Friday, May 31, 2013

Director of Guatemalan Commission on Impunity to Step Down Amid Criticism from Government, UN

Francisco Dall'Anese, director of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), has announced he will be leaving his post in September. While the news looked at first like the result of pressure from the administration of President Otto Perez, it turns out the UN may have been looking for a reason to dismiss Dall'Anese as well.

On May 28, Dall'Anese announced he would be leaving his position at the head of the lauded judicial reform commission in September. According to remarks he made to the press, he had asked the UN not to renew his contract in order to spend more time with his family in Costa Rica. However, newspaper El Periodico reported that the announcement came after the Perez administration met with UN officials to express concern about some of the CICIG director’s comments related to the Rios Montt genocide trial case. Specifically, the government was perturbed by an April CICIG press release which condemned a platform of opinion leaders who had come against the case as “an unjustifiable threat to the trial.”

This is not entirely surprising, as Perez is known to mistrust the CICIG. The president dodged questions about renewing the Commission’s mandate during his 2011 campaign, and his decision to do so in March 2012 came as a welcome surprise to many observers. He has also distanced himself from enterprising Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, raising questions about his commitment to cleaning up Guatemala’s notoriously corrupt judicial branch.

However, a report by Guatemala’s ContraPoder suggests this may not be whole story. Anonymous sources in the executive office and CICIG told the magazine that the UN had become increasingly dissatisfied with what it saw as Dall'Anese’s confrontational tactics. He allegedly lost access to key government partners, developed a reputation for failing to communicate with his superiors in New York, and had also become very close to El Periodico, a fact which particularly bothered Perez. An embarrassingly public dispute also broke out on his watch with two former employees, rasing allegations that CICIG was not complying with local labor laws.

According to an anonymous administration official, Perez’s statement of concern about Dall'Anese to the UN was “the straw the broke the camel's back.”

Hopefully Dall'Anese’s replacement will be able to establish better relations with the government, while continuing his penchant for openly confronting corrupt actors in the court system. CICIG is expected to finish its mandate in September 2015, meaning that it the next director will have just two years to consolidate gains made in strengthening the public prosecutor's office and other legal institutions.

News Briefs
  • The U.S. Department of State published its annual “Country Reports on Terrorism” yesterday, and as the L.A. Times notes, Cuba is still considered a state sponsor of terror. On a positive note, the report recognized that the Cuban government has distanced itself from terrorist activity by reducing support for Basque separatists and sponsoring talks with the FARC in Colombia. It also notes that there is "no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups." In response, Cuba has called its inclusion on the list “shameful,” Reuters reports.
  • Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez has now safely returned to Havana after a three month-long international tour which the AP claims has “cemented her status as the most internationally recognizable face of Cuba’s small dissident community.”
  • The fallout from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ decision to host Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles continues. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has now publicly questioned Santos’ commitment to peace talks with FARC rebels, as he weighs withdrawing his government’s support for the dialogue.
  • UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank William La Rue has an op-ed in Prensa Libre in which he identifies state weakness as one the biggest challenges to Guatemala’s democratic development and security. One effect of this trend, according to him, is the fact that the country now has 6 times more private security guards than police.
  • Wired looks at the U.S. Army’s recent request for proposals from contractors to produce a 20-part Spanish radio novela to promote demobilization and counter recruitment by illegal armed groups in Colombia. The radio series would be used by a Military Information Support Operations (MISO) team in the country in an apparent bid to help the government of President Juan Manuel Santos with the demobilization and reinsertion efforts which will be necessary if peace talks with FARC rebels succeed.
  • Though Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong has publicly defended the integrity of the government’s recently released homicide statistics (which suggest that the number of killings linked to organized crime is down), some are still suspicious of the data. Animal Politico has a post by Leonel Fernandez Novelo of Mexican transparency group Mexico Evalua which details the difficulties of obtaining reliable information on security issues in the country.
  • In an exclusive interview with AFP, the woman known as “Beatriz” who was recently denied a potentially life-saving abortion by El Salvador’s Supreme Court will be giving an early caesarian section next week.
  • The New York Times profiles a new Mexican hit movie, “We Are the Nobles,” the highest-grossing Mexican film ever in local cinemas. It is has become so popular largely because of  the way it lampoons the detached lifestyles of economic elites in the country, which has recently become a politically salient issue.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

El Salvador's Supreme Court Rejects Appeal for Life-Saving Abortion

After weeks of deliberation, the Salvadoran Supreme Court has ruled against granting an abortion to a woman with a high-risk pregnancy whose fetus has little chance of survival, a case which illustrates the restrictive anti-abortion laws common across the region.

The case of “Beatriz” has received international attention in recent months (see The New York Times, Salon and Al Jazeera English), prompting several UN human rights rapporteurs and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to call for the government to authorize her abortion.

Beatriz has been diagnosed with lupus and kidney failure, and ultrasound scans reveal that the fetus is developing without significant portions of the brain, meaning it will not survive infancy. In March, the National Maternity Hospital asked for permission from the government to perform an abortion because of the “high risk of maternal death.”

The trouble is that El Salvador’s laws prohibit abortions, with no exceptions. If Beatriz were to seek an abortion, she could be sentenced with up to 50 years in prison, and the doctor performing the procedure would lose his license and receive up to a 12 year sentence.

Unfortunately, yesterday the Supreme Court ruled against the request. El Faro reports that the decision was 4 to 1, with the majority opinion contending that allowing the abortion would privilege  the rights of the mother over those of her child.

Such arguments are common throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. While abortion has been decriminalized in some countries and territories, it remains the region with the most severe anti-abortion laws in the world. So far just three countries (Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana) permit abortion without restrictions in the region. This contributes to the highest regional rate of unsafe abortions per capita in the world (31 per 1,000 women), according to the World Health Organization.

