Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Guatemala's Paz y Paz Excluded From AG Nominee List

The commission tasked with vetting candidates for Guatemala's next attorney general has selected the list of names it will submit to the president for nomination. Claudia Paz y Paz, the country's highly-praised top prosecutor, isn't on it

Yesterday afternoon the nominating commission finished issuing scores to applicants based on a rubric that took into account their professionalism, experience and academic qualifications. Prior to the vote, supporters of Paz y Paz took solace in the fact that the current attorney general had received the second highest score, 69 out of 100. She had also been endorsed by the committee for her "honorability," along with other top candidates.

El Periodico reports that the motion to finalize the six-name list to send to President Otto Perez was a surprise, as the commission was not scheduled to begin voting yesterday. But even more surprising was the fact that, when the vote was complete, Paz y Paz was not among the applicants selected. She was backed by only four of 13 voting commission members.

This is despite her high score, and the fact that both the candidates above her (Judge Thelma Aldana) and below her (Judge Maria Consuelo Porras) made the cut. The list also ignores a petition compiled by a human rights coalition, signed by nearly 7,000 individuals calling for Paz y Paz's name to be included. Citing a contested law, the petition's organizers claim that a candidate must be included on the nomination list if they are supported by 5,000 people. Her exclusion also clashes with the findings of a report published this week by the Center of Justice Studies in the Americas (CEJA), which credited Paz y Paz with drastically improving the country’s justice system.

Civil society has been quick to react to the vote. El Periodico has a collection of reactions from various human rights advocates in the country, each of whom voiced degrees of discomfort with the news. Diego Alvarez, spokesman for the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), expressed surprise at the list’s makeup. “We do not understand the evaluation system,” Alvarez told EFE. “Civil society has been observing this election for two months, and in the end we do not understand if the scores are used or not.”

The exclusion of Paz y Paz is sure to fuel speculation that the nomination process was rigged against her from the start. And remarks from its president, Supreme Court Judge Jose Arturo Sierra, have done little to alleviate these concerns. When asked by Siglo21 whether there may have been an “arrangement” against Paz y Paz, the judge (who voted for her) responded vaguely: “It is possible. In these matters there is a bit of everything, we can’t prove or disprove it.”

Now that the current attorney general is out of the running, the question for champions of judicial reform in Guatemala becomes whether any of the six candidates can fill her shoes. Prensa Libre has a quick overview of the backgrounds of each, as well as a record of which commission members voted for them. News site Plaza Publica offers a more complete summary of each of their professional careers, as well as a complete list of the total 26 candidates, ranked by their scores.

The commission will submit the list to the president’s office today. El Periodico notes that it will be received by Vice President Roxana Baldetti, because Perez Molina is currently in Mexico on an official visit.

News Briefs
  • In a press conference yesterday, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa took aim at an indigenous community in his country’s Sarayaku territory, which has harbored three opposition figures wanted on defamation charges. El Universo reports that the president warned that sheltering the individuals could have “serious consequences,” and accused the group of seeking to provoke a violent reaction from the state. The AP notes that members of the Sarayaku community announced via Twitter that they had received news of a buildup of soldiers in the area, although this was categorically denied by the defense ministry.
  • The Miami Herald reports on growing international pressure on the Haitian government to hold long-overdue legislative and local elections.  The vote has been stalled due to a standoff between President Michel Martelly and the Senate, which has insisted that he name a new provisional electoral council to oversee the polls.
  • Authorities in Chile’s troubled Araucania region have announced they will not apply the country’s controversial “anti-terrorism law” against four cases linked to the Mapuche conflict there.  As La Tercera reports, the move comes a week after the government announced it would no longer use the law to prosecute such cases.
  • The northern Mexican city of Reynosa saw a wave of violence yesterday, with a total of 14 killed in various shootouts between gunmen and authorities, according to El Universal.  The AP places the incidents in the broader context of growing violence in the state of Tamaulipas, which officials say is the result of an internal feud between two figures in the Gulf Cartel.
  • Human rights groups in Mexico are criticizing the country’s Senate for proposing reforms to make it easier to suspend constitutional guarantees, which they say could lead to criminalizing protest. As an analysis by Animal Politico points out, the law would authorize the president to seek legislators to authorize a state of emergency in vague situations like “a violent social phenomenon” or “a serious danger or conflict.”
  • This author has an article published by InSight Crime on the city of São Paulo’s unique approach to crack use in a run-down area in the center widely known as Cracolândia. In January Mayor Fernando Haddad announced an experimental new harm reduction policy, “De Braços Abertos,” which provides housing, food and work opportunities to drug users living on the streets there. But while the program’s supporters say it is making an impact and changing the neighborhood for the better, health and NGO workers in Cracolândia are critical of a heightened policy of police monitoring and arrests of low-level users.
  • Doubts about Rio de Janeiro’s readiness to host the 2016 Summer Olympics have surfaced yet again, following public remarks by a member of the International Olympic Committee.  The New York Times and Reuters report that John D. Coates, the committee’s vice president, told reporters that Rio’s efforts to prepare for the games were “the worst” he had seen.
  • A new CNT/MDA poll released yesterday suggests that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s personal approval rating has continued to drop, falling from 55 percent in February to 47.9 percent this month. While she remains the likely winner of elections in October, her opponents have seen slight improvements in the polls, as the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • The government of Uruguay appears to be moving forward with plans to accept freed detainees of Guantanamo Bay. El Pais reports that Foreign Minister Luis Almagro told the Senate yesterday that the six individuals in question had already been interviewed by Uruguayan officials, and would be welcomed in the country as either refugees or standard immigrants.
  • Yesterday, officials from the European Union and Cuba began long-awaited talks to improve relations. The Associated Press reports that EU members insisted that while talks will touch on increasing trade and investment, they will also include a dialogue on human rights. The Cuban government, for its part, has signaled that it is willing to “discuss any and all issues on a basis of mutual respect,” according to the AP.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Colombia's Santos Fights to Retain Advantage in Polls

As Colombia's presidential election approaches, the field is leveling. So far President Juan Manuel Santos remains the leading candidate, but skepticism of peace talks and a fresh wave of rural protests could tip the scales against him.

