Monday, October 16, 2017

Venezuela's opposition loses in gubernatorial elections, claims fraud (Oct. 16, 2017)

Venezuela's ruling party claims to have won a majority of governorships in yesterday's elections. The surprising results -- 17 governorships for the Socialist party and just five for the opposition MUD coalition, one race too close to call -- has the country's opposition politicians calling for street protests and audits of the 23 gubernatorial elections, reports Reuters.

President Nicolás Maduro said more than 61 percent of voters turned out to back a peaceful resolution to the country's political crisis, reports EFE. The national electoral council (CNE) said the ruling party obtained 54 percent of the vote around the country, reports Efecto Cocuyo

The PSUV held governorships in 20 of the 23 contested states, but opinion polls leading up to the vote had shown the opposition poised to take advantage of widespread anger at the government. Polls in fact predicted the opposite result -- up to 18 governorships for the opposition, reports EFE. Pollsters had noted a high level of turnout would be required to ensure such a result for the opposition, according to the Wall Street Journal. But that threshold was met. El País notes the losses in opposition strongholds, including Miranda state, currently governed by opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

The MUD denounced an unequal and tricky system and said it will not recognize the results until they can be audited, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Voting took place peacefully yesterday, but voters were stymied by changes in where they could vote -- forcing many to take travel to other areas, dominated by government supporters -- and alleged delaying tactics in opposition strongholds, reports the New York Times. The CNE moved over 200 polling stations from neighborhoods supporting the opposition to poorer, more violent Maduro strongholds, reported the Guardian yesterday. Opposition politicians who lost in primary elections were included on the ballots, but a vote for them is considered invalid.

Analysts quoted by the Financial Times said the results aren't credible, noting it would mean the ruling Socialist party has maintained its share of the vote since 2013, despite the massive economic crisis and widespread protests this year. Experts quoted by the Wall Street Journal said the results "verged on the statistically impossible."

The official result is not credible, according to David Smilde, who notes that the high turnout belies a result that does not reflect the government's vast unpopularity. Venezuela's electoral system has a "solid system of audits and checks," he writes, though it requires the CNE to release results from individual voting tables, which it hadn't done as of last night. And the MUD must substantiate its claims of tampering, including presenting evidence of voter suppression, assisted voting or duplicate voting, rather than vague calls for audits, he writes at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.

Indeed, the fraud could be more related to broader issues of an unequal playing field, rather than outright manipulation of results -- making the allegations far harder to prove, argues Raul Stolk at Caracas Chronicles.

Distrust of the system among Venezuelans has grown in recent years. A Venebarometro poll ahead of the vote found that 70 percent of respondents expected yesterday's election to be fraudulent, according to the WSJ.

Part of the reason for the government to push forward with this postponed elections is to recover a level of international credibility after the very questioned Constituent Assembly (ANC) elections earlier this year, noted Smilde last week. "... the Venezuelan government has been doing its best to showcase the regional elections as proof of its commitment to electoral democracy, and trying to use the vote to legitimize the ANC," wrote Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights ahead of the vote. However, countries in the region have stated they would not recognize the ANC, regardless of the results of yesterday's election.

The results could push sanctions from more members of the international community, including the European Union.

The results will likely heighten the potential for conflict and uncertainty, reports the BBC. The outcome will strengthen the opposition sectors that argued against participating in the elections, saying the CNE is an invalid arbiter, according to El País.

Ahead of the vote, Smilde was quoted by the New York Times, saying that "there is a big gray zone between dictatorship and democracy that Venezuela is in right now.”

A video released Saturday by ousted attorney general Luisa Ortega released a video with testimony alleging that Odebrecht made illicit campaign donations to key government politicians, including Diosdado Cabello. Ortega's material showed an excerpt from a deposition by the former head of Odebrecht’s Venezuelan operations in which he discusses how the Brazilian construction giant attempted to influence state and municipal elections in exchange for easing of red tape. The evidence seemed timed to impact on yesterday's elections, notes the New York Times

Last week Ortega posted a video in which the same Odebrecht executive testified that the company had paid President Nicolás Maduro at least $35 million in bribes in 2013 linked to campaign promises. Ortega said she shared information about high level corruption in the Maduro administration with U.S. officials, reports Reuters.

