Friday, February 28, 2014

Guerrillas Claim Responsibility for Attack on Colombian Candidate

(Note: The daily news briefings will return after a brief hiatus on Thursday, March 6)

When the convoy transporting Aida Avella, the presidential candidate of Colombia’s left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party, came under attack on Sunday in the northeastern province of Arauca, many suspected that the attackers had been right-wing paramilitaries. After all, the UP has a history of being targeted by paramilitary organizations, and the systematic assassination of thousands of UP members in the 1980s and '90s has been labelled a “political genocide” by some.

The aftermath of Sunday’s incident saw a flurry of press reports about repeated threats against Colombia’s democratic left by right-wing armed groups, most of which (see Reuters, the AFP, Semana) highlighted the issue as a potential threat to the country’s peace process and the long-term prospects of post-conflict reconciliation.  Avella herself blamed the attack on the same paramilitaries that led her to flee Colombia in 1996 following a failed assassination attempt.

Yesterday, however, the leadership of the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) released a communique accepting responsibility for the attack, despite a previous statement (which has since been removed from the ELN website) denying government allegations of its involvement. The rebels said they had attempted to stop the caravan to confirm the identity of its passengers, when Avella’s bodyguards opened fire, leading them to fire back “to protect themselves.” Nevertheless, the ELN commanders apologized to the UP candidate and said they would take “necessary precautions to ensure that this does not happen again.”

The fact that the ELN was responsible is significant for two reasons. First, it illustrates the fact that guerrilla groups can pose just as much a threat to the left’s political participation as paramilitaries. This is an important counterpoint to the long-standing argument used by FARC rebels that it is too dangerous to run for office, and that the armed struggle is the only path to power available for leftists in Colombia.

Secondly, the ELN’s involvement provides yet another obstacle to its involvement in peace negotiations with the government. Firing at the convoy of a presidential candidate is hardly a sign of good faith, and clashes with the group’s stated interest in joining the talks underway in Havana. Of course, as an International Crisis Group report published this week notes, the ELN’s participation in talks has also been jeopardized by its reluctance to consider any unilateral gesture -- like renouncing kidnappings, for instance -- as a precondition.

The fact that the ELN was behind the attack does not negate the vulnerability of left-wing political movements in the country, however. The Patriotic March, a campesino movement which emerged in 2012, has seen 29 of its members killed since its founding, according to ex-Senator Piedad Cordoba, one of its most visible leaders. Earlier this year the movement made headlines for reportedly considering disbanding as a result of the threats faced by its members, but the leadership has since dropped the idea.  

News Briefs
  • Guatemala’s Constitutional Court heard final arguments on Wednesday in the case over whether Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz should be allowed to serve out a four-year term, or whether it should expires in May (as the court has previously indicated). El Periodico reports that Paz y Paz herself took the stand to make the case for a full term, arguing that disputing whether or not the constitutional language laying out a four-year term for her office should be applied “directly impacts the independence of judicial institutions.” Meanwhile, the paper reports that the committee tasked with naming the new top prosecutor in the country is considering six individuals for the job, including Paz y Paz, although whether or not she would accept the position is unclear.
  • Despite forecasts by some analysts who predicted that the beginning of a week-long holiday in Venezuela yesterday would take the wind out of the sails of protests there, the opposition remains persistent. Roadblocks and demonstrations continued in cities across the country yesterday, and the AP reports that the unrest has begun to take a toll on many residents, who see the roadblocks as “just another irritation” on top of rising inflation, food shortages and citizen insecurity.  Just as with the death toll (Maduro recently put this as high as 50, though other officials say 13 have been killed), there have been contradicting reports on the number of those detained. Prosecutors say 55 have been placed in custody in relation to the protests, while non-governmental Venezuelan Penal Forum says 609 individuals have been detained by police and the military, of which only 156 had been accounted for.
  • Following a Supreme Court ruling earlier this month, Bolivia has become the latest Latin American nation to ease its abortion laws. On February  13,  the country’s constitutional court issued a long-awaited ruling finding that women seeking abortions in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk do not need permission from a judge to perform the procedures. The move has been hailed by reproductive rights groups as an important step forward, and La Razon reports that the Bolivian government is working on regulation to implement the ruling.
  • Reuters reports on the after-effects of Argentina’s recent devaluation, which has worsened the country’s inflation rate and left many of its poorest citizens struggling to afford rent and basic goods.
  • In a series on the U.S.’s 25 most “awkward allies,” Politico Magazine features a damning profile of the government of Honduras, noting the “Thugocracy’s” deeply entrenched corruption as well as its history of targeting the opposition in recent years. After highlighting the continued U.S. relationship with Honduran police despite the shady record of its national police director ,author Dana Frank argues that recently-elected President Juan Orlando Hernandez has a history of undercutting the rule of law which will likely continue in his administration.
  • Cuban intelligence agent Fernando Gonzalez has become the second of the “Cuban Five” to be released from a U.S. prison after serving his sentence. Gonzalez was freed from an Arizona prison yesterday, and is expected to be deported to the U.S. in the coming days.
  • The Miami Herald is the latest to look at criticism of the Rio de Janeiro government’s handling of preparations for this year’s world cup and the 2016 Olympics. While local officials insist that the households displaced by construction projects linked to these events are resettled with state assistance, affected individuals and human rights groups claim that they are often relocated to areas prohibitively far from the city center, where many work.
  • On the heels of Haitian President Michel Martelly’s recent visit with President Barack Obama and other leading U.S. politicians, today’s Washington Post features an op-ed on his government’s failure to hold parliamentary or local elections since he took office. The paper places partial blame for this on the “gamesmanship” of the opposition, and urges the U.S. to promote their continued dialogue to resolve the issue.
  • The newly appointed head of Uruguay’s army, Juan Villagran, is catching flak from human rights groups over recent comments about forced disappearances during the country’s military dictatorship. Upon taking office, Villagran claimed that the military had already presented all of the available information regarding disappearances, noting that it had no reason to hide anything anymore as “96 percent of the Uruguayan army had joined after [the restoration of democracy in] 1985.” In a separate interview with El Pais, Villagran said he believed the army had “overcome” its legacy of abuses and that it was time to “turn the page and look to the future.” 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Possibility of Dialogue Looks Remote in Venezuela

Even as the Venezuelan opposition has refused to enter into dialogue on the government’s terms, President Nicolas Maduro has strived to cast his administration as a legitimate arbiter of the recent unrest. However, this is proving difficult as both sides of the dispute seem to have different views of its cause.