News Briefs
  • The Venezuelan government is upset with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos after he  met with opposition leader Henrique Capriles yesterday, causing officials in Caracas to warn that the move could damage relations between the two neighboring countries. The government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has also withdrawn its ambassador in Bogota. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said on state TV that the meeting "will bring a derailment of the good relations that we have." El Tiempo reports that he also said it could put Venezuela’s participation in peace talks with FARC rebels in jeopardy, though the government has not yet made a decision on the matter.
  • Marco Leon Calarca, a lead negotiator for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has publicly rejected the government’s stated November deadline for talks.  In an interview with the Associated Press, Calarca rejected President Santos’ threat to pull out of talks if no agreement is reached in November as politicking.  
  • Former FMLN guerrilla Joaquin Villalobos, now an international conflict resolution consultant, made some interesting comparisons between the peace process in Colombia and the post-civil war experience in El Salvador in a recent Bogota conference. According to him, Colombia runs the risk of experiencing “anarchic (decentralized) violence” after the conflict’s main actors demobilize, a factor which in El Salvador contributed to the rise of street gangs like MS-13.
  • U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Brazil as part of the final leg of his Latin American tour this week. In a half-hour speech in Rio, Biden addressed the need for stronger economic ties with Brazil, saying “You can no longer claim ‘We are a developing nation.’ You have developed.” He also confirmed that President Dilma Rousseff had been invited to Washington for an official state visit in October, the only such visit scheduled for this year.
  • Chilean President Sebastian Piñera has sent a bill to Congress which would make it a crime to insult policemen, as well as establish stricter penalties for assaulting officers and damaging police offices or vehicles. The bill has been criticized by prosecutors, who say that it will overburden the court system, the AP reports.  
  • The Miami Herald reports on Biden’s visit to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, where he met leaders of the Caribbean Community and the Dominican Republic to discuss mutual interests. The talks were described by both sides as “frank” and even “brutal.”
  • Although polls show that a majority of Uruguayans (66 percent) oppose marijuana legalization, the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) party in the lower house of Congress is expected to pass a bill in June which would legalize and regulate the cannabis market. From there it will head to the Senate, where the FA majority is expected to pass it as well. Montevideo Portal reports that a high profile civil society-led campaign has emerged to support the measure, funding television and radio ads which may cause public opinion to turn around on the issue somewhat.
  • According to the Wall Street Journal, the decade-long commodity boom which has fueled development in Latin America and helped governments lift millions out poverty is “showing signs of fatigue,” largely in response to fading demand in China.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why Honduras’ Gang Truce Will Have Less Impact Than El Salvador’s

The ceasefire announced yesterday by Honduras’ two main street gangs is historic, but police homicide data suggests it will not have the same impact as the gang truce in El Salvador.

As expected, yesterday imprisoned leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 street gangs in Honduras held separate press conferences in a San Pedro Sula prison to announce that they had agreed to a ceasefire with the help of mediators in the Catholic Church and experts in the Organization of American States (OAS). The MS-13 spokesman, identified only as Marco, said the truce was partially a quest for societal redemption. “We ask society and authorities to forgive us for the damage we have done,” he told reporters.

Marco also said that the while the gangs would stop recruiting new members as part of the truce, they would continue to extort small businesses and transportation workers, a major source of illicit income.

The truce appears to have at least nominal support from the government. On Monday President Porfirio Lobo announced that he would do “whatever is necessary” to facilitate it, though he emphasized that he would not make any deals with the gangs despite their calls for direct negotiations with the state.

There is skepticism about the agreement’s ability to reduce violence to the extent that it has in El Salvador. It is not clear that Barrio 18 and MS-13 in Honduras are as centralized as they are in the neighboring country, where the months after the ceasefire there saw homicides fall by 60 percent.

Still, some analysts are cautiously optimistic about the potential benefits of the Honduran gang truce. James Bosworth of Bloggings by Boz, for instance, writes: “Even a little success with this truce would be good. A 10% decline in murders would be hundreds of fewer deaths, particularly in San Pedro Sula. For that reason, we shouldn't hold this truce to the standard of El Salvador and we should be happy for any sustainable decline in violence that it can bring.”

Unfortunately even a 10 percent decline in murders may be too much to hope for. According to the Honduran Violence Observatory’s annual report for 2012, police statistics show that in cases where homicide motives could be identified (about 40 percent of all 7,172 registered murders last year), only 93 were considered gang-related, about 1.3 percent of the total. By contrast, 1,683 -- 23.5 percent -- were considered “ajustes de cuentas,” revenge killings linked to drug trafficking.

Prior to the El Salvador ceasefire, official estimates of the percentage of murders linked to gangs ranged from 10 to 30 percent. The fact that Honduran gangs are believed to be far less responsible for the country’s soaring homicide rate does not bode well for the truce’s chances of significantly reducing violence.

