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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Corruption, Human Rights Scandal Rocks the Colombian Armed Forces

This post first appeared on Just Americas: A Blog by LAWG. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Director of the Latin America Working Group .

Colombia’s Semana magazine revealed in February a massive corruption scandal involving the top ranks of Colombia’s armed forces. Officials were skimming up to 50 percent off of lucrative military contracts. “Give us 5 billion [pesos] and give the other companies 3. If we are all eating, no one will pick a fight,” said one colonel.

Top military commanders, as well as personally benefitting from this corruption, were steering contracts to officers and soldiers under investigation and detained in military garrisons for involvement in extrajudicial executions. According to Semana , “this was a system to buy their silence and ensure that they did not implicate higher-level officials in the sadly famous practice of false positives.”

Colombia’s Attorney General's office is investigating cases, known as the “false positives,” in which over 4,200 people were allegedly extrajudicially executed by members of Colombia's armed forces. Many additional cases are, inappropriately according to Colombian law, still in the military justice system. In the vast majority, these are not cases of civilians who were killed in crossfire but rather of people, usually young men from poor urban and rural neighborhoods, who were detained or lured with promises of jobs, executed and dressed in guerrilla clothing to look like enemy dead, to increase the army's body count. The majority of these killings occurred from 2004 to 2008. In 2009, reforms introduced by then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, including insisting that these cases be transferred to civilian courts rather than the military courts that never punished them, helped to reduce this horrific practice.

While there has been progress in some cases, the majority of extrajudicial executions remain in impunity. The vast scope of these crimes and the similar pattern throughout geographic regions suggest high-level involvement, yet investigations to date have focused on soldiers and lower-level officials, with not a single case against a general, brigade or division commander advanced beyond preliminary stages. In late 2013, a law promoted by President Juan Manuel Santos which would have resulted in more such crimes being assigned to military rather than civilian courts was struck down on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court. President Santos has pledged to reintroduce this regressive law.

Military officials detained and jailed for extrajudicial executions continue to be held in military garrisons where they retain special privileges, can run businesses and can leave freely. Indeed, according to Semana, one “detained” colonel appeared to spend so much time in his apartment, shopping centers, and the Jockey Club that anyone wanting to see him in jail had to make an appointment. In 2011, when Semana exposed the “prison resort” of Tolemeida, the Defense Ministry promised to put an end to these privileges—but two years later, they are still endemic.

In one of the most disturbing revelations, Semana reported that armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero told an officer who was under investigation for extrajudicial executions to “get together and work up a mafia” to denounce the Attorney General’s human rights prosecutors.

The Santos Administration Responds. President Santos dismissed armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero on February 18, replacing him with General Juan Pablo Rodriguez. While Barrero’s dismissal is positive, it is concerning that General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar has been promoted to command the army. Lasprilla oversaw a unit with a pattern of extrajudicial killings when he was commander of the Army’s 9th Brigade in Huila in 2006-07. According to an analysis compiled by Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Attorney General’s office is investigating 38 extrajudicial executions by 9th Brigade soldiers under his command, and the Jesuit research center CINEP and other human rights groups have documented an additional 37 alleged extrajudicial executions.

Spying on the Government—and the President. But this is hardly the only military scandal in the news. A Colombian military intelligence unit was revealed in January to have been spying on the government’s own peace negotiators out of “Bugglyhacker,” a Bogotá internet café. Newspaper reports indicated that army intelligence was also spying on the Attorney General’s office, police, human rights groups and journalists, in a disturbing echo of the Uribe Administration’s intelligence scandal, which resulted in the disbanding of the presidential intelligence agency, the DAS. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón subsequently sacked two top military intelligence leaders. President Santos initially condemned the spying as illegal, and then backpedaled.

Semana magazine’s coverage also highlighted a wiretapping room known as the “Grey Room,” for which, according to the article, the CIA had provided equipment and training. While the room was supposedly intended for the army to carry out legal wiretaps with the presence of representatives from the Attorney General’s office, Semana asserted that Colombian military intelligence during 2013 used it for unauthorized wiretaps, leading to it being shut down.

In February, President Santos denounced the interception of his own personal emails. It is not yet known who was behind that spying; the President himself speculated that it was an attempt to weaken his reelection bid.

A military source told El Espectador that sectors of the military were concerned that the peace talks could result in reducing their size, limiting their mission to external defense, and limiting their social and economic power; and particularly, that they are concerned they will face justice for crimes while the guerrillas will negotiate judicial benefits.