At the Caracas meeting yesterday that he had previously billed as a “National Peace Conference,” Maduro lamented that members of the opposition did not show up, El Universal reports. The president stressed that he had called for dialogue “without conditions…as open and tolerant as possible.” Nevertheless, he expressed hope that opposition figures would join in the future, saying: “No one has any excuse to say no to dialogue.”

However, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition has a different account of events. The Miami Herald reports:
MUD Executive Director Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said his organization received the invitation after 10 p.m. Tuesday and that the government had not laid out an agenda. 
Aveledo said he tried to get clarity from the vice president’s office on Wednesday, to no avail. But he underscored that the opposition wants to talk. 
“It’s time to face the crude reality and speak sincerely and seriously,” Aveledo wrote to the government, “without tricks or hidden cards, and with clear rules and transparency.” 
He also said any negotiations would need to start with a clear agenda and be moderated by a “national or international” arbiter.
The day before yesterday, MUD leader Henrique Capriles released a list of 10 “proposals to advance” the country. It includes calls to de-politicize the armed forces, disarm “paramilitary groups” and free student protesters and others arrested during the recent unrest.

Meanwhile, the government has continued to focus on the violence committed by elements of the opposition, rather than its legitimate criticisms. Much of its response to protests has included hyperbolic rhetoric, including attempts to blame the violence on right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia, elevate the death toll to some 50 people without citing supporting evidence, and blame the opposition’s momentum on endorsements by cultural elites.

With both sides still speaking different languages, it really is no wonder that a meaningful dialogue has yet to take place in Venezuela. As today’s Washington Post notes, there is a chance that the upcoming carnival season could sap the protest movement of its energy, but even then its underlying motives are not likely to disappear so easily.

News Briefs
  • In some good news for Venezuela, the prospect that state agents accused of using disproportionate force against protesters  will be met with total impunity seems to have faded somewhat. As the New York Times reports, the country’s attorney general has accused seven detained members of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) of responsibility for the February 12 death of two protesters.
  • A plan submitted to the OAS’ Permanent Council to hold an immediate meeting over the situation in Venezuela, which was submitted earlier this week by the government of Panama, has been suspended. According to EFE, the government of Venezuela submitted a complaint alleging that the motion was made without the presence of the head of the OAS council, Dominican Ambassador Pedro Verges. 
  • After asking every member of his cabinet to submit their resignation on Tuesday, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has signaled that he does not intend to announce the specifics of his planned shakeup immediately. As El Comercio reports, Vice President Jorge Glas told reporters yesterday that the president plans to “take his time” in evaluating his new cabinet moving forward.
  • Not everyone in Mexico is thrilled about the recent capture of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. According to Animal Politico, yesterday saw hundreds of protesters in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan -- as well as the city of Guamuchil  -- gather to call for his release.  However, there is reason to be suspicious of their motives for demonstrating; the news site notes that in the latter city protesters were bussed in by anonymous interests, and received a t-shirt and snack for their participation.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the ongoing conflict between retired General Angel Vivas and government forces in Venezuela. Vivas is accused of endorsing violence after posting a tweet advising opposition protestors to string up wires across roads to prevent motorcycle passengers from crossing them.
  • The first Latin American pope, Pope Francis I, has weighed in on the conflict in Venezuela. Speaking at the end of his usual weekly audience yesterday, the pope expressed his hope that "violence and hostility will cease as soon as possible." He also called on the country to exhibit “mutual forgiveness and sincere dialogue" to facilitate dialogue, as the BBC reports.
  • Reuters features a comprehensive explainer on the recent military corruption scandals in Colombia, and the resulting purge of the army’s high command by President Juan Manuel Santos.  The news agency does a good job of placing the incidents in the context of the recent “false positives” scandal, noting that they come at an extremely inopportune moment for the Colombian army’s reputation.
  • Following up on the recent attempted assassination of the Colombian left-wing Patriotic Union party’s presidential candidate on Sunday, Semana has a top notch analysis of the political landscape in the country, arguing that the left there still faces serious obstacles to democratic participation.  According to the magazine, these must be overcome in order to give a clear signal to the FARC rebels at the negotiating table in Havana that power can in fact be obtained by the ballot rather than the bullet.
  • Ahead of Uruguay’s general elections in October, the ruling Frente Amplio  (FA) coalition appears set to maintain its status as the most popular political force in the country. El Pais reports that if the vote were held today, according to a new survey by local pollster Equipos Mori, FA ex-president Tabare Vazquez would win with the support of 44 percent of respondents compared to 26 percent for the likely National Party candidate, Vazquez’s biggest competitor.
  • Peru is once again in the news for large-scale demonstrations, this time in the south-central region of Cusco. La Republica reports that some 50,000 people flooded the capital city of Cusco to call for the government to fulfill promises to invest more in the region, citing plans to build a gas pipeline as well as an international airport.
  • Police in southern Chile have discovered human remains near a former German enclave which investigators believe may be the traces of disappeared dissidents of the Pinochet dictatorship, AFP reports. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ecuador’s Correa Recalibrates After Election Loss

Following his party’s defeat in several major races in Sunday’s municipal elections, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has announced a shakeup of both his cabinet and the ruling Alianza PAIS coalition.

As noted in Monday’s post, Alianza PAIS candidates lost high profile races in the cities of Quito (which it currently holds) and Guayaquil (governed by the opposition). In fact, the party lost races in all but one of the ten most populous cities in Ecuador, according to El Universo. Because Correa personally backed contenders in the Quito and Guayaquil races, their loss is seen as a major political blow that deprived him of an opportunity to declare a renewed mandate.