News Briefs
  • El Periodico reports that International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) Director Francisco Dall'Anes will be leaving his position at the head of the UN-backed judicial reform commission in September. According to Dall'Anes, he is leaving to spend more time with his family in Costa Rica. However, the paper notes that the announcement comes after administration of President Otto Perez expressed concern about some of the CICIG director’s comments in the Rios Montt genocide trial case. According to Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera: "We have said to the UN that we believe it is important for the [CCIG] Commissioner to always be someone who preserves the equity of processes. The important thing is that we continue strengthening the CICIG.”
  • In a recent report for McClatchy newspapers about the Rios Montt trial, Tim Johnson writes that the overturning of his conviction has created a “consensus among critics on both the left and the right: Prosecutors badly overreached when they tried to pin accusations of genocide on the 86-year-old former president.” Meanwhile, Plaza Publica has an interview with American journalist Allan Nairn, who was set to testify in the Rios Montt case and apparently implicate President Perez in war crimes. However, the prosecution struck him from the witness list after another witness implicated Perez in sensational testimony.
  • Two U.S. diplomatic officials in Venezuela, one of whom was a military attaché, were shot after a confrontation in a Caracas strip club late last night. The AP reports that the injuries were not life threatening, and the Wall Street Journal notes that some officials in the U.S. are concerned that the incident will “reflect unfavorably on the U.S. in Venezuela.”
  • While there has been plenty of press coverage of the political factors contributing to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s sagging popularity, there has been comparatively less on the economic factors. Venezuelan news site Tal Cual Digital takes a look at how Maduro’s failure to modify Chavez’s economic policies even to address the negative consequences of the recent devaluation. An English translation is available at the Latin America Herald Tribune.
  • A Colombian legislative committee investigating former President Alvaro Uribe announced yesterday that it will seek testimony from four police generals as part of its probe into Uribe’s decision to name Mauricio Santoyo -- in jail in the U.S. for aiding paramilitaries -- as his security chief. More from Semana magazine and the AP.
  • Spain’s El Pais features an interesting look at the mandate of Bolivian President Evo Morales, which describes the leader as different from others of the Latin American left because he sees capitalism as a product of colonialism and “aspires to reestablish a pre-Columbian culture and civilization."
  • The New York Times profiles the case of “Beatriz,” a 22 year-old pregnant woman who is seeking to abort a life-threatening pregnancy despite El Salvador’s strict ban on abortions in any case. The case has been taken to the Supreme Court, which continues to deliberate as her pregnancy progresses.
  • BBC Mundo has a report on Chile’s “encapuchados,” masked students who have become known for violent behavior and escalating marches and rallies in the country in recent years, noting that their objectives are “difficult to determine.”
  • In a conversation with Guillermo Fariñas, the high-profile Cuban opposition activist told the Miami Herald that he has evidence that Cuban security officers are looking to post-communist Russia in preparation for a possible democratic transition in the future. Fariñas says he has sources in the military who claim they are attending “weekly lectures on the transitions in Russia and Belarus that they refer to as ‘Putinismo.’” He also claims that Cuban intelligence officers are being more respectful of opposition activists, “taking care not to get blood on the hands.”
  • The Washington Post reports that urban planners crowded Mexico City are converting vacant lots below overpasses and bridges into public playgrounds and outdoor cafes. The city government says there have funded four of these projects so far, and there are plans to develop 20 more.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Colombia’s Peace Talks Advance…Finally

After six months of dialogue, the negotiating teams of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government announced on Sunday that they have reached a preliminary agreement on land reform, a major breakthrough in the Havana peace talks.

The issue is extremely important to the rebel group, as it permits FARC leaders to show rank and file members they were able to get significant concessions from the state. This in turn allows them to claim that their nearly 50-year struggle was not in vain, providing a strong incentive for the group’s demobilization.

Semana magazine has a copy of the text of the joint press statement released on Sunday by both negotiating teams, which says that the two have agreed to include land redistribution and rural development provisions in a final peace accord. El Tiempo reports that President Juan Manuel Santos categorizes the preliminary agreement into four main pillars: land access and usage, food security, education and health programs, and infrastructure improvement.

News site La Silla Vacia has more on the importance of land reform to Colombia’s rural economy, specifically the issue of guaranteeing land titles to small-scale campesinos who frequently lack formal ownership of the land they work. According to Ana Maria Ibañez, a rural development expert and dean of Universidad de los Andes’ Economics department, just half of all small-time farmers in Colombia hold deeds to their land. This makes it difficult to organize effective development programs in the country’s interior, and leaves campesinos vulnerable to forced displacement.

The preliminary accord is a positive step towards a lasting peace in Colombia, but it is still far too early to celebrate. The agreement is meaningless unless the final peace accord is signed, and even then, it will have to be approved by a popular referendum. This may be a tall order for many in the country. A Gallup poll released in early May shows that a strong majority (67 percent) support the talks, but half of respondents (52 percent) remain skeptical that the talks will result in peace, illustrating the need for a clear explanation to the public of just how much has been conceded to the FARC. 

Another concern is the timeline for talks. President Santos has publicly said that he does not support the idea of the negotiations extending into next year. Considering that it has taken six months for both sides to agree on the first of five points, this deadline may not be realistic. Fortunately, as Ginny Bouvier of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Colombia Program points out, the work on land reform has caused both parties to developed a functional process for consulting with their respective bases and leadership structures, which will hopefully allow negotiations in coming months to pick up the pace.

News Briefs
  • The peace talks received an important endorsement yesterday from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who arrived in Colombia for a meeting with Santos. "We understand that some real progress appears to have been made yesterday on the agrarian front. We applaud every advance -- every advance -- that gets Colombians closer to the peace they so richly deserve,” Biden said. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal looks at how the agrarian reform announcement has lifted mounting pressure on President Santos over the talks’ slow progress.
  • A new study of Colombia’s armed conflict by the Center for Investigation and Popular Education (CINEP) has found that the majority of human rights violations in 2012 were committed by criminal neo-paramilitary groups like the Urabeños. By the CINEP’s count, these groups carried out  565 violations last year, the police committed 268 and the military committed 187.
  • BBC Mundo reports that two of the most inflammatory political commentary shows in Venezuela -- Mario Silva’s “La Hojilla” for VTV on the left and Globovision’s "Buenas Noches" for the opposition -- have gone off the air this week, the first because of the leak of tapes in which Silva discusses divisions in the ruling PSUV party, and the latter because of a change in the network’s management. While this doesn’t automatically pave the way for the kind of political reconciliation between moderates on both sides that the International Crisis Group called for in a recent report, the resulting change in media climate may prove to be a step in the right direction.
  • In an effort to tackle a list of more than 26,000 disappeared, yesterday Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the creation of a task force charged with finding missing people. According to the L.A. Times, the group will have 12 investigators who will respond to missing person reports nationwide.
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero reports that Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes “punched a constituent in the face after being called the Portuguese equivalent of ‘excrement’ in a dispute before stunned diners at a Japanese restaurant” on Sunday, and has since written a public apology to the city.
  • As mentioned in yesterday’s post, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 street gangs in Honduras are expected to announce a Church-facilitated ceasefire today in a press conference at a prison in San Pedro Sula. According to La Tribunua, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo announced yesterday that he will do “whatever is necessary” to support the initiative, although he also clarified that the state would not make any pacts with criminal groups.
  • The Miami Herald reports that President Michel Martelly is altering his campaign promises somewhat, tempering Haitians’ expectations as his administration makes mixed progress against poverty and development. While the article acknowledges that some changes have been made in the country, it claims these are “cosmetic” shifts like cleaner streets and repaved roads, and on the whole the country remains a  developmental mess.
  • On Saturday, Chile’s Communist Party formally endorsed the presidential campaign of former President Michele Bachelet. The endorsement is a victory for Bachelet, as the party’s base has been heavily supportive of some of the most active social movements in the country at the moment. The endorsement suggests she will not face significant criticism from the left ahead of elections next November.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Honduran Street Gangs to Annouce El Salvador-Style Truce

