico’s “iguana problem.” The territory is combating a wave of iguanas (a non-native species) by providing economic incentives to businesses and individuals which hunt them for their meat. While there is no market for iguana meat on the island, the government hopes to export it to other Latin American and Asian nations, creating jobs in the process.