Correa has not shied away from admitting that the election was a setback.  In remarks to the press on Monday, the president chalked up his party’s loss of Quito to three factors: errors in municipal governance, flaws in the election campaign and “sectarianism” within his political camp. However, he strived to put an overall positive spin on the development. The president claimed that Alianza PAIS is “stagnating” as a movement, and even suggested that Sunday’s “jolt” would be beneficial in the long run.

Yet despite his optimism, yesterday saw signs that Correa is taking the vote seriously. As El Comercio reports, last night the president announced that he would be naming new cabinet members, and asked all of his ministers to offer their resignation. He also said that Alianza PAIS would be “restructuring” its provincial offices.

So far the president has offered no details about the planned shakeups, but the timing of the announcement is no coincidence. Correa likely sees his party’s electoral future at stake, and is attempting to mitigate the risk of similar losses moving forward.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday, a Guatemalan appeals court recused itself from deciding whether the country’s 1986 amnesty law could prevent the prosecution of General Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. As Prensa Libre reports, this makes it the third court to declare itself unfit to take up an October Constitutional Court order to assess the admissibility of the amnesty law to the Rios Montt case. In other Guatemalan judicial news, the country’s Constitutional Court is set to hear final arguments today over whether Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz should be allowed to serve out a four-year term, or whether it expires in May. The court has previously said it favors the latter, and called for a committee to convene and nominate her replacement, so the likelihood of a reversal is slim.
  • Despite the media frenzy over a potential power vacuum in Mexico’s criminal underworld and increased violence following the arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, analysts and DEA officials consulted by The New York Times say the arrest will have minimal effect on the day-to-day work of the mighty Sinaloa Cartel.
  • Yesterday, after refusing to meet with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, opposition leader Henrique Capriles published a list of 10 “proposals to advance” the country. The list includes calls to de-politicize the armed forces, disarm “paramilitary groups” and free student protesters and others arrested during the recent unrest. Meanwhile, protests continue in Caracas and elsewhere in the country. The New York Times reports on some of the tactics being used by more radical elements of the opposition in the western city of San Cristobal, which include creating makeshift weapons and firebombs.
  • The U.S. State Department announced three Venezuelan diplomats have been given 48 hours to leave the country, in retribution for the expulsion of three U.S. embassy officials from Venezuela earlier this month. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the announcement came just as Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said that a new U.S. ambassador would be nominated. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told the paper that while Washington is open to improving bilateral relations, Venezuela would need to “show seriousness” for such efforts to move forward.
  • The repeated insistence by Venezuelan officials that the protests are being fueled by right-wing paramilitary groups and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has put the current administration in Bogota in the awkward position of defending Uribe, who is its largest domestic critic. El Espectador reports that in a radio interview yesterday, Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin expressed concern over the repeated attacks on Uribe, and said that if her Venezuelan counterpart had proof to support the allegations it should present it in court.
  • Yesterday saw a setback for besieged Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro. The Colombian Council of State, the country’s supreme tribunal for all administrative disputes, ruled 14 to 11 to endorse the prosecutor general’s order to remove Petro from office. However, as Semana magazine and Silla Vacia note, Petro’s likely appeal and a separate court challenge ensure that he will not be forced out of office just yet.
  • Brazil’s Estadão gives an update on São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad’s experimental plan to address drug use in the central neighborhood  known Cracolândia by giving housing, food and work opportunities to crack users. According to local workers and businesses consulted by the paper, interest in the program has caused the number drug users in the area to increase. Haddad and other city officials dispute this claim, saying there is no evidence to back it up.
  • A gay Russian couple has made international headlines for marrying in Argentina and announcing their intent to apply for asylum there, aided by local activists seeking to make their country a haven for persecuted gay couples around the world.
  • Foreign Policy has an intriguing profile of the president of Suriname, one of South America’s most overlooked countries. President Desi Bouterse, who first ruled the country as dictator from 1980 to 1987, has been convicted in a Dutch court of participation in drug trafficking, and is still accused of shady links today. More recently, his son Dino Bouterse was arrested in Panama and extradited to the U.S. for falling for a DEA sting operation, in which he agreed to assist “Hezbollah militants” (in reality DEA informants) set up a training base in his country.
  • The Associated Press looks at signs of a generational shift in Cuba, noting that the once-popular trend of giving babies eccentric -- and often Russian-inspired -- names has faded with the end of the Cold War.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Attempted Dialogue Falls Through in Venezuela

After Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro made headlines over the weekend for apparently offering to dialogue with Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader declined to participate yesterday, saying he did not want to help Maudro “clean up his image.”

Much was made of Maduro’s invitation for Capriles to discuss their “differences and points of agreement” in a Monday meeting, and a number of media outlets framed the offer as a potential turning point for the unrest that has beset Venezuela in recent weeks.

However, by Sunday it became clear that Capriles was considering pulling out of the meeting, after he announced that he was consulting with his support base over his attendance. As El Universal reports, he made his rejection of the meeting known in a press conference yesterday afternoon. Showing images of alleged repression of opposition protests in recent days by security forces, the Miranda state governor told reporters he could not justify going to the presidential palace while the crackdown continued. “I will not be the one to clean up the image of Nicolas Maduro in [the presidential palace]. That's what they want, for me to go today; they offer their hand as if the country was in complete normalcy,” he said.

There was likely a political calculus behind his decision as well. Monday’s meeting was not exclusively with Maduro, but instead part a semi-regular conference of all state governors with the executive branch, known as “Federal Government Councils.” There was, after all, little chance that Maduro would allow the opposition leader to dictate the agenda, and by attending Capriles risked drawing the ire of more radical elements of the opposition. Even after the president announced a separate event billed as a “National Peace Conference,” to be held on Wednesday, it is unclear how it would incorporate opposition demands. 

Meanwhile, protests continue throughout the country. Reuters reports that the death toll from the demonstrations has risen to 13, while El Nacional claims it is at 15 and alleges that that nine of these were opposition protestors  killed by “security forces or paramilitary groups linked to officials.”

