Thursday, October 31, 2013

Santos Asks Court to Annul Decision on Military Justice Law

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has announced he will submit a petition to the Constitutional Court requesting the annulment of a recent decision which found a controversial military justice reform law unconstitutional. It’s a long shot, and constitutional experts say it has almost no chance of happening.

El Tiempo reports that in a public address yesterday, Santos said his administration will argue that grounds for the ruling are questionable, and that the court has annulled its own decisions in similar situations in the past. As Colombian lawyer and human rights advocate Rodrigo Uprimny points out, the recent decision was based not on the content of the law, but on the manner in which it was approved by lawmakers. The court found that the bill was passed in a lower house committee at the same time as a full house session was scheduled, which violates Colombia’s constitution.

The administration claims that several other laws have been passed by Congress in a similar fashion, and while they were reviewed by the Constitutional Court, judges did not find fault with them. One of these is Colombia’s landmark transitional justice law, the Legal Framework for Peace, which the court approved in August.

According to legal specialists consulted by Semana, the odds that the court will grant Santos’ request are next to nothing. Former Constitutional Court Judge Jose Gregorio Hernandez told the magazine that while the constitution allows magistrates to annul prior decisions, this measure can only be used when due process is violated. Hernandez does not believe it applies in this case, and Alfredo Beltran, another former Constitutional Court justice, agrees with him.

In all likelihood, Santos knows this as well, and yesterday’s announcement is a calculated bid to appeal to the Colombian military. As La Silla Vacia noted last week, the military justice reform law was partially designed to stave off criticism of the peace process from members of the armed forces, who feared that the government would give amnesty to guerrillas while leaving them vulnerable to prosecution in civilian courts for human rights abuses.

With the law scrapped, Santos appears to be scrambling for other ways to keep the military on his side. One of these was unveiled earlier this week: a proposal which would authorize the state to foot the bill for legal costs of military personnel tried in court, which El Espectador referred to as a “Plan B” to military justice reform.

News Briefs
  • A new Centro de Estudios Publicos poll released on Tuesday shows that former Chilean president and current candidate Michele Bachelet continues to hold a strong lead in Chile's presidential race. The pollster found that some 47 percent of Chileans said they would vote for Bachelet, followed by 14 percent for conservative candidate Evelyn Matthei and 10 percent for economist Franco Parisi. Reuters notes that it appears Bachelet has a good chance of receiving the 50 percent of the vote she needs to win the election after the first round on November 17, which no candidate has done since 1993.
  • La Republica has a profile of former regional governor and newly-chosen Peruvian Prime Minster Cesar Villanueva, who was selected after his predecessor, Juan Jimenez, resigned on Tuesday. El Comercio notes that addressing the government’s handling of growing insecurity will be at the top of Villanueva’s agenda, as well as prioritizing foreign investment. Official sources have told Reuters that President Ollanta Humala will be replacing at least five of his 18 ministers in addition to Villanueva, though the details of the shakeup have not been announced.
  • The Economist highlights the political climate in Honduras ahead of the November 24 general elections, noting that whoever wins will have to face a budget deficit estimated at around 6 percent, on top of drug violence and police corruption. This will be complicated even more by the fact that Congress will likely be split among the major parties.
  • Following Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s dramatic threats to resign -- both from the presidency and his party --if lawmakers of his Alianza Pais party passed an abortion decriminalization bill, the party’s leadership has suspended the three female congressmen who supported the measure for one month, El Comercio reports.
  • Meanwhile, Correa has announced that he would still consider granting asylum to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. In a press conference in Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Correa denied that granting asylum to Snowden was completely off the table. “If Mr. Snowden ends up in the territory of Ecuador at some point, for example, if he comes to a diplomatic mission in some country and asks for asylum, we will accept his application, look at all the legal aspects, and make a decision,” the president said.
  • InSight Crime’s Charlie Parkinson looks at a shadowy armed group in northern Nicaragua, which has been linked to the recent murders of a Sandinista politician and activist. The group operates under the leadership of leadership of an individual known as Gerardo de Jesus Gutierrez, alias "El Flaco," who was reportedly active in the Contra movement of the 1980s. Despite this, the federal government has dismissed El Flaco and his network as drug traffickers, downplaying the political undertones of the associated violence.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has once again invoked the image of his deceased predecessor Hugo Chavez to score political points, and once again he has done it in an odd, quasi-religious fashion. In a televised address yesterday, Maduro claimed that the face of Hugo Chavez had been spotted by workers on an excavation project meant to expand the Caracas metro system, pointing to images of a moisture stain on a tunnel wall.  
  • In a step towards normalizing relations after breaking diplomatic ties following the July 2012 ouster of then-President Fernando Lugo, La Nacion reports that the government of Paraguay has nominated a new ambassador to Venezuela. According to MercoPress, President Horacio Cartes’ pick of veteran diplomat Enrique Jara was personally approved by Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, a sign that both governments are eager to resume standard relations.
  • OGX Petroleo e Gas Participações SA, the Brazilian oil company owned by ex-billionaire Eike Batista, has filed for bankruptcy protection in the country. The BBC and Wall Street Journal both have interesting profiles of the company and its embattled entrepreneur, who was once the richest man in Brazil. Batista’s decline also had an impact on Rio de Janeiro state’s Police Pacification Unit (UPP) program, as he was recently forced to pull out of an agreement under which he contributed roughly $8 million a year to the police unit. In August, O Globo reported Batista’s contribution amounted to nearly five times what the state allocated to the police units last year.
  • Spain’s El Pais has a story on Uruguay’s pending marijuana regulation bill, noting that it is comes in the wake of other liberal reforms such as abortion decriminalization and gay marriage legalization. Ultimately, the piece asks whether Montevideo could become “the next Amsterdam,” a comparison which drew the attention of the leading Uruguayan daily of the same name. Curiously, the Uruguayan paper left out its Spanish counterpart’s mention of a provision in the bill which explicitly restricts marijuana sales to Uruguayan citizens, a fact which has gone largely underreported. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Argentina’s Anti-Monopoly Media Law Approved

Yesterday brought some good news for Argentina’s ruling Front for Victory (FPV) coalition, which it doubtlessly appreciated after the opposition gained ground in Sunday’s legislative elections. As the New York Times reports, the Argentine Supreme court ruled 6-1 that a controversial FPV-backed anti-monopoly media law is constitutional, a decision which ends a four-year legal battle between the government and the country’s largest media conglomerate, Clarin.