According to a new Ipsos poll published in Semana on Saturday, the president would receive 23 percent support in the first round vote next month, a figure which has dropped five points since February. Meanwhile, his competitors are gaining on him. Support for Uribista candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga has gone from 8 to 15 percent during that time, and support for former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa is at 11 percent, double what it was two months ago. While the survey suggests that Santos would win a second round against either candidate by roughly 10 points, there are a few factors that could hurt his chances.  

These include the fact that pessimism regarding his government's peace talks with FARC rebels is slowly growing. The Ipsos poll shows that roughly two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) are not hopeful that the talks will yield a lasting peace, and the number of those who are is steadily declining as well. Santos appears to be combating this by recently announcing a nationwide tour of the government's negotiating team, with the goal of educating the public about the progress made in the dialogues. His opponents, however, have criticized this as politicizing the peace process.

But a more immediate threat for Santos is yesterday's emergence of rural protests by campesino groups (see EFEEl Espectador), which accuse his government of not fulfilling the terms of an agreement reached after last year's large-scale "agrarian strike." Reuters notes that Santos' reluctance to negotiate with protesters in 2013 contributed to a sharp decine in his approval rating, and could do so again.

Fortunately for the president, according to El Tiempo the protests appear to be relatively small compared to last year, when major highways were blockaded and entire towns were cut off from transportation for over a week. La Silla Vacia points out that one advantage for Santos is that, this time around, many popular campesino and agricultural interest groups appear to be alligned with the president against the strike.

News Briefs
  • The publication of the regulatory specifics of Uruguay’s marijuana law continues to be delayed. According to presidential chief of staff Diego Canepa, President Jose Mujica “has it on his desk,” and is waiting to finalize certain details with members of his cabinet and the National Drug Council. The president himself told newspaper La Republica yesterday that the final draft was “almost ready,” and El Pais reports that it will be released in the coming days.
  • Prensa Libre has an update on the nominating process of Guatemala’s next attorney general. The paper reports that the nominating commission has released its assigned “grades” for 24 candidates, and that current top prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz is near the top of the list. She received a total of 69 points, putting her in second place under Judge Thelma Aldana, who received 71.
  • In compliance with an agreement reached earlier this month with Michoacan’s militias, the Mexican government has begun “disarming” autodefensa groups in three municipalities in the state, Animal Politico and the BBC report.  The militias must register their firearms with the state by May 10, and have been given until then to either demobilize or incorporate into state-recognized rural defense forces.
  • The mayor of Lazaro Cardenas, one of Mexico’s largest ports, has been arrested over allegations that he took part in kidnapping and extortion, the L.A. Times and Reuters report. Newspaper Milenio reports that the Michoacan mayor is suspected of having links to the once-mighty Knights Templar gang. The seizure of the port city by the army late last year was seen as a major blow to the criminal organization’s funding base.
  • In the wake of last week’s alleged police shooting of a young man in Rio de Janeiro, tensions between low-income city residents and police are again on the rise following the death of an elderly woman hit by a bullet during a police shootout, Globo reports. In the wake of her death, several public buses were reportedly set fire, mirroring a similar arson attack on buses in the neighborhood of Pavuna, which was also a protest against police abuse.
  • Venezuela’s El Nacional has an interesting comparison of the current wave of demonstrations in the country with the famous 1989 “Caracazo” riots and protests, quoting analysts who draw parallels between the infamously heavy-handed response to unrest by then-President Carlos Andres Perez and the Maduro government today. According to Cofavic, an organization of Caracazo victims, some 650 people were arrested in the 1989 protests. By contrast, the Venezuelan Penal Forum claims that roughly 2,500 people have been arrested  since demonstrations began in February.
  • In the latest in a series of economic reforms on the island, the Cuban government yesterday announced that it would be giving state-run companies greater autonomy, authorizing them to sell excess goods and expand into additional commercial ventures.
  • An audit conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development's inspector general has found that a number of health projects in Haiti are significantly behind schedule. Construction of a medical supply warehouse meant to be completed by June 2012, for example, is extremely delayed and authorities have allocated and spent just a fraction of the estimated cost. According the USAID report, such delays have been fueled by a lack of qualified personnel and no consistent policy for dealing with managing infrastructure projects.
  • As Peru deepens its crackdown on illegal mining, yesterday saw a major police and military in the southeast Madre de Dios region in which authorities destroyed dozens of pieces of mining equipment, El Comercio reports. This was the first such operation since a ban on illicit mining was instituted on April 19, and the AP reports that some $20 million worth of equipment was destroyed.
  • Reuters profiles the emergence of a new pressure group advocating change to the U.S. approach to Cuba. The Miami and DC-based #CubaNow, which was founded by mostly younger Cuban-Americans, is against the embargo but is focusing its attention on policies the president could more easily reverse without sparking a high-profile battle in Congress.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Fujimori to Challenge His Sentence, Again

Despite the government denying him a pardon on health grounds last year, and a court subsequently rejecting his request to serve time under house arrest, imprisoned former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori is not giving up.

Last week, Fujimori defense lawyer William Paco Castillo announced that he would be submitting an appeal to the Supreme Court to review his client’s 25-year sentence for ordering the Grupo Colina death squad to carry out killings and kidnappings. Although the court upheld the sentence in 2010, Castillo told journalists that it goes against a May 2013 decision. In the latter, judges found former presidential advisor Vladimiro Montesinos guilty of overseeing two massacres (La Cantuta in 1992 and Barrios Altos in 1991) also blamed on Fujimori.  According to El Comercio, Castillo said the two sentences are “totally contradictory.”

While the challenge raised eyebrows among Peru’s human rights community, most were more alarmed by the fact that the case was selected to go before the Supreme Court’s Permanent Penal Chamber (“Sala Penal Permanente”). The judge who presides over this court, Javier Villa Stein, issued a controversial decision in favor of Grupo Colina members in  2012 in which he reduced their sentences. The decision was later reversed by a higher court.