Defense Minister Pinzón at a Center for American Progress briefing on February 27 asserted that President Santos has stated that the role and size of the military will not be negotiated in the peace talks, in contrast to peace accords in Central America and Africa. Mr. Pinzón laid out an extremely expansive vision of the role of the armed forces post-peace accord, ranging from border security to confronting drug trafficking, transnational crime and continued armed violence in an accord’s aftermath; and from addressing climate change to expanding the military’s role in development. He strongly emphasized increasing Colombia’s role in security training globally, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean. These kinds of words are intended to reassure members of the military that they will keep their substantial role and privileges if a peace accord is reached. But they are hardly reassuring to Colombian victims of violence by the armed forces and communities that have endured the brunt of the war from all sides.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In their Homes, in their Work, Colombia's Human Rights Defenders Remain at Risk

By: Lisa Haugaard, LAWGEF

In their houses, in front of their children, in the middle of meetings, while taking their children or grandchildren to school, while eating in restaurants, while walking to or from work: these are some of the places in which 78 Colombian human rights defenders were assassinated in 2013.

Community leaders, representatives of poor farmers and victims, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, land rights champions, union leaders, LGBTI and women's rights defenders, youth leaders: these are some of the kinds of defenders assassinated in 2013. Most were poor, from far-flung parts of the country.

Many were shot with four to seven bullets. Five were tortured.

According to Somos Defensores ("We are Defenders"), a Colombian nongovernmental program that produces an annual report on attacks against defenders, the number of assassinations of defenders increased from 69 in 2012 to 78 in 2013. Of the 78 defenders assassinated, 15 were allegedly by paramilitary groups, 8 by guerrillas, 5 by members of government security forces, and 50 by unknown authors. Assassinations by paramilitary groups and security forces increased and those by guerrillas decreased in 2013 compared to the previous year. Somos Defensores speculates that the murders of defenders attributed to the guerrillas may have declined due to the current peace talks.

Defenders experienced a total of 366 aggressions against individual defenders in 2013, ranging from threats, thefts of information, arbitrary detentions and legal harassment, to assaults, forced disappearances and assassinations. One hundred and eighty-five organizations were targeted.

What was the Colombian government's response? While the Santos Administration's public discourse on human rights defenders remains much better than its predecessor's, it failed to protect defenders adequately and some government agents were responsible for abuses and harassment against them. The lack of effective investigations of crimes against defenders remains a major problem. While threats generate enormous fear amongst human rights defenders, and may be followed by assassinations, they are never investigated; impunity for threats remains at 100 percent. Break-ins of defenders’ offices in which sensitive human rights information is stolen are not taken seriously. The Colombian government must make far greater progress in dismantling paramilitary groups, the illegal armed groups that were only partially demobilized in 2005, if it is to protect human rights defenders and poor communities.

While the government maintains a vital protection program for defenders, physical protection programs are not sufficient nor do they cover all those needing protection. Despite promises to do so, the government has advanced little in providing collective protection measures for organizations and communities.

2013 was a year of tremendous social protest in Colombia, in which poor farmers and indigenous people protested the lack of policies to protect their lives and livelihoods. Repression of these protests, especially by the ESMAD riot police, was brutal. According to Somos Defensores, "ESMAD acted as a shock force against protests, with the goal of dispersing them, silencing them and bringing charges against protestors."

As the Colombian and U.S. governments meet this week in a High-Level Policy Dialogue, improving efforts to protect defenders, including by prosecuting those who threaten and kill them, is on the agenda. That’s as it should be. But now we need to see more results.

It was a year of contrasts. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is laudably pursuing a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, the best hope in a generation to end Colombia's half century of war. His signature Victims' Law pledges to provide reparations and land restitution to Colombia's victims of violence. But in their homes and communities, Colombia's everyday heroes and heroines of nonviolent defense of human rights remain at risk.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Week in Review

This week the violence in Venezuela continued to escalate, Colombia's military became embroiled in the second major scandal this month and Argentina's top security officials grappled with the rise in narcotrafficking. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • On Wednesday the Washington Post ran an article on reduced U.S.-Mexico security cooperation since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office. The article found “Americans are still kept more at arms’ length than before,” noting the Mexican government delayed State Department-funded programs that train and equip Mexican security forces until as recently as November. It also highlighted a significant drop in extraditions to the United States. During the White House press gaggle before Obama's visit to Mexico, Ben Rhodes insisted the U.S. government is pleased with the level of security cooperation between the two governments.
  • On Wednesday President Obama traveled to Toluca, Mexico to meet with Mexican President Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephan Harper for the North American Leaders’ Summit. According to several media reports, the leaders agreed to improve their economic and security relationships, and as the New York Times noted, "continue" with existing cooperation without announcing any new developments. The focus was largely on the economy and the Trans-Atlantic Trade partnership, with little focus on security or immigration. McClatchy reported on the tensions between the three leaders, claiming it overshadowed the summit.
  • On Sunday, Semana magazine reported members of the Colombian military had been receiving kickbacks from military contracts while diverting money from base budgets. It also found that jailed lower-ranking officers been paid to remain silent about the involvement of higher-ranking officers in the so-called "false positives" scandal, in which innocent civilians were slain and presented as guerrillas killed in combat.

