Friday, July 29, 2016

El Salvador cracks down on gang financial network (July 29, 2016)

Salvadoran authorities announced a series of major raids on the powerful Mara Salvatrucha street gang yesterday. Five gang leaders, previously unknown to authorities, were arrested, and police said they seized weapons, cash and vehicles during raids at homes, restaurants, bars, motels, garages and a car lot, reports the Associated Press.

These businesses generated millions of dollars of profit, according to police chief Howard Cotto. The so-called "Operation Check" has been in the works for a year, and targets MS-13's financial network for the first time, explains El Faro. But authorities emphasized that the money does not belong to the gang, rather it's the profit that certain leaders have skimmed off of the group's criminal activities, without most of the members knowing.

"Most gang members live in deplorable places, very depressed. The ringleaders have been profiting from their own structure ... They have jealously guarded their secret lifestyle ... Some have even decided to pay extortions before allowing members of their structure to realize that these are their businesses. There are businesses that belong to [gang] leaders and pay extortion [fees to gangs], said Cotto.

Attorney general Douglas Meléndez made the same point reiteratedly, part of an official message from authorities to gang members that they are being used by their leaders, according to El Faro. "The issue is potentially a depth charge inside Mara Salvatrucha ... Within the criminal structure, the value of horizontality is much appreciated." Leaders prefer to be called "spokespeople" and while the gangs do in fact have a fairly vertical chain of command, the hierarchy is based on ability to work for the common good. "The dominant discourse inside Mara Salvatrucha is that its criminal activity is for subsistence, as the resources obtained from extortion must benefit all the members of the structure, calculated at close to 40 thousand. The internal gang rules severely condemn those who obtain personal gains using the structure."

One of those detained is the alleged MS-13 treasurer, Marvin Adaly Ramos Quintanilla, an evangelical pastor who used his work as a front to enter prisons and talk with gang leaders, according to the AP.

The BBC reports a total of 120 arrests.

The MS-13 reorganized after a government crackdown on gangs this year, developing a parallel leadership when authorities isolated known leaders in jails.

Yet a new poll found that 53 percent of respondents feel the government's new "extraordinary measures," which have limited communication between incarcerated gang members and the outside world, have had "little" or "no" effect on reducing gang crimes, reports InSight Crime. A majority of respondents (97 percent) also said they would like to have an international commission to investigate organized crime and corruption in the country.

El Salvador's security policy suffers from an extreme case of polarization, going from an organized truce with the gangs to the current crackdown. (See March 31's post.) But the country would be better served by "a greater balance between the social and law-enforcement aspects of public security," argues InSight Crime's David Gagne. "To think of it in Salvadoran terms, such an approach would include communication with the gangs and other violence prevention strategies, but would not reach the level of open negotiations. It would require effective application of the law, but would not condone Mano Dura-style policing tactics."

Aside: Gang threats are causing thousands of children to leave school in El Salvador. Dropouts last year added up to 39,000 last year, triple the 2014 amount, reports InSight Crime.

News Briefs
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has filed complaints with the United Nations human rights committee outlining alleged abuses of power in a corruption case investigators have linked him to, reports AFP. His lawyers  alleged violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and alleged abuses of power by judge Sergio Moro in the "Operation Car Wash" investigation. 
  • Amnesty International launched a campaign against police violence during the upcoming Olympics. The organization mounted a demonstration outside the Rio Committee offices, with body bags representing those killed by police and presented Olympics authorities with a petition signed by 120,000 people in 15 countries, asking for prevention of rights abuses by security forces during the games. Amnesty cited data from the Instituto de Segurança Pública (ISP) showing that 40 people have been killed in this month alone by Rio police, an increase of 135 percent over the same period last year, reports O Globo. Amnesty's Brazil director, Átila Roque, denounced "war operations" this year in favelas and the city's periphery, targeting especially young black people, reports AFP. Police are criticized for their "shoot first, ask questions later" policy, which translates in to a sort of "license to kill" in years of big international events like the Olympics, reports  Agência Brasil. According to the organization 2,600 people were killed by police since 2009, reports Noticias Ao Minuto.
  • Brazilian security forces are emphasizing anti-terrorism efforts ahead of the games, but critics question their readiness for an event of this scale and say the emphasis on terrorism might be distracting from more prosaic issues like street crime, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • In the years leading up to the Rio Olympics, stories about Guanabara Bay pollution have cropped up in the media periodically, with complaints from training athletes about the conditions of waters in which the sailing, kayaking and and marathon swimming events will take place. But a New York Times magazine looks at the causes of the contamination -- the approximately 4.5 million people living in the bay's watershed who are not hooked up to sanitation systems. The feature follows one tributary, the Rio Sarapuí and documents how it collects trash and untreated sewage on its path towards Rio de Janeiro's coast.
  • Nearly a dozen construction workers have died thanks to Olympics organizers prioritizing ofdeadlines over lives, says Rio de Janeiro’s chief inspector of labor conditions, according to the Guardian.
  • A decade after handing over the reins of power to his brother, Fidel Castro has surged back into the public eye as a symbol for Cubans who want the government to maintain orthodox Communist policy. And the island is filling with his image and tributes ahead of his Aug. 13 ninetieth birthday, reports the Associated Press.
  • Veracruz governor Javier Duarte, who critics say ignores the Mexican state's massive crime problem, pushed through a draconian anti-abortion law that effectively outlaws the procedure in all circumstances, reports the Guardian. Veracruz has has so many disappeared people that citizens brigades are combing the area for clandestine graves, and the Committee to Protect Journalists has called Veracruz “the most lethal place for the press in the western hemisphere”. Duarte's mandate ends in December, and the national prosecutor's office is investigating him and associates for corruption, reports Animal Político. (See yesterday's briefs on human rights accusations against him and the investigation into corruption in his circle.)
  • Almost half of Mexico's municipal and state jails are overpopulated, and 10 are operating at 300 to 600 percent capacity, reports Animal Político. Many house both local and federal inmates. Yet the country's 17 federal penitentiaries are not filled to capacity.
  • Pedro Pablo Kuczynski assumed office as Peru’s president yesterday. He promised to focus on increasing investments in order to reduce poverty, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Some local officials in Colombia's northern region say the FARC is already pulling out of certain areas, leaving municipalities at the mercy of criminal bands. InSight Crime says the alarm may be premature, but that it's indicative of the challenges ahead for the Colombian government in re-establishing state presence in guerrilla dominated regions.
  • Celebrations for a Medellín soccer team's victory in the Copa Libertadores final were marred by over 600 street fights, that led to four fans deaths and 23 people getting injured, reports the Associated Press.
  • Eighty percent of homicides in Honduras are carried out with guns, an issue fueled by ease in obtaining firearms, reports InSight Crime.
  • Emergency measures against a wave of femicides enacted last year in Mexico state  have not borne much fruit, reports Vice News. There were 59 femicides recorded last year, and 39 more in the first five months of this year.
  • Bolivia has one of the highest rates of gender violence in the world, according to Al Jazeera. Ninety percent of women are victims of violence at some point in their lives.
  • Former Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina faces another corruption investigation, this time focused on allegations he received $37.9 million in return for construction contracts, reports the BBC.
  • A much delayed Mercosur meeting has been cancelled, after Brazil and Paraguay said they would boycott over the scheduled passing of the trade bloc's presidency to Venezuela, reports TeleSUR.
  • The Guardian, the "Somos Brasil" art project by Artist Marcus Lyon shows Brazil's genetic diversity through a set of portraits accompanied by ancestral genetic mapping.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Reports highlight rights abuses in Venezuela, Mexico and U.S. policy (July 28, 2016)