When the selection of Villa Stein was announced on Saturday, Peruvian civil society organizations immediately began to call for his removal from the case. Rocio Silva, who heads an umbrella group of some 80 NGOs working on human rights issues in the country known as the National Coordinator of Human Rights (CNDDHH), Castillo’s arguments are inadmissible. Silva accuses Fujimori’s defense team of orchestrating a media circus to build pressure for his release.

It would not be the first time. Last year the ex-president released photos dramatizing his health situation to generate sympathy for a presidential pardon, and his use of Facebook and other social media outlets through third parties remains a thorn in the side of prison officials.

Villa Stein has ignored calls to recuse himself, and insisted he will hear the case. But as La Republica reports, he will not go unchallenged. Both the Legal Defense Institute (IDL) and Association for Human Rights in Peru (APRODEH) have vowed to appeal his selection on the grounds that he lacks impartiality.

News Briefs
  • Despite reports that the government of Uruguay would publish the regulatory specifics of its historic marijuana law on Friday, the release has been delayed and will likely take place today. The AP notes that the publication, which was initially slated for April 9, has been postponed as officials were still hammering out the details of how the drug would be traced and taxed. Still, an anonymous official in Uruguay’s national drug office provided specifics of the regulatory mechanisms to local television outlet Subrayado.  According to the official, newly-announced details include the fact that individuals with currently-existing marijuana plants will be allowed to register them during the next six months (provided the number does not exceed the designated quotas), and that a registry will be compiled of all the individuals licensed to grow for commercial sale.  El Observador  also reportedly obtained details of the regulations from an unnamed official, and claims that users will be capped at buying 10 grams of cannabis per week. The paper also claims that only six entities will obtain contracts to produce marijuana, a process that will be overseen by the Ministry of Defense.
  • In other Peruvian news, the government of President Ollanta Humala announced on Friday that it was considering following in Bolivia’s footsteps and authorizing the military to shoot down aircraft suspected of carrying illicit drug cargo. The Wall Street Journal reports on the revelation, with input from analysts on the varying successes of shoot-down policies throughout the region.
  • Police in Brazil are investigating the mysterious murder of a retired army colonel who recently provided the National Truth Commission with an account of his participation in the torture and killing of political prisoners under the country’s military regime. Col. Paulo Malhaes, who was the first officer to acknowledge his participation in torture and disappearances, was killed by unknown assailants who broke into his home on Thursday. O Globo has a list of Malhaes’ various confessions, and reports that police say they believe robbery was the primary motive even as some suspect revenge.
  • The L.A. Times reports on police efforts to crack down on sex tourism in Brazil ahead of the World Cup, and on the deeper issue of fighting sexualized stereotypes of Brazilian women abroad. In a related recent column for the New York Times, Sao Paulo-based journalist Vanessa Barbara argues that the sensitivity to these depictions clashes with the tourism industry’s reliance on them to sell a “hyper-sexualized Carnival” to tourists.
  • The Economist has a good overview of the recently-held NETmundial conference in São Paulo, which notes a certain overlap between the U.S. and Brazilian positions on the future of internet governance, one which is increasingly open to reducing the involvement of nation states.
  • Today’s New York Times looks at allegations that Venezuelan police committed torture and abuse against protestors amid the recent wave of demonstrations. The report asserts that while the Maduro government insists that violence has been committed by “a very small number” of security forces who are being investigated, the numerous reports of beatings and point-blank shootings of demonstrators suggests a pattern of violence. According to the NYT, over two dozen people interviewed said they were mistreated by police and the National Guard.
  • Saturday saw renewed protests in Caracas, with locals taking part in a demonstration (BBC Mundo claims “thousands” participated, while the AP says “scores”) against a Thursday Supreme Court ruling which gives police the right to disperse unpermitted protests.  As El Universal notes, the decision has been criticized by human rights group Provea, which calls it a direct violation of constitutional guarantees of free speech “without prior permission.”
  • The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe has an in-depth look at the extensive manhunt for Sinaloa Cartel leader “El Chapo” Guzman. Especially interesting is his insight into the frequently tense and mutually distrusting relationship between Mexican and U.S. authorities. According to the author, the decision to leak Guzman’s capture to the Associated Press so soon after the arrest was rumored to be an attempt by the U.S. to prevent his immediate release. Also alarming is the allegation by a former DEA official that the use of torture by Mexican marines helped contribute to the arrest.
  • After months of escalating violence, El Salvador’s shaky gang truce has finally collapsed. At least according to outgoing Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who announced in his radio show over the weekend that it had been broken by members of the Barrio 18 street gang. And while the president said the truce was in a certain “fragile” state that may be re-launched, he said he would announce a “contingency plan” to coordinate security with President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Politics Behind Impunity in Guatemala

Guatemala has begun the process of selecting a new attorney general, and while Claudia Paz y Paz has reapplied for the job, the deck appears to be stacked against the pioneering top prosecutor.

This week the “Comision de Postulacion,” the commission tasked with vetting candidates for the position, finished interviewing 26 candidates including Paz y Paz. By the end of next week it is expected to turn over a list of the top six candidates, from which President Otto Perez will select his choice for the next attorney general. 

Plaza Publica has an analysis of the interview process, in which Paz y Paz's work became a target of criticism from each of the other candidates. Most of the attacks focused on one of the hallmarks of her tenure: designating separate prosecutors for building cases and conducting litigation. The news site notes that the attorney general, for her part, defended this division of labor but conceded that every model is “perfectible.”

Despite this criticism, Paz y Paz saw an outpouring of support from civil society yesterday, when a coalition of human rights organizations presented the commission with a petition calling for the attorney general's name to be on the final list, signed by nearly 7,000 individuals. Guatemalan law stipulates that a candidate must be included on the list if their candidacy is supported by 5,000 people. However the head of the commission, Supreme Court President Jose Arturo Sierra, has said that this law does not apply

Paz y Paz may be supported by civil society and international observers, but there are powerful interests in Guatemala that are lobbying for her ouster. The commission itself is comprised of representatives of the country’s bar association (which controversially suspended the judge who sentenced Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide), judges, and the deans of law schools. Many of these law schools exist only on paper, and have sprung up in recent years solely to exert influence on the judicial branch. 

