Thursday, February 28, 2013

Despite Security Measures, Violence in Honduras Remains Unchanged

On Wednesday, the Honduran National Autonomous University’s Violence Observatory released its annual report, based on data from the Security Ministry and the medical examiner's office. According to the Observatory, Honduras saw 85.5 homicides for every 100,000 residents last year, about ten times the global average of 8.8 per 100,000.

The report suggests that the level of violence in the country remained essentially unchanged despite new security policies enacted by President Porfirio Lobo, with the 2012 homicide rate seeing only a one percent decrease from the year before.

In late 2011 Lobo deployed the military throughout the country to assist law enforcement in an effort to crack down on violent crime, and again sent soldiers to the country’s most violent cities earlier this month in a high-profile operation.

The country’s security situation is made worse by its notoriously corrupt police force. In July 2011 the vice president of the Honduran Congress estimated that as much as 40 percent of Honduran police had ties to organized crime, and researchers from the Violence Observatory say at least 149 people have been killed by police agents over the past two years.

While Lobo promised to launch a complete overhaul of the Honduran police force in 2011, progress has been slow, and only a fraction of the force has been assessed by the commission tasked with vetting police.

News Briefs
  • Milenio reports that Mexico’s Elba Esther Gordillo, the powerful teachers’ union boss who was arrested on Tuesday on embezzlement charges, appeared in court yesterday after spending the night in a Mexico City jail. According to Animal Politico, the judge in the case has six days (144 hours) to analyze the merits of the charges and decide whether to formally indict Gordillo.  President Enrique Peña Nieto touched on the arrest in a speech last night addressed to the teachers’ union, warning that investigators plan to pursue anyone linked to the case. Meanwhile, El Universal takes a look at some of the opulent real estate owned by the millionaire union leader. The paper also attempts to put Gordillo’s allegedly illicit income into perspective by listing off some of the things that could be paid for with the $153 million she is accused of pilfering from the union, including an entire overhaul of Mexico City’s public bus system.
  • As noted in yesterday’s post, Gordillo’s arrest has caused many in the country to wonder if Peña Nieto will go after other political bosses in the country. Both the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) have called on the government to investigate the wealth of another powerful union leader, Carlos Romero Deschamps of the oil workers’ union. El Investigador reports that Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told reporters that his office is not pursuing an investigation into Romero at this time, however.
  • The L.A. Times offers a haunting overview of the abandoned towns that litter rural Guerrero state, which have been cleared out in response to drug-fueled violence in Mexico.
  • The AP reports that Mexico’s military has begun selecting and training officers for a new federal police force, the proposed National Gendarmerie which is to be a hallmark of Peña Nieto’s security strategy. According to one of the officials overseeing the project, Manuel Mondragon, the new force will begin operating by the end of the year with an initial ten thousand men.
  • The Colombian government has announced that it will meet with the organizers of the ongoing coffee growers’ strike today in order to address their demands for greater government subsidies. According to  El Tiempo, the announcement comes as a reversal for the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, which announced early yesterday that it would not meet with protestors until the strike ended.
  • The Guardian reports on the unusual decision by former US Department of Justice attorney Robert Feitel and ex-Drug Enforcement Administration agent Bonnie Klapper to “switch sides” in the drug war, quitting their jobs and defending alleged Colombian drug traffickers. The two claim that they changed professions after realizing the “human cost” of U.S.-led drug policy in the hemisphere.
  • The Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) approved a measure proposed by Guatemala on Monday to establish "Alternative Strategies for Combating Drugs" as the theme of the 43rd OAS General Assembly, to be held in Antigua, Guatemala from June 6-8. Surprisingly, Siglo21 reports that the proposal was supported by the United States, a traditional opponent of alternative drug policies.
  • The lead investigator of femicide in Guatemala, Alba Trejo, resigned on Monday after three years on the job, Siglo21 reports. Trejo claims she has received repeated anonymous death threats, and quit out of concern for her family.  The Central American country has witnessed a spike in violence against women in recent years, and has the third highest femicide rate in the world.
  • An investigation by El Salvador’s El Faro reveals that a firm owned by Salvadoran businessman Miguel Menendez, who was a major source of funding for President Mauricio Funes’ election campaign, has received 47 percent of all private security contracts issued by the government since Funes took office. The news has extra weight in light of the recent attempt by the legislature to pass a bill which would allow politicians to accept campaign donations without disclosing their source.
  • The New York Times is the latest media outlet to profile Cuba’s new vice president, Miguel Diaz-Cane. Because several individuals have been named as potential successors to the Castro brothers only to fall by the wayside, the NYT notes that experts describe Diaz-Cane’s vice presidency as “the most scrutinized leadership role in the country since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.”
  • Former Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, who has announced that he will run for re-election in 2014, is preparing to run on a more centrist platform this time around, Uruguay’s El Observador reports. The paper notes that Vazquez’s public positions have become more moderate of late, and stand in stark contrast to some of the more radical elements of the governing Broad Front coalition.
  • Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier is once again slated to appear in court today at a hearing over whether he can be tried for crimes against humanity. Because his defense team has managed to postpone three times,   it’s unclear whether the former leader will show. According to The Miami Herald, court officials have ordered a police escort to ensure Duvalier is present this time around. The AFP profiles the 26 victims who filed the suit against the former dictator, who say their struggle is not about revenge but about helping the country come to terms with its past.  
  • Argentina’s legislators have approved a controversial agreement with Iran to set up a "truth commission" charged with investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, La Nacion reports. The commission will be comprised of experts from other countries, and the accord grants them the right to travel to Iran to question officials about the bombing.  The BBC points out that the agreement has not yet been approved by the Iranian parliament.
  • Peru 21 reports that the latest mining conflict to break out in the country, a protest against the Lagunas Norte gold mine in the northern Trujillo province, has cooled down for now after the Barrick mining corporation agreed to meet with protestors and discuss their grievances.
  • Hugo Antonio Perez Hernaiz and David Smilde of Venezuela Politics and Human Rights present a comprehensive summary of the controversy surrounding the Venezuelan government’s recent decision not to invite opposition TV network Globovision in the switch over from analog to digital broadcasting.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Is Peña Nieto Taking on Mexico's Old School Political Bosses?