Honduras’ two main rival street gangs are reportedly on the verge of agreeing to a ceasefire, but it remains to be seen whether it will have the same success at dropping the homicide rate as a parallel truce in neighboring El Salvador.

As La Prensa and El Heraldo reported on Friday, Bishop Romulo Emiliani of the violence-plagued city of San Pedro Sula has announced that the Honduran Catholic Church had mediated a truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 street gangs. According to the bishop, leaders of both maras will meet on Tuesday morning in a prison in the city to announce the results of their negotiations.

The announcement comes as a major surprise, and it is still unclear whether the pact will move forward. Even Bishop Emiliani was skeptical. "If all goes well, and God is willing, the gangs will make a statement seeking reconciliation with society and the government. Humanly I am not very optimistic about this, but I have great faith in the power of God. They say they want peace and are asking for a space for rehabilitation,” the bishop said.

The Associated Press reports that Adam Blackwell, Ambassador for Security Affairs of the Organization of American States (OAS), said the dialogue between Honduran gangs started eight months ago, when both he and Bishop Emiliani paid visits to prisons in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa and met with gang leaders there.

So far there appears to be no response from the administration of President Porfirio Lobo. Although Emiliani has said the government “has been informed and it should be the next to join the dialogue,” the administration has not released a statement on the gang talks.

Ultimately, there are reasons to doubt that a gang truce in Honduras will have the same impact as El Salvador. For one thing, it is unclear whether the structure of both gangs in Honduras is as centralized as it is in El Salvador. Unless the imprisoned gang leaders are able to keep the cliques on the street in line, the truce is doomed to failure.

Even if the Honduran maras are highly centralized, law enforcement in the country may not be as amiable to the idea of a truce. In El Salvador communication between Security Minister David Mungia Payes and mara leaders proved key to the truce’s endurance. The Honduran gangs may not find a similar partner in National Police Director Juan Carlos Bonilla, who has been accused of participation in an extrajudicial police “death squad” a decade ago.  According to a recent AP investigation, these units continue to operate today, and are used by police to target suspected gang members.

News Briefs
  • El Tiempo reports that after months of negotiations, the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have reached a preliminary deal on land reform. Semana has a copy of the text of the joint press statement released on Sunday by both negotiating teams, which says that the two have agreed to include language on land redistribution and rural development in the final peace accord. As The Guardian, L.A. Times and New York Times note, this is a major breakthrough, as agrarian reform was widely considered the main sticking point in the peace talks.
  • According to El Nuevo Herald, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles has accused Globovision -- the television network known as the only overtly anti-Chavez channel in the country until its recent change in ownership -- of no longer transmitting his speeches live.
  • David Smilde of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights offers some analysis of the recently-leaked recording of high-profile PSUV member and TV show host Mario Silva, in which he discusses divisions in the ruling party. Smilde highlights Silva’s reference to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello’s allegedly corrupt “sources of funding,” noting the TV personality’s simultaneous disdain and respect for the lawmaker’s shady influence and power. According to Smilde, this is a representative sentiment of many in the ruling party. He writes: “[T]he battles within Chavismo are not properly thought of as the organized Chavista base versus corrupt government elites. Rather, many people at every level of the government and the movement either benefit from Cabello’s network or understand its power and are afraid to challenge it.”
  • BBC Mundo and La Razon report that Venezuelan President Maduro paid his first official visit to Bolivia yesterday, where he met with President Evo Morales and signed a series of bilateral agreements related to food production and the textile industry.
  • U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Colombia today, where he will meet with President Juan Manuel Santos for talks expected to showcase the country’s security gains and economic progress since the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement went into effect, Caracol Radio reports. Tomorrow the vice president will travel to Trinidad and Tobago, after which he will be in Brazil for the rest of the week. The Miami Herald has more on the regional trip, claiming that analysts say “the Obama administration will have to come up with more than just talk if the U.S. hopes to recapture some of its shine in a hemisphere that’s increasingly being courted by other global powers.”
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner held a major rally on Saturday in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires to mark a decade since her deceased husband Nestor Kirchner took office. The AP offers an overview of their main accomplishments over the last ten years.
  • The New York Times reports that on Friday, Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong held a press conference for foreign press in which he vocally denied that his government was massaging official violence statistics in order to make its security policies look better, as many analysts have suggested.
  • The NYT also looks at how sexual assaults in Rio de Janeiro have sparked a debate on class differences in the city and raised concerns about security ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.  
  • After fighting charges for months, former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was extradited on Friday to the United States, where he is wanted on charges that he stole $1.5 million in foreign donations meant to buy textbooks for Guatemalan schoolchildren.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ecuador's Correa Begins Third Term

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is set to swear in today and begin his third presidential term, which he has vowed to make his last. El Comercio reports that expectations are high for Correa’s new term, and interviews several figures across the political spectrum on their hopes for the next four years, including an indigenous leader, an archbishop and business elites. A common theme among all of them is the desire for more engagement with different sectors of society, as well as members of the opposition.