In accordance with the ruling, the media group will be forced to sell off dozens of its cable licenses, a fact which Clarin glumly acknowledges in a front-page story today. But while the paper announced it would comply with the ruling, Clarin also claimed it violated the free press guarantees set forth in the American Convention on Human Rights, and declared it was considering challenging the decision by petitioning the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

While other organizations have sympathized with Clarin on the issue -- The Wall Street Journal notes that the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), for instance, has denounced this as the latest of President Cristina Fernandez’s “permanent attacks against critical and independent voices” -- there is reason to question this narrative.

The media monopoly law, which was passed in 2009, limits media companies to no more than 24 broadcast licenses nationwide and a maximum of 35 percent of the market share. The Financial Times reports that Cablevision, Clarin’s cable operator, says it currently has a market share of 47 percent, and owns 158 licenses. According to La Nacion, however, authorities claim Clarin holds 264 licenses. The paper also notes that Clarin’s closest competitor, DirectTV, operates throughout the country on only one license. The popular Telecentro, of the Pierri media group, operates on only one license in the same area in which Cablevision uses more than 20. As such, it’s difficult to see how restricting Clarin’s hold on broadcast licenses amounts to an attack on press freedom.

Horacio Verbitsky of the Center for Legal Studies (CELS), a human rights group which has supported the law since its passage, strongly disagrees with Clarin’s characterization of the law. Verbitsky told Pagina12 that the Supreme Court decision helped “crystalize a social demand” that various administrations have attempted to fulfill over the past 30 years. According to him:
“The Supreme Court has declared that there is no special interest which can be placed above the interest of society, and that the laws that are sanctioned in Congress must be applied. This resolution comes at a time when we celebrate thirty uninterrupted years of democracy; thirty years in which a democratic broadcasting law has been pending. There were other previous attempts. Alfonsin tried with a bill, De la Rua tried with another bill, and each time the veto of concentrated media power in the country prevailed. The only reform which was passed occurred during the Menem government, and it provided media groups greater levels of concentration. And what’s more, this is a victory in a democratic battle, because never before has there been a resistance so explicit from a corporate economic power against a law passed in full democracy.”

News Briefs
  • For the 22nd year in a row, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. The breakdown of this year’s vote was the same as last year’s record: 188-2, with three abstentions. Only Israel joined with the U.S. in voting in support of the embargo.
  • Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has ruled against a challenge to its decision to require a lower court to reassess its denial of amnesty to ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt, filed by the Center for Human Rights and Legal Action (CALDH). El Periodico reports that the ruling clears the way for the First Chamber of Appeals to issue a decision on the applicability of a 1986 amnesty decree. Plaza Publica has an interview with Constitutional Court Judge Roberto Molina Barreto, who expresses some frustration with how the high court’s ruling has been interpreted by local press outlets.
  • A new U.S. congressional report finds that, in spite of the launch of a labor accord developed by the United States and Colombia in parallel with the recently-signed free trade agreement, the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan -- as it is known -- has failed the rein in violence against union members in the South American country. The 53-page report, issued yesterday by Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and James McGovern (D-Mass.), concludes that basic labor rights like the freedom to organize and collective bargaining guarantees are repeatedly violated across the country. What’s more, the government has made little progress towards investigating the murder of union members. Union assassinations have an impunity rate of 93.4 percent in Colombia, according to the report.
  • Writing for American University’s Center for Latino and Latin American Studies’ blog, international law specialist Carlos Portales provides some useful context for the bill recently passed by the U.S. Congress, which charges the State Department with devising a plan for the OAS to adopt a “results-based budgeting process.” Portales argues that the bill seeks to increase the OAS’ role in promoting democracy in the region, which could put it in conflict with other international organizations in Latin America, like UNASUR, CELAC and ALBA.
  • Animal Politico and El Universal report that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has announced he will pardon indigenous teacher Alberto Patishtan under a new law which expands the scope of executive pardons. Patishtan has been imprisoned for 13 years, after he was convicted of killing seven police officers following a clash between police and armed individuals in the southern state of Chiapas. His case has attracted the attention of domestic and international human rights groups alike. Upside Down World has a helpful profile of Patishtan, noting that his lawyers say a court discarded testimony from witnesses that proved he was elsewhere when the crime was committed.
  • Brazil will become the latest country in the region to dig up the body of a former head of state to investigate claims that he was murdered. According to MercoPress, the remains of ex-president Joao Goulart will be exhumed next month to determine whether he was poisoned during his exile in Argentina in the 1970s.
  • The government of Uruguay has announced that it will withdraw its troops from the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti. El Observador reports that President Jose Mujica said the decision was made in accordance with other countries, like Brazil, which have already decided to pull their troops from Haiti. According to La Republica, the move is also intended to put pressure on Haiti to hold long overdue elections, as the military presence “no longer serves any purpose when [Haiti’s] own government has been done to provide solutions to the political situation in the island.” Americas Quarterly notes that Uruguay is the second-largest contributor of troops to the Haitian peacekeeping mission, after Brazil.
  • The AP profiles the emergence of private 3D movie and video-game salons in Cuba, a popular new form of venue which has sprung up after recent economic reforms. Their popularity has attracted the attention of the government, which on Sunday announced it was working on new regulation for the businesses. Video parlor owners consulted by the news agency express fear that this could bring an end to their booming trade.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales’ ruling party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), is already gearing up for the next general election in December 2014. La Razon reports that, according to MAS Senate leader Eugenio Rojas, the party is looking to pass some 30 laws before the end of the year, in order to get them out of the way ahead of election season. President Morales has said that he intends to run for another term in the election, despite a constitutional ban on third terms.
  • Peruvian Prime Minister Juan Jimenez has resigned from the cabinet of President Ollanta Humala, and will be replaced by Cesar Villanueva, the regional president of the northern department of San Martin. In remarks to El Comercio, Jimenez claimed his resignation was part of a larger shakeup in Humala’s cabinet, saying the president had been weighing the move for weeks and that more resignations would be announced in the coming days. This is likely a bid by Humala to improve his public approval rating, which has reached its lowest point in his administration.  A July  poll by Ipsos showed that roughly 60 percent of the country held a negative opinion of Jimenez, and leaders of various political stripes have called for his immediate removal, but until recently Humala made it known he had full support for his cabinet chief. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Inter-American Commission Questions U.S. Spying, Gitmo and Immigration Policy

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held hearings yesterday on human rights practices in the United States, but the U.S. government deflected questions by claiming it lacked sufficient time to prepare due to the recent shutdown.

The independent human rights monitoring body of the Organization of American States (OAS) is holding its 149th session in Washington, DC from October 28 to November 1. The session kicked off yesterday morning with hearings in which U.S. representatives were called upon to explain the conditions of detainees at the Guantanamo prison, the treatment of undocumented migrants and the digital surveillance of foreign countries.