Venezuela briefs
  • Recent shootouts between prison inmates at Tocorón, in the state of Aragua, and police officers demonstrate the power of criminal groups in Venezuela and "the government's lack of ability, or will, to take control," reports InSight Crime.
  • The IMF is quietly analyzing a potential bailout for Venezuela, that would involve $30 billion in annual international help, and include one of the world’s most complex bond restructurings, reports the Financial Times. A recent IMF report said the country "remains in a full-blown economic, humanitarian, and political crisis with no end in sight," notes the Wall Street Journal. By 2018, the IMF said, the country’s economy will have contracted by 35% from 2014.
News Briefs
  • The U.N. ended its 13.5 year peacekeeping operation in Haiti yesterday. MINUSTAH is slated to be replaced by a smaller mission focused on justice, human rights and police development —  MINUJUSTH. Though the country must overcome complicated hurdles, the operation should be considered a success, according to its head, Sandra Honoré. (Link to full report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti from earlier this month.)
  • The Miami Herald explores whether the country is ready function without a large multinational military presence. MINUSTAH leaves behind a mixed legacy, marred in particular by the introduction of a cholera outbreak and sexual abuse allegations. Public opinion is in favor of the peacekeepers' departure, argue Siobhán Wills, Cahal McLaughlin, and Ilionor Louis in the Conversation. They say that early efforts to eradicate gangs in violent neighborhoods led U.N. troops to unintentionally kill at least 25 people.
  • Guatemalan police captured the leader of the MS-13 street gang Ángel Gabriel Reyes Marroquín, known as Blanco. Authorities believe he is behind the hospital attack that left seven dead in August, reports the BBC. (At the time authorities said the attack was orchestrated to free a jailed gang leader, see Aug. 17's briefs.)
  • Guatemalan human rights groups and other civil society organizations created a national front against corruption and impunity this weekend. They aim to implement reforms promoting profound political change, reports El Periódico. Among other things, they demand the resignation of the legislators who voted in favor of maintaining President Jimmy Morales' immunity from prosecution despite allegations of illicit campaign financing.
  • Cuban President Raul Castro's economic reforms represent the country's "most urgent need and, at the same time, an increasingly controversial one," writes William Leogrande in Americas Quarterly. Castro, slated to step down next year, will leave his successor with a complicated economic panorama. "... Recent signals indicate the reforms may be stalled and that some of Cuba’s leaders are having doubts." Key issues include a delayed promise to unify a dual currency and exchange rate. He also notes that "while the reform process has had limited success stimulating growth, it has produced a noticeable rise in inequality, price increases that outpace wage growth, and rumblings of political discontent."
  • A a new UNICEF report shows a worsening rate of adolescent homicides in Brazil, "one of the more extreme examples of a trend seen across the region: violence by and against young people, especially young males," according to InSight Crime. If the trend continues, then 43,000 more adolescents will be murdered in the country's 300 most populous municipalities between 2015 and 2021.
  • Campaign financing reform passed earlier this month in Brazil aims to replace corporate donations, declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 2015. Congress created a "special campaign-finance fund," in addition to an existing fund aimed at covering parties' administrative costs. Individuals can donate up to 10 percent of their income to candidates, who can also spend millions of reais of their own money. Though the initial impact will be greater for major parties, in the long run, the changes could hurt smaller parties and favor already famous candidates, reports the Economist
  • Argentine lawyer, Delia Ferreira Rubio, has been chosen to head Transparency International, reports Infobae. The former head of the Argentine chapter of the organization is a stalwart opponent of Argentine efforts to implement electronic voting.
  • As the U.S. distances itself increasingly from Cuba, the island is becoming diplomatically cozier with Russia, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Ongoing and widespread power outages have forced Puerto Rico residents to go "old school" with washboards, candles and cash, reports the Miami Herald. And public health experts are concerned that rotting mounds of trash could set the stage for epidemics. Four deaths could already be ascribed to leptospirosis — a bacterial infection caused by rodent urine tainting the water from springs, reports the Miami Herald separately.
  • A new exhibition at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile focuses on Washington’s intervention in Chile and its 17-year relationship with the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, reports the New York Times.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Rios Montt Trial Resumes in Guatemala (Oct 13, 2017)