There has been a good deal of reporting on the politics behind the nomination process this week. As El Periodico reports, general pressure is exerted by Guatemala's traditional power networks among the military, business elites and the executive branch. But Revista Nomada, an investigative news site still under construction, offers a more in-depth look at the power brokers behind the process, naming nine specific pressure groups that influence the process. These include organized crime, political parties and the domestic and international actors which support CICIG, the UN-backed anti-impunity commission. 

Contrapoder magazine has also highlighted the influence exerted by the Autonomous University of San Carlos (USAC). And as part of a series on the attorney general's accomplishments, InSight Crime's Steven Dudley points to businessman Gustavo Herrera as one of the primary lobbyists for anti-Paz y Paz interests. Yesterday, Prensa Libre provided a look into the kind of backroom dealings accompanying the process, publishing audio and a transcript of a conversation in which Presidential Secretary German Velasquez mentions  interference in the commission.

News Briefs
  • In a positive development for the human rights situation in Mexico, El Universal reports that the Mexican Senate voted unanimously yesterday in favor of a bill that would reform the military justice code, opening up soldiers who abuse human rights to trials in civilian court. As the AP notes, the reform -- which comes in the wake of a 2010 recommendation by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights -- must still be passed by the lower house.
  • Uruguay’s government is on the verge of announcing the specific regulations which will accompany its historic marijuana law. This week Presidential Secretary Diego Canepa told reporters that the regulations had been prepared, and will be made public either today or Monday, according to the AFP. Yesterday saw good news for the Uruguayan government on regarding the law’s public reception. While a new Cifra poll shows that roughly two-thirds (64 percent) of the country say they continue to oppose the law, a slim majority (51 percent) say they want it to remain in place in order to judge its impact.
  • NETMundial, a two-day conference on the future of internet governance held in São Paulo, came to a close yesterday with a final statement which praised the U.S. government’s recent announcement that it would turn over the ICANN to a multilateral organization. However, El Pais points out that the statement makes no mention of net neutrality, a concept which was enshrined in Brazil’s recently passed Marco Civil da Internet.  
  • The third round of ongoing dialogue between the Venezuelan opposition and government ended last night with the creation of three working groups, according to El Nacional. These were tasked with widening the truth commission to investigate recent violence, debating an amnesty for alleged political prisoners, and another to address the government’s attempts to undercut opposition governments with parallel structures. While hope for meaningful progress remains dim, the AP notes that both sides have expressed an interest in seeing concrete results.
  • Even though he reinstated Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro this week in compliance with a court order, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has announced he will support the Inspector General’s appeal of the ruling to the Supreme Court, El Espectador reports.
  • Bolivia’s armed forces have fired 702 enlisted men accused of participating in recent protests against alleged discrimination against indigenous soldiers in the army. La Razon notes that demonstrators, who refer to their demands as “decolonizing” the military, amount to roughly 7.5 percent of the lower ranks of the armed forces.
  • The Washington Post looks at the prevalence of domestic abuse in Brazil, and the unique ways that some women in the country are fighting for gender equality despite institutional and cultural obstacles.
  • The government of Ecuador has ordered all U.S. Defense Department employees in the embassy in Quito to leave the country by the end of the month, a move which follows President Rafael Correa’s complaints in January that U.S. military had “infiltrated” his government.
  • The Wall Street Journal profiles the Peruvian government’s efforts to crack down on illegal mining, which are expected to ramp up following last week’s deadline to participate in a program that would allow miners to formalize their work.  
  • Yesterday was the last day to publish public opinion surveys ahead of Panama’s May 4 elections, and polls show a tight race, Reuters reports. Juan Navarro of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party and Jose Arias of the president’s Democratic Change party are the two leading contenders, followed by current Vice President Juan Varela in third. Critics of President Ricardo Martinelli have pointed to Arias’ selection of First Lady Marta Linares as a thinly-veiled attempt to continue to exert power out of office.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bogota's Mayor is Back, But for How Long?

In accordance with the Tuesday ruling by a Bogota court, yesterday Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed an order reinstating Gustavo Petro as mayor of the capital city. But the saga of Petro's political future is far from over.

The decison could still be overturned in a higher court. Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, who ordered Petro's removal in December, has vowed to challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court. And as El Tiempo notes, there is a chance that the Constitutional Court could rule on it as well.

Adding to this uncertainty is the fact that Petro's return to office has reactivated the recall referendum that was postponed following his ouster. With questions over his handling of a garbage collection service still lingeringand infrastructure problems affecting the city's water supply, he will continue to face an uphill battle to stay in office. According to a Gallup opinion survey published in March, some 64 percent of Bogota residents said they would support his removal in a recall vote.

On a separate note, the debate over the ruling has focused attention on the applicability of precautionary measures requested by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. While he has used much of the media attention of his return to cast himself as the victim of a conservative political establishment, the mayor has made sure to frame the ruling as a matter of Colombia's adherence to the Inter-American human rights system. The head of the commission, Emilio Alvarez, told reporters in Washington yesterday that the decision was "very welcome in the fulfillment of Colombia's international obligations." 