Considering that his Alianza Pais party gained a comfortable majority in Congress (100 of 137 seats) in the last election, however, it is unlikely that dialogue with the opposition is high on his priority list.

While Correa has said he will not implement any “big changes” in this next term, his party is set to take up debate on a number of major initiatives in the coming weeks. According to The Wall Street Journal, this includes reforms to the mining sector and social security systems, a land redistribution bill and an overhaul of communications sector regulations.

This last measure is particularly controversial, as Correa has been heavily criticized for his combative relationship with private media in the country. He has aggressively pursued lawsuits against outlets accused of printing defamatory claims, even winning a multi-million dollar suit against two journalists last year. Although he later pardoned them, such incidents seem aimed at intimidating the Ecuadorean media as a whole.

According to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, this tacit intimidation may also contribute to violence against private journalists in the country by Correa supporters. The Center claims that despite even though there have been 657 attacks and threats against private journalists and bloggers since 2008, the government has repeatedly minimized or denied these incidents.  

News Briefs
  • The AP reports that the Qom indigenous people in northern Argentina held a formal meeting with Supreme Court justices on Wednesday in which they asked President Cristina Fernandez to back their bid to reclaim ancestral land.  
  • Venezuela’s attorney general has announced an investigation into alleged recordings between a Cuban intelligence officer and state TV personality Mario Silva, a prominent member of the United Socialist Party (PSUV), El Nacional reports. The recordings were leaked earlier this week by the opposition, and suggest that tensions are high between the rival faction in the party which supports President Nicolas Maduro and those aligned with National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello.
  • Yesterday President Maduro announced the creation of the “Bolivarian Workers’ Militia,” a plan to arm organized workers in the country. "The working class is increasingly respected. It will be respected even more if the workers' militias have 300,000, 500,000, one or two million working men and women in uniform, ready and armed for the defense of the Fatherland,” Maduro said, according to a VTV press release.
  • Mexican officials investigating corruption allegations against the former governor of Tabasco state have allegedly discovered boxes containing $8 million in cash in the home of the former finance minister of Andres Granier, the state’s mayor from 2007-2012. El Universal notes authorities believe the former official was involved in a money laundering scheme.
  • A Canadian entrepreneur accused of engaging in corrupt business practices in Cuba, including paying government officials to obtain contracts, has gone on trial nearly two years after he was first detained.
  • The Wall Street Journal looks at mining-related social conflicts in Mexico, especially in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The article frames it as part of a regional trend fueled by increased investment, as mining exploration in Latin America jumped by 150% from 2006 to 2011.
  • Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes met with Pope Francis yesterday to press the pontiff to move towards beatifying assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, thereby moving him one step closer to sainthood. The AP reports that the president presented the pope with “a bloodstained piece of the priestly vestments Romero was wearing” when he was assassinated by a right-wing death squad in 1980.
  • Bolivia’s main trade worker federation, the Bolivian Workers' Center (COB), has ended a two-week general strike in the country after a round of successful negotiations with government officials. According to the AFP, the strike proved costly to the nation, particularly the mining industry.
  • The New York Times has an editorial which is critical of the Guatemalan Supreme Court’s recent annulment of the guilty verdict against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for crimes against humanity and genocide. The NYT argues that the U.S. "should urge that the case be pursued through an independent process."
  • James Bosworth of Bloggings by Boz offers up a brief overview of the recent Pacific Alliance summit in Colombia this week, in which Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala assessed potential integration into the four-nation bloc.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

FARC Desertions Continue as Peace Talks Stall

The L.A. Times recently published an interview with Reinel Usuga, a former squad commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who deserted the guerrilla army this month along with 10 of his men. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, one of the most interesting elements of the article is the fact that Usuga claims one of his reasons for surrendering was the idea of top FARC negotiators living in comfort while engaging in peace talks in Havana. From the Times:
But Usuga, 30, a squad commander with the 57th Front Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said in an interview days after his surrender that another issue irked him: The apparent "comfort" of rebel leaders negotiating in Cuba was an irritating juxtaposition to the everyday risks he and his comrades were facing in the jungle. 
"We all realize they are living in better conditions than those of us in the line of fire," said Usuga, a 10-year veteran of FARC, Colombia's largest and apparently dwindling rebel group. "There are no safe zones left in the 57th Front. Just when it seems quiet, something happens, a bombardment or ground attack. The armed forces were always on top of us."
According to the article, 500 FARC rebels have defected this year as of May 18, a 6 percent increase from the same period last year. If Usuga’s sentiments are widely held among members of the rebel group, this rate could climb in the coming months. The progress of peace talks seems to have slowed of late, and the fact that the negotiating team is staying in a mansion in the exclusive Havana suburb of El Laguito certainly doesn’t help its image among rank and file guerrillas.

While both parties continue to express optimism about the general direction of the talks, they have yet to announce a preliminary accord on agrarian reform, the main sticking point in negotiations. Last month the FARC team told the press there would be “white smoke” on the land reform issue in May, so unless an announcement is made in the next week it is likely that the talks have fallen far behind schedule.