The retrial against former Guatemalan military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt and his military intelligence chief restarts today, writes Jo-Marie Burt for the International Justice Monitor. It will be a closed door trial (due to the 91-year-old Rios Montt's diagnosis of dementia), and for now proceedings will only take place one day a week. 

In a landmark 2013 case, a judge found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and sentenced him to 80 years in prison, only for the Constitutional Court to overturn the ruling 10 days later. The Rios Montt case was extremely politically and historically significant for Guatemala, with many viewing his trial as emblematic of the country's struggles to seek justice for military abuses committed during Guatemala's civil war. However, the case would have also set a precedent for the prosecution of other elites who perpetrated crimes against humanity, a reality which likely influenced the Constitutional Court's ruling. The Rios Montt case was also particularly notable as it was the first time a former president was prosecuted for genocide in a national, rather than international, court.

The retrial may primarily serve a symbolic purpose -- Rios Montt's dementia prevents him from serving time in prisonEFE reported that at least four elderly witnesses who testified during the 2013 trial against Rios Montt have since passed away, arguably adding to a sense of urgency for the retrial. 

Notably, Rios Montt's defense lawyer was among those arrested last week by the Attorney General's Office and anti-impunity commission the CICIG, accused of mishandling public money in connection to a prison corruption ring (see the Oct. 6 brief). 

News Briefs

  • The AP got a hold of a recording of the "sonic attack" which reportedly injured at least 21 U.S. diplomats in Cuba, causing a major setback in relations between the two countries. In another twist to the story, neurologists told The Guardian that the symptoms experienced by U.S. personnel in Havana possibly were caused by "mass hysteria." Amid the ongoing mystery about what possibly could have caused the reported injuries, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that the White House believes "the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats." A State Department spokeswoman echoed his words during a press conference, asserting that the Cuban government "may have more information than we are aware of right now." 
  • Venezuela's former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz published a video on her website, which reportedly shows the head of the Venezuelan division of giant construction conglomerate Odebrecht saying he will pay President Nicolas Maduro $35 million in bribes. Before leaving Venezuela in August, Ortega said she was under pressure to flee the country due to an ongoing investigation into bribes that Odebrecht paid out to Maduro and other government officials. 
  • Reuters profiles Venezuela migrants forced to return home after failing to start a new life elsewhere. While no official data exists on the number of Venezuelans who've returned home after migrating, Reuters reports that an estimated 2 million Venezuelans have left the country under the Maduro government. Countries receiving an influx of Venezuelan migrants include Colombia (where a reported 36,000 Venezuelans enter daily), Panama (where a reported 2,000 Venezuelans arrive weekly), and Peru (40,000 Venezuelans have arrived during the first half of 2017). 
  • An investigation by The Guardian found that many of the buildings that collapsed in Mexico City during the Sept. 19 earthquake had received citizen complaints about safety. The city's building boom was accompanied by a similar spike in complaints by residents about construction violations. "Mexico City is prone to earthquakes, but the way it has developed since 1985 has made it even more so," the article states. 
  • Mexico passed a law which aims to strengthen the government’s ability to track and investigate disappearances. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) calls this an important step forward for human rights in Mexico, although fully implementing the law will be the real challenge. Additionally, the law "does little to facilitate the investigation of high-ranking security officers accused of forced disappearances," and "establishes harmful distinctions between 'disappeared' and 'missing' persons, which could possibly cause many cases to be classified as voluntary absences rather than forced disappearances."
  • The New Yorker examines whether Brazil's economic and political turmoil is fostering the myth that a military coup could help the country "clean up" its corruption problem. The article notes that a recent poll showed 43 percent of respondents as supporting "temporary military intervention." Homicide and crime rates could also be feeding Brazilians' nostalgia "for those days of law and apparent order," the article states. 
  • InSight Crime reviews three books about the history of the Zetas, the violent crime group whose modus operandi (and subsequent fracturing) had huge repercussions for Mexico's underworld. The Zetas' most enduring legacy may be their successful efforts to exploit and extort Mexico's energy sector, setting a model which other criminal groups in the country are likely to follow. InSight Crime is also running a three-part series looking at mayors and organized crime in the Northern Triangle -- the first installment focuses on Guatemala. 
  • John Otis reports for NPR on Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno, noting that while Moreno was a protege of his predecessor, Rafael Correa, Moreno has openly criticized corruption reported under the Correa administration.
  • Radio Ambulante reports on a 1974 World Cup qualifier between Chile and the Soviet Union, which the Soviet Union initially refused to play because, at the time, the Pinochet government had used Chile's largest stadium as a concentration camp to house prisoners of the regime. 
-- Elyssa Pachico 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Win for Colombia's Peace Deal (Oct 12, 2017)

Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled that the various terms of the country's peace deal with rebel group the FARC -- once all of the elements are approved by Congress -- cannot be modified for the next 12 years. This means that even should a candidate from a conservative opposition partu (including Democratic Center, founded by former president and outspoken peace deal critic Alvaro Uribe) win Colombia's presidency in May 2018, s/he cannot reverse the more controversial elements of the agreement. 

Juanita Leon at La Silla Vacia notes that the Court's unanimous ruling is especially significant given that just over a year ago, a narrow majority of the Colombian people voted against the peace deal in a plebiscite. This outcome continues to fuel critiques by Demoncratic Center and other opponents that peace deal terms -- especially those concerning transitional justice and amnesty for the FARC -- should be renegotiated. 

In fact, the Constitutional Court's ruling will now protect the elements of the peace deal -- particularly the transitional justice element -- that are least popular with Uribe and his supporters, Leon writes. 

However, this ruling doesn't create an "untouchable" peace deal: it does nothing to guarantee that the government continue supporting the land reform initiatives, illegal crop substitution projects, and the peasant reserve zones which are fundamental to addressing the problems that long fueled the Colombian conflict. Depending on the outcome of Colombia's elections next year, it's still quite possible that a new executive and legislature would back away from these programs. 

News Briefs 

  • Buzzfeed reports on a case which highlights the difficulties faced by Central American asylum seekers in providing "skeptical" U.S. immigration authorities with evidence of their need for asylum. Asylum seekers must pass a "credible fear" assessment test before they are granted a hearing, but as Buzzfeed points out, those fleeing gang violence lack the resources and the "hard" evidence (say, a police report confirming that they've been threatened in their native country) needed to back up their claims. As U.S. federal asylum laws are "heavily weighted to asylum claims based on state-sponsored persecution," this makes it even harder for Central Americans fleeing gang violence to make a case for refugee status and protect themselves from being deported back to dangerous situations. Indeed, under the current system, there is almost "a perverse incentive for persecuted people to wait until they are tortured or raped before coming to the United States."
  • Bolivia saw large street protests in reaction to President Evo Morales' efforts to ban term limits. According to Reuters, the Morales government blamed the opposition for organizing the demonstrations, which were "dismissed... as political rallies disguised as a grassroots movement." 
  • Thanks to a sweeping law approved in July, Jamaican authorities have the power to put crime-prone areas under virtual martial law for a given period of time. The areas are called "zones of special operations" (Zoso), and so far, the government has created only one -- in the neighborhood of Mount Salem in Montego Bay. While authorities say they've managed to reduce crime and violence in the area, a representative from Human Rights Watch told The Guardian that these measures could feed police and military abuse. 
  • The Financial Times profiles how gang violence and sexual assault is "torturing a generation" of young girls in El Salvador. "One of the saddest indictments of a girl’s status in El Salvador is the pitiful value she commands in the gang’s twisted economy," the article observes, reporting on how gang culture involves using girlfriends and sisters as a means to leverage status or seek revenge. 
  • Mexico's most populated state registers the second-highest number of femicides in the country, which prompted the federal government to issue the country's first ever "gender violence alert" in 2015. While this is supposed to mandate state authorities to promptly investigate the disappearance of any woman, in practice this is not happening, the Associated Press reports
  • The Conversation examines a new report published in medical review journal The Lancet, which found that three-quarters of all abortions in Latin America are performed illegally