    On Tuesday, President Santos announced the dismissal of four top generals for corruption and the head of the military, General Barrera. Barrera was not fired over corruption but for calling "false positive" investigations "a bunch of crap" and suggesting officers band together, "like a mafia" against prosecutors investigating the cases. Over 4,000 members of the military are being investigated for their roles in extrajudicial killings and there are estimated to have been between 3,000 and 4,000 victims. President Santos has called for further investigation and said officers should be tried in civilian courts. This scandal comes after another just a few weeks ago, when Semana reported the military had been wiretapping both negotiating teams in Havana, opposition lawmakers and journalists.

  • The Colombian government resumed aerial coca fumigation this past Saturday. It had been suspended after two planes had been shot down in U.S.-sponsored missions. Rodrigo Uprimny, a researcher for Colombian organization Dejusticia, criticized the practice in an op-ed in El Espectador, noting its harmful affect on health, the environment and licit crops, while it has also largely been found ineffective.
  • Although murders in Guatemala have dropped to the lowest in a decade, an article in Plaza Pública found the trend started before current President Otto Perez Mólina took office, challenging his claim that his militarized security policies have been effective. The news site reported that the rate of reduction has slowed under President Perez Mólina. InSight Crime translated the article into English.
  • Argentina's Security Minister, Sergio Berni, said this week that he would support decriminalizing not just the consumption of marijuana but production as well. Berni said there was "no chance police could beat narcotrafficking" and that “The [United States] has the most protected borders and everything gets inside." The comments came after Berni rejected claims by Defense Minister Agustin Rossi that Argentina is no longer just a drug consumption and transit hub, but is also now a drug producer, due to the increased presence of Mexican cartels.
  • In Brazil, police officers kill an average of five people per day. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Brazilian journalist Vanessa Barbara offers insight on how to improve the current cycle of abuse. She makes the case for demilitarization, arguing that doing so would not only do away with "training infused with a war mentality," but also give the officers more rights and better work conditions, in turn leading to improved law enforcement.
  • Honduras' controversial law allowing officials to shoot down aircraft suspected of carrying narcotics will go into effect next week next week. On his recent visit to Honduras, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield, expressed the United States' disapproval of the law.
  • The Congressional Research Service published "Latin American and the Caribbean: Key Issues for the 113th Congress"
  • The International Drug Policy Consortium published a paper on compulsory drug addiction treatment in Latin America, which has been increasingly labeled as inefficient and inhumane by human rights organizations. Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Uruguay and Mexico all practice forced rehabilitation or are considering implementing the method.
  • The violent demonstrations that began last week across Venezuela in protest of rampant insecurity, surging inflation and shortages, escalated this week. So far eight people have been killed, over 100 injured and several more detained as clashes between protestors, security forces and pro-government militias intensify. Protests turned particularly violent Wednesday night and it appears the violence is increasing. President Maduro accused the United States of inciting the violence and expelled three U.S. consular officers Sunday. He has also blamed former President Uribe and sent paratroopers to a western border state claiming Colombians were crossing the border "to carry out paramilitary missions" in Venezuela. While in Mexico, President Obama commented that instead of "making up false accusations" against U.S. diplomats, President Maduro should focus on the "legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan government."
  • Opposition leader Leopoldo López turned himself over to security forces on Tuesday. He has since had the charges of murder and terrorism dropped and is awaiting trial for lesser crimes like arson and criminal incitement. Another big opposition march is scheduled for Saturday.

    See Venezuela Politics and Human Rights for sound analysis on the situation, including a helpful Q& A, and Just the Facts' Venezuela news page for information on the violence, how the protests are playing out on social media, the Venezuelan government's censorship of T.V. coverage, the rising tensions with the United States, and more.