News Briefs
  • Following Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s deployment of troops to Michoacan this week, the AP offers a dramatic look at the embattled western state, which it claims is “burning” as part of a terror campaign by the local Knights Templar cartel. The group is reportedly setting fire to lumber yards, factories and buses as a means of intimidating locals into making protection payments. Because of the similarity of Peña Nieto’s military operation to those of his predecessor Felipe Calderon, many victims in the state are skeptical that the arrival of troops will bring relief.
  • Days after the Organization of American States released a report including decriminalization and legalization as valid drug policy options in the hemisphere, a presidential commission on drug policy in Colombia has presented a report to the Ministry of Justice with similar conclusions. The report (.pdf) was drafted by President Juan Manuel Santos’ Drug Policy Advisory Commission, and calls for the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs to be decriminalized in the country. While the Constitutional Court ruled in June 2012 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, the commission suggests that this be solidified into legislation, as well as expanded to include synthetic drugs like methamphetamine. For more, see Vanguardia and W Radio.
  • In response to a recent remark Santos made about the demobilization of the AUC paramilitary coalition, in which he called it “not very successful,” El Tiempo reports that former President Alvaro Uribe has retorted in his usual confrontational manner. He tweeted that “paramilitaries who committed atrocities have been extradited, jailed, on the run, but have never been met with impunity,” a jab at the government’s indications that demobilized FARC members could take part in a transitional justice program involving alternative of shortened sentences.
  • Presidents of the four members of the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico) are meeting today in meet in Cali, Colombia, for the trading bloc’s seventh summit. They are joined by the heads of state of Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Spain and Canada, which have all expressed interest in potentially joining the bloc.
  • El Nuevo Herald reports that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is desperately seeking investment in dollars in order to stave of food and basic good shortages in the country, despite heightened revenue caused by high oil prices.
  • The new owners of Globovision, Venezuela’s only overtly anti-Chavista news channel, have announced that they hope to “contribute to a climate of peace and not of conflict,” fueling suspicions that it will tone down its criticism of the government due to the change in management.
  • The United Nations Development Program has released a report praising the increase of participation of indigenous peoples in Latin American politics over the past two decades. However, it notes that indigenous women face “triple discrimination” for being female, indigenous and poor, and calls for more inclusion of indigenous women in democratic politics in the region.
  • The AP has an interesting piece on the work of Conrad Tribble, the No. 2 official at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, who has become well-known among opposition and pro-Castro bloggers alike on the island for his skilled use of social media and willingness to engage with sectors who oppose the United States. Access to internet remains limited in the country, though the government is attempting to combat that through the construction of a fiber optic cable connecting Venezuela to Cuba. A new branch of that cable has just come online, linking Cuba to Jamaica, according to the AP.
  • Forbes magazine has released its latest ranking of the World’s Most Powerful Women, and has placed Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as second on the list, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
  • While Argentina is still battling with courts over the implementation of a 2009 media law, the government of neighboring Uruguay has sent its own law to Congress aimed at guaranteeing access to media and preventing monopolies in the sector, Telesur reports. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Removal of Security Minister Shows Dangers of El Salvador’s Gang Truce

The removal of the security minister who orchestrated a truce between El Salvador’s two largest street gangs, and the gangs’ subsequent objections, illustrates the risk of raising their profile and affording them political influence in the country.  

On May 17, the constitutional chamber of El Salvador’s Constitutional Court ruled that the appointment of two former generals as heads of law enforcement in the country violated the constitution. President Mauricio Funes first appointed General David Mungia Payes as security minister, and General Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivera as head of the national police, in late 2011 and early 2012 amid concern about a return to “mano dura” security policies. Funes has said he will honor the court’s decision, and both ministers have stepped down.

But while the president has followed the ruling, it has received criticism from a surprising sector of society: leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 street gangs. In response to the court’s decision, gang leaders held a press conference in La Esperanza prison in San Salvador on Saturday announcing that the decision put their ceasefire at risk. This is likely because Munguia was a key architect of a truce between the rival gangs, which has caused the homicide rate in the Central American country to plummet since it was first announced in March 2012. With Munguia gone, the gangs want to ensure that someone else who will maintain the truce will take his place.

"Although the Constitutional Chamber of the Court has every right to issue such rulings, it does not have the right to join the association that in recent weeks has made ​​every effort to derail the peace process,” read a statement released by the gang leaders.

This kind of language illustrates the downside of the truce: the fact that negotiating a reduction in violence has put the gangs in a position to make demands of the state. As Hector Silva Avalos and Steve Dudley of InSight Crime put it:
“With the dismissal of the minister who conceived of, planned, and executed the truce, the president should name officials who support Munguia's plans and who have, like the general, direct lines of contact with the gang leaders – if the president wants to keep homicides low. To put it straight, the truce made the Mara leaders partners with the state, and whoever next takes charge of the security ministry should agree to keep them that way, to guarantee that homicides start dropping again. In that sense, those who assert that the truce ultimately depends on the gangs have a point.”
Now that the gangs are clearly progressing towards becoming political actors, the question is what they will seek to do with their influence. As the International Assessment and Strategy Center’s Doug Farah has pointed out, both the MS-13 and Barrio 18 are well-poised to use their control of urban areas throughout the country to deliver votes to the highest bidder. With El Salvador’s main political parties already preparing for next year’s presidential elections, the odds are good that the gangs are looking to use this influence to back the candidate they see as most favorable to the truce.