The case for diplomatic pressure on Venezuela, either contrasted or accompanied with mediation, has been a constant in regional forums this year -- with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, and increasingly certain Mercosur countries, namely Brazil and Paraguay, pushing to exclude Venezuela from multilateral organizations if the government doesn't move towards reform (ie: referendum).

Since May of this year the Venezuelan government has detained 21 people on allegations that they were planning, fomenting, or had participated in violent anti-government actions, according to a new report presented by Human Rights Watch in Buenos Aires this week. Most of those detained allege torture or abuse while in custody, and have been charged without credible evidence, according to HRW. 

HRW Americas Director José Manuel Vivanco called on OAS countries to "pressure Venezuela to stop jailing critics and end with repression of dissidence," reports El País. He said the government is currently holding some 90 political prisoners, notes AFP.

"In several cases, detainees testified in court that they had suffered physical abuse that could amount to torture, including brutal beatings, electric shocks, and threats of rape or murder," according to the report. "The patterns of maltreatment they describe are consistent with cases Human Rights Watch has documented during the past two years in Venezuela. Some detainees said that they were tortured to coerce them into confessing to crimes, and that SEBIN agents taped their coerced confessions."

Also in Argentina, a group of human rights organizations -- including CELS -- and "La Asamblea de Mexicanxs en la Argentina" have called for a march today in repudiation of the visit of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tomorrow, reports Página 12. In a letter they sent to the Argentine government, they "express our concern regarding the structural human rights crisis that Mexico is undergoing today." Specifically they note the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, part of a wider pattern of "at least 150,000 deaths 1 , more than 28,000 disappearances, innumerable arbitrary detentions and the forced displacement of many populations, among other serious rights infringements."

And a new report by the International Crisis Group -- "Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration" --
documents how massive deportations of Central American migrants and inadequate asylum procedures by the U.S. and Mexico have fed a humanitarian crisis that fuels human smuggling and the criminal groups that increasingly control it.

As many as 400,000 undocumented migrants cross from Central America into southern Mexico each year, according to the International Organization for Migration, reports the Guardian. And they are increasingly being detained by Mexico, with growing pressure and funding from the U.S.

News Briefs

  • Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández praised changes to the U.S. asylum policy announced on Tuesday that will expand a program for Central American minors, reports EFE. (See yesterday's briefs.) He also praised Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's choice for running-mate Tim Kaine. Kaine worked as a missionary in Honduras in the 1980s. "I can say that we are personal friends," Hernández told EFE regarding Kaine. "He has been in Honduras many times and has been one of the promotors of the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity."
  • On the issue of Kaine's ties to Honduras, The Nation's Greg Grandin lambasts the Virginia Senator's support for "economic and security policies that drive immigration and contribute to the kind of repression that killed [environmental activist Berta] Cáceres." The piece is also critical of the politically neutral messages about happiness without material wealth that Kaine ascribes to his 9-months working with Jesuits in Honduras, which Grandin situates in the context of a Cold War political cauldron that swept Central America at the time.
  • Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales appointed Lucrecia Hernandez Mack, a self-described leftist and daughter of an human rights activist assassinated by a death squad in 1990, to head the national health ministry, reports TeleSUR.
  • Venezuela's opposition warned that government foot-dragging on a recall referendum on President Nicolás Maduro's continuity is pushing the country towards violent confrontation. In an opposition demonstration yesterday Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, warned the national electoral commission (CNE) to avoid further delays. “We will keep insisting on a peaceful solution, but the people who live in the slums know better than anyone else that if there’s no solution, anything can happen,” he said, according to the Miami Herald. Analysts expect that the opposition will be able to take the next step towards impulsing a referendum -- collecting the signatures of 20 percent of the electorate -- in September, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's post.)