  • Wednesday, February 19, 2014

    Reactions to the political unrest gripping Venezuela

    CIP interns Matt La Lime and Sebastian Belloni contributed to the drafting of this post

    Violent protests in Venezuela that began a week ago continue to plague cities throughout the country. The violence has killed five people so far, injured many more and led to the arrest of hundreds. Many of those detained said they had been tortured and raped by security forces in custody, while videos of the National Guard abusing protestors have made the rounds on social media.

    The Venezuelan government has blamed the U.S. and Colombia, including former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, for inciting the protests, going so far as to expel three U.S. consular officers, deeming them personae non-gratae and giving them 48-hours to leave the country.

    Opposition leader Leopoldó Lopez turned himself over to security forces Tuesday, but called for protestors to keep fighting. Social media has been ablaze as the government has limited access to Twitter and other media outlets, while opposition supporters have uploaded images from Eygpt and Chile that are being used as examples of repression in Venezuela.

    To read more about what has transpired see the Venezuela Politics and Human Rights and a series of other links from Just the Facts' Venezuela news page.

    Here is a round up of reactions to the current situation in Venezuela from regional organizations, NGOs, and others:

  • Venezuelan Military

    The Venezuelan military issued a statement focusing on the constitutional legitimacy of Maduro, saying it would “never accept a government that does not come to power constitutionally.” It held the government’s line of deploring “outside forces” it claims are fueling the violence.

    As analyst James Bosworth pointed out, this suggests the military might support another member of the ruling PSUV party, such as Vice President Jorge Arreaza, should Maduro step down. Caracas Chronicles blog argued that this is unlikely as the protests in some ways are serving the government, in that they are fueled by the middle class and the Chavistas have maintained support from their base. As long as this is the case, analysts have argued, the government can maintain it is fighting for “the people,” while also diverting focus from the difficult economic situation it is facing. Many observers contend that the biggest threat to President Maduro is divisions within his own party, although at the moment the PSUV is putting up a united front.

  • Colombia

    President Santos deplored the violence and called for “calm,” encouraging dialogue between the different political factions in the country. He said he had a vested interest in the country’s stability as everything that happens in Venezuela, “good or bad, affects Colombia.”

    Maduro fired back at Santos saying he should not comment on his country’s internal politics and asked “What would you rather I do? Leave these masked groups alone while they attack metro workers?” He went on to describe the protestors as “some crazy people with no moral or ethical boundaries” and that he would defend the country with all of the force of the people. The Venezuelan embassy in Washington has described the demonstrators as “neo-fascist.”

    Maduro also had a prickly back-and-forth about making statements on events within Venezuela with Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, who said the Venezuelan government “ought to know to respect human rights.”

  • United States

    The United States expressed its sympathy with people negatively affected by the protests, but was "particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors and issued an arrest warrant for Leopoldo Lopez. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens' rights to express their grievances peacefully.” The Venezuelan government has since expelled three American diplomats from the country, accusing them of organizing protests aimed at overthrowing the government.

    While in Mexico, President Obama condemned the violence and said that instead of "making up false accusations," Venezuela's government should focus on the "legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan government," release jailed protesters, and engage in dialogue. "All parties have an obligation to work together," Obama said.

  • United Nations

    The U.N. was concerned about the escalating violence, but drew specific attention to the accusation that the Maduro government has been undermining human rights during protests.

    Rupert Coleville, Office of the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights said:

  • “We have also received worrying reports of intimidation of journalists, some of whom have had their equipment seized, as well as reports that some local and international journalists were attacked while covering the protests.”

    “In addition, some protestors have reportedly been detained and may be prosecuted on terrorism charges. It has also been reported that some protesters, including minors, are being denied contact with family or lawyers.”

    “Perpetrators should be prosecuted and those found responsible for acts of violence, and in particular deaths, should be sanctioned with appropriate penalties…We are especially concerned at reports of attacks on demonstrators by armed groups acting with impunity.

  • CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States – 33 member states, absent are the United States, Canada and European territories)

    The regional organization called on the Venezuelan government to foster dialogue between all political forces.

  •  “CELAC member states express their solidarity with the people of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and encourage its government to continue its efforts to propitiate dialogue between all of the political forces of the country.”

    Dialogue must be implemented, “in favor of the peace and national unity that the Venezuelan people require to continue their march toward progress and wellbeing.”

  • Bolivar Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) rejected violence and publicly issued support for the Maduro government.

    “These reprehensible acts are part of a planned strategy to discredit the Bolivarian Revolution by means of the international media, in times that the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela has taken actions directed to achieving greater peace, stability, and national dialogue.”

    Some heads of state from other ALBA nations, such as Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Bolivia's Evo Morales, have publicly backed Maduro's claim that the United States is fomenting internal dissent.