As protests have gone on, the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) has also started to show internal cracks. Jose Vielma Mora, the PSUV governor of western Tachira state -- which has been hit hard by demonstrations and roadblocks -- told reporters he opposed the government’s use of force against protestors and supported the release of opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Vielma is a longtime Chavista, and participated in Chavez’s failed 1992 coup.

Writing for opposition blog Caracas Chronicles, Emiliana Duarte offers a look at the protests in Tachira state capital San Cristobal. Especially interesting is her assessment of the changing dynamic of the makeshift barricades that have sprung up around the city. While most were created by opposition students and residents drawing attention to their cause, Duarte notes that many have been taken over by “clever opportunists” who charge fees to those seeking to pass by them.

While many analysts have compared the situation in Venezuela with current events in Ukraine, The New York Times’ William Neuman draws parallels with last year’s protests in Brazil. According to the paper, the major difference between these two is that while Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced concrete policy changes, Maduro has “largely refused to acknowledge [demonstrators’] complaints, focusing instead on violence linked to the unrest.”  However, yesterday saw some progress on that front, with the government unveiling a new currency exchange platform that is aimed at tackling rampant shortages, one of the main grievances of demonstrators.

News Briefs
  • U.S. national security news site Defense One profiles Zello, the smartphone app helping to fuel Venezuela's protests. The app allows users to communicate in a manner similar to Nextel’s push-to-talk service, and has become widely popular among protesters in Venezuela. In response, the government blocked the app as well as its website, but Zello’s U.S. developers swiftly released a new version that is functional and still available for download in the country.
  • At least seven U.S. federal district courts have filed charges against captured Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. However, the government of Mexico has officially charged El Chapo with cocaine trafficking, making it unlikely that he will be extradited to the United States any time soon. Yesterday the drug cartel leader’s lawyers filed an injunction to block his potential extradition, which has been granted by a Mexican judge.
  • While many local residents in Michoacan hailed the emergence of so-called “self-defense” groups as a grassroots response to drug-fueled violence in the country, distrust in these organizations -- many of which now have access to federal recognition -- is growing. The NYT profiles wary reactions to the vigilantes among farmers and landowners in Mexico’s Tierra Caliente region, noting alleged links between some among their ranks and the very criminal groups they claim to fight.
  • The Washington Post asks who the most-wanted drug trafficker is following El Chapo’s arrest, offering a list of potential names among the top figures in the country’s criminal underworld. Citing recent remarks from Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, Milenio reports that the next on the list is El Chapo’s main partner in the Sinaloa Cartel, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia.
  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced a cabinet shakeup yesterday, naming Housing Minister Rene Cornejo as his administration’s fifth prime minister since he took office. Cornejo replaces Cesar Villanueva, who resigned following a highly public spat with First Lady Nadine Heredia and Finance Minister Luis Miguel Castilla. Last week Villanueva said that the government was considering a raise in the minimum wage,  which the other two vigorously denied.
  • On Sunday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his personal email account had been hacked by unknown elements, which he claimed was part of an attempt to slander him as he runs for a second term ahead of presidential elections in May. The announcement confirms a report last week by El Tiempo, which claimed that some of the emails referenced payment of his daughter’s school tuition, as well as plans to purchase a work of art (which ultimately fell through).
  • While it remains the country with the highest homicide rate on the planet, Honduras appears to be making progress against violence in the country, according to statistics released earlier this month by the independent Violence Observatory of National Autonomous University (UNAH). The Observatory found that Honduras’ murder rate last year was roughly 80 per 100,000, down from 85 per 100,000 in 2012 and 92 per 100,000 the year before. As Honduras Culture and Politics notes, Honduran Security Secretary Aruturo Corrales has said the figure is even lower, and responded to critics by threatening to create a new, “official” Observatory under his office.
  • Mexican news site Animal Politico features an interesting back-and-forth on the recent proposals to change Mexico’s marijuana laws submitted at both the local (in Mexico City) and federal level. Security analyst Alejandro Hope describes the current push as guided by a “manual on how not to legalize marijuana,” criticizing the way both bills have been presented as well as their allegedly vague language. According to him, this is a recipe for disaster, and has only fueled rejection of the measures among politicians and confusion among the general public. In response, legal expert Alejandro Madrazo of the CIDE research center offers a point-by-point rebuttal of Hope’s critiques. Madrazo argues that, while the bills are far from perfect, they are the best available option in the country’s current political climate. He is also confident that at least the Mexico City measure will gain traction, and asserts that controversial legislation always meets initial opposition before triggering a deeper debate.
  • The European Union and government of Brazil have announced an agreement to construct an undersea communications cable which will connect the northeast Brazilian city of Fortaleza with Lisbon, Portugal. In remarks at a conference in Brussels yesterday, President Rousseff applauded the agreement as a move to "guarantee the neutrality" of the Internet, as it will help reduce her country’s reliance on U.S. undersea cables (a sensitive issue in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal).

Monday, February 24, 2014

'El Chapo' Arrest Highlights U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation

On Saturday morning at 6:40 a.m, Mexican marines captured the country’s most-wanted outlaw, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

It’s worth noting that El Chapo’s arrest was the result of cooperation of between U.S. and Mexican intelligence officials, illustrating the limits of recent reports of a strained relationship on security issues between the two countries. His downfall can be traced back to the November arrest of a son of El Chapo’s associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, at the border. U.S. federal officials have told the press that his arrest provided law enforcement with key cell phone data used to track the top leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel. This information was shared with the Mexican government earlier this month.

El Universal, the Washington Post and Reuters each offer detailed accounts of the weeks leading up to the kingpin’s capture. The Mexicans began putting this intelligence to use immediately, capturing a series of Sinaloa operators. Two weeks ago, security forces raided a number of inter-connected safe houses belonging to El Chapo, but the kingpin managed to escape through an underground tunnel while his pursuers were delayed by steel-enforced doors. This series of operations led to the capture of several Sinaloa enforcers, however, one of which tipped authorities off that the cartel boss would be in the resort city of Mazatlan. He was tracked to a relatively modest condominium complex there, and arrested without a single shot fired.