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  • Pedro Pablo Kuczynski will swear in as Peru's president today, in "with a Cabinet that shares his Ivy League, pro-business pedigree — a reliance on technocrats that could become a liability as he deals with an unfriendly congress and a resurgent left," according to the Associated Press.
  • Anti-mining activist and former governor of Peru's gold-rich Cajamarca province Gregorio Santos was released from "preventive" prison yesterday, as prosecutors investigate corruption charges against him. Santos accused the government of locking him up for two years to keep him from power, reports Reuters.
  • Foreign Policy in Focus piece notes Mexico's protagonism in the U.S. presidential race -- and how it's impacting discourse on both sides of the border.
  • A year after photojournalist Ruben Espinosa and human rights activist Nadia Vera were killed in Mexico City, along with three other women, the investigation has not fully looked at their work covering Veracruz social movements as a possible motive for the murder says Espinosa's family, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune. Their work frequently cast Governor Javier Duarte in a negative light, notes the piece, and Vera said in 2014 that Duarte was directly responsible for repression in the state and for anything that "might happen" to her. That line of investigation was effectively shut down in August last year when Duarte denied any involvement in the case to prosecutors, according to the LAHT. (See post for August 20, 2015 on how Vera's murder drew attention to the issue of femicide in the region last year.) 
  • Duarte's mandate in Veracruz ends in December. Mexico's attorney general has launched an investigation into nearly 70 people close to him after several accusations of diversion of resources and illicit enrichment, reports TeleSUR.
  • Brazil's acting President Michel Temer is continuing suspended President Dilma Rousseff's second-term austerity program, argues a piece in The Nation. But the course of action threatens to wipe out "the very foundation of the Workers’ Party’s antipoverty program. One proposal would condition the funding of already beleaguered state and local governments on their ability to reduce the number of poor families receiving the antipoverty subsidy. Worse, a new proposed bill would set constitutional limits on spending, locking in austerity ad infinitum and eliminating the minimum allocation for education and health." And sell-offs in the name of budget deficit reduction -- including privatization of airports and postal service -- will cosmetically cut costs, but "will worsen public finances in the long run as dividends to the state disappear."
  • A new Ibope poll found 60 percent of Brazilians see the Olympics generating more losses than gains for the country, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Another piece in The Nation looks at how Latin American countries are fighting transnational junk food as they attempt to lower obesity. The piece focuses on Brazil, where 2014 Health Ministry guidelines "transcend a traditional nutrition-science frame to consider the social, cultural, and ecological dimensions of what people eat. They also focus on the pleasure that comes from cooking and sharing meals and frankly address the connections between what we eat and the environment."
  • In the ongoing battle between Brazil's judiciary and the Whatsapp messaging service, Reuters reports that an Amazonas state court froze $11.7 million in Facebook Inc's account for failing to comply with a court order to supply Whatsapp data on users are under criminal investigation.
  • Former Guantanamo bay prisoner Abu Wa'el Dhiab showed up in Uruguay's Caracas consulate, after disappearing last month from Uruguay. He told the consulate he wants to move to Turkey or somewhere where he can be reunited with his family, reports the Associated Press. (See July 7's briefs.) The Wall Street Journal notes that Dhiab has had health repercussions from his long Guantanamo detention, where he was force fed during a hunger strike. He was also angered when promises to be reunited with his family in Uruguay were not fulfilled.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Venezuela's government and opposition tussling over recall referendum (July 27, 2016)

Things are heating up in Venezuela over the recall referendum. Yesterday, the national electoral board (CNE) was supposed to announce the validation of a signature gathering process that would permit the opposition MUD coalition to continue a process of requesting a recall referendum on President Nicolás Maduro's mandate. They postponed the decision, saying they will discuss the issue next Monday, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

There are reports that the signatures have already been validated, in which case this could be interpreted as a delaying tactic. (See last Wednesday's post.) The opposition is angling to have the recall referendum occur this year, at which point a vote to oust Maduro would trigger a new presidential election. The government aims for the referendum to happen next year, when the vice president would complete Maduro's mandate if voters reject his continuity. 

Government supporters have lodged more than 8,000 legal challenges against the referendum, notes AFP. The government also argues there is not enough time to organize the vote this year. CNE must validate the signatures collected -- which represent 1 percent of the country's registered voters in each state, reports Reuters.

Instead of CNE results, yesterday a Socialist Party leader lodged a complaint against the MUD, saying the party included 11,000 signatures of dead people and 3,000 minors in the recent signature drive to request the referendum. Jorge Rodríguez, Maduro's designated aide to follow the recall process, said he's requesting the invalidation of the MUD's registration as a political party, due to the irregularities detected by the CNE, reports the Caracas Chronicles. The opposition rejects the charges, reports AFP.

The opposition plans a rally today demanding the CNE approve the signatures and permit them to go on to the next step in the process -- collecting the signatures of 20 percent of the electorate. Leaders say its the only way to push authorities to keep moving on the issue, reports the Miami Herald.
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But the head of the CNE said she considers this an act of pressure against it, according to Efecto Cocuyo.

The CNE has an arsenal of rules with which to drag out the process, notes the Miami Herald. For example, if the signatures are validated, the MUD will then have to formally request a recall in a letter that the CNE will have fifteen days to process.