  • CARICOM (Caribbean Community)

    The Caribbean regional group said it was “concerned” by the violence, and called for “respect for the democratically elected” Maduro government, but noted that all parties have the right to express themselves within the constitutional and legal framework. It also called for dialogue between all parties.

  • MERCOSUR (Mercado Común del Sur or Southern Common Market)
    Mercosur condemned the opposition’s use of violence as a political tool and also called for further dialogue.
  • Members "repudiate all kind of violence and intolerance which pretends to attack democracy and its institutions, whatever its origin."

    The group reiterated "its strong commitment with the full exercise of democratic institutions, and in that framework rejects the criminal actions from violent groups that want to disseminate intolerance and hatred as an instrument of political struggle in the Bolivarian republic of Venezuela."

  • OAS (Organization of American States)

    OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza rejected the violence and called for détente, broad dialogue, and investigation into the deaths of protestors.

    Secretary General Insulza, said it was “the responsibility of the government to avoid the use of force by police or related groups,” and called on all actors to “avoid new confrontations that might aggravate existing tensions.”

    He also urged the Venezuelan government to conduct an investigation that is “truthful, objective, and transparent, that determines who is responsible for the deaths and injuries, according to the laws of the Venezuelan state, by the Justice Tribunals, with respect to human rights and the guarantees of due process.”

    The Organization of American States met on Wednesday to debate the situation in Venezuela, with most leaders echoing the sentiments of Secretary General Insulza.

  • Union of South American Nations (UNASUR)

    The regional group expressed solidarity with the Maduro government, and condemned the "attempt to destabilize legitimately constituted democracy." 

  • “The members of UNASUR repeat their defense of democratic order, rule of law and of its institutions, and highlight the conviction that any demand should be channeled through political and democratic channels.”


    Amnesty International asked the Venezuelan government to investigate the deaths:

    “It is extremely concerning that violence has become a regular feature during protests in Venezuela. If the authorities are truly committed to preventing more deaths, they must ensure those responsible for the violence, demonstrators, security forces and armed civilians alike face justice."

    The Venezuelan authorities must show they are truly committed to respect people’s rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly by ensuring they can participate in protests without fear of being abused, detained or even killed. It is essential that journalists are allowed to report events freely and human right defenders are able to monitor demonstrations.”

    Human Rights Watch also stated that Venezuela must investigate killings:

    What Venezuela urgently needs is for these killings to be investigated and the killers brought to justice, no matter their political affiliation. What Venezuela does not need is authorities scapegoating political opponents or shutting down news outlets whose coverage they don’t like.