El Chapo’s arrest is also a big victory for President Enrique Peña Nieto, and may end some of the rumors that the government has been going easy on the Sinaloa Cartel in favor of more violent criminal groups in the country. But as the New York Times notes, many Mexicans remain skeptical of the “official story” of his arrest, and plenty of conspiracy theories are circulating about the veracity of his capture.

But while the symbolic advantage of the kingpin’s arrest are undeniable, its strategic importance to the government’s efforts to rein in drug-fueled violence are being questioned. In a post for Fusion news network, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope writes that El Chapo’s capture will likely fuel more violence in the short term, accelerating a process by which the country’s most powerful criminal organizations are becoming “smaller, more local, more territorial, and more violent.” Other experts consulted by El Pais agree with this assessment.

Still others, however, have suggested that El Chapo’s arrest will have only a minimal effect on the Sinaloa Cartel. The Dallas Morning News spoke with one anonymous U.S. official who cautioned that El Chapo was “more of a figurehead than the dominant leader,” and that the real power within the organization lies with El Mayo Zambada. According to the source, Zambada and another associate, Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza, will likely keep the crime syndicate together, potentially acting “more quiet, less violent” to avoid further law enforcement attention.

News Briefs
  • While El Chapo’s arrest shows that the U.S. and Mexico still maintain a working relationship on security issues, the question of what to do with him now that he is in custody will no doubt illustrate the limits of this relationship. U.S. federal prosecutors have said they will ask Mexico to authorize his extradition on drug trafficking charges, but so far there has been no response from Mexico. While accepting the request might ensure that the cartel leader’s immense influence does not affect his trial, it would also likely be a major affront to nationalist sensibilities in the country.
  • More than two weeks since opposition protests first began in Venezuela, but they still show no signs of dying down. El Nacional reports that opposition groups have set up roadblocks throughout Caracas, while the New York Times notes that the death toll from the unrest has been politicized by the opposition and government alike. Opposition figure Henrique Capriles, whose profile diminished somewhat as Leopoldo Lopez took the spotlight in recent weeks, appeared to solidify his stance as the opposition’s leader in an appearance at a rally on Saturday. As Caracas-based reporter Girish Gupta writes for USA Today, the highlight of his speech was his call for the movement to widen its base to include disheartened Chavistas, a move that also appealed to opposition blogger Francisco Torres of Caracas Chronicles.
  • The Miami Herald has an editorial comparing Venezuela’s protests with the uprising in Ukraine, calling on President Nicolas Maduro to avoid the bloodshed seen in the eastern European country by engaging in dialogue with the opposition. Over the weekend, Maduro did just that, extending an offer to Capriles and all other opposition governors to attend a meeting in the presidential palace today to address the demonstrations. However, Capriles has taken to Twitter this morning to announce that he will not attend the meeting, and will consult with his base about the offer.  
  • The presidential candidate of Colombia’s newly reinstated left-wing Patriotic Union party, Aida Avella, survived an assassination attempt yesterday while campaigning in the northeastern province of Arauca. As El Tiempo reports, Avella’s three-vehicle convoy came under fire from armed gunmen on a motorcycle. No one was harmed by the attack, and the assailants managed to escape. Following the incident, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered security forces to provide her with special protection.
  • Ecuador held local elections on Sunday, in which President Rafael Correa’s Alianza Pais suffered a major drawback. Not only did his party’s candidates fail to win high-profile races in Quito and Guayaquil, exit polls suggest they lost by wide margins (18 percent in Quito and 22 percent in Guayaquil, the AFP reports). As analyst James Bosworth  points out, Correa actively campaigned for his party’s candidates in these races, and their losses have deprived him of claiming a renewed national mandate for his government.
  • Following the release of public opinion polls by UCA and La Prensa Grafica showing the candidate of El Salvador’s ruling FMLN with a roughly ten-point lead ahead of the upcoming second round presidential vote, Universidad Francisco Gavidia released a survey on Friday suggesting the lead is even greater, at 20 points.
  • The Wall Street Journal profiles increasing cross-border exchanges among artists in the U.S. and Cuba, facilitated by loosened travel restrictions in recent years. For the WSJ, such activities are proof of a “growing thaw in relations at the grass-roots level,” even as a major policy shift is unlikely in the short term. Meanwhile, advocates for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba received a boost on Friday from the Financial Times, when the paper’s editorial board endorsed lifting the embargo, alleging that it is “embarrassing, anachronistic – and has failed.”
  • On Friday, three Mexicans and six Guatemalans were found guilty for participating in the 2011 massacre of 27 farmworkers in Guatemala’s Peten region authorities say was linked to a dispute over drug trafficking routes. murders and sentenced to 106 years in prison.
  • According to a new poll released by Brazil’s Datafolha, domestic support for the wave of anti-government protests that swept the nation last June has reached its lowest point on record. Only 52 percent of respondents still support the protests, compared to 81 percent in June. During that same period, opposition to the protests has risen from 15 percent to 42 percent, according to the pollster.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Haitian Court Calls for Investigation of Human Rights Charges in 'Baby Doc' Case

Yesterday saw a major breakthrough for efforts to try Haitian ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, also known as “Baby Doc,” for crimes against humanity, which had been stalled for months.

On Thursday, the three-judge panel overseeing the appeals court hearing the case issued a surprise decision. Overturning a lower court ruling, the judges maintained that Duvalier could be tried for human rights abuses, as Haiti is bound by international law and there is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity.

In January 2012, a court ruled that allegations that Duvalier ordered murders, disappearances and torture during his 15 years in power could not be prosecuted, because the statute of limitations had expired. The legal charges against him were reduced to the financial crimes only, and if convicted of these he would face no more than five years in prison. 

