Friday, September 28, 2012

Latin American Presidents Call for New Debate on Drugs at UN

The U.S.-led drug war in Latin America has been placed firmly on the agenda at the UN General Assembly in New York by the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala, who united to call for a renewed debate on anti-narcotics legislation.

Although Presidents Juan Manuel Santos, Felipe Calderon and Otto Perez avoided explicit mention of legalization, they told the Assembly they would  “welcome wholesale changes to policies that have shown scant evidence of limiting drug flows while contributing to massive violence throughout Latin America”, according to Reuters.

Of the three leaders, Guatemalan President Otto Perez has previously been the most explicit in calling for a possible legalization of drugs, but this time limited himself to stating that Guatemala wanted to convene nations “well disposed to reforming policies on drugs” to consider “new creative and innovative alternatives,” reports Americas Quarterly. 

The move follows similar attempts to put the debate on the table at the Organization of American States (OAS) summit held in Colombia earlier this year. The OAS is currently studying the idea of legalization and is expected to release a report and recommendations within a year.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon also called for the U.S. to tighten gun controls to stem the flow of weapons into Mexico, which he says contributes to the drug war slaughter, urging the U.S. government to revive a ban on assault weapons in the United States that expired in 2004.

The renewed calls for a debate on drugs coincided with the release of a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report on Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean, which assesses the threat posed to the region by drug trafficking organizations.

The report found that cocaine trafficking remains the main source of income for organized crime despite diversification into other areas such as human trafficking and arms dealing.

It asserts that the Mexican assault against the cartels has reduced the flow of cocaine into the states, leading to higher prices and lower purity in the U.S. but this has not reduced violence and has contributed to increased violence in Central America as cartels look for new trafficking routes. It adds that if the flow of cocaine abates, criminal organizations will seek to increase revenues in areas such as extortion and there may be an increase in violence.

However, according to the report, the regions deteriorating security situation is not just related to drug trafficking but has deeper routes in “weak governance and powerful sub-state actors” and any solution must combine cross-sectoral crime prevention strategies with a strengthening of civil institutions and the assertion of government control over territories.   

News Briefs
  • Paraguayan President Federico Franco has accused the Venezuelan government of supporting the People’s Army of Paraguay (EPP), a revolutionary leftist guerrilla movement that has been implicated in kidnappings and assaults on the security forces, reports Merco Press. Franco accused the Chavez administration of bringing insurgents to Venezuela for military training under the pretense of agricultural training programs.
  • Insight Crime analyzes Wednesday’s arrest of breakaway Zetas commander Ivan Velazquez Caballero, alias “El Taliban,” arguing his capture is unlikely to prevent the Mexican cartel from fracturing into independent “orphan” cells.
  • The Inter Press Service features an interview with Sandra Ramirez - the partner of legendary FARC founder and leader Pedro Antonio Marin, alias Manuel Marulanda, who died of heart attack aged in 2008, aged 77. Ramirez, herself a guerrilla, is the only publically recognized woman to be involved in peace talks in Havana so far, according to the IPS.
  • Also in the IPS is a piece looking at the new “roadmap for NGOs in Haiti,” which, it says, is designed to “weed out the bad apples.” According to the IPS,  Haiti has received so much aid through foreign NGOs that the country has been nicknamed “a republic of NGOs.” The new agreement aims to coordinate their efforts and impose stricter guidelines and standards for NGOs working in the disaster hit country. 
  • The Huffington Post marks the 52nd anniversary of the formation of Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) with an article that claims behind the facade of “an apolitical neighborhood group ready to solve community problems” lies a hidden “mechanism of surveillance and control.”
  • Oil giant Chevron and drill-rig operator Transocean have 30 days to halt their operations in Brazil after a court served the companies with an injunction for their roles in an offshore oil spill last year,reports the WSJ.
  • The British and Ecuadorian foreign ministers met in New York to discuss the deadlocked Julian Assange case, reports the LA Times. While the meeting was described as “cordial,” no agreement was reached and Assange looks set to remain the in the Ecuadorian embassy as the two countries argue over whether he should be granted asylum in Ecuador or face extradition to Sweden to face sexual abuse charges. The Christian Science Monitor has an article marking Assange’s 100th day inside the embassy.
  • The Just the Facts blog looks at the latest attempts at military justice reform in Colombia, arguing that Congress is moving quickly to weaken the civilian court system’s ability to try and punish human rights violations committed by the country’s armed forces by proposing to send all but the most absolutely severe human rights cases to the military court system, which, it says, has a long history of failing to punish such crimes.
  • The New York Times reports on a potential trade war brewing between Mexico and the U.S., prompted by U.S. moves to end a 16-year-old agreement between the two countries that has kept the price of Mexican tomatoes so low that American producers have not been able to compete.
  • The Venezuelan army has responded to fears that the military will not accept a defeat for President Hugo Chavez in the coming elections. The chief of the strategic operational command for election day, Wilmer Barrientos, said the army will “respect the will of the people” reports Merco Press. Barrientos also outlined what role the army will play on election day.
  • The Colombian government has introduced a bill to promote equality for the country’s Afro-Colombian population, according to Colombia Reports. The bill aims to increase Afro-Colombian political participation through financial incentives for movements and parties that represent black communities and will introduce quotas designed to ensure 10% of institutions such as the police and military must come from the Afro-Colombian population.   