For more on Petro's return in today's U.S. press, see the Associated Press, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

News Briefs

  • The Inter-American Commission presented its annual report on the human rights situation in the hemisphere yesterday. In it, authors highlighted concerns over press freedom in Ecuador, as well as the “denationalization” of immigrants in the Dominican Republic. The report also includes special reports on the situation in Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela, which has been characterized in regional press as the commission’s “black list.” As El Pais points out, however, the United States was also named as a contributor to human rights violations in the hemisphere, specifically for the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the embargo against Cuba. El Tiempo notes that Colombia was not singled out in the report for the first time in 14 years.
  • Despite the recent earthquake and fire that tested her fledgling second administration in recent weeks, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is pressing on with her ambitious reform agenda. Yesterday the president submitted a measure to Congress which would alter electoral rules imposed under the Pinochet regime designed to obstruct major changes. Under the current system, the losing party in each district receives half the seats as long as the winning party fails to secure more than two-thirds of the votes. As the AP notes, Bachelet’s proposed changes -- which have a good chance of passing -- would end this system and assign new legislative districts according to population figures.
  • Guatemala’s El Periodico reports that Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz appeared before the committee tasked with choosing her successor yesterday to defend her record, pointing to increases in cases filed against criminal leaders under her tenure. According to the paper, the  commission has now heard from every candidate, and is expected to make a nomination in the first week of May.
  • The government of Costa Rica has called on the United States to explain why it operated the USAID-sponsored “Cuban Twitter” program from within the Central American country’s borders. In an interview with the AP, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo said that U.S.-supported democracy promotion activities in Cuba should not involve other countries, as they could damage relations with the island.
  • After massive public outcry and demonstrations against a telecommunications reform bill in Mexico over sections which would allow for telecommunications signals to be blocked for “public security” interests, the offending language has been removed, El Universal reports.
  • In a meeting with UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez on Monday, Proceso reports that human rights advocates stressed the widespread use of torture and inhumane treatment by the country’s security forces. According to an analysis of prosecutors’ figures by Animal Politico, from 2002 to 2012 only six officials were taken to trial in torture and abuse cases -- despite 963 investigations into allegations -- and none of the accused received any criminal punishment. Mendez is in Mexico until May 2, when he will make preliminary recommendations to the government on the basis of his findings.
  • Hugo Perez Hernaiz of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights looks at the reactions among Chavista leaders to the recent rounds of dialogue with the opposition. While many government supporters have voiced distrust in the opposition’s intentions, so far the only stridently anti-dialogue within PSUV leadership remains National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello. The third meeting between MUD opposition leaders and members of the government is expected to take place today.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales has signed a new law which authorizes the military to shoot down planes suspected of carrying illegal drugs. However, as the AP reports, the law requires the country to first purchase and set up a new radar system before it can be implemented.
  • In a column in today’s Washington Post, editorial writer Charles Lane takes on recent praise deceased Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez from world leaders in the region. Despite his literary talent, Lane argues, Garcia Marquez’s lifelong friendship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro was a black mark on his career.
  • After raising the minimum wage in a move widely seen as a concession to shore up support among organized labor, Morales is again dealing with protests in La Paz. This time the demonstrators are military personnel who argue that the army discriminates against the indigenous and are calling for the removal of top officers.  In response, the government has refused to meet with them, insisting that they will be fired if they continue to ignore orders.
  • U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel arrived in Mexico City yesterday to meet with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts, in his first trip to Latin America since becoming head of the Pentagon last year. From Mexico, Hagel will travel on to Guatemala today, where he will meet with President Otto Perez Molina and discuss bilateral military cooperation. In an interview with Reuters, Hagel said that his priority will be improving the Pentagon’s relationship with regional militaries, remarking: “don't think over the years we've probably ever done enough to reach out to our Latin American partners.”
  • Following the death of a professional dancer earlier this week in a Rio favela on the outskirts of Copacabana, the city’s top security official told reporters that authorities would fully investigate the matter. Locals say that the man was killed by police who wrongfully accused him of criminal ties, and the incident has sparked protests against police in the area in which at least one other individual was killed, as O Globo reports.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Return of the Mayor: Bogota Court Reinstates Petro

In a radio interview earlier this month, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told journalists that he would be willing to reinstate ousted Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro if ordered to do so by a court. “The Constitution obliges me and the laws oblige me and those who interpret laws are the judges of the Republic,” said Santos. “If some judge tells me for reasons A, B or C that I have to reinstate the mayor, I will reinstate him the next day, it is absolutely clear. Because this is how we have acted and I will continue to act.”

When he made that statement, the president probably did not expect his words to be tested so soon. Yesterday, the Superior Tribunal of Bogota ruled that Santos had 48 hours to reinstate Petro, on the grounds that his right to political participation may have been violated. The ruling specifically cited the precautionary measures requested by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in March, which the president ignored by claiming the mayor had not exhausted domestic legal remedies.

In that sense the decision is a victory not only for Petro but for the application of international human rights law in Colombia, and for those who argued that the IACHR’s precautionary measures must be considered binding according to the country’s Constitutional Court.

Santos is now in a tight spot. The president could challenge the ruling before the Supreme Court, but he will have to abide by the decision -- and its 48 hour deadline -- in the meantime while the court studies the case. As La Silla Vacia points out, he stands to lose regardless of any move he makes. If Santos does not honor the decision he will be on unsteady legal footing, but if he accepts it it will be perceived as an admission that his initial decision to ignore the IACHR was a mistake.