  • A World Bank report released Wednesday shows that Latin American and Caribbean economies have registered strong growth, although the report does not account for damage caused by this year's hurricane season. The Miami Herald has a brief summary of the report's most significant findings. 
  • A Guatemalan court convicted a man of killing two journalists in 2015, reports the AP
  • Americas Quarterly editor-in-chief Brian Winter asks why Brazil's establishment politicians have failed to address endemic crime and violence levels in the country. "It is immoral and ultimately suicidal for Brazil’s political class to continue to treat violence as somebody else’s problem, or some kind of taboo," he concludes. 
  • In the wake of the destruction of Hurricane Maria, some leaders in the Caribbean -- with backing from United Nations leadership -- see an opportunity to rebuild more "climate change-resistant" countries. “The intensity of hurricanes and multiplication of hurricanes in the Caribbean in this season is not an accident,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said during a visit to Caribbean islands devastated by the hurricane. “It is the result of climate change.” Via The Miami Herald
  • At Forbes, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Woodrow Wilson Center policy fellow Earl Anthony Wayne takes a brief look at how the NAFTA renegotiation could put U.S.-Mexico security cooperation at risk. Continued cooperation on this front is especially crucial given rising drug overdose and addiction rates in the U.S. (fed in part by heroin and fentanyl smuggled in from Mexico), and rising violence levels in Mexico (June 2017 was the most violent month in 20 years). However, this partnership "will be made much more difficult if the United States is perceived to be unfairly punishing Mexico in the renegotiation of NAFTA," Wayne writes. 
-- Elyssa Pachico

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

NAFTA Talks Resume in D.C. (Oct 11, 2017)

The Mexican, Canadian, and U.S. government will enter the fourth round of talks on renewing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) today in D.C. The talks, which were extended by two days, are now set to run until October 17.

President Trump has made no secret of his willingness to scrap the deal entirely. As noted in a Washington Post editorialthe U.S. has made several "alarming" demands -- including a request that NAFTA essentially be re-negotiated every five years -- that will likely raise serious opposition from Mexico and Canada. CNBC reported that the U.S. will likely demand stricter standards for designating goods as duty free, as well as requesting that 50 percent of U.S. goods be tariff-free (CNBC does not clarify whether this would apply to all industries). As Reuters reportedthe most powerful business body in the U.S. has called these demands a "poison pill" meant to sabotage the NAFTA deal. 

Mexican government officials have taken a subtly aggressive stance against Trump's hostile positioning to NAFTA. Yesterday Mexico's foreign minister told his country's Senate that the end of NAFTA “won’t be the end of the world." He also implied that ending NAFTA would limit or even end Mexico's cooperation with the U.S. when it comes to drug trafficking, migration, and security issues (a prospect reiterated by Mexico's minister of the economy). Overall, it's likely that the threat of a NAFTA collapse leading to a larger collapse within Mexico -- with serious repercussions for U.S. security and/or other economic interests -- is powerful leverage that Mexican negotiators will remain intent on using. 

As Jon Lee Anderson details in a New Yorker story on U.S.-Mexico relations under Trump, Mexico's view of NAFTA as just another chapter in a long history of an "oppressive" relationship could also push the Mexican government to walk away from the agreement, in order to protect a sense of national pride.  Anderson implies that if anything ends up saving NAFTA, it may end up being Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray's friendship Jared Kushner, with one U.S. official telling Anderson, "Jared and Videgaray pretty much run Mexico policy."

In terms of contemplating potential repercussions of a scrapped NAFTA deal, The Telegraph speculates that a post-Brexit United Kingdom could seek to join some kind of U.S.-Mexico-Canada partnership. Elsewhere, The Atlantic Council has produced a report examining the wide-ranging policy implications if NAFTA ends. 