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Watered-Down Labor Reforms in Mexico Raise Questions over Enrique Peña Nieto's Reformist Credentials

A watered-down version of proposed labor reforms in Mexico received provisional backing from a congressional committee on Wednesday while unionists, workers and leftists took to the streets of Mexico City to protest against the legislation.

In it’s original form, the bill had two objectives; introducing more flexibility to the labor market by allowing part-time work, hourly wages and outsourcing and increasing transparency and democracy in Mexico’s unions by making external financial audits and secret ballot elections for union leaders a legal requirement.

The reform has been touted as a litmus test for incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto’s claims to be breaking from the PRI party’s corrupt and authoritarian past as the PRI has traditionally had a close relationship with the “antiquated, autocratic” unions that dominate Mexican labor relations.

According to Jose Antonio Alvarez, a veteran PRI politician and political commentator, “"If this new law modernizes the nation's labor and union life, then it shows that Peña and his group of reformers are in charge. But if this is a deceitful and decaffeinated legislative fiasco, it will be clear that the Congress and the PRI remain property of the old dinosaurs."

Negotiations over the legislation have also been seen as a test of the incoming PRI government’s ability to work with the outgoing PAN party - something it will need to do to pass its own legislation when Peña Nieto takes power in December as the party failed to secure a majority in Congress, reports Reuters.

The draft bill eventually passed with the two parties reaching consensus but only after the legislation was stripped of plans for union reform after encountering fierce resistance from members of the PRI, giving rise to speculation that lawmakers capitulated to the PRI old guard, according to Reuters.

Protests are being led by leftist party the PRD, who say they will “use any means necessary” to block the bill, according to the AP.

The proposal is expected to go before the full chamber in the coming days.

News Briefs

  • A UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report claims coca cultivation in Peru has risen for the 6th consecutive year, reports the BBC. According to the report, 62,5000 hectares were planted last year - a 2% increase on 20120.

  • The father of Aleph Jimenez Rodriguez, the missing activist from Mexico’s Yo Soy 132 movement, has announced his son is alive and well but went into hiding out of fear for his life, reports the L.A. Times. Jimenez travelled to Mexico City on Tuesday night to seek the protection of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, according to his father.

  • Inter Press Service feature an interview with Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey. Listed among “the 150 most fearless women in the world” by Newsweek and described by Forbes as one of “the most powerful women changing the world in politics and public policy,” Paz y Paz Bailey has led a restructuring of the Guatemalan public prosecutors office in an attempt to reduce rampant impunity and to bring civil war era human rights abusers to justice.

  • The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has told Peru to annul a Supreme Court ruling that could have paved the way for an early release of imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori, reports Merco Press. Fujimori is currently serving a 25-year sentence for Human Rights abuses.

  • The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) has released a new report examining the economic sustainability of Venezuela’s recovery. The report challenges conventional “gloomy” economic analyses and suggests Venezuela’s recovery from its 2009 recession together with the government’s popular social programs will play a key role in the likely re-election of President Hugo Chavez.   

  • Colombia Reports takes a look at the links between organized crime and the country’s soccer teams in the wake of the announcement by the President of Bogota based Millonarios that the club may return two titles won when the club was partly controlled by infamous drug lord Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, alias “El Mexicano.” According to Insight Crime, drug traffickers continued to use soccer teams to launder money, at least until an investigation last year. 

  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the 67th United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York to champion his government’s peace talks with the FARC guerrilla insurgency, reports the Miami Herald

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Corruption Trial Takes a Toll on Brazil's Workers' Party

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the political fallout from the mensalão corruption trial in Brazil has the potential to damage the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) prospects in the upcoming October 7th municipal elections. Because of this, the seemingly rushed appointment of Supreme Court nominee Teori Zavascki is raising eyebrows in the country, as some members of the opposition believe it is an attempt by the PT and President Dilma Rousseff to postpone the trial until after elections.

Rousseff nominated Zavascki just 11 days after the retirement of Justice Cesar Peluzo, an unusually fast nomination which came as somewhat of a surprise, as previous reports had held that former President Lula da Silva was pressuring the administration to nominate Attorney General Luiz Adams for the position. Zavascki testified before the Senate yesterday, and the body is expected to vote on his approval this week. If approved, he could delay the mensalão trial until after the October 7th elections by requesting time to study the details of the case.

Although members of the opposition Social Democracy Party (PSDB) are crying foul, it is not clear whether Zavascki will seek to delay the trial if appointed. As O Globo pointed out recently, he has a reputation for being an impartial “hardliner,” which is hardly the profile of someone who would tinker with court proceedings for political gain. Terra Brasil notes that when asked whether he would participate in the mensalão case in Senate testimony yesterday, Zavascki avoided the question, saying only that a judge should not make a ruling on a case if not properly briefed on the merits of the main arguments involved.

Even if Zavascki were to go against his reputation as an impartial jurist, it would be too late for him to do much damage control for the PT anyway. As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, the scandal has already hurt the moral standing of the PT, and a temporary delay in the trial is unlikely to erase these concerns from voters’ minds. According to Folha de Sao Paulo, the PT candidates of mayoral races in major cities like Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte are behind in polls, and political scientist Ricardo Caldas told the paper that much of this is due to the party’s fallout among middle class voters because of the trial. Another potential explanatory factors for this is the stalled pace of economic growth, which President Rousseff has battled since taking office.