    Friday, February 14, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week the United States reaffirmed its commitment to fighting narcotrafficking in Central America, a majority of U.S. citizens indicated they wanted a change in U.S. policy to Cuba and Venezuelans took to the streets. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, was in Guatemala and Honduras this week with the head of U.S. Southern Command, General Kelly. In Guatemala, Brownfield met with President Otto Perez Mólina, after which he announced
    an additional $5 million dollars for counternarcotics operations in the country. He also met with Prosecutor General Claudia Paz y Paz and Iván Velásquez Gómez, the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), announcing $4.8 million for that initiative.
  • In Honduras Brownfield reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to supporting counternarcotics initiatives in the country but expressed the State Department’s disapproval of a new law that allows officials to shoot down civilian aircraft suspected of carrying drugs. In a lengthy interview with Honduran newspaper La Prensa, Brownfield said the State Department had found drug flights were down 80 percent in the country and that sea trafficking was on the rise. The visit comes after Honduras’ new president criticized U.S. drug policy in his inauguration speech, calling it a “double standard” and inviting the Obama Administration to have greater cooperation.La Prensa also published a Southcom map showing various illicit trafficking networks across the globe.
  • Mexico's military hosted a competition with cadets and Special Forces from several Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the United States.
  • A new poll released by the Atlantic Council this week found not only that the majority of Americans, but an even higher percentage of Floridians, favor a shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba. This may suggest a shifting tide in relations as a strong anti-Cuba contingent in Florida has been seen as the major political obstacle in thawing relations. Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) published a bi-partisan op-ed on why the United States needs to change its policy towards the island.
  • Human Rights Watch published a report Wednesday on impunity for murders tied to land disputes in Honduras’ contested Bajo Aguán region. U.S. security assistance to Honduras for 2014 has been conditioned on the protection of human rights in this region due to ongoing attacks against activists.
  • The New York Times reported on the links between drug trafficking and deforestation and illegal logging in Honduras. According to the article, “as Honduras has become a central transfer point for drug shipments to the United States, there is more money to pay - and arm - land invaders, who strip the forest and transform the land into businesses like cattle ranching that can be used to launder drug money.”
  • The Associated Press profiled a kidnapping epidemic in Morelos, Mexico and the population’s mistrust of security forces sent to fight it. Locals doubt whether weak government institutions will investigate those responsible and have a long-term impact on the problem.
  • The Christian Science Monitor published a post by Rio Gringa on vigilante justice in Brazil’s biggest cities.
  • Thousands took to the streets in protest of Venezuela Preisdent Nicolás Maduro’s government this week. Student protests in Caracas turned especially violent, leaving three dead: two from the opposition and one government supporter. Each side is blaming the other for the violence. The government is seeking the arrest of opposition leader Leopold Lopez, drawing a wave of criticism, including from the U.S. State Department. Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta posted a video from protests Wednesday night and Venezuela Politics and Human Rights has an excellent analysis and overview. Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reported that the protests have subsided but that citizens were surprised by the heavy military presence. Brazil also experienced some violent protests this week.
  • A California court revoked the U.S. citizenship of a former Guatemalan special forces officer for covering up his role as an army lieutenant in the massacre of 182 villagers in Guatemala. He received the maximum 10 years in prison for deceiving U.S. immigration officials.
  • In an excellent op-ed in the New York Times, Medellín-born author Héctor Abad writes Colombia’s damaging experience with paramilitarism should serve as a warning to Mexico. Abad also notes that the United States has played a significant role in perpetuating a fight against drugs that forces “obedient governments to ignore real solutions.” InSight Crime analyzed the difference in the Mexican government’s approach to these groups in various places, noting its cooperation with the groups in Michoacán but its attempts to halt them in Guerrero.
  • On Thursday the FARC and the Colombian government closed the latest round of the peace talks and said they have made progress towards reaching an agreement on combating the illegal drug trade. The two sides issued a joint statement noting they’ve reached a consensus on several points. More analysis from United States Institute for Peace’s Ginny Bouvier and WOLA.
  • Friday, February 7, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week Colombia’s military was caught spying on peace negotiations in Havana, Guatemala’s President was unhappy about U.S. conditioning aid to the country, U.S. Southern Command geared up for training exercises in the region and the Knights Templar cartel made money off your Super Bowl guacamole. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • The House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing, "Terrorist Groups in Latin America: The Changing Landscape."
  • Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina expressed his discontent with U.S. conditioning security assistance to the country, which place a sizeable portion of aid on hold until Guatemala has shown significant steps towards investigating corruption in its international adoption program and implementing a 2010 reparations plan for victims related to the massacres and displacement that occurred during the construction of the Chixoy dam in the 1980s. “…we are not going to be anyone’s toy, and the laws of Guatemala are going to say how they advance,” he told reporters in a press conference.
  • The Wilson Center released a report this week on violence in Mexico and Colombia. It compiles essays by leading regional exports that compare and contrast the two countries' security situations and looks at what lessons their tactics offer one another.
  • U.S. Southern Command news was active this week. Another frigate (notably the Navy's second-oldest after the USS Constitution which was launched in 1797) was deployed to the Caribbean for "Operation Martillo," the U.S.-led anti-drug surge mission along Central America's coastline, while Joint Combined Exchange Training began with Trinidad and Tobago. Joint Task Force-Bravo, the main Southcom unit in Honduras, started preparing for a joint foreign military exercise in which 1,200 U.S. military members will deploy to Guatemala for training and to provide humanitarian services.

    It was also reported that Air Forces Southern members are in Belize to prepare for an upcoming training exercise and that the USS Pathfinder arrived in Guatemala for a scientific information exchange, a key part of the naval relationship between both countries, according to a representative from the Guatemalan armed forces.