Yesterday’s hearing on NSA surveillance programs marked the first time that U.S. diplomats were asked to explain the practice to the international community at large. But as Foreign Policy reports, the commission received little in the way of explanation. Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative to the OAS Lawrence Gumbiner said he could not provide a response, because of the October 1-16 federal government shutdown. “With the government closed and most of its employees furloughed, we lost the time essential for us to engage our inter-agency colleagues and prepare for this hearing,” Gumbiner told the IACHR.

According to the AFP and EFE, Gumbiner gave the same answer in the hearings on Guantanamo Bay prison conditions and immigration, invoking OAS member states’ right to respond to the commission’s concerns in writing within 30 days.

This response was criticized by some human rights advocates, who pointed out the hearings had been scheduled months in advance, and that the controversies at stake had been occurring for several years. UN Special Rapporteur against Torture Juan Mendez was especially critical of the U.S. response, telling reporters that the shutdown was no excuse because “[t]his case is a decade old.” Similarly, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) -- a member of the coalition which backed the IACHR petition regarding immigration rights -- notes that the IACHR issued a number of recommendations on immigration detention and due process in 2010, which the U.S. has yet to implement.

While little progress was made in these hearings, it is significant that the IACHR began the latest session with an emphasis on the United States. The commission came under fire this year from left-wing governments of the ALBA bloc, who accused it of serving as a tool of U.S. foreign policy. These countries proposed a number of reforms, including moving the IACHR from its current office in Washington DC to a country which, unlike the United States, has ratified the American Convention.  Although these proposals were defeated, left-wing governments in the region continue to call for changes to the IACHR. At a meeting in Cochabamba last month, for instance, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales agreed to give the IACHR until June 2014 to alter its performance, when both governments would “assess what alternatives to take.”

News Briefs
  • Protests rocked São Paulo late last night after the weekend shooting of teenager Douglas Rodrigues, who was killed by an officer responding to reports of disturbance of the peace. Some 90 people were arrested following riots in the north of the city last night. No further details about the teen’s death have been given by police, though authorities say the shooting was accidental. O Globo reports that the boy’s father says he will file charges, as a witness -- Rodrigues’ brother -- claims the victim was shot with no warning by the officer.
  • According to the Associated Press, the weekend attacks on power plants in Mexico’s Michoacan state by presumed criminal networks were followed by armed clashes between local community self-defense groups and the Knights Templar cartel in the drug gangs’ home turf, the city of Apatzingan. Animal Politico reports that authorities say they have secured the city after the clashes, and arrested three individuals who may be linked to the attacks. While this incident has once again fueled speculation about a rising “narco-insurgency” in the country, InSight Crime’s Marguerite Cawley argues that this is inaccurate, as drug gangs “fail to meet the most basic criteria of an insurgency -- wanting to overthrow the state.”
  • There has been a great deal of reporting in the English language press recently on proposed tax reforms in Mexico, which President Enrique Peña Nieto has said will bring in badly-needed resources to help fund government programs. By comparison, however, Oscar Arredondo Pico of transparency advocacy group Fundar writes in an op-ed for CNN Mexico that the government has failed to provide detailed information on its current spending. Meanwhile, El Universal reports that the Mexican Senate has approved new series of  which oblige state and local entities to comply with federal transparency laws, which proponents claim will cause state governments to be more accountable.
  • While Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s creation of the “Vice-Ministry for the Supreme Social Happiness of the Venezuelan People” was met by criticism from some, Daniel Pardo of BBC Mundo in Caracas reports that some in the country have leapt to the defense of the position, arguing that happiness is something more governments should take seriously.
  • The Cuban government has released new statistics on foreign travel, which suggest that Cubans are taking advantage of loosened travel restrictions for overseas visits in record numbers. According to Colonel Lamberto Fraga Hernandez, the deputy director of immigration on the island, 226,877 Cubans had traveled abroad since reforms went into effect on January 14, a 35 percent increase compared to 167,684 during the same period in 2012. Fraga was careful to add that close to two-thirds -- 58 percent -- had already returned. “Cubans are not fleeing, they are traveling normally,” he told reporters.
  • A team of United Nations investigators visited Havana last week to question Cuban authorities about North Korea-bound arms shipment intercepted in Panama earlier this year. The Miami Herald claims that the visit “clearly signaled that the Cuban government has been cooperating with the U.N. inquiry.”
  • The Guardian reports that a team of researchers in Peru have, for the first time, mapped the extent of the Peruvian Amazon that has been lost to gold mining in the past 12 years. According to their observations, the area affected by illegal gold mines in Peru's south-eastern Madre de Dios region increased by 400 percent from 1999 to 2012.
  • The newly-created party of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has officially nominated a candidate ahead of presidential elections in May 2014. Former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga took 56 percent of the votes at the the Uribe Centro Democratico convention in Bogota, beating former Vice President Francisco Santos for the nomination, Semana reports. This is good news for President Juan Manuel Santos, as a recent poll showed Francisco (his cousin) was more popular than him by two points.
  • El Salvador’s El Faro has published an investigation documenting the Armed Forces’ continuing celebration of deceased war criminal Domingo Monterrosa, who commanded the unit behind the El Mozote massacre in December 1981. This continues despite a decree by President Mauricio Funes last year, which ordered the military to cease this practice.
  • Although Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s ruling party, the Front for Victory (FPV), has retained majorities in both houses of Congress after legislative elections on Sunday, the fact that it has rejuvenated the opposition has, for the AP anyway, made her a “lame-duck leader.”  The Economist has an in-depth profile of opposition leader Sergio Massa, who is seen as the big winner in Sunday’s vote. However, 2015 presidential elections are a long way off and, as the magazine points out, it remains to be seen if Massa can hold onto popularity and effectively marshal his diverse coalition into a coherent bloc.
  • On Monday the two historically dominant parties in Uruguay, the National and Colorado parties, announced they would create a new alliance to sponsor a joint candidate in the race for Montevideo intendant in May 2015. The position has been held by the ruling Frente Amplio coalition since former President Tabare Vazquez won the local election in 1990, and polls show that the “blancos” and “colorados,” as they are known, have no chance of beating the FA in the capital city unless they unite under the banner of the new “Concertacion Party.” El Pais notes that the alliance is a major historic development, as the National and Colorado parties have been bitter rivals since the 1830s, with the 19th century marked by repeated violent clashes between the two. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Attack Highlights Bolivia's Vulnerability to Organized Crime

The recent attack on a coca eradication crew in the northern Apolo region of Bolivia has focused media attention on the intersection of drug trafficking, insecurity and Bolivia’s “coca yes, cocaine no” policy, a complex set of issues that deserves a more nuanced treatment than it has been receiving in international and local press.