Just one day after Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a new education reform bill into law, police arrested Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of Mexico’s largest teachers’ union and a vocal critic of the reform package.  For now, it remains unclear whether her arrest was an isolated case or a sign that the administration is setting its sights on the corrupt political bosses that have traditionally been “untouchable” in the country.

El Universal reports that Gordillo, commonly known as “La Maestra,” was arrested at an airport outside Mexico City yesterday on charges that she embezzled more than $153 million in union funds. According to Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam, she used some of the money to pay for lavish personal expenses including a private jet, plastic surgery, designer clothing and two houses in California. Prosecutors say they have evidence that Gordillo embezzled the funds in a 2008-2012 money laundering scheme involving banks in Switzerland and the United States.

As the Associated Press notes, Gordillo was initially seen as a voice of democratic reform in the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) when she first became its president in 1989. But over time she transformed the union into a political juggernaut, an essential block of votes that the country’s two major parties fought to win over in every election.  She also established herself as the SNTE’s ultimate leader, winning every single union election virtually unopposed.

Gordillo’s arrest could be a sign that Peña Nieto is interested in taking on the kind of old-style union bosses that were once major political operators in his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) during its 71 years in power. The president has attempted to distance himself from his party’s old ways, and during his campaign promised voters that the PRI had turned the page on its legacy of cronyism.

On the other hand, the arrest may be a simple case of Peña Nieto taking a shot at a political opponent. Gordillo fought the education reform bill tooth and nail, and the Financial Times points out that she organized a series of major demonstrations in recent days in a last ditch attempt to derail the law. By authorizing her arrest, the government is sending a strong signal to its critics in the SNTE.

The true test of Peña Nieto’s motives will be whether the government goes after other high-level union bosses in the country, like Carlos Romero Deschamps of the oil workers’ union. Like Gordillo, Romero has sat comfortably at the head of his union since the early 1990s, and has a reputation as a political kingmaker  in Mexico.  Proceso reports that leaders of the National Action Party (PAN) released a statement urging Peña Nieto to pursue Romero and other longtime union bosses as well, but the president has made no comment on their request so far.