News Briefs
  • The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) presented its annual report yesterday, estimating an 8 percent recession in the country's economy, the worst contraction in the continent, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • Reuters reports on opaque dealings within Venezuela's state run oil-firm PDVSA. "... Sources described a culture of corruption that ranges from the trivial - giving a gift to a secretary to land a meeting with a top PDVSA executive – to the systemic, such as funneling kickbacks in return for large contracts."
  • The U.S. will substantially expand a program accepting Central American refugees, reports the New York Times. In an announcement yesterday the White House said many people fleeing violence have been left with no recourse by the current system. The program allows unaccompanied minors to enter the U.S. as refugees and allows their families to qualify as well. The broader criteria could multiply applicants to the program which has attracted 9,500 candidates in two years.
  • Conspiracy theory buffs will enjoy InSight Crime's series on who was behind the killing of Guatemala's prison king, inmate Byron Lima Oliva. (See July 19's post.) InSight Crime carried out several interviews with Lima this year. The piece looks at one theory, that ties the killing of the former army captain with close ties to former President Otto Pérez Molina (himself now jailed as he faces corruption charges). The piece looks at explanations that tie Lima's death to a military network targeting Attorney General Thelma Aldana and the anti-corruption initiatives carried out with the CICIG that have upended the country's political establishment. But there are flaws with that hypothesis, writes Stephen Dudly, who notes that Lima's "list of enemies was as long as it was sordid. And the central question is as much who did it, as who wins with Lima's bloody inglorious end inside prison walls."
  • And the more murder mystery minded should look at a Daily Beast piece on two Dutch tourists who disappeared in Panama in 2014. Some fragmented bones were discovered nine weeks later, far away from the hiking trail they were last seen on. The piece looks at all the holes in the official government story, that they died of natural causes, and promises more insight as to the cause of death gleaned from analysis of the leaked case file, to come in more installments. The piece notes that the Panamanian government was criticized for its handling of the case.
  • Mexican opposition lawmakers criticized the national statistics agency for changing the methodology it uses to measure poverty. Statistics published using the new system seem to suggest income among the country's poorest residents increased by a third, reports Reuters.
  • On the ongoing issue in Brazil of pursuing social media and messaging communications for judicial investigations, Igarapé Institute research director Robert Muggah was interviewed by Epoca, and notes the near impossibility of the government cracking Whatsapp encrypted messages. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • While the media narrative emphasizes safety and security issues in Rio, a Bloomberg opinion piece argues that the city has never been safer, as it's "saturated with police, soldiers, intelligence operatives and explosive experts in the run-up to the summer games." The piece quotes Muggah who agrees the city is safer than ever.
  • Suspended President Dilma Rousseff said she will stay away from the Olympics opening ceremony, eschewing a "secondary position," reports Al Jazeera.
  • Housing for Olympics delegations has been handed over without proper checks -- leading some delegations such as Argentina and Australia to pick up camp, complaining of toilets that don't flush, no hot water and exposed electrical wiring, reports the Wall Street Journal. The athlete's village will later be converted to luxury condos, with units selling for as much as $700,000. Still, even critics note that the grounds of the project are impressive.
  • A Brazilian fighter jet collided with another jet during a military exercise and crashed into the ocean off Rio de Janeiro's coast, reports the Wall Street Journal. The pilot ejected but has not yet been found.
  • Honduran authorities said that eight babies have been born with the severe birth defects associated with the Zika virus, reports the Associated Press.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Pre-Olympics chaos and polemic polls in Brazil (July 26, 2016)

As the Olympics slowly but surely creep up, the media has had a field-day with articles on the security risks, construction delays, and potential mishandling of funds that accompany the Rio de Janeiro game's preparation. Other pieces have focused on the difficult context accompanying the mega sporting event: the mosquito-borne Zika epidemic that's scaring athletes and tourists off, the financial crisis that has imperiled the ability of Rio de Janeiro state to pay for vital services, and, of course, the political drama playing out in the national Congress over whether to impeach President Dilma Rousseff.

"Identifying the myriad problems is easy. More difficult—and more important—is to resist seeing them as 'general chaos,'" warns a piece in The Nation by Dave Zirin. Instead, he argues the situation must be understood as an extreme version of what happens when the Olympics come to town. "But for this year’s Rio Olympics, the corruption is also a function of how Brazil’s elites have always done business, and the crisis has little to do with general problems in the “developing world.” Instead, it is closely connected to the fact that Brazil is an incredibly unequal society, with oligarchical elites who disdain the poor, mourn for a lost military dictatorship, and don’t particularly care for democracy (all attractive traits to the IOC when looking for an Olympic host city). For these elites, the Olympics are a neoliberal Trojan horse allowing powerful construction and real-estate industries to build wasteful projects and displace the poor from coveted land."

On the broader issue of Brazil's political crisis, forty U.S. Democrat lawmakers published a letter to U.S Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday, expressing “deep concern” about threats to democracy in Brazil, just ahead of the upcoming Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, reports the Los Angeles Times. The letter was backed by the AFL-CIO and other labor union groups as well as nongovernmental organizations focused on Latin America and criticized the impeachment process that suspended President Dilma Rousseff in May. The U.S. lawmakers urged Kerry to “exercise the utmost caution in your dealings with Brazil’s interim authorities and to refrain from statements or actions that might be interpreted as supportive of the impeachment campaign launched against President Dilma Rousseff.”

Half of the Brazilian electorate wants a new presidential election, preferring that option to either maintaining acting President Michel Temer or a return of Rousseff, reports BBC, based on a new Ipsos poll. Meanwhile, a new Datafolha poll found that 62 percent of Brazilians favor a new election -- a finding that contradicts a previous, very questioned poll that didn't offer respondents that option and thus determined that most Brazilians preferred a continued Temer presidency to a Rousseff return, explains Deutsche Welle. (See last Wednesday's briefs on The Intercept's original story on the polemic framing of the original Datafolha poll.) The Intercept has a follow up piece denouncing that Folha de S. Paulo, "Brazil’s largest and most influential newspaper, not only distorted, but actively concealed, crucial polling data that completely negated what they “reported”: data that establishes that a large majority of Brazilians want “interim President” Michel Temer to resign, not remain in office as the paper claimed. Put simply, this is one of the most remarkable, flagrant, and serious cases of journalistic malfeasance one can imagine," writes Glen Greenwald.