News Briefs
  • Although there was some hope yesterday that the trial against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt could be restarted from its progress up to April 19, which the Constitutional Court declared the last valid date of proceedings, the New York Times reports that lawyers on both sides believe it will have to restart completely, likely with a new panel of judges. The L.A. Times, meanwhile, looks at whether the annulment of Rios Montt’s conviction is a product of elite influence over the judiciary.
  • The New York Times’ Room for Debate blog features a discussion of U.S. complicity in crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in Guatemala, with four different experts on international law and Guatemala voicing their takes on the matter.
  • The Washington Post looks at Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s deployment of troops to the western state of Michoacan this week, noting that security there has barely improved since former President Felipe Calderon launched his drug war offensive by sending troops there in 2006. According to El Universal, the government has said troops will be charged with enforcing security in Michoacan “until conditions of peace and security are guaranteed.”
  • After weeks of refusing to yield the floor of Venezuela’s National Assembly to members of the opposition, Assembly President Diosdado Cabello finally yielded yesterday. But while the legislative body has taken up normal debate, a measure proposed by the opposition which called for an investigation into two recent brawls on the congressional floor was shot down, El Nacional reports.
  • Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo is facing allegations of corruption after his mother in law was found to have purchased two properties in Lima for almost $5 million, El Comercio reports. This makes him the third former Peruvian head of state to be accused of corruption, which AFP notes helps clear the 2016 presidential field for popular First Lady Nadine Heredia.
  • The L.A. Times has an interview with Reinel Usuga, a former squad commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who deserted the guerrilla movement this month along with 10 others. According to Usuga, one of his main reasons for surrendering was the idea of top FARC leaders negotiating safe in Cuba while he and his men were facing regular attacks from Colombian security forces.
  • Writing for, Medellin-based journalist James Bargent looks at the 2005 murder of Colombian union leader Luciano Romero at the hands of paramilitaries. Romero was working for Nestle, and an investigation into the company’s collusion with paramilitary groups in northeastern Colombia is currently underway in Switzerland.
  • Chilean President Sebastian Piñera presented his last state of the union address yesterday, offering up a defense of his record on education, health and economic growth, El Mostrador and BBC Mundo report. It seems many Chileans remain unconvinced, however. The AP reports that around 10,000 people took part in a demonstration in Santiago against his education policies yesterday, and some 130 were arrested after clashes broke out between police and youths.
  • The Argentine prosecutor’s office has charged Daniel Muñoz, ex-secretary to deceased former President Nestor Kirchner, with participation in a high-level money laundering scheme, El Tribuno reports.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Guatemalan Court Annuls Rios Montt’s Genocide Conviction

Yesterday evening, Guatemala’s highest court overturned the recent 80-year prison sentence handed to former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. According to El Periodico, the Constitutional Court ruled 3-2 in favor of a constitutional challenge presented by Rios Montt’s legal team which claims that his right to due process was violated when his lawyer was expelled from court on the first day of the trial, leaving him without a defense attorney for several hours.

As a result of the decision, the trial will now go back to April 19, the same day that it was briefly suspended after another judge took issue with the proceedings. This means that Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, Rios Montt’s intelligence chief and co-defendant who was absolved of guilt on the May 10 ruling, is due back in court as well.

For now, it is unclear whether the case will go before the same tribunal that issued the ruling. The New York Times reports that doing so could constitute a form of double jeopardy for Rios Montt. But according to legal expert Emi MacLean, the Constitutional Court has given the tribunal 24 hours to reconvene and take the case up again.

While the Constitutional Court’s decision will likely be viewed by some human rights advocates as a major setback, its consequences are not devastating, especially considering that the defense team sought to revert the case to 2011 status. By April 19 most of the prosecution’s testimony had been heard, leaving only some of the defense testimony and closing arguments. If the same tribunal is charged with overseeing the proceedings, another outcome is unlikely. And if a new tribunal is appointed, the amount of evidence already admitted prior to April 19 will make it difficult for judges to draw a different conclusion without being accused of political bias or corruption.

News Briefs
  • Venezuela’s opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) has released a recording which allegedly reveals a conversation between a Cuban intelligence officer and state TV personality Mario Silva, a prominent member of the United Socialist Party PSUV (PSUV). In the conversation (see recording and full transcript) Silva discusses division within the ruling PSUV, specifically between the camp of President Nicolas Maduro and those who are aligned more with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. He calls Cabello corrupt and manipulative, and mentions “previous reports” that he has sent to the alleged agent. He also characterizes Maduro as weak but well-intentioned. After denying the accuracy of the tape, Silva announced on air last night that he would be temporarily canceling his show and going to Cuba “for health reasons.” El Nacional has a rundown of the 15 most controversial themes discussed in the tape, while David Smilde questions whether its release was a purposeful move by Maduro to try to rein in Cabello’s creeping influence. The government’s slow response to the release suggests otherwise.
  • On Monday Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto presented a five-year “National Development Plan” for his administration, which according to Proceso has five main goals: fighting violence, improving administration, protecting citizens’ rights and boosting the economy.
  • Amid reports of conflict between Mexico’s growing rural self-defense movement and security forces, the Associated Press gives an example of cooperation between the two. On Monday, the military sent in convoys to the western town of La Ruana, which has been effectively cut off from the outside world after the town kicked out a local drug trafficking organization in February. In response, the group blocked entry of food and supplies into the town. The AP reports that the local self-defense movement welcomed the troops, and has agreed to stop its patrols as long as the military is present.
  • Tensions within Mexico’s main opposition group, the National Action Party, have been rising in recent days, boiling over yesterday in a heated exchange between PAN President Gustavo Madero and PAN Senate leader Ernesto Cordero on live TV, the AP and L.A. Times report.
  • InSight Crime has released a new report on the possibility of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fragmenting and turning to organized crime. According to InSight Crime co-director and report author Jerry McDermott, while “there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment,” but there is a high chance that sections of the group will break away after a peace agreement has been signed and the demobilization process begins.
  • El Tiempo reports that Colombia’s prosecutor general has announced that an investigation has been opened into former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, after the ex-president tweeted the coordinates of areas in which the army was allowing FARC groups safe passage in order to allow rebel leaders to travel to Cuba for talks last month.
  • The Miami Herald looks at Colombia’s successful battle with coffee blight in recent years, asking whether it may provide a model for the Central American nations which are beginning to see their coffee crop affected by fungus. According to the Herald, between 30 and 50 percent of the Central American and Mexican coffee crop is expected to be affected in the coming years.
  • According to Ecuador’s El Comercio, 14 heads of state are expected to attend President Rafael Correa’s inauguration on Friday, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
  • After several days of massive protests organized by Bolivia’s main trade union, the Bolivian Workers' Center, La Razon reports that union representatives and the government of Evo Morales have resumed negotiations after they were suspended on May 13.
  • An autopsy of Argentine junta leader General Jorge Videla has revealed that the former dictator died as a result of injuries suffered after falling in the shower.