News Briefs
  • Animal Politico and El Universal report that the Mexican government released an official database of missing people yesterday, putting the total number of people who have disappeared from December 2006 to November 2012 at 26,121. The list’s release comes after Human Rights Watch published a highly critical report on the government’s handling of disappearances in the country last week. It is unclear how many of the individuals included in the database are victims of forced disappearance, however. According to Deputy Secretary for Legal Affairs and Human Rights Lia Limon, the list includes people who have gone missing for “diverse reasons, not necessarily related to criminal acts.”  The full database can be accessed online via the National Public Security System’s website.
  • The AP profiles the ongoing debate over the legitimacy of Mexico’s rapidly growing self-defense movement, which the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has loudly criticized. Raul Plascencia, the CNDH’s president, recently warned that “there is a fine line between self-defense organizations and paramilitary groups.” Meanwhile, El Informador reports that self-defense groups in western Guerrero state -- where the movement has been especially active in recent weeks -- have announced that they will unify into a single coalition in an attempt to gain recognition from the government.
  • In London on Monday in his first official overseas visit as U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry responded to reporters’ questions about the United States’ stance on the Falkland Islands conflict by restating U.S. policy, EFE reports. “Our position on the Falklands has not changed,” Kerry said. “The United States recognizes de facto UK administration of the islands but takes no position on the question of parties’ sovereignty claims thereto.” Much of the British press has interpreted the statement as an attempt to avoid addressing the Islands’ upcoming referendum on sovereignty, with the Telegraph accusing him of “ducking the issue” and the London Evening Standard running the headline “Visiting John Kerry refuses to back Falklands vote.”
  • Argentina is set to appeal a U.S. court ruling that orders the country to pay $1.3 billion to holders of its defaulted debt this week. According to Reuters, the trial begins today in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, and will be presided over by a three-judge panel. Interestingly, Bloomberg reports that the trial will feature a “courtroom rematch” between the two lawyers who faced each other in the proceedings that ultimately decided the 2000 U.S. presidential election, David Boies and Theodore Olson.
  • La Nacion reports that after several hours of heated debate, the Foreign Relations Committee of the Argentine Chamber of Deputies has finally approved a draft of the controversial agreement with Iran to set up a "truth commission" tasked with investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. The bill is expected to pass in the lower house this week, and was approved by the Senate last Thursday.
  • According to El Pais, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica is at odds with his ruling Broad Front coalition over how to institute a proposed marijuana legalization measure. While lawmakers favor taking advantage of their congressional majority and passing the bill as soon as possible, Mujica supports holding a series of public forums around the country to raise awareness of the issue over the course of three to four months.  
  • A new Gallup poll released on Tuesday shows that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ approval rating has fallen to its lowest level yet since he took office in 2010. The poll indicates that, for the first time, more Colombians hold a negative opinion (47 percent of respondents) of Santos than a positive one (44 percent). The Cali-based El Pais has released the full results of Gallup’s bimonthly opinion poll in Colombia, which shows that support for the president has been hit hard by increasing skepticism of the ongoing peace talks with FARC guerrillas.
  • La Silla Vacia looks at a recent pledge by the largest mining firms operating in Colombia to help reduce poverty in their areas of operations,  which the according to the news site amounts to a tacit admission that the mining sector drastically needs to improve its image with local communities in the country.
  • The AFP reports that the Venezuelan opposition has begun to consider naming a candidate in the event that President Hugo Chavez dies or is declared unfit to govern, triggering special elections. While members of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) have told the press that several names are being considered, analysts and pollsters say the only opposition figure that could successfully oppose a Chavista candidate is Henrique Capriles.
  • Another opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez of the Justice First Party (PPJ), quelled rumors yesterday that he is planning on leaving the country in the face of corruption allegations. Earlier this month government prosecutors accused Lopez of accepting campaign donations from state oil company PDVSA in 1998, when his mother worked there as head of public relations.
  • Officials in Bolivia claim that an EU-funded program which encouraged certain coca-growing communities to police cultivation limits themselves has contributed to a 12 percent drop in coca cultivation in these areas, La Razon and InSight Crime report. The five year program ended on February 21, but the government is pointing to its success as reason to institute the self-policing model elsewhere in the country. 
  • The Miami Herald analyzes the many obstacles in the Helms Burton Act which prevent the United States from normalizing relations with Cuba. While Raul Castro’s recent announcement that he will retire in 2018 satisfies one of the law’s requirements, the conditions calling for the legalization of opposition parties and holding free and fair elections do not look like they will be met any time soon. 
  • Following the Obama administration’s strong denial of reports that it is considering removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, Foreign Policy contributor Jose Cardenas argues in favor of keeping Cuba on the list. According to him, the lack of evidence that the Cuban government aids terrorist groups is irrelevant, so long as it does not publicly repent for supporting such groups in the past. As Greg Weeks points out, “this is the very definition of moving goal posts.”
  • Government prosecutors in Peru have called on a court to order the arrest of Cajamarca regional president Gregorio Santos, La Republica reports. According to officials, Santos has failed to comply with the court-ordered terms of an investigation into his participation in paramilitary “rondas campesinas” during the country’s armed conflict. But the move has political undertones as well, as Santos has been a key figure in anti-mining protests in the country, and recently weighed in on the ongoing conflict over a proposed copper mine in the Lambayeque region.
  • After a Hague tribunal ruled in early February that Ecuador should be responsible for the costs associated with a battle with Chevron over $19 billion in contamination damage in the Amazon basin, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has called on the Unasur and ALBA regional organizations to reject the decision, the AP reports. Ecuadorean prosecutors are currently pursuing lawsuits against Chevron in Colombia, Argentina and Brazil in order to collect the damages, and in January an Argentine court upheld a freeze of Chevron’s assets in the country.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Morales Declares 2014 Re-Election Bid Despite Constitutional Concerns

Bolivian President Evo Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party formally nominated the president as its candidate for the 2014 presidential elections in a controversial move yesterday, despite disagreement over the legality of his candidacy.

La Razon reports that the president accepted his party’s nomination at a MAS convention in Cochabamba yesterday. He also voiced optimism at the party’s prospects of strengthening its majority in both houses of the Legislative Assembly next year, setting a goal of a 74 percent victory for MAS candidates.

Despite the nomination, the legality of Morales’ run is unclear. The Bolivian opposition contends that a victory in 2014 would give the president a third term in office, which is illegal under the Bolivian constitution. But Morales and his party dispute this, claiming that because the constitution was changed by a national referendum before he was re-elected in 2009, another five year term in office would technically be his second under the new constitution.

