Tuesday, July 16, 2013

'North Korea-Bound Missile Shipment' Threatens Progress in U.S.-Cuba Relations

Authorities in Panama have reportedly intercepted “sophisticated missile equipment” on a ship which left Cuba bound for North Korea, a development which may reverse recent gains made in U.S.-Cuba relations.

In an interview with a local radio station on Monday, President Ricardo Martinelli said officials in the Panama Canal had intercepted a North Korean vessel that allegedly left a Cuban port with the arms shipment hidden amidst a cargo of sugar.  “When we started to unload the shipment of sugar we located containers that we believe to be sophisticated missile equipment, and that is not allowed,” Martinelli said.

The president said authorities had received a tip some days ago that the ship may have been carrying drugs, and it “aroused suspicion by the violent reaction of the captain and the crew.” According to Martinelli, the captain had a heart attack and also tried to commit suicide during the operation.

So far, the only proof of the find is this grainy photo of a green, tube-shaped object, which the president posted on his official Twitter account last night.  

The Panamanian president expressed indignation at the find. “The world needs to sit up and take note: you cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal,” Martinelli told the radio station.

If the allegations are true, Cuba may have violated United Nations sanctions, which were tightened in February after an underground nuclear test. The BBC notes that, under the UN sanctions, North Korea is banned from receiving any military weaponry other than small arms.

The seizure comes at a time of mildly improving relations between the United States and Cuba. Last month the Cold War enemies discussed resuming direct mail service, and are set to begin official talks tomorrow on migration issues. The Associated Press reports this morning that Cuban diplomats in the U.S. --and their American counterparts in Havana -- are finding it easier to obtain permission to travel within the opposing nation, part of a “larger, slow-moving thaw between the two countries.” It remains to be seen, however, whether this slow rapprochement will be affected if the island is found to be in violation of UN sanctions.

News Briefs

  • Mexican authorities have announced the arrest of Zetas leaders Miguel Angel Treviño, alias “Z-40,” one of the most sought-after drug kingpins in the country. Because the capture of other high-value targets left much of the Zetas cartel’s power concentrated in Treviño’s hands, InSight Crime’s Steven Dudley argues that his arrest may generate a wave of violence throughout the country as lower-ranking Zeta figures struggle to assert control in the organization. The Dallas Morning News has a story focusing on Treviño’s close ties to the Dallas region, and claims his younger brother Omar is his most likely successor. Latin America security analyst James Bosworth highlights an interesting detail of the arrest: Treviño was arrested with $2 million in cash, which is roughly the equivalent of the bounty Mexican authorities placed on his head.
  • On Friday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro promised to deal with corruption in the country with an “iron fist,” after announcing the arrest of three people caught charging people for access to government-sponsored social services. At Venezuela Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz take a closer look at what Maduro is actually doing to tackle the issue in Venezuela, noting that the president has backed up recent anti-corruption rhetoric with the arrest of a number of mid-level government officials, as well as filling key posts with well-regarded figures.
  • The Washington Post’s Nick Mirnoff reports on the rising concern among Central American migrants about being targeted by Mexican organized crime while riding the rails to the northern U.S. border.  According to official estimates in Mexico, 11,000 migrants are kidnapped annually.
  • In an interview with Colombia’s RCN Radio on Monday, FARC leader Ivan Marquez said the rebel group was “certain” that the end of the long-running conflict in the country was near, saying “wars are not eternal.” Meanwhile, the smaller ELN has rejected disarmament as a condition for talks with the government in response to a recent proposal by the Catholic Church.
  • In an op-ed published in Mexico’s El Universal this morning (and mentioned in this article by Ecuador’s El Comercio), former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso praises the marijuana regulation bill being considered by Uruguay’s legislature, noting that it is based more on “concern for health and public security” rather than a desire to tax the drug. The ex-president also announced his support for an emerging pro-marijuana legalization civil society movement in the country, known as Regulacion Responsable.
  • An appeals court in Chile ruled against the world’s largest gold mining company, Barrick Gold, yesterday, siding with indigenous Chileans who accuse it of tainting the water supply downstream with toxic chemicals. The decision calls on Barrick to meet its environmental obligations to local communities before continuing with the construction of a mine along the border with Argentina.
  • In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Florida’s controversial state laws granting citizens the right to use deadly force in self-defense have come under heightened scrutiny. According to University of Chicago law professor Tom Ginsburg, far-reaching self-defense laws have become increasingly accepted internationally, and their passage has become a global trend. In an interview with Public Radio International, Ginsburg cited Peru and Paraguay as two of the many countries that have altered their constitutions in recent years to reflect the so-called “castle doctrine.”
  • IPS reports on emerging divisions in Argentina’s human rights movement. According to CELS director Gaston Chillier, the roots of this conflict lie in the fact that emblematic protests groups in the country like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo developed close ties with the Kirchner administration in 2003, which other organizations see as detrimental to their cause.
  • Chile’s El Rancagüino has an interesting profile of Eduardo Vergara, founding director of the drug policy think tank Asuntos del Sur, who is running for Congress in the country’s November elections. If elected, he hopes to press an agenda to reform drug policy in Chile, which he dubs “an overwhelming failure.” According to Vergara, more than 50 percent of those arrested for drug crimes in the country are charged with possession, consumption or small-scale cultivation, a situation which he claims has only increased the use of more dangerous drugs.
  • After Honduran Health Minister Roxana Araujo resigned last month following her public allegations that the ministry was purchasing medications through networks of corrupt private interests with close ties to the administration of President Porfirio Lobo, the new official named to the position wants to privatize the medicine distribution process, El Heraldo reports. Meanwhile, the commission tasked by Lobo to assess problems in the ministry did not address  these allegations in its report  to the administration, according to La Tribuna.   

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