Meanwhile, the head of local government in Bogota has changed hands twice since Petro’s ouster, as Labor Minister Rafael Pardo -- who immediately took the position after Petro -- has been replaced by Maria Mercedes Maldonado. While she was handpicked by the president, Maldonado’s name was included in a list of potential successors submitted by members of the ex-mayor’s political party. She officially took office as interim mayor on Monday, but it is now unclear how long her tenure will last.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday Brazilian senators passed the “Marco Civil da Internet” without changes, and the bill will now go before President Dilma Rousseff to be signed. Reuters notes that the legislation has been hailed by international net neutrality activists for striking a balance between the interests of “users, governments and corporations while ensuring the Internet continues to be an open and decentralized network.” The vote took place just before a high-profile summit on internet governance, NetMundial, which as the BBC reports, Brazil announced in the event following revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored President Dilma Rousseff’s personal communications.
  • Brazil’s National Truth Commission has announced that, according to its own investigation, former President Juscelino Kubitschek, who died in a suspicious car wreck in 1976, was not killed as part of a plot by the military regime.  According to O Globo, the announcement is the result of a two year analysis of documents, expert reports and photos of the scene. However, in December the São Paulo municipal truth commission came to the opposite conclusion after studying the evidence, and it is not immediately clear which has the stronger claim.
  • At least two were killed yesterday in clashes with police in a favela on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro’s upper-class Copacabana district, which were sparked after locals claimed police murdered a young man who worked as a dancer on a televised variety show. The incident has been picked up by international media (see the NYT and BBC) as yet another reason to question Brazil’s readiness to host the World Cup.
  • In a press conference yesterday, Uruguayan presidential advisor Diego Canepa announced that the specifics of the country’s historical marijuana law will be released by the end of this week, according to El Pais. In separate news, EFE reports that the head of the country’s road safety unit has announced that police will be given equipment to test drivers’ saliva for THC content to fight driving under the influence of the drug.
  • InSight Crime has published a three-part series on the challenges and accomplishments of Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. The first looks at Paz y Paz’s political acumen and savvy management of Guatemalan politics and international allies to put pressure on criminal elites in the country. The second focuses on the powerful enemies she has made as a result of her support for the genocide trial of General Efrain Rios Montt, and the third highlights the challenges she faces as she applies for another term which would start in May. The series is well complemented by just-published investigation by nascent Guatemalan news site Revista Nomada, which offers a critical look at the interest networks that influence the process by which new attorney generals are chosen in the country.
  • El Universo reports that electoral officials in Ecuador have so far annulled some 7,000 questionable signatures of a petition submitted by environmental groups hoping to force a referendum on drilling in the Yasuni Amazon region. Signature verification was disrupted last week after protestors questioned alleged regularities in the process, but has continued as scheduled this week. Earlier this month activists submitted a total of 756,000 signatures, exceeding the 584,000 requirement needed to trigger a vote.
  • Mexican authorities have announced the arrest of 46 people in Michoacan who were allegedly falsely posing as members of a local vigilante militia, Milenio reports. According to the AP, the men were wearing t-shirts similar to those worn by militiamen, but are thought to be members of the New Generation Jalisco Cartel. The groups have just over two weeks to merge with local security forces before they too will be targeted by authorities.
  • The dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is set to continue this Thursday, according to MUD Secretary General Ramon Guillermo Aveledo. Meanwhile, the MUD leadership’s participation in talks has opened up fissures in the opposition between those who support dialogue and those who believe it only serves to legitimize the Maduro government. In a post for Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Michael McCarthy offers an extremely helpful overview of the main camps in the opposition, which can -- with some caveats -- be grouped into three sectors: followers of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, followers of former presidential candidate Henrique Capriels, and the heterogeneous student movement.
  • After days of negotiations with Bolivian trade unions, the government of President Evo Morales has agreed to raise the minimum wage in the Andean country by 20 percent, La Razon reports. The BBC notes that critics say the move is an attempt to boost his support among organized labor ahead of October elections, and analyst James Bosworth compares Morales’ handling of the issue with a recent protest by enlisted military personnel.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

El Salvador’s Gangs Are a Political Force

A new report by Salvadoran news site El Faro reveals that conservative presidential candidate Norman Quijano made overtures to the country’s most powerful street gangs during his campaign, even as he lashed out at the ruling FMLN for facilitating a truce between them.

As El Faro reports, Quijano instructed members of his campaign to reach out to leaders of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs responsible for the ongoing but shaky ceasefire.  The message, according to an intermediary approached by Quijano and to various figures in his ARENA party, was that the candidate’s promises to eradicate gangs and public condemnations of the truce were not accurate reflections of his position. If victorious, he would support a greater emphasis on violence prevention and reintegration programs, like the ones currently complementing the gang talks.

The revelation makes Quijano look hypocritical and, for FMLN supporters, has delicious irony. It not only clashes with his “tough on crime” image, but also with the rhetoric used by ARENA supporters in the U.S., who took to op-ed columns in the lead-up  to last month’s runoff election to warn that the FMLN’s “criminal ties” could turn the country into a “gang haven.”

But the El Faro report is significant for other reasons. The news site claims that Quijano was motivated to approach the gangs because their support for his rival was intimidating potential ARENA voters. Ahead of the election, gang members were allegedly bullying individuals into voting for the FMLN, reportedly even stealing the identification cards of some Salvadorans who might vote for the conservative candidate. If this was halted, in exchange the gangs would receive an open line of communication with Quijano’s government on security policies if he won the election.  

Ultimately, these advances may have contributed to Quijano’s improved performance in the polls in the second round, which he lost to President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren by just 0.22 percentage points.

If true, the news adds weight to the arguments of individuals like security analyst Doug Farah, who have consistently warned that the truce provides gangs with an opportunity to deepen their political influence. If voter intimidation and the risk of an increased homicide rate are all that is needed to gain concessions from authorities in in El Salvador, the country’s democracy is in dire straits.