Monday, May 20, 2013

OAS Report Presents Legalization as ‘Drug War’ Alternative

On Friday, the Organization of American States (OAS) released a highly anticipated report on drugs and drug trafficking in the hemisphere, which for the first time includes decriminalization and legalization as potential and valid policy options in the hemisphere.

The first section of the report (.pdf), commissioned at last year’s Summit of the Americas in Colombia, is extremely comprehensive in its analysis of the drug problem, and offers some unorthodox suggestions on drug policy in the hemisphere. While these are not meant to be taken as solutions, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza states in his introduction to the report that they are designed to serve as “the start of a long-awaited discussion.”

The report’s main premise is that there is no single drug problem in the Americas, but “many problems related to: a) the different stages of the process associated with controlled drugs (cultivation, production, transit, sale, consumption), b) the ways in which these stages affect the countries of the region.”

Perhaps the most surprising conclusion in the report comes after its assertion that drug use must be addressed as a public health issue.  According to the OAS, “decriminalization of drug use needs to be considered as a core element in any public health strategy.” The report’s authors write that a shift is already underway to emphasize prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, as well as a change “from viewing drug users as criminals or accomplices of drug-traffickers to seeing them as victims and chronic addicts.”

Although most drug policy advocates would argue that not all consumers of every illicit substance are either victims or addicts, the inclusion of this language has been warmly received. Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told The New York Times that it “effectively breaks the taboo on considering alternatives to the current prohibitionist approach.” The Guardian notes that the Open Society Foundations’ Global Drug Policy Program has described the report as a “game-changer.”

The report has also been welcomed by some officials in the region, most notably Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, who attended its launch in Bogota on Friday. The president, who has endorsed drug legalization in the past, referred to the document as “a vital piece in the construction of a common way to fight this problem.”

While the first part of the report focuses more on assessing the current state of the drug problem in the Americas, its second part (.pdf) examines possible scenarios for how drug policy might change over the next twelve years. Three different possibilities are assessed, each of which is guided by different policy strategies, including strengthening judicial institutions, stressing prevention and decriminalizing/legalizing certain drugs. A fourth, “cautionary” scenario is also discussed, in which some regional governments make tacit pacts with drug trafficking organizations in a last-ditch effort to reduce associated violence within their borders.

Of course, decriminalization and legalization have long been opposed by the biggest market for illicit drugs in the hemisphere: the United States. Even as it has embraced the idea of drug policy as a public health issue, the U.S. has firmly rejected legalization as a solution to drug violence. This position was recently echoed by U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske in an op-ed in Colombia’s El Tiempo. However, with marijuana legalized in Colorado and Washington, and seven states likely to follow in the next few years, the government’s foreign policy position on drug legalization seems untenable. A potential test of this stance will come next week when Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Colombia next week as part of a regional tour.

News Briefs
  • On Friday, the Salvadoran Constitutional Court ruled that the appointment of two former generals as heads of law enforcement in the country violated the constitution, El Faro reports. President Mauricio Funes appointed Gen. David Mungia Payes as security minister, and Gen. Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivera as head of the national police, in late 2011 and early 2012 amid concern about a return to “mano dura” security policies in the Central American country. The president has said he will obey the decision, but leaders from the two main street gangs in El Salvador -- who reached a government-facilitated truce partially with the help of Mungia -- say the decision threatens their ceasefire.
  • The main doctor charged with treating former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has told the press that the imprisoned ex-leader has a worsening stomach condition, and has called for President Ollanta Humala to authorize his release on health grounds. This is unlikely, however, as a medical commission’s findings that Fujimori does not currently suffer from cancer calls into question the health claims made by his family and supporters.
  • Writing for Venezuela Politics and Human Rights, Rebecca Hanson looks at the Venezuelan government’s recent launch of “Plan Patria Segura,” a citizen security initiative which involves deploying military units to high crime areas.  The plan is especially controversial because there are “virtually no mechanisms by which citizens can control the military’s treatment of citizens or denounce their abuse of civilians,” according to Hanson.
  • Diego Garcia-Sayan, president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and an author of the a December 2012 decision which found El Salvador’s Amnesty Law did not apply massacres and human rights violations committed during the country’s civil war, continued to speak out against the law in comments at a journalism forum in El Salvador last week.
  • The defense lawyer for former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt has told BBC Mundo  that he has faith that the ruling against his client on genocide and crimes against humanity charges will be overturned. Meanwhile the full 900-page judgment is available online.
  • El Nuevo Diario has published the results of a new CID/Gallup poll which shows that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) is far and away the most popular political party in the country, with 49 percent of respondents expressing support for the party.  No other party received support from more than 5 percent of respondents, suggesting that the FSLN has no effective political opposition.
  • While the peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels have lasted for six months, there has still been no preliminary accord on land reform, a major issue for the guerrilla group. Still, lead FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez has said that he is “satisfied” with the pace of talks, El Espectador reports.
  • Jorge Rafael Videla, the Argentine junta leader who came to power after a military coup in 1976, died on Friday at the age of 87. La Nacion has a collection of responses to the news from Argentine politicians across the political spectrum, and the Washington Post looks at Videla’s life, calling him a “wily and ruthless player in the military dictatorship’s reign of institutionalized terrorism.”