The incident, in which four members of Bolivia’s security forces were killed and ten others were wounded by armed individuals protecting coca cultivations, saw an immediate and intense response by the Bolivian government. President Evo Morales announced a temporary freeze on coca eradication in Apolo and dispatched troops to the Peru-Bolivia border, where the attack took place.  Over a dozen coca growers in the area have been detained, and the administration has blamed the attack on Peruvian criminal groups.  The arrest of four Peruvians in connection with the incident last week appears to confirm this narrative.

Understandably, press coverage of the attack has focused on this angle, and on the hostility of locals to eradication efforts. Over the weekend the AFP, for instance, published a profile of local coca growers on the border which highlighted their distrust of the military and their insistence on coca growth as the only viable economic alternative.

But the attack needs to be put into perspective. While clashes between coca eradicators and growers are relatively common in Bolivia, this is the first deadly attack since Morales took office in 2006. By contrast, in Colombia five eradicators and 11 policemen were killed in 2012 alone, with 108 more wounded during coca eradication operations, according to El Tiempo. Additionally, the Andean Information Network points out that the region currently dominating headlines amounts to some 1.7 square miles, less than two percent of Bolivia’s entire coca crop.

As for the involvement of Peruvian criminal groups, this is a worrisome trend. Peru’s IDL-Reporteros recently published an excellent in-depth report on the rise of aerial routes being used to ship cocaine out of the Peruvian VRAE region and the central Pichis-Palcazu Valley.  Instead of heading north to Colombia, as these flights did in previous decades, they are increasingly going south, to Bolivia.  According to a source consulted by the news site, many of these aerial routes head through highly militarized areas in the VRAE, raising the prospect of military collusion with the drug trade in Peru.

But while Bolivia is increasingly popular for Peruvian cocaine smuggling networks, transnational organized crime appears to be on the rise throughout the country, not just along the border with Peru. As InSight Crime has reported, the eastern department of Santa Cruz has emerged as a hotspot for criminal activity, with Governor Ruben Costas declaring a state of emergency in March. Last week, Santa Cruz’s El Deber profiled an increase in small scale drug trafficking and gang violence in the department’s capital city, which the paper notes is fueled by the promise of easy money for urban youths. In a separate interview with Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, he blames the crime wave on Santa Cruz’s status as a “very important point for drug trafficking due to the flow of drugs that pass from Peru and Bolivia to Brazil and Argentina.”

As with any discussion of drug trafficking in Bolivia, the attack in Apolo is bound to raise questions about the efficacy of coca monitoring in the country, where licensed cultivation of the plant is permitted for cultural and medicinal purposes. La Razon seems to be paving the way for this today, reporting that the sale of coca crops in the Apolo area is largely unregulated by the state, with locals and government authorities agreeing that much of it is diverted to the black market. The paper also reports that authorities found six coca maceration pits, used to make cocaine paste, near the scene of the incident.

While it is tempting to blame the presence of transnational drug trafficking groups in Bolivia on the government’s permissive approach to coca cultivation, the facts do not bear this out. According to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report published in August, total coca production in the country fell for the second straight year in 2012, a trend which the UNODC attributes to the Morales administration’s tough crackdown on illicit cultivation.

In the long run, perhaps the biggest threat that organized crime poses to Bolivia has to do with clean governance rather than the country’s legal coca crop. Bolivia’s state institutions are particularly vulnerable to corruption, a fact illustrated by the arrest of a Bolivian anti-corruption official in Miami last month who was accused of attempting to extort a extort $30,000 from a local businessman.

News Briefs
  • Guatemala’s First Chamber of Appeals, which was ordered last week by the Constitutional Court to reassess the application of an amnesty law to ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt, has not yet issued its ruling on the matter, despite reports that it would issue a decision on Friday or Saturday. Nevertheless, this has not stopped various political and judicial actors from weighing in on amnesty for Rios Montt. Prensa Libre reports that the Interior Ministry has positioned itself against amnesty, on the grounds that the decree does not apply to cases of genocide. El Periodico notes that the civil parties in the Rios Montt case have made the same argument, while his defense lawyers maintain that their client has been covered by the amnesty since 1986.
  • As predicted, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s ruling party suffered serious blows in yesterday’s midterm legislative elections, with her list of candidates losing major elections in Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Mendoza, and Santa Fe. Analyst James Bosworth points out that, in spite of media emphasis on the election as a symbolic loss (see The GuardianReuters and the Wall Street Journal), Fernandez’s party has maintained a majority in both chambers of Congress and actually picked up seats in the lower house. Still, this falls short of the two-thirds majority the president’s political coalition needs to amend the constitution and allow her to run for a third consecutive term. La Nacion has a helpful graphic of the breakdown of the new congress, showing that the ruling party still has the majority it needs to push legislation and set the country’s policy agenda.
  • Because Honduras has a ban on public opinion polls less than one month before general elections, the final polls ahead of next month’s vote have been released. Honduras Culture and Politics has an overview of the last CID Gallup poll before the November 24 vote, which shows leftist candidate Xiomara Castro statistically tied with Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party.
  • Spain’s El Pais has an interesting piece on criticism of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff from leftist sectors of her own Workers’ Party, many of which believe the recent oil rights auction in Rio de Janeiro amounted to privatization of national resources.
  • The Washington Post looks at Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s endorsement of taxes on soda and junk foods, which have put him at odds with the soft-drink industry. Opponents of the move have labeled it the “Bloomberg tax,” after billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who tried to ban sales of large sodas in his city.
  • Early Sunday morning, unknown assailants blew up at least nine power plants in towns and cities in the Mexican state of Michoacan. The L.A. Times claims there were no injuries, but notes it serves as a reminder of the strength of local criminal groups like the Knights Templar and Familia Michoacana. Animal Politico reports that some 420,000 people were left without power as a result of the attacks, and cites a Reforma report saying 18 plants were hit.
  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have reportedly released Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. army private that the guerrilla group had detained in June, turning him over to Cuban and Norwegian officials as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, The New York Times reports. According to the AP, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Colombian government for its efforts in ensuring the release, as well as Rev. Jesse Jackson, who the FARC named as a potential facilitator of turning over Sutay.
  • The Miami Herald profiles efforts in Colombia to re-socialize and reintegrate demobilized child soldiers in the country who fought in the ranks of the FARC and ELN. While the exact numbers of child soldiers in rebel groups are difficult to gauge, the Herald notes that roughly 25 percent of the 1,064 guerrillas who were captured or turned themselves in this year were underage.
  • Marriage equality advocates in Colombia saw a victory on Thursday after a Bogota high court revoked a previous court-ordered annulment of Colombia’s first gay marriage, arguing that the constitutional challenge to the marriage was invalid. However, celebration of this may be premature, as on Friday El Colombiano reported that Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez has said he would ask the Consitutional Court to weigh in on the ruling.
  • Reuters reports on Chilean presidential candidate and former President Michelle Bachelet, who has endorsed a series of sweeping reforms that are far more ambitious than the policies she pushed during her last administration. While the news agency notes she will likely win presidential elections after a runoff in December, her agenda will be significantly hampered if support for her doesn’t translate into votes for her coalition.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Guatemalan Court to Reassess Amnesty for Rios Montt