According to Telesur, the Bolivian Senate asked the country’s Constitutional Court to study the legality of Morales’ re-election, and the court has ten days to issue a ruling on the matter.

Meanwhile, an Ipsos poll published last week suggests that 54 percent of the Bolivian public supports Morales’ re-election, meaning that if the MAS’ nomination is allowed the country would likely see Morales in office until 2020.

News Briefs
  • The 2014 election season has gotten off to an early start in Brazil as well as Bolivia. Reuters reports that last week former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva laid to rest rumors about a potential bid for office next year, endorsing President Dilma Rousseff’s candidacy.
  • With the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) facing an overhaul of its independence and responsibilities in the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly next month, the Americas Society/Council of the Americas convened a group of media professionals, human rights advocates and regional experts yesterday in Washington to discuss the implications of these changes. La Nacion reports that the OAS ambassadors from Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Chile attended the event, and offered their countries’ positions on reforming the IACHR. A full video of the conference is available via the AS/COA website.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has authorized the Red Cross and a committee of academics and former politicians to facilitate the release of two German tourists kidnapped by Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The committee, which includes former governors Horacio Serpa and Antonio Navarro, was created in 2000 with the intention of serving as an intermediary between the rebel sand the government, and Caracol Radio reports that its members hope that the hostages’ release will serve as a first step towards involving the ELN in the current peace process.
  • El Tiempo and the Financial Times report on an escalating coffee growers’ strike in Colombia, the world’s fourth-largest coffee producing country. Thousands of coffee growers have gone on strike and organized protests across the country, demanding increased subsidies in response to falling coffee prices and the strengthening of the Colombian peso. President Santos has been critical of the demonstrations, calling them "unnecessary and inconvenient.” The president also claimed that protestors refused a dialogue with his government when it was offered last week. As such, Santos announced yesterday that that he would only negotiate with the official coffee growers’ union, which, according to La Vanguardia, opposes the protests. BBC Mundo looks at the unlikely coalition which supports the coffee growers, which includes members of the left-wing Democratic Pole party and former President Alvaro Uribe.  
  • Recently-re-elected Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has announced that he will use his new term in office to promote large-scale mining projects in the country, a decision which could put him in conflict with indigenous groups in the country and pave the way for the kind of anti-mining protests that have made life difficult for the president of neighboring Peru, Ollanta Humala. The AFP notes that the Correa government’s decision last year to allow copper mining in the Amazon basin province of Zamora-Chinchipe was met by major demonstrations by indigenous groups, who organized a high-profile march from the Amazon to Quito.
  • Reuters profiles the newly-appointed Cuban vice president, Miguel Diaz-Cane. At 52, he is the youngest non-military official to join the government’s top leadership, which the news agency suggests is indicative of a change in which officials in Cuba are promoted.
  • Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the Uruguayan Supreme Court yesterday to protest a Friday ruling which effectively reinstates amnesty for dictatorship-era human rights abuses. The government’s will to challenge the ruling, however, seems to have faded. While the largest party within the ruling Broad Front coalition, the Popular Participation Movement (MPP), announced last week that it would seek to impeach the Court, El Pais reports that the Broad Front has distanced itself from this statement. If the impeachment moves forward, it now appears that it will be limited to the Court’s controversial relocation of a judge who was leading investigations into the abuses. The apparent backpedaling is likely in response to strong criticism from opposition leaders, who released a statement yesterday accusing the government of not respecting the principle of judicial independence and warning of a “return to anti-democratic attitudes” in the Broad Front.
  • BBC Mundo has an interesting report on the latest addition to the Hugo Chavez-themed memorabilia being sold to Chavistas on the streets of Caracas: the recently-released image of the president lying in a Havana hospital bed and flanked by his daughters. Chavez has yet to make a public appearance since returning to Venezuela a week ago, and Venezuelan National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello told reporters yesterday that the president would appear and resume his normal duties “whenever he deems it appropriate.”
  • While representatives of the Mercosur trade bloc and the European Union are currently in preliminary negotiations over a long-stalled free-trade deal, a final agreement may not be possible until Paraguay is readmitted to Mercosur. In an interview with Paraguayan daily ABC, German ambassador to Paraguay Claude Robert Ellner said that the EU would not be able to sign a trade agreement without Paraguay’s involvement in the negotiations. According to Ellner, “for us Paraguay continues to be a Mercosur member, end of story.” The country was suspended from the trade bloc last year after the ouster of former President Fernando Lugo, which many in the region saw as an illegal coup.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a major education reform bill into law yesterday, which will weaken the control that the powerful teachers’ union currently has on hiring and firing new teachers, El Universal reports. As the AP notes, the move is a major blow to teachers’ union boss Elba Esther Gordillo, a high-profile figure who has held the position for more than 20 years. While the reform is the biggest overhaul of the education system that Mexico has seen in seven decades, CNN Mexico reports that Congress must pass a number of supplementary bills in order for it to take full effect.
  • The five commissioners of Mexico’s transparency agency, the Institute of Access to Information and Protection of Data (IFAI), testified before the Senate yesterday. According to CNNMexico, the commissioners acknowledged that internal division exists in the IFAI, but they claimed this does not impede their job and rejected the necessity of a bill which would dismiss and replace them, which is currently being debated in Congress. The transparency body also reported that it saw a 20 percent increase in access to information requests last year compared to the same period in 2011. Animal Politico reports that IFAI Commissioner Sigrid Arzt Colunga also used her appearance before the Senate to deny accusations that she filed information requests under a pseudonym last year
  • In a New York Times op-ed, senior health and policy advisor at Partners In Health Louise C. Ivers criticizes the United Nations’ recent rejection of a legal claim for compensation by victims of the cholera outbreak in Haiti. The disease was almost certainly introduced by UN peacekeepers, and Ivers argues that the UN has a “moral, if not legal, obligation” to help address the country’s health crisis.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Uruguay’s Supreme Court Reinstates Amnesty for Dictatorship-Era Abuses