  • The International Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS) published a report that found Latin American countries’ military spending grew 15 percent between 2010 ($61.3 billion) and 2013 ($70.9 billion). ISS found Venezuela increased its defense budget more than any other country in the region over the past year, boosting it by just over 12 percent. Here's an infographic of defense spending from the AFP and another from ISS.
  • Fusion reported on Mexican immigrants in California who have been financing self-defense groups in Michoacán while the Wall Street Journal reported on the Knights Templar's control over the avocado industry in the state, the only one in Mexico certified to export avocados to the United States. According to the article, the cartel profits $150 million each year through extortion and keeping their own farms. The New York Times featured an interview with the head of the Knights Templar, Servando Gómez, and noted the group makes more from illegal mining than drug trafficking. InSight Crime translated a piece published by Animal Politico on the risks and benefits of Mexico’s recent decision to legalize the vigilante groups that have sprung up to fight the cartel’s presence.
  • Peru announced plans to launch a major coca eradication initiative in the VRAE region, which is one of the largest coca-producing regions in the world, believed to have an area of cultivation at around 20,500 hectares. The government announced a target of 16,000 hectares.
  • The United Kingdom’s deputy prime minister backed Colombian President Santos’ calls for an alternative to the drug war, saying, "nobody can say the world is winning the war against drugs."
  • Colombian magazine Semana revealed this week that the Colombian Army has been spying on peace negotiators in Havana from both sides of the table and has continued illegal surveillance of human rights defenders and opposition lawmakers. President Santos quickly removed the head of Army intelligence along with another top intelligence official and demanded the military investigate the incident and submit a report by February 15. The government has since stepped back and changed its rhetoric dramatically, asserting the taps were in fact legal, despite the claims of Semana.

    Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) issued a statement voicing his concern and calling on the U.S. government to carry out an investigation, given his worry that "U.S. intelligence or defense agencies might have unwittingly provided support . . . directly or indirectly, through funds, equipment, training, intelligence-sharing or receipt of tainted intelligence." The incident also raises questions about the military's support for the peace talks, which could have negative implications if a peace agreement in Havana is reached, given the military's size and popularity.

  • According to the Sao Paulo state's Public Safety Department, police killed 335 people in 2013, compared to 546 during the previous year. The Associated Press reported the drop has been attributed to a law enacted earlier this year that prohibits officers from offering first aid to shooting victims (including those they themselves have shot) or from removing the body, such as taking the victim to the hospital. It was also reported this week that in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's military police killed six alleged gang members who were believed to have carried out an attack on a Police Pacification Unit on Sunday that resulted in the death of one officer.
  • Thursday, February 6, 2014

    Latin America in the 2014 foreign aid law

    This post was drafted by WOLA Program Assistant Ashley Davis.

    Last month the U.S. Congress approved, and President Obama signed into law, a 2014 Omnibus appropriations bill, funding most of the federal government’s budget for the rest of the year. The bill includes funding for the State Department and foreign aid. Below are some highlights of how it affects aid to Latin America and the Caribbean.

    (The full text of the law can be found here. See “Division K: Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2014.” See also the explanatory statement (PDF, go to Division K) prepared by the House-Senate conference committee that resolved differences between both chambers’ versions of the bill. The Latin American highlights from the 2012 consolidated appropriations bill can be found here. For 2013, the Congress did not manage to approve a foreign aid bill; a “continuing resolution” maintained funding levels, and restrictions, that were laid out in the 2012 bill.)


    Foreign Military Financing (FMF): in the bill’s explanatory statement, Congress specifies that $28 million should go to Colombia through FMF, the main non-drug military aid program in the foreign aid bill.

    International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INCLE): $149 million are mandated for Colombia from this program, which funds both military/police and economic/institution-building programs. INCLE in Colombia pays for coca eradication, drug interdiction, and judicial reform, among other priorities. The bill specifies that $10 million of the INCLE outlay should go to the Human Rights Unit of Colombia’s Attorney-General’s Office (Fiscalía).

    Economic Support Fund (ESF): $141.5 million are earmarked for Colombia from this USAID-administered program, to continue alternative development and institution-building activities. Within this category, the bill specifies the following priorities and amounts.

    • Transfer to the State Department-administered Migration and Refugee Assistance account $7 million
    • Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities $15 million
    • Human rights program $6.5 million
    • Biodiversity $3 million
    • Children disabled by violence $500 thousand

    As in previous years, the U.S. government has attached human rights conditions to Colombia aid, and will withhold 25 percent of assistance to Colombia’s armed forces (not police) until the State Department certifies that:

    1. Members of the Colombian military alleged to have committed human rights violations, or have aided or benefitted from illegal armed groups, are tried in civilian courts, and the military is cooperating with investigations;
    2. Paramilitary groups are being dismantled, the government is protecting the rights of human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, and other social activists, as well as respecting the rights and territory of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities; and
    3. The government is investigating and punishing those responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes, and is not offering amnesty to such persons.

    All of the above conditions are similar to those of 2012–13, though the language about amnesty appears for the first time. This addition has implications for the peace process and transitional justice in post-conflict Colombia: if the country’s peace process succeeds, and it adopts a framework that amnesties military and guerrilla abusers, some U.S. military aid could be frozen. The Senate’s version of the conditions had included even stronger language: it would have frozen the aid even if a post-conflict framework tried abusers but suspended their sentences.