Recent days have seen a flurry of media reports offering conflicting accounts about a Guatemalan Constitutional Court decision which could pave the way for General Efrain Rios Montt to claim amnesty from charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Although the ruling was delivered on Tuesday, the fact that it was not immediately made public has complicated reporting on the decision, leading to different interpretations about its implications for his retrial, which is scheduled to begin in April of next year.

Prensa Libre first broke the story on Wednesday after obtaining a copy of the Constitutional Court ruling, and wrongly reported that a majority of the court was in agreement that Rios Montt should be exempt from prosecution in accordance with a 1986 general amnesty decree passed by the military regime. The paper also claimed that the court ordered Judge Carol Patricia Flores, who argued in favor of annulling testimony leading to Rios Montt’s guilty verdict (the conviction was eventually overturned in May), to issue a clarification of the amnesty’s applicability to the Rios Montt case.

This was swiftly picked up by Spanish news agency EFE, which spoke with a representative of the court who confirmed that the decision “opened the door” to amnesty for the ex-dictator.

But Prensa Libre’s interpretation of the ruling was flawed. El Periodico subsequently reported that Constitutional Court secretary Martin Guzman told local press that the court had not in fact endorsed the application of the amnesty decree, only instructing a lower court to order Flores to reassess it.

However, it seems even this version of events proved to be off base. Today El Periodico is reporting that the First Chamber of Appeals will be charged with re-assessing the application of the amnesty law, not Judge Flores. The president of the chamber, Judge Jorge Mario Valenzuela, has announced that he and his colleagues were given the higher court’s ruling yesterday, and said they will issue their decision today or tomorrow.

Meanwhile the Center for Human Rights and Legal Action (CALDH), a civil party in the Rios Montt trial, has objected to granting amnesty to the ex-dictator. Siglo21 reports that CALDH Deputy Director Alejandra Castillo told reporters that the organization maintains that the 1986 decree cannot legally be applied to the genocide charges he faces.

It’s worth noting that, despite the conflicting information coming from Guatemala’s mainstream media outlets, investigative news site Plaza Publica has had the most accurate coverage of developments in the Rios Montt case. On Wednesday, Plaza Publica called out Prensa Libre for its “erroneous interpretation,” and correctly pointed out that the ruling applied to the First Chamber, without mentioning Judge Flores.

Ultimately, if there’s a takeaway from this it might be that while the future of the Rios Montt case and other human rights trials in Guatemala appear to be in jeopardy, at least there is some hope for quality, independent journalism in the country.

News Briefs
  • After documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the United States intelligence agency has monitored the private phone calls of both Brazilian and German heads of state, both countries are joining forces to pressure the UN to rein in U.S. espionage. Foreign Policy has the exclusive story, reporting that Brazilian and German diplomats met in New York yesterday, along with representatives of other Latin American and European governments, to discuss a draft resolution calling for the expansion of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights to include online privacy.
  • NPR has an interview with Dr. Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, on the spread of Haiti’s cholera outbreak -- which was quite likely introduced by UN peacekeepers -- to elsewhere in the region. In addition to recently springing up in Mexico, it has already spread to Cuba, Chile and Venezuela, and Andrus predicts it will spread even further in the coming months.
  • The case against Steven Donziger and other Ecuadorean plaintiffs who successfully sued Chevron for environmental damages is heating up. A former Ecuadorean judge has testified that he and a colleague accepted bribes to issue a guilty ruling against the oil giant, issuing a $19 billion judgment two-and-a-half years ago.
  • While Mexico has been more muted in its response to the revelations of U.S. surveillance, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s insistence on an explanation from the U.S. ambassador as well as the administration’s announcement that an investigation into Mexican collusion with U.S. spying efforts is underway suggest the news has raised tensions between the two countries nonetheless. The L.A. Times reports on Mexico’s reaction to the NSA scandal, noting that it may have fueled traditional perceptions of the U.S. as “a brash cowboy of a country.”
  • An explosion at a candy factory in Ciudad Juarez left one dead and at least 40 injured yesterday. Animal Politico reports that officials are still looking into the cause of the blast, though preliminary investigation suggests it was caused by a buildup of steam in a boiler.
  • El Universal reports that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced the creation of a new cabinet position, which will be charged with overseeing the various social programs known as “Bolivarian Missions” in the country. Maduro said the new position will be called the “Vice-Ministry for the Supreme Social Happiness of the Venezuelan People,” a move caused BBC Mundo  to report, tongue in cheek, that the president is “apparently taking happiness very seriously.”
  • Rio-based journalist Julia Michaels has an overview of recent public remarks by Rio de Janeiro State's Public Safety Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame, who has spearheaded efforts to modernize the city’s police force.  
  • Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez, who underwent emergency surgery two weeks ago to remove a blood clot on her brain, is “making a recovery consistent with the time after her operation,” her doctors said in a statement released on Wednesday. The statement also said that she would continue to undergo recovery until November 8, when her status would be reevaluated. Meanwhile, the Financial Times notes that Fernandez’s party is widely expected to see major losses in a midterm legislative election on Sunday, which could put her alleged re-election ambitions to an end.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ declining approval rating has officially put his chances of being re-elected at risk. Semana magazine reports that, if next May’s presidential election were held today, Santos would lose to his own cousin, the Uribista candidate Presdent Francisco Santos Calderon. The paper cites a new Cifras y Conceptos poll conducted earlier this month, which is notable for showing that none of the expected candidates are particularly popular. The survey puts Santos Calderon at 18 percent approval, followed by Santos with 16 percent, and 37 percent saying they are unsure.  The president has not officially announced whether he will run for reelection, and has until next month to do so.
  • Haitian opposition lawyer Andre Michel, whose detention on Wednesday triggered mass anti-government protests in Port-Au-Prince, has spoken out about his arrest, the AP reports. Michel says he was arrested for his political work and his willingness to bring corruption cases against government officials.
  • Today marks the 30th anniversary of Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S. invasion of Grenada following the overthrow and murder of leftist Prime Minister Maurice Rupert Bishop. It remains the only conflict in which U.S. and Cuban troops fought each other directly, and both countries continue to remember the incident vastly different. The Miami Herald reports on the whereabouts of several of the Cuban commanders in the conflict, noting that the top Cuban commander in Grenada, Col. Pedro Tortolo Comas, was last confirmed driving a taxi in Havana. The former Cuban ambassador to the Caribbean country, Julian Torres Rizo, now reportedly lists himself as a tourist guide. The Daily Beast has a firsthand account of the invasion from former Army Ranger medic Stephen Trujillo, as well as an analysis of its geopolitical significance from neoconservative scholar Michael Ledeen, who characterizes the Bishop government as a “secretive totalitarian regime.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Colombia Court Finds Military Justice Reform Law Unconstitutional