As such, yesterday’s ruling is a huge victory for the human rights advocates who have fought to bring Duvalier to justice. But as the New York Times reports, the court stopped short of ordering a trial for human rights abuses to proceed. Instead, the panel’s presiding judge called on a colleague to investigate further. Judge Durin Junior Duret will be tasked with interviewing witnesses to alleged abuse, including former government officials, as well as victims who have not yet testified in the case.

This is will take some time, during which Duvalier’s defense team will likely appeal the decision. His lawyers have told the AP they will likely do so, and his leading defense attorney, Reynold Georges (a former senator who famously describes himself as “Haiti’s Johnnie Cochran”), told the Miami Herald that the decision was outside the court’s jurisdiction.

Meanwhile Duvalier continues to travel freely around the country, even attending official events with President Michel Martelly despite his having been placed under house arrest.

News Briefs
  • Political unrest in Venezuela continues to dominate headlines today. As Ultimas Noticias and the AFP report, the government of President Nicolas Maduro has ordered paratroopers to contain protests in the western border city of San Cristobal, in Tachira state. Yesterday, Maduro said he was weighing the possibility of declaring a “state of exception” in Tachira, placing it under martial law to restore order and crack down on what he called “fascist” attacks fueled by paramilitary elements from neighboring Colombia.  The New York Times reports on the muted media coverage of opposition protests in the country, which the paper highlights as part of a growing sense among the anti-Chavista camp that “the spaces to voice disagreement with the government are shrinking and disappearing.” The case for this argument was boosted yesterday following Maduro’s threat to expel the CNN news network from his country over what he said was biased coverage against his government.
  • The defense lawyers of Leopoldo Lopez have announced that officials have dropped the most serious charges against the opposition figure: terrorism and homicide. Nevertheless, Lopez will remain in preventative police custody as investigators prepare a case against him.
  • Venezuelan opposition blogger Fernando Toro, who appears to have temporarily come out of retirement to contribute to Caracas Chronicles, has written a harsh critique of international media coverage of the violence in Venezuela. More specifically, he accuses the press of overlooking an alleged repression campaign organized by authorities and Chavista groups against opposition members, which is said to have coincided with a “cadena” national address given by Maduro on Wednesday night. El Nacional and Ultimas Noticias have more details on the clash in Caracas’ Altamira neighborhood, where locals accuse security forces of firing at protesters and residential apartment buildings.
  • The Guardian has published an investigation which raise questions about Rafael Correa’s commitment to a plan to try to raise international donations to offset the cost of not drilling for oil in the Yasuni Amazon reserve. According to official documents seen by the paper, the Ecuadorean government was secretly negotiating a deal with a Chinese bank to drill for the oil even as it publicly said drilling would be a last-resort measure.
  • Yesterday, a court in Santiago convicted a Mapuche indigenous man of murder following a January 2013 arson attack that killed an elderly couple living on land claimed by Mapuche groups as their ancestral territory, but the judge ruled that it did not amount to terrorism. This comes as a blow to Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, who invoked a controversial Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law in the wake of the incident.
  • Following the death of Mexican man who was killed by U.S. border agents on Tuesday, the government of Mexico has issued an angry response to the incident. The Mexican Foreign Secretary released a statement saying the death of Jesus Flores-Cruz, who was shot after agents said he allegedly threw rocks at them, was “profoundly concerning.” As the Washington Post notes, however, this is an understatement, as Mexican authorities have grown increasingly alarmed by such border shootings and the perceived impunity of the shooters.
  • After a Nicaraguan court moved to try three men over the theft of two bananas, valued at around 32 cents, the AP reports that the decision is drawing scorn from lawyers and legal specialists in the country.  
  • NPR profiles opposition to Nicaragua’s plan to build a rival to the Panama Canal among environmentalists. While so far the plan appears far from concrete, it would involve dredging the largest source of freshwater in Central America, Lake Nicaragua. This, in turn, would likely have a disastrous impact on the local ecosystem, according to environmental experts.
  • This week’s issue of the Economist is out, and features an assessment of the relations between the two non-U.S. NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Like relations with its more immediate northern neighbor, the Mexican government  has long-running disputes with Canada, especially over its refusal to lift a visa requirement for Mexican travelers.
  • Uruguayan journalist Guillermo Garat, who is known as the chronicler of his country’s marijuana policy reform movement, has a critical assessment of the dominant paradigm towards drugs in the region for Le Monde Diplomatique. In it, he makes a historical case for the region’s emergence as ground zero in the search for alternatives.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Venezuela Violence Persists After Lopez’s Arrest

Following the dramatic arrest of Venzeulan opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez on Tuesday, protests continued to across major cities in the country yesterday.

In Caracas, supporters of Lopez held a rally in front of the Palace of Justice, where he was scheduled to appear in court. However, at the last minute his attorney said the trial had been moved to a military jail. El Universal reports that a judge has ordered Lopez to be held under preliminary detention for 45 days while prosecutors investigate his responsibility for recent violent protests. If convicted, Lopez could face up to 10 years in prison.

There are also reports (see El Nacional and The Guardian) of clashes breaking out last night between student protesters and National Guard troops in certain pockets of Caracas.

Unrest has also spread to other cities in the country. At least eight people were reportedly shot in Tuesday protests in the central city of Valencia, including local beauty queen Genesis Carmona, whose death has made international headlines.  The western city of San Cristobal saw similarly chaotic scenes yesterday, with roadblocks set up across the city and reports of violent struggles between opposition and government supporters.

Meanwhile, Lopez’s political star continues to rise. As the Wall Street Journal notes, his high profile in recent weeks has eclipsed that of former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who has favored a less confrontational approach to opposing the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Interestingly, there is a chance that Lopez’s rise is being cheered by the government as well as the more extreme sectors of the opposition. While Venezuela analyst David Smilde has previously argued that his arrest is a miscalculation on the government’s part, he now suggests that some within the ruling PSUV see it as an opportunity. He writes:
[O]ther interlocutors suggested that the government is not miscalculating, since it likely sees value in having López at the head of the opposition. The Maduro government has trouble with day-to-day governance, but does much better in confrontation. Indeed one insider tells me that within the government there is a sense that the protests give them some breathing room vis-à-vis the much more difficult economic issues. He also suggests that US State Department statements were useful to the government as well. 
Tuesday’s events, including the government’s willingness to allow López to make a speech before turning himself in, suggest the government does see the ascension of López as an opportunity.