And a piece on NPR focuses on gender violence in Brazil, "one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman." A report from the nonprofit Mapa da Violencia found that a woman is killed every two hours, and assaulted every 15 seconds. Latin America is the region with the most femicides in the world, and though many countries have passed legislation aimed at dealing with the epidemic of violence against women, they don't seem to be working, according to the piece.

And the latest in the Rio contamination series:"Recent tests by government and independent scientists revealed a veritable petri dish of pathogens in many of the city’s waters, from rotaviruses that can cause diarrhea and vomiting to drug-resistant “super bacteria” that can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems," reports the New York Times.

News Briefs
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights celebrated a Salvadoran Supreme Court decision to overrule an amnesty for human rights crimes committed during El Salvador's 12-year civil war, reports the Associated Press.
  • The Latin American Reserve Fund, or FLAR, funded by eight regional central banks agreed to lend Venezuela $482.5 million over the next three years. The funds from Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay and Costa Rica come as Venezuela is struggling with a balance of payment crisis, according to Bloomberg. The opposition has questioned the legality of the loan since it doesn't have Congressional approval, notes the Associated Press. Venezuela is using rapidly dwindling foreign reserves to pay for food and medicine imports.
  • Almost a year after its closure, the border between Venezuela and Colombia will be reopened at some point next week, according to Colombia Reports. In the meantime, border officials from both sides agreed not to allow Venezuelans seeking basic goods to cross to Colombia. (See last Wednesday's briefs.)
  • Colombia has declared an end to its Zika epidemic -- the rate of infections has leveled off and started to drop, say officials. This means the disease will continue to be present, but will spread more slowly reports the Guardian. It means Zika will join "the ranks of Chikungunya and dengue as just another reality of living in the tropics," notes the Miami Herald.

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  • Council on Hemispheric Affairs focuses on the Paraguayan "Curuguaty Massacre" and ensuing judicial process. Earlier this month eleven subsistence farmers were sentenced to up to 30 years for killing six police officers in clashes regarding land reform in 2012. (See July 12's briefs.) But eleven farmers were killed in those confrontations, a crime which has not even been investigated, notes COHA. "The gravest instance of violence in the Curuguaty case is the overlooked murders of lawful protestors by law enforcement. According to eyewitness and media reports, the farmers had assembled peacefully to call for land reform and were met with lethal violence by police officers. Since then, the 11 beleaguered farmers in the case have been dragged through a trial that has been fundamentally biased in favor of their assailants—the police. Furthermore, it is now evident that the blatant human rights violations that occurred that day were not investigated by Paraguayan authorities and have since been neglected by international media and the broader global community.
  • The case of peanut shipments from the U.S. to Haiti as part of an aid package to help feed school children poses a potentially serious challenge for Haitian peanut farmers whose livelihoods could be affected, reports the Huffington Post. The reason for the U.S. peanut largesse is, quite simply, a surplus, explains the piece. The initiative has been criticized by over 60 aid groups, which sent a letter to the U.S.D.A. saying "...This program stands to become the latest in a long history of U.S-sponsored programs that have destabilized Haiti’s agricultural sector, driving the nation further into poverty while increasing its dependence on foreign aid."
  • Outgoing Peruvian President Ollanta Humala said he will not decide on a new pardon request by former authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori -- who is serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and human rights abuses committed during his government. Instead, the politically delicate question will remain for Humala's successor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who will swear in Thursday, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • New York Times feature looks at Peru's struggle to drive out illegal gold miners from the country's Tambopata reserve. "The amount of gold collected by unlicensed miners is far larger than elsewhere in Latin America. And it is ballooning so quickly that environmentalists fear that even a remote reserve like this one — home to thousands of species of plants and animals, some perhaps not even identified by humans — has little chance of survival."
  • The official homicide rate in Mexico rose slightly last year, the first increase in four years, reports the Wall Street Journal. Some experts blame the trend on a resurgence of violence among criminal groups.
  • Mexico's transparency agency -- the Instituto Nacional de Transparencia, Acceso a la Información y Protección de Datos Personales (INAI) -- has presented over 130 complaints over the past decade regarding government agencies that failed to hand over information as requested. But only four proceedings ended in any form of sanction, reports Animal Político.
  • The case of wind-farms in Mexico shows how green energy can bring few benefits for local communities, which are rejecting plans for more projects in some cases as they demand social returns, reports the New York Times. In many communities wind farms have deepened inequality, according to the piece.
  • Semana has an interview with former Colombian labor vice-minister Luis Ernesto Gómez, who is launching a citizen initiative, Seamos, to bring technology to the country's politics. The group has two main areas of focus: on the one part, gathering elected officials who will agree to follow directives from the electorate via votes on the group's digital platform. And on the other hand, attempting to transform social media indignation into real social change, says Gómez.
  • The Bolivian government is postponing a new broadcast licensing system, after media owners warned they could possibly lose their permits under a new system that made renewal difficult, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Two Mexican mayors killed Saturday (July 25, 2016)

Two Mexican mayors were killed this weekend, part of an ongoing trend, reports the Associated Press

Ambrosio Soto, mayor of a township in Guerrero known as haven for drug traffickers, was killed when gunmen blocked a highway and opened fire on his vehicle. Local press reported that Soto had received threats after he had refused to hand over part of his budget to a local drugs gang. The Democratic Revolution Party said the mayor had taken "special protection measures" after he dared to file complaints and complained that the security patrols had abandoned the area.  After the two unrelated killings, the National Association of Mayors asked the federal government to offer added security to mayors "at risk," reports the BBC

The issue of security for mayors came up earlier this year, when the newly-sworn in mayor of Temixco was killed. Ioan Grillo wrote a good piece on the issue for the New York Times in January. Earlier this year I reported in City Lab that the Mexican National Mayor's Association said that 37 mayors, seven mayors-elect, and 31 former mayors have been assassinated over the past decade.