A Colombian high court has ruled that a controversial military reform law backed by the government is unconstitutional, a development which could add unforeseen pressure on the peace talks with FARC rebels in Havana.

In what the AP calls “a stiff blow to the government,” the Constitutional Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that lawmakers’ recent approval of a bill which grants military courts increased jurisdiction over crimes committed by members of the armed forces violated the constitution. While the decision was not released, a statement read by Judge Jorge Ivan Palacio maintained that the court found “procedural defects” in the way the law was approved by Congress. El Tiempo reports that these included irregularities in the manner the bill passed from a lower house committee to the full floor, as well as the limited “quality of the debate” surrounding the bill, which was marked by pressure from the executive branch and ruling party.

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon called the ruling “a great blow to the morale of the armed forces.” El Espectador reports that he told reporters that the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos intends to send a new bill to Congress which will allow for many of the same revisions to the military justice system. Considering the months of debate that the previous bill underwent before its approval in the Senate in June, however, it is doubtful that the new measure will be passed before Santos’ current term ends in August 2014.

Semana magazine notes that the ruling is a victory for the five opposition congressmen who filed the complaint with the court, as well as human rights organizations in the country. While criticism from civil society groups forced the Senate to include provisions which guaranteed that certain human rights abuses would remain under the jurisdiction of civil courts, concerns lingered about the law’s potential to grant impunity to military abusers.

But the Constitutional Court’s decision has a downside. La Silla Vacia points out that the military justice reform law had a kind of placating effect on critics of Santos’ peace talks with the FARC, assuring members of the armed forces that they would not later have to stand trial for their decisions on the battlefield while guerrilla leaders were left off the hook. As the news site puts it:
“In effect, for many in the army the military justice reform was a sort of protective shield that would give them the legal guarantees they had been demanding for years to allow them to undertake what they consider to be the last offensives against the guerrillas. And Santos wanted to give this to them -- even as criticism rained down (especially of the initial draft) by victims’ organizations and international human rights organizations, among others --as one of the ‘goodies’  they were given when [the president] entered into dialogue with the FARC just as the military felt it was about to defeat them.”
Now that this “goodie” has been taken away from them, high ranking officers may be much more willing to speak out against the peace process, which will already face heightened criticism in the upcoming election season. Indeed, it appears this is already happening. Hours after the ruling, an army general wishing to remain anonymous described the military’s perception of the decision to La Silla Vacia:   “Imagine what could be happening right now in the head of the men at the front, putting their necks on the line. These things make one think, because one is committed to the country but needs a kind of protective shield.”

News Briefs
  • A judicial spokesman for Guatemala’s Constitutional Court told Spanish news agency EFE yesterday that a court ruling this week (which has not yet been made public) opens the door to amnesty to former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. While Prensa Libre reported that the decision recommended that the case against Rios Montt be dropped because of an amnesty proclaimed in 1986 by Guatemala's then-military regime, news site Plaza Publica clarifies that the Court only found that Judge Carol Patricia Flores should assess the extent of the 1986 amnesty decree, but did not endorse it. Mike Allison of Central American Politics lays out what all this means, noting that this does not bode well for the future of human rights trials in the country.
  • The Washington Post’s Juan Forero has a colorful look at the reactions to Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill from some of the activists and lawmakers that have been most vocal in supporting it. The piece also features some interesting commentary by Kevin A. Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, who warns that the Uruguayan law’s restriction on selling the drug to young people and foreigners will ensure that the continuation of the black market.
  • Haitian Attorney Andre Michel, an opposition figure who is spearheading a corruption case against President Michel Martelly, was briefly arrested yesterday before being freed from police custody by his supporters, the AP reports. The Martelly administration has condemned the release of Michel as a “flagrant violation of the principle of separation of powers,” although prosecutors have not said publicly why he was arrested in the first place.  According to the Miami Herald, the president spoke briefly with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden yesterday as protests broke out in the capital city against Michel’s arrest. In a subsequent statement, the White House said that Biden “welcomed President Martelly’s commitment to continue working to further strengthen Haiti’s democratic institutions, including by maintaining a strong and independent legislative branch.”
  • Today’s New York Times reports on the recent court ruling in the Dominican Republic, which denies citizenship to an estimated 200,000 of Dominicans of Haitian descent. The NYT notes that the ruling has focused attention on the deep-seated discrimination against Haitians in the neighboring country, and left the government scrambling over how to implement the decision. Yesterday, migration director Jose R. Taveras told reporters that the affected individuals would be given temporary residency permits while the country comes up with a more permanent plan.
  • In an interesting follow-up to the AP’s recent piece on the associated health problems that a reliance on herbicide chemicals has caused in Argentina, Reuters notes that the lucrativeness of soy cultivation and a government-fostered emphasis on monocropping threatens to deplete the fertile soils of its farm belt.
  • According to El Mostrador, the widows of two Chilean soldiers have filed a lawsuit against the head of the Chilean Communist Party, Guillermo Teillier, who recently admitted that his party was behind a failed attempt to assassinate General Augusto Pinochet in 1986. Five soldiers were killed in the incident, and eleven others were wounded.
  • The Economist has a helpful overview of Cuba’s dual currency system, which the government has announced it intends to eliminate. The magazine suggests that the reform will likely begin “cautiously, with selected state enterprises being allowed to trade using a variety of hypothetical exchange rates.” But while the government has reassured citizens that the move will not harm holders of either currency, it could lead to inflation of the Cuban peso, and will likely infuriate those who hold savings in the convertible peso, which will become swiftly devalued.    
  • On Wednesday, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the terms for the creation of an Indian reserve, which banned the expansion of land set aside for indigenous groups, did not apply to other reservations, O Globo reports. Reuters notes that the while the ruling was welcomed by indigenous rights activists it was criticized by the agricultural industry, which has clashed with native groups over its push to expand farming into the Amazon basin.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Chemical Herbicide Under Scrutiny in Argentina, Colombia

Glyphosate, the herbicide at the center of a political controversy in Colombia, has recently come under attack in Argentina as well, where its uncontrolled application in farming regions has been linked to a wave of health problems.