News Briefs
  • The Colombian director of Guatemala anti-impunity commission the CICIG had his visa revoked, the latest twist in the tense, ongoing standoff between the commission and the Guatemalan government. That same day, the CICIG released a report analyzing what is described as its most significant accomplishments since it was established in 2006. 
  • El Nuevo Herald reported that the U.S. will continuing issuing visas for Cubas looking to reunite with family members, although no details have emerged on how the reduced staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana will handle the workload. Under a 1994 agreement, the U.S. is supposed to give 20,000 visas per year to Cubans on the island. Some 106,000 Cubans are on a waitlist for U.S. visa applications, the article found.
  • With Venezuela's regional elections coming up on October 15, analyst David Smilde looks at why the vote could prove to be a "watershed moment." "The real test will come after the election as the government will either face a very different map with at least half of the governorships in the hands of the opposition, or will have to carry out some inelegant political maneuvers that will likely carry significant political costs," Smilde writes at the WOLA Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog. In other Venezuela-related news, Mexico confirmed that it will accompany the Maduro government and the opposition in negotiations, EFE reported
  • The Brookings Institution has a harsh critique of the Trump administration's decision to reduce its staff in Cuba due to concerns over alleged "sonic attacks." The White House and Congressional representations with a hardline stance on Cuba have "opportunistically" used the alleged attacks as an excuse to overturn Obama's pro-normalization policies, the report argues, adding, "By taking these precipitous actions, this White House is doing exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke."
  • report by Global Americans examines the lack of indigenous representation in legislatures across Latin America, a disparity which is particularly acute in Mexico and Peru, where there are large indigenous populations. Bolivia's legislature has the highest number of indigenous people represented in their Congress (41 out of 166 seats) followed by Guatemala (20 out of 158 seats). 
  • New York Times op-ed examines why Venezuela was included in the Trump administration's latest travel ban. The piece argues that, given efforts by the White House to escalate pressure on Venezuela and its ongoing push to establish a constitutional travel ban against majority Muslim countries, Venezuela's inclusion on the travel ban list "adds to the sense that a frustrated White House is throwing things at the wall and hoping something will stick."
  • The Economist has a profile of Peruvian sculptor and painter Fernando de Szyszlo, describing him as representative of "the globalization of Latin American art." 

-- Elyssa Pachico 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Report Reveals Flaws in Mexico City Building Codes (Oct 10, 2017)

Data compiled by structural engineers at Stanford University and viewed by the Associated Press show that about two-thirds of the 44 Mexico City buildings that collapsed because of the Sept. 19 earthquake were designed with a construction method still legal in Mexico, but forbidden in other earthquake-prone countries. 

The construction method, known as "flat slab," was a "crucial reform" that authorities failed to pass after the 1985 earthquake which killed thousands. However, at the time, builders pressured city officials (who were under great pressure to produce results quickly) to avoid an outright ban on flat slab construction.  

The reliance on flat slab construction isn't the only reason why Mexico City experienced extensive damage after the Sept. 19 quake: the AP found that corrupt Mexico City officials found other ways to take shortcuts around building codes, and rush through approvals for buildings that lacked licensed engineers, among other issues. 

One fundamental problem that helps feed corruption -- and consequently make city residents more vulnerable to earthquake damage -- is that Mexico City laws require "private engineers — not government experts — [to] vet projects’ structural safety, and even city officials say the process can be vulnerable to corruption," the AP reports. 