News Briefs
  • Over the weekend, the New York Times published an article on the State Department’s interest in “mesh networks,” small-scale separate internet networks designed to provide web access to users seeking to avoid government surveillance. The paper mentioned that the USAID has allocated money to start such a network in Cuba, although the Miami Herald reported yesterday that a USAID spokesperson said that the program “is not operational” and that the grant is under review.
  • In today’s NYT, columnist Richard Cohen argues that the U.S.-Brazil relationship is perplexing given the two countries’ shared democratic values and cultural similarities, which he characterizes as a “can-do appetite for the future.” Cohen even goes so far as to describe Brazil as “a kind of tropical United States,” and is puzzled by its discrepancies with U.S. foreign policy, a problem he believes is compounded by a lack of political will on both sides.
  • Venezuela’s El Nacional reports on the status of dialogue between the government and opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition (MUD). The two sides have not met since agreeing to a general outline for talks last week, and the weekend saw renewed protests in the capital city of Caracas. According to the paper, the MUD is insisting that the joint truth commission to be tasked with investigating abuses in recent weeks not be chaired by lawmakers, as the government has suggested.
  • In accordance with the controversial communications law passed in Ecuador last year, El Universo and La Hora reported last week that 31 civil society organizations in the country will now be subject to the regulations of of the Communications Ministry.  The list includes the Ecuadorean Association of Newspaper Editors (AEDEP), among other media groups, and their reclassification has come under fire from critics who say it amounts to a clear violation of the rights to freedom of association and expression.
  • On Saturday, the deadline for illegal miners in Peru to participate in government efforts to bring them into the formal economy expired with only limited accomplishments. The Wall Street Journal notes that at least 40,000 of an estimated 110,000 illegal miners ignored the deadline, a fact which El Comercio reports has forced authorities to extend the timeline of the process even as the government insists that it has so far been a success.
  • In a Monday interview with the WSJ, Colomban President Juan Manuel Santos again stressed the need for an alternative to the war on drugs, asking: "How do I explain to a peasant in Colombia that I have to put him in prison for growing marijuana when in Colorado or in Washington state, it's legal to buy the same marijuana?" The president also expressed confidence in his chances at re-election ahead of the May vote, even though polls show he may lose if the contest goes to a second round runoff.
  • The New York Times features a report on the United Nation’s failures to tackle the cholera epidemic in Haiti that was started by UN peacekeeping troops. Even as the UN denies that it is legally liable for the damages caused by the introduction of the disease, the international organization has fallen short of its promises to deliver millions of dollars in vaccinations and infrastructure development necessary to contain the outbreak.
  • The AP reports on a controversy brewing in Mexico over new food labeling rules designed to target obesity and diabetes, but which some health experts say could have the opposite effect.
  • In keeping with a transparency reform law passed earlier this year, El Universal reports that a panel of experts has presented the Mexican Senate with the names of 25 individuals deemed capable of serving on the board of Mexico's transparency agency, the Institute of Access to Information and Protection of Data (IFAI). Animal Politico has the full list, of which seven will be selected as commissioners.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

Argentine Bill Seeks to Regulate Street Protests

Since the election of Nestor Kircher in 2003, the Argentine government has gained a reputation for engaging with social movements. But a new bill proposed by members of President Cristina Fernandez’s party has been characterized as an attempt to suppress lawful protests amid growing unrest in the country.

As Pagina 12 reports, on Wednesday a group of legislators belonging to Fernandez’s Front for Victory party (FPV) presented a bill which claims to “ensure and strengthen” the rights of protestors in the country, as well as those affected by demonstrations.  Its sponsors claim it would establish “precise rules of conduct” for public protests, as well as a standard protocol for police responses to unrest.

But the law has struck many in the country, including some traditional allies of the Fernandez government, as heavy-handed. The Buenos Aires-based Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), for instance, has expressed concern about the idea of drawing a line between legitimate and illegitimate demonstrations, calling it a “step back from the standards of social protest that were built during recent years.”

In reality the bill cannot be easily pigeonholed as an uncompromising attack on freedom of speech. Like similar U.S. laws, it would prevent demonstrators from blocking vehicular traffic. Specifically, it would require that protests allow at least one lane open, and -- most controversially -- to register with authorities at least 48 hours prior to the event. But still, as La Nacion notes, the FPV’s sponsorship of the law demonstrates a “profound change” for a government that has striven to be seen as an ally of mass mobilizations.

For critics of the Fernandez administration, the timing of the bill is no coincidence. As both El Pais and the Associated Press point out, the bill comes amid growing discontent with inflation and economic stagnation, and may be an attempt to brace for potentially escalating protests in the coming months.

News Briefs
  • While the recent capture of yet another kingpin in Mexico (this time the 2nd in command of the Beltran Leyva Organization, or BLO) shows that President Enrique Peña Nieto is largely continuing the security policies of his predecessor, InSight Crime’s Charlie Parkinson notes that it also discredits the theory that Peña Nieto favors the BLO over other criminal enterprises in the country.
  • A special system put in place to protect journalists in Mexico in 2012 has come under intense criticism from press freedom groups in the country, which claim that the system has failed to deliver. Only 130 reporters have been accepted into the program to date, and only about one-third of these have actually received help, the L.A. Times reports.  
  • IDL-Reporteros catches leading Peruvian daily El Comercio in the act of false reporting on the recent arrest of 28 members of a political movement calling for the release of imprisoned Shining Path members, known as the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef). The news site points out that the paper incorrectly reported rumors that Movadef members solicited funds to restart the Shining Path’s armed struggle, accusing El Comercio of either intentional deception or incompetence following the closure of its investigative reporting unit.
  • The top negotiator for the Colombian government in its talks with FARC rebels, Humberto De La Calle, has penned an op-ed for the Miami Herald in which he takes on some of the myths about the ongoing dialogue being spread by opponents of the peace process. In it, he takes on allegations that the country is being “sold” “behind its back,” as well as claims that crimes against humanity will go unpunished.
  • The Herald reports on the arrest of Cuban journalist Juliet Michelena Diaz, who was taken into custody after reporting on alleged police abuses in Havana earlier this month.  Reporters Without Borders has called on the government to release her, and others of Diaz’s independent Cuban Network of Community Communicators (CNCC) assert that she deserves  international recognition as a “prisoner of conscience.”
  • Earlier this week, the Brazilian government deployed troops to the northeastern city of Salvador in the wake of a police strike that led to looting and unrest, Folha reports. The Wall Street Journal notes that this is the second time that troops have been sent to the city to fill the gap, following a similar strike in 2012. Forrunately, police have agreed to call off the strike in response to concessions from state officials, according to O Globo.
  • Writing for The Guardian’s Global Development blog, Claire Provost offers a profile of the women that are challenging El Salvador’s strict anti-abortion laws, under which a woman can be charged with homicide for suffering a miscarriage.
  • In a new post for Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz assess the status of talks between the government and opposition in the country. For now, they argue, it appears as though the dialogue is “drowning out the students and radicalized opposition base,” but this could change in the long run if the talks don not bear fruit for the opposition.
  • After declaring a state of emergency last week in areas near the southern Peruvian volcano of Ubinas, officials in the country have announced that they will be evacuating some 4,000 residents -- as well as their livestock -- from the area, RPP and the BBC report.
  • Vice reports on the Mapuche conflict in Chile, providing an in-depth look at the tense dynamic between indigenous activists and police in the south-central Araucania region.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

UN Expert to Assess Torture, Inhumane Treatment in Mexico

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has announced that he will be conducting his first country visit to Mexico, highlighting the ongoing struggle to rein in torture and inhumane treatment by security forces in the country’s long-running drug war.