News Briefs
  • Strikes in Haiti's 12 government run hospitals since March have dealt a strong blow to a health-care system that struggles under the best of circumstances, reports the Associated Press. Four state hospitals are closed altogether, and the others are functioning at diminished capacity. Hospitals serving the country's poorest population lack basic supplies, such as gauze, antiseptics, and sometimes even water. Power outages have forced doctors to finish surgeries using cellphone flashlights.
  • A Brazilian judge said Facebook and Twitter cooperated with the investigation that led to the arrest of suspected Islamist militants last week by providing information about their use of social networks, reports Reuters. Yesterday, Brazilian authorities arrested the twelfth man suspected of participating in a group that was allegedly planning a terrorist attack during the upcoming Olympics, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See Friday's briefs.) The companies refused to comment. But the case comes as the issue of cooperation by social media companies for judicial investigations is hotly debated in Brazil. The Whatsapp messaging service, used by nearly half the population, has been briefly shut down three times for refusing to handover data -- which the company says it cannot access. (See last Wednesday's briefs for the most recent example.) Reuters notes that Facebook and Twitter data, on the other hand, is openly shared with other users.
  • The Olympics are opening up in two weeks, but nobody in Brazil seems to care, according to the Los Angeles Times. "The dominating sentiment seems neither strong support nor dedicated opposition, but rather general indifference."
  • Economists say the Brazilian economy is showing signs of a potential return to growth after the country's worst downturn since the Great Depression, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • As a murdered Mexican journalist Pedro Tamayo was buried, his friends and family are accusing the Veracruz state police of suspected compliance and negligence, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. (See Friday's briefs.)
  • Fugitive drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero said he is not back in the narcotics business and has no problems with other cartel leaders, in response to rumors that he's in a dispute with the Sinaloa Cartel, according to an interview Proceso published this weekend. The attorney general of Chihuahua, said earlier this month that Caro Quintero may be trying to compete with the Sinaloa cartel's operations, reports the Associated Press. Quintero, who has a $5 million bounty on his head from the U.S., denies killing U.S. DEA agent Enrique Camarena, was considered one of the country's most powerful drug traffickers in the 80s. 
  • Venezuela's electoral authorities are expected to announced tomorrow whether the initiative to stage a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro can continue, reports AFP. (See last Wednesday's post.)
    Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez appealed his 14-year sentence during a 12-hour hearing on Friday. He himself innocent of inciting violence at anti-government protests in 2014. The court has ten days to decide, according to AFP.
  • Two nephews of the Venezuelan president's wife confessed to trying to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S., according to U.S. prosecutors, reports the Associated Press. The piece reports on details such as allegations that the plot by the two men was thought out over two months, that the drugs in question came from the Colombian FARC and that the case was brought to the DEA by a wheelchair-bound cooperating witness nicknamed "El Sentado." The documents say the two nephews aimed to organize repeated runs to the U.S. for a short-term profit of $20 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • The diplomatic kerfuffle over Venezuela's scheduled assumption of the Mercosur trading bloc's rotating presidency continues. Paraguay has officially said it will skip the group's next meeting if the agenda includes the transfer of the presidency to Venezuela, reports Mercopress. (See July 13's post.)
  • The U.N. welcomed an agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC that dictates women will have equal access to land under an eventual peace deal. Colombia, which will also set up a commission to look into sexual violence during the 50-year conflict, is an example for other conflict zones in the world, said the head of U.N. Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaking in Havana, reports the BBC.
  • The Wall Street Journal has a feature on the FARC's "First Front" which is saying it won't demobilize under an eventual peace deal. President Juan Manuel Santos has staked his presidency on the peace process, and says it's rebels' last chance to lay-down arms peacefully.
  • Ongoing unrest in Mexico's Oaxaca state over education reform is impacting tourism and the region's economy, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Over 50,000 Chileans gathered in Santiago, with other gatherings around the country, to protest  against the country’s private pension system and its low payouts, reports the Buenos Aires Herald. The Valparaiso march ended up being dispersed with water cannons and tear gas by police.
  • Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori filed a new request for pardon, just a week before a new president takes office in the country. Fujimori is servinga 25-year-sentence for human rights abuses, corruption and sanctioning death squads during his 1990-2000 government, reports the Associated Press. About 1,000 people marched in Lima to demand Fujimori's “immediate freedom," according to the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • The Peruvian government submitted documentation for approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) had been sent to Congress, a day ahead of the new Congress swearing in, reports Bloomberg.
  • Four inmates died in a Salvadoran prison riot this weekend, according to Reuters.
  • El Salvador is facing a complicated financial situation. If the two main parties, the governing FMLN and the opposition ARENA don't reach an accord, the government could run out of resources by October, leading to an inability to pay providers, salaries and pensions, reported El Faro last week.
  • A Guatemalan judge said he will decide today whether to try 57 people accused of an illegal campaign-finance and government-contracting scheme that prosecutors say amounted to “state co-optation," reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. Former president Otto Pérez Molina is among the accused.
  • Nearly 27 years after the U.S. invasion of Panama that led to the fall of dictator Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian government is seeking to determine how many people died and to identify them, reports the BBC. The commission in charge of the investigation has asked the U.S. government to declassify records related to the episode, and will give its first report in December.
  • Ecuador has paid $112 million to energy company Chevron Corp over a four-decade-old contract dispute, after years of various appeals on a Hague arbitration court ruling failed, reports Reuters.
  • A new book by Mexican researcher Mateo Crossa Niell says maquiladoras play a role in perpetuating underdevelopment in Honduras. The country's emphasis on maquiladoras “means the wrenching of the economy toward foreign markets at the cost of pauperizing the national economy,” he said, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said she's not afraid of going to prison on corruption charges she faces, reports the BBC. "When you make decisions like these, it's clear that you risk going to jail and being politically persecuted," she told a group of foreign correspondents. Fernández was indicted on charges related to the central bank's sale of dollars in the futures market, notes Reuters.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Americas Quarterly memos for the next U.S. president (July 22, 2016)