For another look at how Mexican government regulations are arguably making citizens more vulnerable to earthquake disasters, Animal Politico reports that Mexico only allows one type of seismic alert system to be sold across the country, at marked-up prices

News Briefs 
  • Haiti asked the U.S. for a formal extension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allows migrants from conflicted countries to live and work temporarily in the U.S. Haiti's TPS is up for renewal in January, reported The Miami Herald. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is also due to consider renewing TPS status for Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans. 
  • El Faro reports that Honduras will shut down the country's second-largest prison by the end of October. Authorities are set to demolish the prison -- which is largely run by gangs -- once all inmates have been transferred to other facilities. The article states that there are an estimated 18,000 inmates distributed across 30 prisons in Honduras, as well as military and police jails. 
  • The national defense committee in Peru's Congress motioned that they would support passing a law that would transfer members of the security forces convicted of human rights abuses to military prisonsreported La Republica.  A human rights lawyer described the proposed law as "a prize for members of the military who have committed human rights crimes." 
  • The wife of former Mexico President Felipe Calderon is preparing to run as an independent for the July 2018 presidential elections. This could ultimately end up helping ruling party the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) by causing the opposition to become even more divided, according to The Wall Street Journal. More from Reuters
  • Regional elections are scheduled for October 15 in Venezuela, and Reuters notes that the race for governor in Barinas state is emblematic of the many challenges that opposition candidates are facing. These challenges include demoralized supporters, a confusing ballot sheet, and the extensive state resources -- including hours of air-time on state media channels and access to helicopters for travel to rural areas -- enjoyed by "Chavista" candidates. 
  • Cuba's vice president (and Raul Castro's most likely successor) strongly hinted that he does not support rapprochement with the United States in a speech made Sunday, reported The Miami Herald
  • Brazilian authorities are investigating a U.S. evangelical church that may have made improper land deals and systematically abused young recruits, who were forced to work for church-affiliated businesses for little to no pay. From the AP.
  • Reuters reports on Brazil's struggle to come up with campaign funds for its scandal-ridden politicians, in light of the ban against corporate donations. Last week Brazil's Congress approved a $541 million pool of public money for political campaigns (which will co-exist alongside a separate, multi-million dollar pool of funds that supports political party activity). 
  • Last week's arrest of the former governor of Mexico's Tamaulipas state is "illustrative of the failure of both the state and federal government to crack down on corruption," says InSight Crime, as the ex-governor has been wanted in the U.S. for money laundering since 2015. 
  • Confidencial examines the Nica Act, which, if approved by U.S. Congress, would oppose loans at international financial institutions for Nicaragua, unless the government took steps to show it is becoming more transparent and democratic. The article notes there's little chance of Congress voting on the Nica Act in the near future, but the prospect has already provided fuel to President Daniel Ortega supporters, who are blaming the country's woes on the U.S.  
  • InSight Crime published a version of a piece that originally appeared on The Conversation, looking at ongoing efforts by Bogota security forces to "clean up" the city's open air drug dens (known as "ollas"). The article argues that "a strategy of violent displacement followed by investment and gentrification is not the answer."
  • Latin American diplomats were among those who spoke to The Washington Post about their views of the Trump administration as chaotic and unlikely to improve anytime soon. One unnamed Latin American diplomat told the newspaper that things have improved after John Kelly's appointment as chief of staff,  “At least with process, if not policy."
  • Armando Calderón Sol, El Salvador's first president elected after 12 years of civil war, died Monday in the U.S
-- Elyssa Pachico

Monday, October 9, 2017

Colombia Reels from Police Clash in Coca Community (Oct 9, Mon)

The fallout continues from last week's clash between Colombian police and community residents in Tumaco, one of the poorest areas of the country, which has long been a hub for coca cultivation (see Friday's brief). While Colombia has frequently registered clashes between police-led coca eradication teams and communities that usually receive little to no state services, last week's confrontation was unusually violent. 
 
 La Silla Vacia found that both the security forces and the community members protesting police presence included false or misleading details in their accounts of what happened, after security forces began firing indiscriminately upon protestors (estimates for the number of dead and wounded vary widely, with Colombia's National Forensics Institute reporting six dead). Farmers in the region say that they are open to coca eradication and crop substitution efforts, but they want the government to prioritize previously shelved plans for infrastructure and development initiatives, reports Verdad Abierta
 
International organizations and representatives -- including the head of the UN Special Mission in Colombia and representatives from the UK parliament -- rebuked Colombia for the violence. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) called on the U.S. government to "cease its aggressive demands for forced coca eradication, which places unnecessary pressure on Colombia’s security forces and could bring about more tragedies resembling what just happened in Tumaco." 
 