In a press release published yesterday, Mendez announced he would be in Mexico from April 21 to May 2. During his visit, he will focus on the situation regarding cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the status of legal mechanisms to punish torture and coerced confessions. Additionally, the Special Rapporteur said he would assess the use of controversial legal mechanism known as the “arraigo,” which allows the pre-trial detention of suspects for extended periods in order to allow investigators to build a case against them.

Mendez is visiting at the invitation of the government, but his arrival will doubtlessly draw attention to the widespread use of torture by law enforcement in the country, opening up the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto to further criticism on this front.

There is plenty to criticize. According to a joint report published by 34 human rights groups last year ahead of Mexico’s October review in the UN Human Rights Council, law enforcement officers throughout the country continue to practice torture. The report points to 300 officially recognized cases of forced confessions since 2013, many of which have not been punished.

Still, statistics kept by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) suggest that the number of annual denunciations of torture and inhumane treatment, at least, has fallen recently. While this figure increased some 500 percent from 2006 to 2012 to 2,126 reported incidents, the CNDH’s 2013 annual report shows that they dropped to 1,082 last year.

There are signs of slow progress being made on the arraigo issue as well. As a report published in El Universal on Sunday noted, the emphasis on pretrial detention may be falling from its peak under former President Felipe Calderon. According to official statistics cited by the Mexican daily, the first year of the Peña Nieto administration (Dec 2012 to Nov 2013) saw a 64 percent drop in arraigo detentions compared to the last year of Calderon’s term in office (Dec 2011 to Nov 2012), and a 22 percent drop compared to the same initial period in his predecessor’s administration.

News Briefs
  • In other Mexico security news, on Tuesday prosecutors in Michoacan state announced the arrest of Apatzingan Mayor Uriel Chavez Mendoza. The mayor is accused of assisting the locally powerful Knights Templar cartel, and city councilors claim he attempted to coerce them into handing over money to cartel gunmen. News of the arrest was eclipsed yesterday by the announcement that Arnoldo Villa, the number-two member of the Beltran Leyva Organization, had been captured in a Mexico City neighborhood, as El Universal reports. As the L.A. Times points out, Villa is the latest of several high profile cartel figures to fall into authorities’ hands, illustrating the Peña Nieto’s close adherence to his predecessor’s “kingpin strategy.”
  • The Colombian government’s negotiating team has announced that it will be going on a nationwide tour, ostensibly aimed at campaigning in favor of peace and educating the public on the advances made at the negotiating table so far. Enrique Peñalosa, the main challenger to President Juan Manuel Santos ahead of May elections, has responded to the announcement by accusing his opponent of using the peace talks for “political purposes,” El Heraldo reports.
  • The AP has a quick overview of the agreement reached by Venezuelan officials and the opposition to widen a truth commission tasked with investigating recent violence in the country. Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin has said that the development shows that talks are making “progress” towards ending two months of demonstrations, but the news agency notes that students and opposition figures staged yet another protest in the capital yesterday. Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo has also praised the ongoing dialogues and the facilitation role played by UNASUR, saying the regional body demonstrated “great strength as a space for political cooperation,” EFE reports.
  • In the wake of the revelations about the failed ZunZuneo effort, Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas argues in a Huffington Post column that the program endangers opposition bloggers and USAID efforts elsewhere, and that its secretiveness is counterproductive to efforts to promote the open exchange of ideas. Meanwhile, the BBC looks at one thing that the USAID contractors right: there is immense interest in connecting to the internet on the island, and demand far outpaces the government’s efforts to allow limited email access to some cell phones.
  • Despite speculation that the ongoing drought in Brazil’s southeast or an escalating scandal involving oil giant Petrobras could hurt President Dilma Rousseff’s chances of reelection in October’s general election, she remains the clear frontrunner even as her support has fallen slightly. According to a new survey by local pollster Vox Populi, Rousseff would win the vote with 40 percent of the ballots if it were held today, while her two main rivals get only 24 percent combined, a figure which falls short of triggering a run-off vote.
  • A new report by natural resource-related conflict monitoring group Global Witness has found that Latin America accounts for two-thirds of environmental activist killings over the last decade. Nearly half of these occurred in Brazil, which is followed by Honduras as the top two most dangerous countries to champion environmental causes.
  • Yesterday, Uruguay’s Foreign Ministry announced that President Jose Mujica had added an agenda item to his scheduled meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House next month. According to El Pais, Mujica will enlist Obama’s help in fighting a lawsuit filed by Phillip Morris, which alleges that the country’s strong anti-tobacco laws violate its intellectual rights by requiring the alteration of products’ packaging.
  • InSight Crime’s Steven Dudley offers a gloomy look at the truce between El Salvador’s Barrio 18 and MS-13 street gangs, which appears to have faltered in recent months. He provides an overview of the major arguments by both supporters and critics of the gang ceasefire, ultimately concluding that regardless of any potential benefits in reduction of violence between gangs, conflict between them and authorities is objectively on the rise. Another factor that complicates the success of the truce, according to Dudley, is a disconnect between international donors and local actors that are capable of complementing it with violence prevention and other aid programs.
  • Amid rising concern about Salvadoran street gangs’ sophistication and reports of their alleged plans to attack security forces, Justice Minister Ricardo Perdomo has announced that the government would use anti-terrorism legislation to prosecute gang members who assault police and military personnel. As Reuters notes, these laws carry heavier penalties and longer mandatory sentences than standard homicide.