Americas Quarterly has fifteen "memos" from a variety of Latin Americans -- including a president, activist, business CEO and experts -- for the next U.S. president. "... The “real” Latin America has little to do with the stereotypes and myths being thrown around in this U.S. campaign cycle. We hope that by highlighting issues such as cybersecurity, corruption, protecting the Amazon and even the region’s potential as a retirement haven for Baby Boomers, we can contribute something new to the debate."

Some highlights:

  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos urges support for a change in the drug policy paradigm. "I previously asked President Obama the question I now put to his successor: How can I look a Colombian peasant in the eye and tell him he will go to prison for cultivating marijuana, while in American states like Colorado and Oregon it is now legal to plant, sell and consume it? Part of what we need to do is to have an honest reckoning of what is happening and seek greater coherence in looking at this issue. ... This is not a call for legalization. It is a call to recognize that between the two extremes of all-out war on drugs and full legalization, there is a broad range of options that we can explore together."
  • Former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan refused to contemplate the possibility of a Trump win, and addresses his plea for "restoring a sense of strategic priority and direction in the Mexico-U.S. relationship" to Hillary Clinton. "Our partnership faces many challenges, not the least of which is foundering public perceptions of the other nation on both sides of the border. ... So many of our challenges and opportunities are intertwined and have truly become "intermestic" — rooted in the domestic politics, values, ideologies, constraints and specific interests of each nation, yet often expressed in a complex international, crossborder bilateral dialogue."
  • Indigenous activist Tarcila Rivera Zea asks for indigenous peoples to be included in the search for solutions to climate change, noting that they "have contributed the least to climate change, but they have suffered the most from its consequences. Extreme weather events put our sources of food and our traditional lifestyles at risk."
  • CEO of Americas Society and Council of the Americas Susan Segal calls for "Silicon Valley diplomacy," noting that "the region represents the best of our approach to innovation and entrepreneurship, and is the envy of the world," with especially strong pull for Latin Americans. Summits on innovation "could help spur the innovation needed for a new wave of economic growth, not just in the Americas but in the world. It’s also true that greater public and private sector engagement on these topics, where we are so admired, could lead to greater cooperation and dialogue on other, thornier issues. So why not seize the moment?"
  • Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana asks that the next U.S. government focus its Latin America policy "toward strengthening judicial systems, preventing and combating impunity and corruption, and promoting transparency in public spending."
  • AQ editor-in-chief Brian Winter makes a plea that will resonate with many observers of the region: to treat Latin Americans as equals. "... The relationships between Washington and Latin American countries remain uniquely weighed down by the historic baggage of the Cold War, the Monroe Doctrine, and the condescending “b-word” — backyard — still so often used to describe the region by U.S. media and some politicians. (Can we please retire it?)"
  • And academic David Truly makes the interesting argument that U.S. policy should help American baby boomers to retire in Latin America. "It’s a question of fairness. The vast majority of U.S. retirees living in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America have effectively contributed all their working lives to a Medicare system that they cannot use."
  • Igarapé Institute research director and cofounder Robert Muggah notes the U.S.'s role in supplying Latin America with firearms, and calls for "stronger U.S. control over the flow of arms south of the border ... Given the ready supply of firearms and ammunition the U.S. continues to provide as part of major security packages to Mexico, Central and South America, you have a special obligation to ensure the responsible export of arms and ammunition to the region."
News Briefs
  • Mexican investigative journalist Carmen Aristegui denounced that she is facing a new lawsuit intended to intimidate her regarding a book she published detailing President Enrique Peña Nieto's wife's purchase of a luxury home from a favored contractor, reports the New York Times. Aristegui reported on the "Casa Blanca" case, which has cast a pall over Peña Nieto's presidency, in Nov. 2014, and was dismissed from her job with MVS Communications soon after. The group's chairman is behind the new suit, for moral damages. The suit is aimed to divide the book's publisher, Penguin Random House from Aristegui, reports Aristegui Noticias. The issue became a Twitter "trending topic," with more than 30,000 tweets since yesterday, reports Aristegui. News of the suit came out just days after Peña Nieto partially apologized for the affair, though denying any wrong doing, notes the Guardian.
  • Another journalist was killed in Veracruz, Mexico's deadliest state for journalists, reports the Associated Press.  Pedro Tamayo was gunned down by two attackers on Wednesday night in the municipality of Tierra Blanca.
  • Homicides in Mexico in the first half of this year rose over 15 percent over the same period in 2015, reports the Associated Press.
  • InSight Crime has the English translation of an Animal Político piece detailing cartel operations in tMexico. Two cartels -- Jalisco Cartel - New Generation and the Sinaloa Cartel -- occupy fifteen states combined, while the Zetas and the Knights Templar have been reduced to operating in just one apiece. Three states, including Mexico City, have freed themselves of cartel presence, according to a new government analysis.