Semana reported that an international team of journalists, NGO representatives, and others who attempted to enter the community on Sunday were fired upon by police. Colombia's National Police have suspended four officers involved in the incident. 
 
News Briefs
  • Transparency International estimates that up to 90 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean have paid bribes, according to findings revealed in their latest survey. Mexico and the Dominican Republic had the highest number of respondents who reported having paid bribes, while Brazil had one of the lowest reported bribery rates. The survey involved 22,000 respondents in 20 countries. 
  • With support from the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Guatemala is creating a multi-disciplinary team to help track campaign financing irregularitiesreports elPeriodico. The team will report its findings to a specialized unit within the Attorney General's Office that focuses on campaign finance crimes, first created with the CICIG's backing in 2015.  
  • Ecuador's Constitutional Court is currently considering a national referendum proposed by President Lenin Moreno, which would ask citizens to vote on seven questions that would amend Ecuador's Constitution. The questions range from reinstating term limits for elected officials, to banning those convicted of corruption from running for public office. Overall, the proposed referendum would represent something of a reversal to the 2008 Constitutional reforms under President Rafael Correa.  
  • new El Faro-Univision collaboration looks at the surge of Honduran and Salvadoran migrants attempting to enter Belize, which has fueled a wave of anti-migrant backlash in the country. Belize does not report how many asylum applications it processes, but according to one Belizean NGO, during the peak of El Salvador's gang violence in 2015, some 300 people were attempting to cross the border into Belize every week. Belize has not granted refugee status to anyone for two decades and is unlikely to change its policy anytime soon, the article notes. 
  • The Associated Press reports on Sao Paulo's "Crackland," a hub for the city's crack cocaine trade, where those addicted to the drug can buy and use openly. Brazil has the largest crack cocaine market in the world, and the Sao Paulo city government has experimented with a number of measures -- from police raids to rehabilitation programs -- to "clean up" the area. Critics have likened the current attempt to aid "Crackland" as "symbolic of a larger campaign to 'sanitize' the city: to slap a coat of paint over social problems like poverty and homelessness while pursuing a revitalization of the dilapidated city center that could push working-class families out."
  • The New York Times reports on a plea deal that U.S. prosecutors made with Honduran drug trafficker Devis Rivera, one of the former heads of the Cachiros drug trafficking group, who began cooperating with the DEA in 2013. Rivera's clandestine collaboration with U.S. prosecutors enabled them to charge top Honduran police officials and politicians (including a former president's son) with drug trafficking crimes. However, as part of his plea deal, Rivera also admitted to participating in 78 killings, including the 2011 assassination of politician and counternarcotics official Alfredo Landaverde, and it is unlikely that he will ever face justice for those crimes in Honduras. 
  • The Washington Post examines President Trump's stance in Venezuela, with one unnamed White House official quoted as saying, "He talks about it all the time." Trump has mentioned Venezuela in the majority of his calls with Latin American leaders, and his tough rhetoric may be striking "the right tone" for the moment, given that many other international actors have recognized the need for increased international pressure on the Maduro government, the article says. 
  • Last week's resignation of a prominent radio host in Mexico -- who says he was forced out after criticizing government influence over the media -- is emblematic of how government media spending acts as a severe restriction on Mexico's freedom of speechreports The New York Times
  • The Guardian has an article and photo essay profiling the transgender community in Bogota, Colombia; while The New York Times reports on a Brazilian soap opera that includes a "dignified and nuanced portrayal" of a transgender man's transition. The show has earned many fans in the transgender community, at a time when Brazil's Supreme Court is about to consider two cases that could create an important precedent for transgender rights in the country. 
  • Buzzfeed chronicles the rise of Mexico's "narco-rap," in which -- continuing the tradition of Mexico's "narco-corrido" genre -- rappers are commissioned by gang members to write songs about their exploits. 
--- Elyssa Pachico