In a setback for transitional justice in Uruguay, the country’s Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the 2011 law which lifted the amnesty for officers in the 1975-1983 military dictatorship was unconstitutional. As El Pais reports, this effectively blocks dozens of human rights cases from proceeding in court.

The ruling fits with previous Supreme Court decisions on the issue. The Court has maintained that the tortures, killings and disappearances committed by the dictatorship were common crimes, not crimes against humanity; therefore the amnesty doesn’t violate Uruguay’s commitments under international law.

While it is in keeping with the Court’s previous stance, the ruling still comes as somewhat of a surprise. The repeal of the amnesty law was the result of a decades-long campaign and several failed attempts in the legislature. When it was passed in October 2011, it was widely praised as a step forward in the fight against impunity for dictatorship-era rights abuses.

Although a handful of high-level dictatorship officials -- like former President Juan Maria Bordaberry and ex-General Gregorio Conrado Alvarez -- saw trials for abuses in spite of the amnesty, the law’s repeal was seen as a sign that the country was finally ready to fully challenge the influence of its military elites.  

But Friday’s ruling suggests that despite the progress Uruguay has made since its 1983 return to democracy, the country is not yet ready to fully challenge the influence of its military elites.

This is not the first time that the Court has signaled this in recent weeks. On February 13, it ordered the transfer of Judge Mariana Mota from her position at the forefront of a high-profile investigation of dictatorship-era abuses to a civil tribunal in Montevideo. The Supreme Court insisted that the transfer was a procedural matter, but it is widely believed to have been the result of pressure from the military. As a result of Mota’s transfer, and of the effective reinstatement of amnesty, it is doubtful that the 55 human rights cases that Mota was overseeing will move forward.

The ruling Broad Front coalition has criticized the decision, and called on the Court to appear before Congress to explain itself, which the justices have declined to do. In response, President Jose Mujica’s party, the Popular Participation Movement (MPP), has announced that it will seek to organize the impeachment of the Court, obligating them to testify in person on the issue.

As El Pais notes, however, an impeachment of the Court is unlikely as it requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which the Broad Front does not have. As such, it looks as though the amnesty’s repeal will go unchallenged.