News Briefs
  • The violence in Venezuela has continued to elicit calls for dialogue from other countries in the region. On Tuesday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos issued a statement suggesting that the Venezuelan government “establish channels of communication with the different political forces” in the country. President Nicolas Maduro gave a heated response to the suggestion, essentially telling his Colombian counterpart to butt out, and that “Venezuelans will solve Venezuelans’ problems.” But Santos is not alone in making appeals for peaceful dialogue. As El Pais reports, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) issued a statement surprisingly similar to Santos’, urging Maduro to “continue efforts to promote dialogue between all political forces.”
  • Maduro has received a strong backing from his ALBA allies, however. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, for instance has accused “the U.S. and European countries” of fomenting dissent in Venezuela. Evo Morales of Bolivia has made similar statements, accusing the U.S. of seeking to fuel an internal conflict in Venezuela for its own benefit. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, for his part, has adopted a more enterprising position on Venezuela, taking  advantage of the timing of the protests in Caracas and upcoming mayoral elections in his country to urge Quito residents to vote for his favored candidate on Sunday. If his party loses the capital, Correa claimed the political climate there would resemble that of Venezuela, “where every day Nicolas Maduro confronts oppositions in Caracas.”
  • The North American Leaders' Summit in Toluca, Mexico ended yesterday with pledges from the presidents of Mexico, Canada and the United States to improve trade and security ties, as the AP and Animal Politico report. However, the meeting saw little in the way of concrete gains, and McClatchy’s Tim Johnson points out that the three leaders’ rhetoric did little to hide tensions between their countries. As the New York Times notes, the summit’s closing statement used the word “continue” eight times, in a testament to the meeting’s maintenance of the status quo.
  • This week has brought good news for advocates of judicial reform in Mexico. Yesterday, the country’s Supreme Court began assessing arguments against Mexican states’ use of a controversial legal mechanism known as the “arraigo,” under which suspects can be held for extended periods without charges being filed to allow investigators to build a case against them. As Jose Antonio Guevara, head of the Mexican Commission in Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), told CNN Mexico, the use of this mechanism by state prosecutors violates a 2008 law which mandated that states could only hold suspects through arraigos under house arrest.
  • The head of Paraguayan human rights group Reparation and Historic Memory, Rogelio Goiburu, told Spanish news agency EFE yesterday that efforts to recover the bodies of those disappeared during the Stroessner regime have been restarted with the help of Paraguayan authorities.
  • Imprisoned Cuban intelligence agent Fernando Gonzalez, who is set to be released from an Arizona prison next week, will be deported to Cuba soon after his release. With his discharge, the “Cuban Five” will be down to three. The AP has an interview with the first of the five to be released, Rene Gonzalez, who expressed hope that his colleague would join him in advocating for the release of the other two imprisoned Cuban agents.
  • The Inter-American Press Society has sent a delegation to Guatemala to investigate the state of press freedom and freedom of expression in the country, Prensa Libre reports. The visit comes after both the country’s president and vice president filed lawsuits against El Periodico newspaper editor Jose Ruben Zamora, who was accused of slander and blackmail after publishing allegations of government corruption.
  • Folha de S. Paulo has an op-ed by Liz Evans of Vancouver’s PHS Community Services Society, which manages the only supervised injection facility in North America. In it, Evans praises São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad’s “Operation Open Arms” program, which provides housing, food and work opportunities to individuals addicted to crack and living on the streets of the city’s “Cracolândia” neighborhood. The initiative was partially inspired by similar experimental programs in Vancouver that began over 20 years ago, and Evans points to their success as reasons for the  São Paulo government to remained committed to the project.
  • Today’s New York Times features an op-ed column by Brazilian journalist and Folha columnist Vanessa Barbara, who offers a unique take on the country’s military police. She argues that, while many police officers are guilty of rampant corruption and extrajudicial executions, their situation is made worse by low pay and poor working conditions. Demilitarizing the police, according to Barbara, would grant them more labor rights, open them up to be tried under the civilian justice system and potentially lower violence fueled by officers’ “training infused with a war mentality.”
  • Work on Panama’s canal expansion project, which had been halted due to a cost dispute between the construction firm overseeing the work and the canal authority, is set to resume this morning, according to La Prensa. The AP reports that the two sides have given themselves 72 hours to reach to hammer out the details of an accord on issues at stake in the dispute over the last several weeks.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Uruguay Eyes Real-World Risks of a Regulated Marijuana Market

Less than two months before Uruguay’s historic marijuana law goes into full effect, remarks by National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada shed new light on the kinds of factors the government is taking into account as it prepares the fine print of the measure. For one thing, it’s clear that Uruguay is not taking the fact that its legal cannabis market will compete with violent criminal organizations lightly.

In an interview with leading daily El Pais, Calzada told the paper that officials are seriously weighing the possibility that criminal elements might attempt to sabotage Uruguay’s regulatory regime for marijuana when it kicks in on April 9th. “We have conducted an analysis of all the existing risks and obviously this is one of them. Though today we have no evidence suggesting that drug trafficking activity aims to put the system at risk, this is not something that can be ruled out,” he said.

Potential scenarios listed by the drug czar include attacks on officials and the destruction of legal marijuana crops, as well as an attempt by foreign drug trafficking groups to undercut the regulated market with a cheaper product. The latter has been one of the most common criticisms leveled against the law, and has gained traction in recent months due to statements from other officials in the region expressing concern over the potential for cross-border spillover of the drug.

One of the most high-profile critics of the region is the government of Paraguay, a country which also happens to be the primary producer of marijuana in South America. The top Paraguayan anti-drug official, Luis Rojas, has not been shy about attacking the law. Rojas has repeatedly predicted that regulation will cause demand for cannabis to rise, which in turn will encourage drug trafficking networks in his country to send more illicit cannabis to Uruguay. In December, he told news agency EFE that the Paraguayan traffickers would be able to undercut Uruguay’s proposed price for marijuana by as much as 30 percent.