  • Brazilian authorities arrested 10 members of an Islamist group planning a terrorist attack, reports the New York Times. The arrests come as there is increased scrutiny of Brazil's security apparatus ahead of the upcoming Olympics games. Nonetheless, the justice minister emphasized the amateur nature of the group, called Defenders of Sharia. The target was unclear and most of the suspects knew each other only through online messaging, reports the Wall Street Journal. The suspects did not have bomb materials, nor did they identify a target and some merely discussed taking up martial arts, but one of them had reportedly been in contact with a website offering clandestine guns from Paraguay, according to the Guardian.
  • Weapons-screening plans for the megagames are in chaos, reports the Wall Street Journal separately. People hired to screen outside of the games have no security experience and minimal training.
  • Security concerns notwithstanding, Olympics organizers said they sold 100,000 tickets for the games in less than five hours, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • "The United Nations' 2016 World Drug Report's finding that Brazil is the most frequent country of departure for cocaine going to African, Asian and European markets has refocused attention on Santos, the country's largest port, and raised questions about the effectiveness ofBrazil's overall drug policy and enforcement measures," reports InSight Crime.
  • Brazilian rights groups celebrated a court decision that cancelled a major land purchase deal because investors had illegally acquired territory from small-scale farmers, reports Reuters.
  • Support for a wide-ranging amnesty law, overturned last week by the Supreme Court, might be the only thing El Salvador's main opposing political parties agree on, according to the Economist.  (See last Thursday's and Friday's posts.) The court's decision is "a sign that El Salvador’s judiciary is eager to assert its independence of both political parties." The question is now whether attorney-general Douglas Meléndez will take up the gauntlet and pursues cases of atrocities committed during the country's twelve-year civil war.
  • El Faro's Oscar Martínez is racking up prizes this month. In addition to the Committee to Protect Journalists' award (see Monday's post) he won a Maria Moors Cabot award this week. And El Faro won this year's Premio Gabriel García Márquez de Periodismo in recognition of excellence (see last Friday's briefs).
  • A piece by academics Chris van der Borgh y Wim Savenije in El Faro looks at how successive Salvadoran governments have enacted policies aimed at working with gangs to reduce violence and repressive measures that treat the gangs as an existential threat. Both approaches must be understood as "strategic steps that respond to specific political moments," they argue.
  • A great piece on the Knight Center's Journalism in the America's blog profiles Cuba's new "non-opposition" independent media, which started coming into its own just last year. "Besides avoiding standing at the extremes, they tell the stories that the official press does not, and make denunciations, but also profiles and chronicles of daily life on the island. They are looking for a place between Miami and Revolution Square."
  • On that note, Periodismo de Barrio has a piece on the energy crisis in Cuba, which includes details on government initiatives to cut usage -- such as a reduction of hours in certain government offices -- as well as increases in collective taxi prices in Havana. The piece is interesting in that it presents information from a variety of government sources -- mainly speeches, but also also presents relevant analysis, including previous instances of Venezuelan political crises affecting Cuba's oil supply.
  • UNASUR head Ernesto Samper said the Roman Catholic Church may soon join a group of Ibero-American leaders seeking to mediate between the Venezuelan government and the political opposition. The addition could help allay opposition suspicion's of UNASUR, reports Reuters. Samper noted, however, that the opposition maintained its condition for talks: a recall referendum this year, permission for international humanitarian aid to Venezuela, the freeing of jailed government opponents, and respect for the legislature.
  • David Smilde and Dimitris Pantoulas analyze how Venezuela's ongoing crisis could affect Colombia's peace process in World Politics Review. (Firewall.) They argue that "Venezuela’s government played a key role in facilitating Colombia’s dialogue with FARC guerrillas, and is posed to do so again with the smaller ELN. If Venezuela’s economic woes and political turbulence continue to worsen, or if a change of government occurs, it could significantly alter Venezuela’s future role in supporting talks with Colombian rebels."
  • Colombians face a difficult choice in a plebiscite vote on whether to approve a peace deal between the government and rebel FARC guerrillas. While citizens long for peace, and the accord is expected to pass, hatred for the FARC could push "no" votes, reports the Guardian, in a piece that compares the dilemma they face to that of the "Brexit" vote.
  • In the upcoming campaign for the plebiscite, opposition led by former President Álvaro Uribe must decide whether to promote absenteeism from the vote, or a "no" vote, reports Silla Vacía.
  • In the meantime, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is promoting the idea that the peace accord transcends his government, that peace would be a return to normalcy, and that this is a golden opportunity to end decades of fighting, reports Silla Vacía.
  • New security measures in the Colombian city of Palmira, including reinforcements from the National Police and a focus on combined social and police work in the most affected communities, succeeded in nearly halving homicides in the violence plagued city, reports InSight Crime.
  • Police are still trying to identify all of the victims of a prison riot in Guatemala that killed the country's most famous inmate -- Byron Lima Oliva -- and thirteen others, reports InSight Crime. An internal intelligence agency memo reviewed by InSight Crime insinuates that Eduardo Francisco Villatoro Cano, alias "Guayo Cano," a jailed drug trafficker, paid Marvin Montiel Marín, alias "el Taquero," about $130,000 to assassinate Lima inside the Pavón prison. But, as the piece notes, that is likely only "the first of many official versions" regarding the crime. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • Argentine president Mauricio Macri lifted a decree by his predecessor controlling spending by the country's intelligence agency, and has floated the possibility of returning control of national wiretaps to the highly questioned agency, reports Reuters.