News Briefs
  • Cuba’s parliament granted a new five-year term to President Raul Castro on Sunday, which the leader said would be his last. As the New York Times notes, Castro also announced his intention to establish term limits and age limits for political positions, including the presidency. Some of these changes, the president said, would be implemented through referendums. Another surprise yesterday was Castro’s appointment of 52-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez as his vice president. As Cuban Triangle points out, this is the first time that a next-generation figure in the Cuban government has held the position, and suggests Diaz-Canel has been chosen as a successor to Castro in 2018. The AP offers an interesting profile of Diaz-Canel, portraying him as an uncharismatic party loyalist whose political profile has risen under Raul’s close watch.
  • Another result of Cuba’s parliamentary session yesterday was the appointment of Esteban Lazo as head of the National Assembly. Lazo replaces Ricardo Alarcon, who led the legislative body for 20 years and was regarded as a point man for overseeing U.S.-Cuban relations. According to BBC Mundo, Lazo is a top leader of the Communist Party, and a member of its Secretariat.
  • Newly-unclassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive show that Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was in favor of using military force to defy the October 1988 referendum which ended his rule.  The documents also show that U.S. military and State Department officials supported the campaign against Pinochet.
  • Peruvian photojournalist Luis Choy, who worked for the popular daily El Comercio, was shot and killed in Lima on Saturday. According to La Republica, police have ruled out theft as a motive for the crime, but no other potential motives have been released. The AFP links the murder to rising crime and insecurity in the country, which the government responded to by ordering a large-scale shakeup of the national police force last week.
  • Colombia’s Semana magazine has an interview with Ivan Marquez, the head of the negotiating team of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana. Despite the rising public skepticism of the peace talks in Colombia, Marquez claims that the guerrillas and government have put together “at least two or more pages” of a preliminary peace accord.
  • La Silla Vacia takes a look at the state of the ruling Social Party of National Unity, also known as the “U Party.” The party’s internal divisions, including the highly public spat between President Juan Manuel Santos and former president Alvaro Uribe, are growing deeper and more problematic. The news site argues that the many issues facing the party have put it on a course towards “a nervous breakdown.”
  • Writing for Colombia Reports, freelance journalist Charles Parkinson describes a wave of gruesome violence which hit Medellin’s troubled Comuna 13 neighborhood last week. The district is a hub of gang activity and drug dealing, and the recent murders illustrate the challenges the city faces as it struggles to address poverty and change its violent image.
  • Although the Mexican government responded to the release of a Human Rights Watch report on forced disappearances by saying it is working on expanding a list of 27,000 disappeared people into a national registry, former security spokesman Jose Oscar Vega Marin has denied that the list exists. As the AP and El Informador report, Vega said that the previous administration had no system in place to construct information about victims of disappearances. The only data that officials have, according to Vega, is a list of some 5,000 people believed to have been disappeared.
  • The five commissioners of Mexico’s much lauded public transparency agency, the Institute of Access to Information and Protection of Data (IFAI), are slated to testify before the Mexican Senate today over allegations of mismanagement, El Universal reports. Congress is considering a bill which would dismiss and replace the IFAI commissioners, which some oppose on the grounds that it would damage the IFAI’s impartiality.
  • In spite of indications last week that Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman may have been killed in a shootout in Guatemala, the reports proved to be unfounded. Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla announced over the weekend that the rumors, which he helped fuel, were due to a “misunderstanding.”

Friday, February 22, 2013

'Baby Doc' Trial Postponed, Again

Once again Haitian ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, also known as “Baby Doc,” has defied a judge and failed to appear at a hearing over whether he can be tried for crimes against humanity.

The Associated Press reports that Duvalier’s attorney, former Senator Reynold Georges arrived some 90 minutes after the hearing was scheduled to start yesterday, claiming that he had filed an appeal of the judge’s order with the Supreme Court. Georges confidently announced that he expected the Supreme Court to reject both the summons of Duvalier as well as the effort to reinstate charges of crimes against humanity against his client.

“We’re waiting for the Supreme Court decision and we’re going to win,” Georges said. According to the AP, he also referred to himself as “Haiti’s Johnnie Cochran,” a reference to O. J. Simpson's controversial defense lawyer.

This is the second time that Baby Doc has failed to appear at a scheduled hearing over allegations that that he ordered murders, disappearances and torture during his 1971-1986 rule. Earlier this month the hearing was postponed after the defense contested that the coincidence of the trial date with the 27th anniversary of his ouster could lead to civil unrest.

This time the judge presiding over the hearing, Judge Jean Joseph Lebrun, rejected the defense’s argument. Lebrun maintained that Georges could not appeal directly to the Supreme Court, and ordered Duvalier to appear in court “without delay” on March 1. Human Rights Watch spokesman Reed Brody praised Lebrun’s decision, telling the AP that it represented “an important victory for Duvalier’s victims who never gave up hope of seeing him in court.”

But it’s not clear how the latest court order differs from previous statements from Judge Lebrun. After he agreed to reschedule the hearing earlier this month, Lebrun threatened to have the ex-dictator arrested if he failed to show up again, which appears to have been an empty threat.

This, and the fact that Duvalier has been allowed to travel freely throughout the country while supposedly under house arrest, suggest the odds of the Duvalier regime’s victims seeing justice in Haiti any time soon are slim.