Calzada directly responded to this argument yesterday, pointing out that officials hope to undercut the existing black market for Paraguayan pot with improved quality and accessibility as much as price. And while he acknowledged that user surveys in the future might suggest an increase in demand for marijuana, Calzada maintained that the most likely cause of this would be a greater willingness to admit to drug use in the wake of the law’s passage. The official said it “insane” to worry about  the risk of Uruguay’s planned 10 hectares of marijuana leaking to other countries, when estimates of Paraguay’s illicit marijuana crop suggest it produces up to ten times as much (between 8,000 and 10,000 hectares).

Additionally, Calzada offered a convincing argument against the economics or Rojas’ claim. He asserted that the elasticity of illicit drug prices is limited, as they are “related to the risk involved in introducing [drugs] into the market, not the costs of production.” To combat both an influx of Paraguayan cannabis and the risk of spillover, then, the official claimed that Uruguayan law enforcement intends to step up controls on illegal drug trafficking.

As I wrote in an analysis for InSight Crime following the law’s passage in December, however, this is easier said than done. One of the biggest vulnerabilities of the law is its language allowing households to grow up to six marijuana plants. Monitoring compliance with regulations, especially in rural areas along Uruguay’s porous northern border with Brazil, will be a tough order. I argue:
Because the [Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA)] currently only exists on paper, it is still unclear how it will ensure that those who obtain home cultivation licenses stick to six plants per household. Will authorities carry out periodic checks? Will individuals be left to self-regulate? How strictly will those who violate IRCCA regulations be punished? These are all questions that are not answered in the text of the law, and will have to be determined by Uruguayan officials in the coming months.
This logic is fairly simple, but implementing it will be key to the law’s success. If Uruguay hopes to eliminate the illegal marijuana market, it will have to make the cost of continuing to fuel that market higher than participation in the state’s regulatory framework. When the law kicks in in April, the government will have a strong incentive to demonstrate zero tolerance for illicit cannabis cultivation and trafficking. Judging from Calzada’s remarks, officials are well aware of this.

News Briefs
  • As anticipated, Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez surrendered himself to law enforcement authorities yesterday after a rally outside government offices in downtown Caracas. Before his arrest, Lopez gave an impassioned speech standing atop a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in which he called for a peaceful and constitutional change of government. The New York Times has some impressive photos of the demonstration, and notes that it was “the largest rally in more than two weeks of growing protests.” Thankfully, yesterday’s dueling marches in Caracas occurred with no reports of major clashes similar to last week’s violence. However, El Universal notes that an opposition protester in the eastern Venezuelan city of Carupano was killed after being hit by a car earlier this week.
  • The backlash from Semana magazine’s report on a military corruption ring in Colombia is heating up. President Juan Manuel Santos announced a major shake-up of the army’s top brass yesterday, dismissing army commander General Leonardo Barrero and four other high-level officers. In his remarks, Santos made it clear that Barrero was not being sacked for corruption but for his “disrespectful speech,” a nod to recordings released by Semana in which Barrero calls on army leaders to form a “mafia” against judges investigating human right abuses. El Tiempo calls the purge “historic,” and claims that they are proof of the Santos administration’s commitment to a “zero tolerance” approach to human rights violations.
  • The Washington Post looks at reports of recent violence by residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas which have been occupied by Police Pacification Units (UPPs). As an example, the paper notes a recent shootout in the Rocinha favela, during which the main tunnel running through the community was closed and a UPP commander sustained injuries. However, the article contains no official statistics on violence in occupied favelas, and offers no explanation for the alleged rise in violence.
  • A new survey by Brazilian polling firm MDA ahead of the country’s October presidential race shows that President Dilma Rousseff remains the leading candidate, though her approval rating fell nearly four points from November to 55 percent this month. Her closest rival continues to be Aecio Neves of the PSDB, whom 17 percent of respondents said they would support in the vote. As Reuters notes, the fact that as many as one-third of respondents are undecided suggests it is still too early to tell if Rousseff could win a first round vote and avoid a runoff.
  • In El Salvador, a UTEC-CIOPS poll released yesterday shows that the FMLN's Salvador Sanchez Ceren has 54.9 percent support ahead of the March 9 runoff there, compared to 45.1 percent for ARENA’s Norman Quijano. Meanwhile, Quijano’s conservative allies in Washington have continued to spread fear about the “disastrous” potential of an FMLN victory in the country. The latest culprit is Heritage Foundation president and former U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, who warned in a Miami Herald op-ed on Friday that a win by Sanchez Ceren could turn El Salvador into “gang haven that will act as a transit point for drugs plunging America’s inner cities further into crime and despair.” WOLA’s Geoff Thale has a measured response to DeMint’s claims, noting that while gang violence is a serious issue in the country, his near-hysterical rhetoric does not match up with the facts.
  • The Washington Post has an excellent report on tensions between the United States and Mexico governments over Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s security policies. While the security relationship between both countries have improved somewhat since Peña Nieto first took office, his administration still maintains more distance from American law enforcement and intelligence than his predecessor. As proof, the Post points to a drop in the number of criminals sent back to the U.S.  for prosecution, as well as a delay on implementing Merida Initiative-funded programs that lasted until as recently as November.
  • These tensions may play out today following U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Toluca, Mexico for a summit with Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Harper marking the the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The NYT notes that Obama’s attempts to further the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact there have been questioned by Democratic Party leaders in Washington, and that the U.S. president faces the tough task of convincing his counterparts that he is committed to the deal while minimizing his lack of political support at home.
  • The Miami Herald has the latest on Dominican President Danilo Medina’s plan to present a legal path to citizenship for those affected by the country’s recent Supreme Court ruling which limits Dominican nationality. The fine print has not been made public, but Medina is expected to unveil it next Thursday during his state of the union address.