News Briefs

  • In other Brazil news, an elections court in the southwestern state of Sul has ordered the arrest of Fabio Jose Silva Coelho, Google’s top executive in the country, because the company did not remove an attack ad against a local politician from YouTube. Although Google maintains that it is not responsible for content uploaded by third parties to the site, the judge ruled that featuring the ad on the site violated Brazil’s electoral laws, which forbid character attacks against candidates. Google is appealing the decision.
  • This was not the only court ruling against Google yesterday. A Sao Paulo court also ordered the company to remove the trailer of “The Innocence of Muslims,” the film which has sparked protests across the Middle East, from YouTube in 10 days. The AP reports that Sao Paulo is a state with a large Muslim community, and the case was filed by a Brazilian Muslim group which complained that hosting the trailer amounted to religious discrimination.
  • A research group affiliated with the Brazilian government, the Institute of Applied Economic Research, has found that income inequality in the country is at its lowest point in history, the AP reports. In a recently-released study, the Institute found that the poorest 10 percent of Brazilians saw a per capita income increase of 91 percent from 2001 to 2011, while the wealthiest 10 percent saw their per capita income jump by less than 17 percent. Still, the income gap in Brazil is the 12th widest in the world.
  • A new poll in Venezuela, which will also be holding elections on October 7th, has found that President Hugo Chavez is enjoying a 10 point lead over rival opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. The Datanalisis survey puts support for Chavez at 49 percent, with Capriles trailing at 39 percent. However, as David Smilde notes over at Venezuela Politics and Human Rights, the poll has a silver lining for Capriles. Of the 3.4 percent of respondents who made up their minds after previously identifying as “undecided,” 80 percent now support Capriles. If the rest of undecided voters followed a similar trend, it would put Chavez and Capriles at 50.4 and 47.2 percent, respectively. Because the difference between the two numbers is within the poll’s margin of error, this would amount to a statistical tie.
  • The International Crisis Group (ICG) has released a new report (.pdf) on the prospects of peace in Colombia on the eve of proposed talks between the government and FARC guerrillas. According to the ICG, the top priority of negotiators should be the establishment of a bilateral ceasefire as early as possible.
  • Caracol radio reports that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has said that if talks with the rebels succeed, then the FARC could be a useful ally in the fight against drug trafficking organizations in the country.
  • In the wake of the September 14th murder of Mexican legislator Eduardo Castro Luque, prosecutors are alleging that the crime was orchestrated by his designated substitute, Manuel Fernandez Felix, El Universal reports. However, officials in Castro’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are skeptical of these charges, and are joining water rights activists in claiming that the lawmaker was targeted by political rivals for his opposition to a controversial water project in the area.
  • As Mexico’s oil fields dry up, CNN profiles PEMEX’s slow and contentious shift towards deep water drilling.
  • The head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, warned the government of Argentina earlier this week that the country could face sanctions unless it produced more reliable statistics on growth and inflation in the country. Lagarde gave Argentina until December 17th to do this, threatening to give the government a “red card” if it failed to do so, using a soccer metaphor to refer to expulsion. In response President Cristina Fernandez announced yesterday that her country would not be threatened, saying “I want to tell the head of the IMF that this is not a soccer game.”
  • The Associated Press takes a look at Guatemala President Otto Perez’s continued support for drug legalization, while also heading a military-heavy crackdown on drug trafficking throughout the country.
  • The L.A. Times profiles the mysterious disappearance of an activist from Mexico’s Yo Soy 132 youth movement. In response to the disappearance of Aleph Jimenez Dominguez, the movement has accused the government of Ensenada municipality of orchestrating his forced disappearance. According to the paper, if his kidnapping is in fact political, it could raise the profile of the movement, but if not it could harm its legitimacy.
  • The Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies has passed a bill which would make the country one of the very few in Latin America to legalize abortions . El Pais reports that the bill narrowly passed by a 50-49 vote, and will now move on to the Senate. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bogota Plans to Treat Addicts with Illegal Drugs

The Colombian government has approved a proposal by Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro to give illegal drugs to addicts as part of their medical treatment, in the framework of his scheme to improve healthcare for drug users in the capital.

On Friday, Petro announced that he had been granted authorization to the proposal after a meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos. The mayor explained that the constitution provides for the use of illicit drugs in medical treatment, and so he only needed the approval of the national government, as Semana reports.

Petro on Monday proposed using drugs seized by the security forces in this medical treatment, saying “They do it in the United States, here it is a taboo but it isn’t a foreign idea in the world,” reports El Espectador.

The mayor has proposed setting up consumption centers to provide drugs to those who need them as part of their treatment. Petro said that the idea of the proposal was not just to help addicts, but to weaken the power of drug dealers in the city.

As well as his plan for these consumption centers, Petro has also propsed setting up mobile treatment centers to help Bogota’s drug addicts and other vulnerable populations. This is already going ahead -- the first such center was launched on September 16 in the district of the Bronx. The Health Care Center for Drug Addicts (CAMAD) will provide medical, dental, psychological and psychiatric care, and will not hand out illegal drugs, as Bogota Health Secretary Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo explained to El Espectador. It will also administer vaccinations, and help people find housing.

The unit aims to treat some 40 people a day. After spending a short period in the Bronx, it will be moved to San Bernando, and then will rotate between the two neighborhoods, reports El Tiempo. The Health Ministry has invested 2.4 billion pesos ($1.3 million) in the scheme for this year.