On Monday, the Associated Press published a report documenting the mounting evidence that an increased use of pesticides in Argentina, combined with lax regulations, have caused health problems in the country’s farm belt. Citing anecdotal indicators as well as academic research, the AP reported that the widespread use of chemicals like glyphosate -- a key ingredient in the Monsanto-owned weed killer “Roundup” -- could be responsible for increases in cancer rates, birth defects, infertility and skin problems. 

The news agency also takes this a step further, raising questions about Argentina’s status as “one of the first countries to adopt new biotech farming methods promoted by Monsanto and other U.S. agribusinesses.”  While the Argentine agricultural industry experienced a major boom over the past decade, this shift eventually caused farmers to apply higher concentrations of chemicals as weeds and pests developed resistance. As a result of this trend, and a lack of regulation, certain populations have been exposed to alarmingly high levels of pesticides. According to the AP, for instance, a government survey in Cordoba’s Ituzaingo Anexo neighborhood suggested that 80 percent of children there had traces of pesticide in their blood.

Today, the AP has a follow-up story giving Monsanto’s response to the report. While the agribusiness giant criticized the initial story as lacking hard data, it also urged the Argentine government to institute stronger restrictions on its use. “If pesticides are being misused in Argentina, then it is in everyone’s best interests - the public, the government, farmers, industry, and Monsanto - that the misuse be stopped,” the company said in a statement.

Additionally, Monsanto took issue with the AP’s representation of glyphosate, calling it “overbroad in indicting all ‘pesticides’ when we know that glyphosate is safe.”

This is not the first time that concerns about the chemical have been raised in Latin America, however. Last month, the Colombian government agreed to pay $15 million to Ecuador to compensate for health problems caused to Ecuadorean farmers by glyphosate spraying along the border as part of an aerial coca eradication campaign.  The fact that this same chemical is widely used in aerial spraying across the Colombian interior raised questions about its associated risks, questions which -- as Andres Molano writes for Razon Publica -- the government seems intent on ignoring.

Meanwhile, as noted last week, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has been accused of attempting to censor and discredit a study showing that glyphosate may be less effective than advertised. The study was authored by Daniel Mejia, the head of the Santos administration’s advisory commission on drug policy, who threatened to resign in protest of what he saw as an attack on the commission’s independence. Since then, Mejia has been stepping up his criticism of the government’s use of glyphosate in the Colombian press. In the days following the scandal, both El Colombiano and El Espectador have published interviews with Mejia, and the debate over glyphosate has been profiled in Semana and Vanguardia.

It remains to be seen how the fallout from the AP article in Argentina will play for the scandal in Colombia, but it is likely that calling on the Argentine government to implement tighter control over the chemical’s use will fuel doubts about its safety, despite Monsanto’s claims.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday, the government of Cuba announced that it would phase out its dual currency system, which has been unpopular on the island since it began in 1994. The Miami Herald reports that an official communiqué yesterday said that the government had approved a “chronology” to change the system, though it did not offer specifics of the timeline.
  • Prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro have charged an additional 15 police officers in the torture and murder of bricklayer Amarildo Dias de Souza, whose name has been invoked repeatedly by advocates of police reform in the city following his July disappearance.
  • Last week, three United States congressmen sent a letter to the Obama administration raising concerns about the potential for fraud in Honduras’ presidential elections next month. Asserting that “the ruling party, and its presidential candidate Mr Juan Orlando Hernandez, now dominates all the key institutions of the government,” Congressmen Raul Grijalva, Hank Johnson and Michael Honda called on the U.S. State Department to “speak forcefully against” attacks on human rights advocates and the opposition in the Central American country.  Following the letter, on Monday an anonymous embassy official told the AFP that the U.S. was calling on all candidates and electoral authorities “to ensure that Hondurans' democratic engagement is fully respected through a fair and transparent electoral process.”
  • RAJ of Honduras Culture and Politics provides a look at the latest poll numbers in Honduras, with an October Paradigma survey showing Partido Nacional candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez ahead of the center-left LIBRE party candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya for the first time. The blog points out that this may be due in part to strong-arm campaign tactics of the ruling Partido Nacional, which allegedly included printing false LIBRE flyers portraying the party as having links to the Venezuelan and Cuban governments.
  • The United Nations Human Rights Council has begun an analysis of Mexico’s adherence to human rights norms as part of its second Universal Periodic Review. In his presentation to the HRC, Mexican Foreign Minister Antonio Meade cited a reduction in violence, the passage of a new victims’ law and a drop in complaints filed against the armed forces as indicators of progress, El Universal reports. According to Animal Politico, ending impunity for military abuses and the country’s controversial practice of allowing preventative detention are among the issues that are likely to come up in the UN body’s recommendations to Mexico.
  • While the government of Mexico has been criticized for responding somewhat mildly to reports about the NSA’s surveillance of leading politicians, Meade told reporters in Geneva that he had been instructed by the president to summon the U.S. ambassador to Mexico to clarify the revelations.
  • Yesterday, a Chilean judge charged 79 former members of the Pinochet regime’s secret police with the disappearance and murder of eight Communist Party members between May 1976 and January 1977, Cooperativa and BBC Mundo report.
  • Following yesterday’s  mixed messages regarding Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill,  La Repulica reports that the ruling Frente Amplio coalition will move ahead with plans to vote on the bill in the Senate next month. It is still unclear, however, whether the concerns about the bill’s constitutionality raised by El Pais represent a legal threat to its implementation.
  • The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has met with the daughter of deceased Cuban rights activist Oswaldo Paya. The two discussed calls for an investigation into Paya’s death, which the AP notes was one of the first causes that Power championed upon taking her post.
  • In response to this weekend’s attack on a coca eradication crew in Bolivia’s northern Apolo region, La Razon reports that President Evo Morales is strengthening the military presence in the area. According to the paper, six more were arrested in connection with the attack yesterday, including four Peruvians, which would appear to confirm the government’s claims that foreign drug trafficking networks are operating in the area. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Uruguay’s Marijuana Bill Faces Legal Hiccup

The opposition in Uruguay has challenged the legality of the Frente Amplio’s (FA) marijuana regulation bill, invoking a constitutional ban on legislation creating newly-funded institutions one year before a general election.