News Briefs
  • United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has invoked the UN’s legal immunity in response to an attempt to sue for damages related to the cholera epidemic in Haiti. The claim was submitted by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in 2011. Citing research showing that the country’s cholera epidemic was likely introduced by UN peacekeepers, the IJDH is seeking to require the international organization to install a new water and sanitation system, pay compensation to victims and publicly apologize.  Yesterday the UN leader called Haitian President Michel Martelly to inform him that the international organization would not compensate the victims, The Guardian reports.
  • Yesterday evening the Guatemalan government announced there had been a shootout between criminal groups in the remote jungle Peten region in the north of the country, and said they had reason to believe that Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman may have been killed there. Authorities subsequently backed away from the claim late last night, however, after the shootout could not be confirmed.  Prensa Libre reports that Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said officials had been sent to the location in order to investigate the incident. “We cannot say it with certainty, but it might be him,” Lopez said.
  • Venezuelan Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas announced via state television yesterday that Hugo Chavez continues to battle respiratory failure, saying that the trend “has not been favorable.” El Nacional reports that, in a rather densely worded statement, Villegas also said that treatment of Chavez’s “base illness,” (presumably the cancer in his pelvic region) has “not yet presented significantly adverse effects.”
  • 2012 was the deadliest year in the past decade for human rights activists in Colombia, according to a new report released by local NGO Somos Defensores. The organization found that although the government invested nearly $100 million in programs to protect at-risk human rights defenders last year, 69 were killed, the highest number of murders since 2002. Semana magazine has created a helpful infographic based on the data, and the full report is available at the group’s website.
  • Despite a Boston Globe report earlier this week which claimed senior officials in the Obama administration are considering removing Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror, both the White House and U.S. State Department have denied this.
  • A former Honduran national police chief, General Ricardo Ramirez del Cid, is directly blaming the murder of his son on Sunday on the country’s armed forces and police, La Prensa reports. While officials said the teenager had been killed by gang members, Ramirez claimed to have proof that his murder was the result of a botched kidnapping orchestrated by corrupt elements of the security forces. Ramirez, who was removed from office in May amid a scandal implicating the police force in a high profile journalist’s murder, is calling for the resignation of his successor, Juan Carlos Bonilla, as well as that of Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla.
  • The Miami Herald and the AP report on the Venezuelan government’s announcement this week that it intends to switch the country over from analog to digital broadcasting, noting that the overtly anti-Chavez Globovision network has not been invited to participate in the change. Globovision, which has been sued by the government several times in recent years over allegedly sensationalist reporting, claims this is part of an attempt by the Chavez administration to force the network off the air. While the Herald portrays the announcement as part of the government’s construction of a “powerful state-run media apparatus” in the country, it’s worth pointing out that the audience share of state television remains far lower than that of private companies (see this 2010 report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research).
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Tuesday announced an increase in the monthly stipend guaranteed to the 2.5 million people living below the poverty line in the country. Rousseff said that poor Brazilians would now receive around $35 a month through the country’s much-lauded Bolsa Familia cash transfer program, which has lifted 36 million people out of extreme poverty since 2003.
  • MeroPress reports that former Brazilian Environment Minister and politician Marina Silva has launched a new political party in the country, known as “The Sustainability Network.” Silva, who won 19 percent of the vote in the 2010 presidential elections, has not announced whether she will run for president in 2014.
  • Yet another mining conflict is brewing in northern Peru this week. According to Peru21, some 150 locals in the northern Trujillo province have set up roadblocks leading to Lagunas Norte gold mine, operated by Canada's Barrick Gold Corporation. Demonstrators have demanded a meeting with local government officials, and so far no major clashes with authorities have been reported.
  • Peruvian officials announced a massive shakeup of the country’s police force yesterday. According to La Republica, some 80 percent of ranking officers (over 4,000 mid and high-level officials) in the Peruvian National Police will be reassigned to other posts in an effort to crack down on corruption and abuse of authority in the police force.
  • One year after Argentina saw its worst train accident in 40 years (in which 51 were killed and some 800 sustained injuries), BBC Mundo looks at the country’s troubled rail system. Last month President Cristina Fernandez announced that she would oversee “the most significant railway renovation project of the last 50 or 60 years,” but it remains to be seen if it will amount to the major overhaul most analysts say is badly needed.
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero takes a look at the flourishing video game development scene in Uruguay, profiling the success of the Ironhide Game Studio, which is behind the popular online game “Kingdom Rush.”
  • The AP reports that former Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning, who led the Caribbean country from 1991 to 1995 and again from 2001 to 2010, has been hospitalized after collapsing from an apparent seizure. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

HRW Warns of Forced Disappearance 'Crisis' in Mexico

Human Rights Watch has released a new report which accuses former Mexican President Felipe Calderon of ignoring “the most severe crisis of enforced disappearances in Latin America in decades” and failing to take steps to address it during his 2006-2012 administration.

The 178-page report (.pdf) documents some 250 disappearances which occurred during the Calderon years. Of these, HRW found evidence that members of virtually every division of the Mexican security forces could be linked to 149 disappearances, sometimes working in cooperation with organized crime.

This includes the Mexican Navy, which is generally seen as the least corrupt branch of the country’s armed forces.  In one instance, naval officials conducted a series of raids in the north of the country in the summer of 2011, taking more than 20 individuals into custody. Their families never heard from them again, and officials say they have no record of them.

In all of the cases detailed in the report, HRW found that authorities failed to fully investigate the crime or carry out a thorough search for the victims.

The report lists only a small fraction of the total estimated disappearances in the country. A list compiled by the Mexican attorney general’s office, which was leaked in November, found evidence that more than 25,000 people have gone missing since 2006. The HRW report notes that the leaked list is “incomplete and its methodology flawed,” but the watchdog group insists it is proof of the massive scale of Mexico’s disappearance crisis.

After the release of the report yesterday, Mexico’s Deputy Interior Minister Lia Limon told reporters that the government is working on compiling a national database of the disappeared.  Limon also said official figures put the number of victims even higher than the attorney general report, at over 27,000, although she admitted that she had not seen the database and could not comment on the progress of its development.  