Julian Andres Quintero of the Accion Tecnica Social in Bogota explained to the OSI that the mobile centers were originally the brainchild of the Centre for Study and Analysis on Citizen Security (CEACS), but the idea has been toned down in the face of pressure from the media, so that the current model being rolled out will not carry out much intervention in terms of drug use. For addicts, all the mobile units will do is provide psychological care, diagnose other illnesses they are suffering, and sometimes administer drugs like methadone. According to Jaramillo, these mobile units are the first step towards the regulated consumption centers that Petro plans to roll out.

The health secretary said that it is possible that there will be a total of five mobile units by next year. He explained that the next phase will be to set up places where people living on the streets can come to wash, eat, get clean clothes and sleep for a night.

Petro’s schemes have come under opposition from the presidential advisor for Bogota, Gina Parody, who denied on Monday that the government had given permission for the scheme. Jaramillo told El Espectador that Parody was confused about the proposal, and pointed out that, “like most rich people,” she has the resources to send herself to rehab, should it become necessary, or to buy drugs, which is not an option for the poor.

Part of the controversy around the proposals is due to the lack of clear information on them. As Quintero points out, there has been little public debate over the plans to administer illegal drugs to addicts, and no formal planning document from the mayor's office has been made publicly available.

News Briefs

  • Human rights prosecutor Manuel Eduardo Diaz was murdered outside the Public Ministry in Choluteca, southern Honduras, on Monday. The crime was committed by two hitmen riding a motorbike, reports La Prensa.
  • Diaz’s death comes just two days after lawyer Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who worked on behalf of campesino organizations in the conflict-hit Bajo Aguan region, was gunned down in Tegucigalpa. The Associated Press reports that Trejo had reported receiving death threats, and had filed for protection from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against Miguel Facusse, a landowner at the center of the conflict in the Bajo Aguan region. “Before his death, Trejo had publicly said that if he were killed, Facusse would be responsible.”
  • The WSJ reports that the mensalão political corruption scandal in Brazil is hurting the chances of the ruling Workers’ Party in upcoming local elections, with 17 guilty verdicts so far out of 37 defendants accused of misusing public funds during the presidency of Lula da Silva. Ultimo Segundo reports that Supreme Court nominee Teori Zavascki could ask for time to catch up with the trial, which could mean it was suspended until after the October 7 vote.
  • A state congressman-elect killed in Sonora earlier this month was murdered by hitmen hired by his designated substitute, according to prosecutors, reports the AP.
  • A group of gunmen attacked a funeral in Torreon, north Mexico, killing seven people, including a 6-year-old girl, and wounding at least 20, reports Proceso. Some of the mourners were carrying guns, and were able to repel the attacks, according to local officials. The funeral was for a young man who was shot dead while driving a luxury car, and a sign referring to drug gangs was left next to his body, according to the AP.
  • Colombian criminal boss German Bustos Alarcon, alias “Puma,” has been captured in northern Antioquia, reports El Tiempo. Puma, a former paramilitary whose extradition has been requested by the US, joined the Paisas drug gang after demobilizing, but was later recruited into the Urabeños, as Colombia Reports reports.
  • Uruguay is considering decriminalizing abortions carried out in the first trimester of pregnancy, although women would need the consent of the baby’s father and of a medical review panel, reports the AP.
  • A proposed reform to Mexico’s labor laws which would allow part-time work, hourly wages and outsourcing is being opposed by the leftist PRD party, which says it would hurt workers’ rights. The AP notes that its supporters say the measure would help create a million new jobs a year, which could be a factor in stopping young people join drug cartels.
  • Venezuela Politics and Human Rights looks at polling for Venezuela’s October elections, weighing up the claim that any survey which gives opposition candidate Henrique Capriles less than 6.6 million should be treated with suspicion.
  • Gangs control 60 percent of Mexico’s prisons, according to the country’s National Human Rights Commission, reports Reuters.
  • In the New York Times magazine, John Jeremiah Sullivan has a long and personal piece about Cuba, based around a trip to visit his wife’s family. On The 6th Floor blog, he talks about the process of writing it.
  • The NYT reports on how a yellow line which purports to show the equator in the Middle of the World park in Ecuador is actually several hundred feet south.

Monday, September 24, 2012

US to Prosecute Guatemalan Ex-Soldier Accused of War Massacre

A former Guatemalan army commander accused of taking part in a civil war massacre has been extradited from Canada to the US to face charges that he lied in his application for US citizenship.

According to a 2009 indictment, Jorge Sosa was a commanding officer in theKaibiles special forces unit which killed more than 200 inhabitants of the village of Dos Erres in 1982, reports Reuters.

A group of 20 Kaibiles went to the village to look for guerrillas who had attacked an army patrol. Their victims included men, women and children, and the soldiers raped some before killing them. They attacked the villagers with sledgehammers and threw bodies down a well. Two ex-soldiers have testified that Sosa oversaw the slaughter, as well as throwing a grenade into a pile of living and dead bodies, reports ProPublica.

Sosa told ProPublica that he was not guilty, and had been in another village carrying out public works projects at the time of the massacre.

The US is not charging Sosa for the murders, but for lying about whether he had committed a crime and whether he had been a member of a foreign military in his 2008 application for citizenship. He fled from Guatemala to California with his family in the 1980s after being threatened by the Guatemalan government for “speaking out,” according to his daughter Christina. Sosa had been working in the US as a karate instructor.