Meanwhile, there have been mixed reports about the FA’s next move. While some local outlets claim that the ruling coalition will continue with its plan to pass the measure unchanged in the Senate next month, others are reporting that it will have to be sent back to the lower house to be altered. The necessary changes would involve stripping funding from the proposed law’s regulatory body, a move which could have serious consequences for its implementation.

Yesterday, El Pais reported that the Senate Health Committee, which is currently assessing the bill, moved to consult with legislative specialists about the legality of passing the bill in November. This was done at the request of the committee’s president, opposition Colorado Party member Alfredo Solari.

In a surprise development, the Parliamentary Legislative Studies Department found fault with a provision in the bill related to the allocation of resources for the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA). According to El Pais, it particularly objected to Articles 17 and 24 of the bill (available in .pdf here), which name the IRCCA as the main regulatory agency of the law and provide its director with a salary allocated by the executive branch. This allegedly violates Article 229 of the Constitution, which prohibits lawmakers from passing bills which “generate expenses, fees or create budgets” less than year before general elections (In this case October 26, 2014).

With the bill still in committee and the Senate nowhere near a full-floor debate on the measure, it looks as though the one-year deadline will pass with no vote. As a result, the paper claimed that the FA would have no choice but to alter send it back to the lower house, so that the offending passages could be removed. Senator Luis Gallo, the ranking FA senator on the Health Committee, reportedly confirmed this plan to El Pais.

However, it seems this plan may have changed following a meeting of Frente leaders yesterday. This morning Montevideo Portal and La Red21 report that the ruling coalition is pressing forward with plans to hold a Senate vote on the bill next month, and appears to be pushing back on the suggestion that the current version of the bill violates the constitution. Both news sites quote subsequent public remarks by Senator Gallo, who told reporters he was confident the bill did not break the law, because the IRCCA is a “a legal entity and not of the state, so [launching it] is a private right.”

This sounds like the FA has consulted with legal specialists who have determined that the law is within the bounds of the constitution. For supporters of marijuana regulation, this is good news because it suggests that the IRCCA will be  up and running as soon as possible, which will in turn help the government meet its goal of having marijuana available for sale (for a price of around $1 USD per gram, according to authorities) in pharmacies by August 2014. Passing an altered version of the bill without the IRCCA would change it entirely, as the institute’s proper function will be key to the law’s success.

At the same time, if Gallo and the FA leadership have miscalculated, and the law is successfully challenged in court, it would be disastrous for the bill’s backers.  Polls show that 63 percent of Uruguayans oppose marijuana legalization, and while this number is falling (and has been shown to be far lower when respondents are asked more in-depth questions), questions about the legality of the bill would surely fuel public doubt about it. Members of both the opposition Colorado and National parties have said they plan on gathering signatures to trigger a referendum on the law once it is passed, and a high-profile legal battle over the measure would suit their agenda perfectly.

News Briefs
  • The death toll in an attack by armed coca-growers on police and military in Bolivia’s northwest Apolo region over weekend has risen to four. The AP reports that the bodies were found after coca growers released six security personnel who were taken hostage. It is the first deadly attack on a forced eradication team under the administration of President Evo Morales, and his administration appears to be taking the incident quite seriously. Thirteen coca growers have been arrested in connection with the attack, and La Razon reports that officials have accused the local cocalero association of links to Peruvian criminal groups.
  • On the subject of Peruvian criminal networks in Bolivia, Peru’s IDL-Reporteros has published an in-depth look at the rise of aerial routes being used to ship cocaine out of the Peruvian VRAE region and the central Pichis-Palcazu Valley.  Instead of heading north to Colombia, as these flights did in previous decades, they are increasingly going south, to Bolivia, IDL-Reporteros reports.  According to a source consulted by the news site, many of these aerial routes head through highly militarized areas in the VRAE, raising the prospect of military collusion with the drug trade in Peru.
  • It seems Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes can’t escape from relatives who embarrass him publicly. Days after Cartes’ uncle was jailed for smuggling in 450 kilos of marijuana to Uruguay, his son  was arrested for allegedly punching a guest outside a party hosted at his condo in Miami.
  • Colombia’s Semana magazine reports that the head of the official negotiating team for peace talks with FARC rebels, Humberto de la Calle, has called on Colombian politicians to avoid attacking the peace process in the upcoming election season. “Nothing would be historically more reprehensible if we eventually reached an agreement in Havana, and this was wasted by internal divisions,” De la Calle said. “This is the time to set peace peace above our differences.” He also echoed remarks made by President Juan Manuel Santos yesterday, who assured Colombians that any changes to the country’s democratic system were completely off the negotiating table in Havana.
  • Despite major protests in Rio de Janeiro yesterday against an auction of the right to develop an offshore oil field, O Globo reports that the government announced that the contract would go to a lone bid submitted by a consortium led by state-run company Petrobras  and four foreign corporations. Al-Jazeera English has a good overview of yesterday’s demonstrations, which participating unions framed as selling national assets to foreigners.
  • BBC Mundo contrasts the reaction to news that the NSA spied on private communications of officials in France and Mexico. Whereas the former has called on its U.S. ambassador for consultation, the Mexican response has been notably less confrontational, with the Foreign Ministry merely releasing a statement in protest. According to the BBC’s Alberto Najar, this is likely due to a long tradition of collaboration between Mexican political elites and U.S. intelligence agencies.
  • Despite the alarming figures suggesting that some 26,000 people have gone missing in Mexico’s drug war, there is evidence to suggest this number may be inflated depending on the nature of each case. For example, Animal Politico reports that 55 percent of those reported as missing or disappeared in Mexico City this year have returned. Obviously this number is more to do with runaway youths than enforced disappearances by corrupt security officials, which is partially why earlier this month a senate committee proposed the creation of distinct legal codes to distinguish the two, El Universal reports.
  • The New York Times reports on a budding movement in Mexico to reform the country’s broken mental health system. Some of the most active civil society groups in this movement are associations of psychiatric patients, who are setting up creative ways to struggle against rampant discrimination and disenfranchisement  in Mexican society.
  • The NYT also provides an overview of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s decision to build  a partnership with Chevron corporation, in order to pursue drilling in a promising shale oil reservoir in Patagonia. The move has earned Fernandez censure from critics and supporters alike, many of whom cite Ecuador’s ongoing battle with the oil giant over an Amazon pollution case.
  • Panamanian officials have announced that they will release 33 of 35 crew members on board the North Korean ship detained three months ago for attempting to smuggle Cuban weapons through the Panama Canal. Two of them, the captain and his assistant, were found to be aware of the cargo’s contents, and may face trial. The government of Panama has insisted that much of the military equipment it found was in working order, despite Cuba’s claims that the weapons were largely obsolete.