News Briefs
  • Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, also known as “Baby Doc,” is due to appear in court today at a hearing over whether he can be tried for crimes against humanity. The hearing was initially slated for February 7 but was rescheduled at the last minute after Duvalier failed to make an appearance. The judge in the case has said he will have the ex-dictator arrested if he fails to show at today’s hearing, but Duvalier’s enduring political influence I the country makes this, as well as his prosecution for human rights abuses, unlikely.
  • With his Alianza Pais party having secured a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in Sunday’s elections, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa announced yesterday that he intends to amend the country’s Constitution. According to EFE, potential changes include altering the Constitution to allow for the production of genetically modified crops and amending the legal code to make it harder for citizens to halt government programs by obtaining court injunctions. El Comercio reports that Correa also addressed the worst fears of his critics, specifically promising not to run for office after his current term ends in 2017. even if the Constitution were amended to allow for his re-election. “If the majority of the public supports [amending re-election laws], let them decide; I will not run,” the president said.
  • The Guardian has an interesting profile of outgoing Ecuadoran Vice President Lenin Moreno and his dedicated promotion of disabled rights since 2006. Moreno, who uses a wheelchair, has been praised for drastically improving access to care for disabled people as well as changing the way the disabled are socially perceived  in Ecuador. While he claims he is leaving politics behind, many believe that he is positioning himself to succeed Correa in 2017.
  • Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party (PT) held a ceremony in São Paulo to mark ten years in presidential office yesterday. AFP reports that the event was both a celebration of the PT’s successful anti-poverty measures in the country as well as an endorsement of President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election in the upcoming 2014 elections.
  • During a visit to the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia yesterday, Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez sparked controversy by making comments which were interpreted as a call for the release of the “Cuban Five,” five Cuban intelligence agents held in the U.S. since 1998. Sanchez later clarified her remarks, saying she meant them as a sarcastic commentary on the amount of money that the Cuban government has spent on an international media campaign defending the men. In another comment that is sure to generate friction between her and the Cuban exile community in the U.S., The Miami Herald reports that Sanchez reiterated her longstanding criticism of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, calling it “interventionist” and ineffective.
  • Land rights activists in Honduras are claiming that 9 farmers have been killed since January alone in the troubled Bajo Aguan region, where a land conflict between large scale African palm plantation owners and small farmers has raged for several years, killing more than 60 since 2009.
  • The seven-member delegation of U.S. lawmakers currently visiting Cuba confirmed that it met with imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross yesterday. Senator Patrick Leahy, who led the delegation, told reporters that the legislators also met with Cuban President Raul Castro yesterday to discuss improving bilateral relations.
  • In a sign that Cuba-U.S. relations could be on the mend, the Boston Globe reports that high-level State Department officials are considering removing Cuba from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” The Globe cites a senior official in the Obama administration as saying that there is a “pretty clear case” that Cuba no longer meets the State Department’s criteria for inclusion on the list, which includes Syria, Sudan, and Iran.
  • Although the AP reports that the first killing of a suspect by the self-defense movement’s “community police” in Ayutla, Guerrero occurred in a shootout yesterday, El Universal reveals that it is actually the second such deadly incident in Ayutla this year.  Still, the death is likely to fuel the already heated debate over the legality of the growing vigilante movement in Mexico.
  • Following Bolivia’s official complaint to the United Nations over the matter, the Chilean government has announced that it will release three Bolivian soldiers held since January for allegedly crossing into Chile illegally. According to La Razon, the soldiers’ release has been delayed by the fact that a case is still open against the men in the Chilean court system.
  • BBC Mundo looks at Bolivian President Evo Morales’ record of nationalizing foreign companies, the most recent of which was the takeover of Spain’s SABSA, an airport administration company. While the nationalizations have been popular among the Bolivian public, their economic benefit is subject to debate.
  • With Hugo Chavez’s failing health making a special election look increasingly likely in Venezuela, some have questioned whether Vice President Nicolas Maduro would be the undisputed Chavista candidate. The current head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, is believed to be a political rival of Maduro's, and is viewed by some as a potential threat to Maduro’s candidacy. Cabello has denied this, however, and the two have maintained a united front in public. But a report by El Nuevo Herald suggests that two are not as close as their public image suggests. According to the Herald, the January Supreme Court decision allowing Chavez to delay his inauguration ceremony had the added effect of ensuring that Cabello would not be required to take temporary office, which the Constitution mandates in cases where the president-elect is unable to be sworn in. The paper cites “sources close to the situation” who claim that this decision was orchestrated by the pro-Maduro wing of the United Socialist Party (PSUV) as a way of blocking Cabello from power.
  • La Nacion has the latest update on the ongoing debate in the Argentine Senate over the proposed establishment of a joint truth commission with Iran to investigate the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Concern over the agreement was fueled last week after Iran appeared to step back from its promise to allow Argentine investigators to question its Defense Minister about the bombing.