ProPublica reports that Sosa left his home in California in 2010 to avoid prosecution, going first to Mexico then Canada. He was arrested in Canada in January 2011, and has been fighting extradition since then.

Ramiro Osorio Cristales, a survivor of the massacre, told the Calgary Sun that he was angry that Sosa was being extradited from Canada, where he could have been prosecuted for the killings under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.

Christina Sosa told the LA Times at the time of his arrest in 2010 that her father was being used as a scapegoat, while former President Efrain Rios Montt, who allegedly ordered the killings, still had a seat in Congress. She pointed out that Sosa, who is 54 today, “was just a young soldier when this happened.”

Rios Montt is now facing trial for war crimes, after his term in Congress ended and he lost his immunity.

Sosa is the fourth ex-soldier accused of taking part in the Dos Erres massacre to be targeted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, according to Reuters. A former commando called Gilberto Jordan, a Florida resident, is currently serving 10 years in federal prison in the US after confessing to lying about his role in the massacre.

Central American Politics points out that the Open Society Institute is holding an event on September 26 that will look at the facts around the Dos Erres massacre.

News Briefs

  • A lawyer representing campesino groups in disputes with Honduran landowners has been gunned down while attending a wedding in Tegucigalpa. As well as working with the groups in the Bajo Aguan region, where a land conflict has been raging for more than two years, Antonio Trejo Cabrera had been part of the opposition to a proposal to build private cities that would have their own laws and tax systems, reports the Associated Press.
  • The New York Times looks at the relationship between Venezuela and the US in the context of the joint operation, with Colombia and the UK, to catch Colombian drug lord Daniel “El Loco” Barrera last week. It says that this does not seem to signal a new era of cooperation, and that it is possible the two countries did not communicate directly, but both liaised with Colombia. Indeed, the capture of a number of big traffickers in Venezuela in recent months may signify not the strength of the country's institutions, but rather that these fugitives ran out of money to pay bribes to the authorities, as InSight Crime’s Jeremy McDermott told the paper.
  • President Rafael Correa has proposed transferring WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from Ecuador’s London Embassy to its Swedish Embassy, so that he can be questioned by the Swedish authorities, reports MercoPress.
  • The Wall Street Journal profiles Colombia’s new finance minister, who says that he wants to address the country’s inequalities, while maintaining macroeconomic stability. Mauricio Cardenas told the newspaper that the government was interested in Brazil’s policy to bring down energy prices by forcing companies to charge less, and that interest rate cuts will continue.
  • The Argentine government has told opposition media organization Grupo Clarin that it has to sell off many of its broadcast stations by December 7 to comply with a 2009 law limiting the amount of media outlets a company can own. Clarin newspaper accused the government making the declaration in retaliation against its coverage of recent anti-government protests, reports the AP.
  • The LA Times blog reports that a congressman stabbed to death in a suburb of Mexico City this month was killed by his wife, and not by organized criminal groups. Jaime Serrano Cedillo’s murder was cited by the government as part of the reason for the recent deployment of some 1,000 federal forces to Nezahualcoyotl, as InSight Crime reported.
  • Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan made a trip to Miami in an attempt to appeal to hardline anti-Castro voters by criticizing Obama’s Cuba policy, reports the NYT.
  • Andres Oppenheimer at the Miami Herald argues that Romney missed his best opportunity to distance himself from “anti-immigration extremists” in the Republican party when he spoke at a Univision/Facebook forum in Miami last week.
  • The Statesman of Austin, Texas has a piece on a documentary called "El Velador" ("The Night Watchman"), about a cemetery in Culiacan, Sinaloa, where many drug lords have ostentatious tombs.
  • The AP reports on the emerging “evangelical fashion” in Brazil, where the spread of born-again Pentecostalism has resulted in an increasing number of shops selling modest clothing, including “polyester putty-colored potato sack dresses.” It cites a prediction that by 2030 evangelicals, who now make up 22 percent of the population, could be in the majority.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Unrest in Peru as Police Kill Protester, Teachers March on Lima

A protest over a mining project in northwest Peru left one civilian dead and four injured, while teachers unions led a march to Lima to demand payrises.

Local people gathered to block a road to Pierina gold mine in the region of Ancash, northwest Peru, on Wednesday in protest over the lack of drinking water, as EFE reports. Some 150 members of the Marinayoc community blocked the access road and broke the entrance gate to the property, which is run by a local subsidiary of Canada's Barrick Gold.

They clashed with police assigned to guard the mine. Protest leader Alfredo Castromonte told La Republica that the police attacked them when the protesters had gone to seek if they could get water from a nearby spring. He said that the mine had dried up their springs and waterholes, and that the company had not built a promised reservoir.

The dead man has been identified as a 55-year-old campesino named Nemesio Poma Rosales, who was hit in the neck by a bullet. His daughter told La Republica that her father was still alive when he was carried to the mine post, but that he did not receive medical attention and died. Another protester was also hit by a bullet, while the other injured were struck by batons or inhaled tear gas. Three police were injured after being hit by rocks, reports La Republica.

Local people say that a water treatment plant it set up is providing contaminated water, but representatives of the company told RPP that the water had been certified as safe, and that the local communities simply did not trust it.

Also on Wednesday, thousands of teachers marched on Lima, while many doctors went on strike. Both groups want their pay doubled. Reuters describes the strikes as putting new pressure on President Ollanta Humala, bringing the social unrest from the remote countryside to his doorstep.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch called on the government to limit the use of force against protesters, and said that 15 people had been killed in the first year of Humala’s presidency. It said that the shooting of four protesters in Cajamarca in July appeared to be the result of "unlawful use of lethal force by the security forces."

News Briefs

  • The Justice Department’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz has released a report on the failed Fast and Furious anti-arms trafficking operation. The report criticizes the lack of oversight of the scheme, and said that mid-level officials should have kept Attorney General Eric Holder informed, as the Washington Post reports. He found no evidence that Holder knew of the controversial program before it was shut down in 2011. The New York Times says that Democrats and Republicans are divided on whether the report means that Congress can bring its investigation of the episode to an end.
  • Mexico has sent some 1,000 troops to the city of Nezahualcoyotl, outside Mexico City, after a state legislator was murdered there on Sunday, reports the Wall Street Jounal. Along with local and federal police, they will patrol and set up roadblocks. Some 500 extra police were sent to the city earlier this month after what the authorities said were false rumors spread on social networks about armed groups roaming the streets, as InSight Crime reported. The WSJ says that it is a sign the drug war is moving closer to Mexico’s capital.
  • The Economist has a lengthy report on the state of prisons in Latin America, detailing overcrowding, control by gangs, and the regular killings of inmates in countries such as Venezuela, Honduras and Brazil. It also says, however, that there are some positive examples of prison reform in the region. In the Dominican Republic, civilian prison officers are being recruited with the offer of salaries several times higher than before, and prisoners have been given compulsory education and help to find work on their release. Bloggings by Boz comments, however, that reform does not solve a fundamental problem for the region: “There is almost no way the region can afford to judicially process and imprison every criminal in Latin America today.”
  • A Colombian judge has repealed the acquittal of a FARC guerrilla over the murder of three US citizens in Colombia in 1999, reports the AP. Caceres Macon, alias “El Piloso” was found not guilty in a 2008 trial of kidnapping and killing the three indigenous activists, whose bodies were found over the border in Venezuela. Two other guerrillas have been convicted in the case, having apparently mistaken the activists for spies.
  • Also in Mexico, police searching for fugitives from a mass breakout in a prison close to the US border killed three gunmen in Piedras Blancas, reports the AP. Some 129 inmates escaped, and state security officials said the breakout was likely organized by the Zetas.
  • In Rio de Janeiro, a new unit of the elite pacifying police force (UPP) has been inaugurated in the favela of Rocinha, reports the AFP. Some 700 officers will patrol the neighborhood, in an effort to cement state presence following an invasion by the security forces in November. The officers will be supported by some 100 security cameras which are due to be installed, as R7 reports. A police officer was shot dead while on patrol in Rocinha less than a week before Thursday’s inauguration. 
  • The Christian Science Monitor reports on the Peruvian government’s efforts against a political movement linked to the Shining Path guerrilla group. Movadef has been banned from registering as a political party, and a proposed law would make membership illegal by criminalizing the denial or minimization of terrorist acts carried out during the conflict.
  • Venezuela Politics and Human Rights has a post on the housing situation in Venezuela, looking at the barrio of Catia in Caracas. It points out that even though many residents have not benefited from the Chavez government’s housing programs, they will still vote for him in the October elections because they continue to believe in his political project, and consider that their lives today are better than before he came to power.
  • A man convicted of murdering DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar in 1985, in a case which helped lead to the break up of Mexico’s powerful Guadalajara Cartel, has died in a Florida prison aged 82. Ruben Zuno Arce was one of those who tortured and killed Camarena, who had been working as an undercover agent in Mexico, along with his pilot, reports the NYT.
  • The AP reports on a new mandatory program in Jamaica to teach students about the work and life of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, noting that it avoids mention of his support for racial separation, which led him to meet with the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Capriles Meets With Colombian President

In a bid to boost his diplomatic credentials, Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota on Wednesday. In a statement published on the president’s website, Santos called on Venezuelans to turn out “massively and peacefully” in the upcoming October 7th presidential elections. He also stressed the neutrality of this country in elections, saying that he hoped Colombia-Venezuela relations would continue to improve no matter the outcome.

The meeting is surprising in light of the fact that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez himself as repeatedly refused to debate or otherwise appear in public with his rival. While Santos may be trying to avoid publicly taking a side in Venezuela’s election, his meeting with Capriles could still have repercussions for his relationship with Chavez.

Although Spanish news agency EFE reports that Chavez has said he respects Santos’ decision to meet with Capriles,  El Universal reports that he stood firm in his rejection of a debate on Tuesday, saying that he would not lower himself to debating with a “nobody” like Capriles.

As Venezuela analyst David Smilde notes in WOLA’s most recent Latin America Today podcast. Capriles is lagging in credible opinion polls and will have a difficult time making a resurgence. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Chavez will be re-elected. Considering his mercurial political persona it would not be out of character for him to bear some ill will towards his Colombian counterpart because of the meeting.  Even if he does not, it is at the very least a risky move on Santos’ part, especially considering the importance of the Chavez administration’s mediation of peace talks between Colombia and FARC rebels, which are set to begin in early October.

News Briefs

  • Celebrated Spanish jurist and human rights advocate Baltasar Garzon has been named to head up a public television show in Colombia known as “¿Cómo van la paz y los derechos humanos?,” which will address the progress of the peace talks provide analysis of the main obstacles to peace and reconciliation in the country. The show’s first episode aired last night and featured what EFE refers to as a “tense” interview with former President Alvaro Uribe. Throughout the show Uribe objected to Garzon’s questions about his legacy, and at one point stressed that he was hardly “a Pinochet or a Fujimori."
  • Chilean President Sebastian Piñera told local reporters that he believes former President Michelle Bachelet will be the likely candidate of the center-left coalition in the country’s 2013 presidential elections. About 50 percent of Chileans would vote for her, according to a recent poll conducted by the Center for Public Studies (CEP).
  • The AP reports on the PEMEX oil pipeline explosion on Tuesday that killed at least 29 workers and injured 49 in Reynoso, Mexico. Federal investigators are looking into the cause of the incident.
  • Following the arrest of Loco Barrera, known as Colombia’s “last great capo,” American officials have said that they will ask Colombia to extradite him to the United States, where he is wanted on drug crimes. El Nuevo Herald has more background on Barrera’s arrest in Venezuela, which the paper says is proof of increasing security cooperation between Venezuela and Colombia.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the difficulties facing Mauricio Cardenas, Colombia's new finance minister. Cardenas has been charged by the Colombian government reducing the massive inequality in the country while at the same time ensuring that the country remains attractive to foreign investors, which the paper notes is a challenging task.
  • Noticias24’s Moises Naim offers some interesting analysis of how the siblings of two presidents, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Peru’s Ollanta Humala, have become political liabilities and the way in which these heads of state have handled them.
  • Although the Cuban government has proposed talking with U.S. authorities about the release of jailed American contractor Alan Gross, it has heard no response, reports Reuters. At a press conference earlier this week Josefina Vidal told reporters that the silence shows that “it is clear that it is not Cuba, but the United States that is not showing interest in this case.
  • The Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer takes a look at Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto’s first trip abroad after the July election, which began this week and will include stops in Guatemala Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru. The columnist notes that, unlike some of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) predecessors, Peña Nieto has made no attempts to establish a closer relationship with leftist governments in the region like Cuba or Venezuela, a sign that he will be a reliable ally of U.S. foreign policy.
  • Central American politics expert Michael Allison has an op-ed in Al-Jazeera English in which he makes the case that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes a “more confrontational approach to Latin America than to any other part of the world.”
  • The New York Times Magazine’s John Jeremiah Sullivan has a rich, in-depth profile of the state of everyday life in Cuba and the sluggish pace of economic reforms on the island.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Colombia Captures 'Last Big Drug Lord'

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos announced the capture of Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” who he described as the country’s last big-time drug lord.

In a televised announcement on Tuesday night, Santos said that Loco Barrera had been captured in the Venezuelan town of San Cristobal. The operation involved Venezuelan and Colombian authorities, as well as the CIA and Britain’s MI6, as the New York Times reports. Santos thanked Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for his help.

InSight Crime has a detailed profile of Barrera, which describes him as "the closest thing Colombia has to a present-day Pablo Escobar." Barrera served as a go-between for the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, buying coca base from the guerrillas to sell to paramilitary groups and drug cartels.

In his speech, Santos declared that the capture was the biggest blow against drug trafficking in recent years. He said that Barrera had spent more than “20 years dedicated to doing wrong to both Colombia and the world,” making “perverse alliances with the paramilitaries, with the FARC, with drug trafficking,” reports El Tiempo.

El Espectador reports that Barrera was betrayed by a member of his family who had receiving money from the authorities for months. The authorities had captured his main business partners, as well as his mother, nieces, and a brother who has Downs syndrome. Barrera had reportedly travelled to Brazil this year to visit family there. Colombian General Jose Roberto Leon Riaño said that Barrera had been in Venezuela since 2008, operating as a low-profile cattle rancher, reports El Tiempo.

Santos said that Barrera had been the boss of alias “Cuchillo,” who led neo-paramilitary organization ERPAC until he was killed by the security forces in 2010.

Barrera is set to be extradited to Colombia. He is also wanted by the United States.

News Briefs

  • The WSJ reports on the US’s move away from military aid to Mexico, refocusing its efforts on helping the country strengthen the rule of law, improve police, the justice system, and prisons. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top officials were due to meet with members of Felipe Calderon’s government on Tuesday to discuss the move, which the newspaper says constitutes the next stage in the drug war. The WSJ points out that this could be more cost effective for the US, as “training police and prosecutors is less expensive than financing a military with big purchases like helicopters.”
  • Brazil’s Congress is due to debate a law that would open indigenous territories, which cover 13 percent of its land, to mining projects. The WSJ reports that mining in this land is banned under the constitution until it can be regulated, and that the bill aims to set up these regulations. Mining companies would have to consult indigenous communities, and get congressional approval for each project, the congressman who proposed the measure told the WSJ. The newspaper quotes a priest as saying: "There are Indians dying of hunger on top of diamond deposits that they're not allowed to touch.” Meanwhile the Financial Times reports that Brazilian authorities are investigating whether a gold mining project by Canada’s Belo Sun Mining is endangering tribes in the Amazonian Para state.
  • The NYT has a report on the escape of 131 inmates from a prison in the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, near the US border, as mentioned in yesterday’s post. Prison officials claim that the prisoners bound and gagged three staff before making their escape, but the state public security secretary cast doubt on this version of events, saying he was not convinced.
  • The campaign team of Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has handed the authorities a list of 77 voting centers where armed groups are present, and could disrupt October’s vote, reports the AP.
  • Protests by miners in La Paz, Bolivia, broke out into violence when one group threw dynamite at a rival group, killing one and injuring four, the AP reports. The groups are vying for control of Colquiri, a recently-nationalized tin and zinc mine.
  • Trade between the US and Latin America hit a record high of $772 million last year, with US exports up 22 percent to $350 million, and imports up 20 percent to $420 million, reports the Miami Herald.
  • IDL-Reporteros looks at US diplomatic cables from the early 1990s which quote Peruvian army officials’ points of view on intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, who would later be convicted of weapons trafficking.
  • A Colombian senator has criticized the failure of the authorities to investigate demobilized paramilitary and guerrilla combatants in Colombia who are making false accusations in order to win lower sentences, in what he describes as a “cartel of witnesses,” as Semana reports. The Attorney General’s Office responded that some 15 ex-paramilitaries were set to be expelled from the Justice and Peace process for giving false testimony.
  • Brazil’s Truth Commission will only investigate crime committed by the military dictatorship, which was in place 1964-1985, and not by guerrilla opponents of the regime, the AP reports.
  • A group of 30 Cuban dissidents have called an end to their hunger strike after a week, following the government’s announcement that activist Jorge Vazquez Chaviano would be released from prison, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The LA Times looks at the influx of African immigrants to Brazil, noting that migration is viewed there “more as a curiosity than a political issue,” providing a better reception to newcomers than some other destinations for Africans, like southern Europe.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

UN Contradicts US on Bolivia Coca Policy

Though the Bolivian government’s policy towards coca cultivation has been criticized by the United States, a new United Nations report finds that the amount of land currently being used to grow coca leaves has fallen in the last year.

According to the 2011 National Coca Monitoring Survey for Bolivia (.pdf), compiled by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the area under cultivation fell some 12 percent, down to 27,200 hectares in 2011 from around 31,000 the previous year. The report also found that seizures of cocaine base have increased by 10 percent, and eradication of illicit coca fields is by nearly 30 percent.

The report’s release on Monday came just days after the White House released its annual Determination on Major Illicit Drug Transit and Drug Producing Countries, in which it identified Bolivia and Venezuela as “countries that have failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.”

This is not the first time that US and UN figures on illicit drug production in the Andes have clashed. As WOLA noted in July, the UNODC’s survey of coca cultivation in Colombia showed a slight increase, while US numbers suggested a decrease.

But the most paradoxical aspect of the difference between the US and UN narratives on Bolivia’s drug policy is the fact that the statistics they cite are so similar. As InSight Crime’s Edward Fox points out, the White House Office of National Drug Control Police (ONDCP) also found a drop in coca cultivation in 2011, from 34,000 hectares to 30,000, and also registered an increase in eradication (20 percent). Nonetheless it found that cocaine production in Bolivia was up, and could potentially surpass that of Colombia.

In response to the US memo, the Bolivian government is crying foul. Last week President Evo Morales chalked up the US criticism of his drug policy to politics, telling reporters that the US lacks the “morality, authority and ethics” necessary to judge it objectively.

News Briefs

  • Some 130 prisoners have escaped from a prison in the northern Mexico state of Coahuila, apparently through a tunnel 7 meters long 1.2 meters wide, according to El Universal. The prison lies in the northern municipality of Piedras Negras, just 30 miles south of the US-Mexico border, sparking concerns that the escaped inmates (86 of whom were convicted of federal crimes) could attempt to cross into US territory.
  • Forensic officials in Mexico say they have identified six of the victims of last weekend’s wave of violence in the north of the country; two were former members of the military and four had criminal records.
  • Although Cuba is set to hold elections of Communist party representatives in February 2013, BBC Mundo notes that many locals are more concerned about the upcoming elections in Venezuela and the US, which will both likely have a greater impact on the country than the domestic vote.
  • A Colombian court has sentenced the editor of Swedish-based website Anncol, which regularly publishes FARC communiques, to eight years in jail on conspiracy charges, the BBC reports. According to El Tiempo, however, Joaquin Perez Becerra will likely be released on parole in just three years.
  • El Tiempo reports that the Colombian Senate is debating a bill meant to address the spike in acid attacks against women in the country, an issue recently profiled in the Washington Post. If passed, the bill would establish a minimum penalty of 6-20 years’ imprisonment for those behind the disfiguring attacks.
  • Reuters profiles Jason Puracal, the American citizen who was just released after being wrongfully convicted of money laundering and drug trafficking in Nicaragua in 2011, and whose imprisonment was protested by human rights activists around the world. According to Puracal, there are hundreds of other US citizens being wrongfully detained in prisons in the Central American country.
  • AFP reports that a Brazilian Supreme Court Judge in charge of the investigation into an alleged vote buying scheme linked to former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Jose Barbosa, has said there is “no doubt” that the vote buying occurred, and that money was paid to legislators "before, during and after" they voted on bills in the lower legislative house.
  • The Miami Herald reports that a date has been set for the trial of Angel Carromero, the Spanish man who was driving the vehicle which crashed on July 22, killing Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya. Carromero will face trial on October 5th.
  • In a potentially worrisome development for security in Peru, Peru21 reports that leaders of political movement dedicated to securing the release of Guzman and other first-generation Shining Path leaders, known as the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef), have said they do not reject returning to armed struggle.