    Additionally, this year 10 percent of funds appropriated to the Colombian national police for aerial drug eradication programs may not be used for aerial spraying of chemical herbicides until the State Department certifies that:

    1. Herbicides do not pose health risks or have adverse effects on humans (including pregnant women and children) or the environment; and
    2. The government will investigate any complaint that aerial spraying is harming licit crops, and fair compensation will be paid for such claims.


    The bill appropriates $17.5 million for ESF programs in Cuba, but they cannot fund new programs or activities there. It will continue existing programs to support civil society in Cuba, like the activities for which USAID contractor Alan Gross continues to be imprisoned in Cuba.


    As in the past, U.S. aid is withheld from the Guatemalan Army–as it has been since the early 1990s, though some aid flows to it through the Defense Department budget. However, it is worth noting that the language in the 2014 law has changed from an outright ban on aid to the Guatemalan Army, to having conditions pending a certification process. Nevertheless, assistance to the Army remains frozen unless the State Department certifies that the Guatemalan Army:

    1. Has a narrowly defined mission focused on border security and external threats, and a credible plan to end the army’s involvement in law enforcement (which does not look likely, as President Otto Perez Molina has expanded the military’s internal security role via the creation of Citizen Security Squads [Escuadrones de Seguridad Ciudadana], or groups of soldiers that patrol high-crime areas).
    2. Is cooperating with civilian investigations and prosecutions of human rights cases involving current and retired military officers, with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala; and provides the investigators timely access to witnesses, documents, forensic evidence, and other relevant information.
    3. Is publicly disclosing all military archival documents relating to the internal armed conflict in a timely matter.
    4. In addition, this year the bill explains that, “There is a concern with the failure of the Government of Guatemala to implement the Reparations Plan for Damages Suffered by the Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam (April 2010),” and the government of Guatemala must take credible steps toward implementing this plan.

    Also new to this bill is the withholding of all funds to the Guatemalan Armed Forces (from both the Foreign Military Financing and International Military Education and Training programs) until the State Department certifies that the Guatemalan government has resolved all cases, or is making significant progress toward resolving all cases involving Guatemalan children and American adoptive parents that have been pending since 2007.

    The law renews the $5 million in assistance to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN body that investigates illegal security groups and related corruption in Guatemala.


    All assistance to the central Government of Haiti is frozen until the State Department certifies that:

    1. Haiti is taking steps to hold free and fair elections for a new parliament;
    2. The government is respecting judicial independence; and
    3. The government is combating corruption and improving governance, including passing the anti-corruption law, and implementing financial transparency and accountability requirements for government institutions.


    The 2014 law not only maintains human rights conditionality that appeared in the 2012 bill, but increases the amount withheld, pending certification, from 20 to 35 percent of all assistance to the Honduran military and police. This aid will be frozen until the State Department certifies that:

    1. The Government of Honduras is reducing corruption, including by prosecuting and removing corrupt officials from office;
    2. The government is implementing agreements between the United States and Honduras concerning counter-narcotics operations, including assistance for innocent victims;
    3. Freedom of expression, association, assembly, and due process of law are protected, including in the conflictive Bajo Aguan Valley, the site of land disputes and attacks on activists; and
    4. Military and police alleged to have committed human rights violations including forced evictions, or to have aided any armed groups involved, are being investigated and prosecuted in civilian courts, and the Honduran military and police are cooperating with investigations.

    This law does not apply to assistance to promote transparency, anti-corruption, border security, and the rule of law within the military and police forces.


    Foreign Military Financing: The explanatory statement sets aside $7 million in FMF for Mexico.

    International Narcotics and Law Enforcement: The explanatory statement assigns a very specific amount: $148.131 million. Much INCLE in Mexico has supported police and judicial reform efforts.

    Economic Support Fund: The bill sets aside $45 million for Mexico through this USAID program. The State Department and USAID are required to consult with the Committees on Appropriations on the uses of the funds.

    The bill expresses “concern with reports of abuses by Mexican security forces,” and as in previous years, the law freezes 15 percent of aid to the Mexican military and police until the State Department certifies that:

    1. Military personnel alleged to have committed human rights violations are investigated and prosecuted, and the government is codifying this practice into law by reforming Mexico’s military court of justice;
    2. Prohibitions against torture and the use of testimony obtained through torture are enforced;
    3. The Mexican military and police are promptly transferring detainees to civilian custody and are cooperating with civilian authorities; and
    4. The Government of Mexico is searching for victims of forced disappearances and is investigating and prosecuting those responsible.

    The bill appropriates $161.5 million in new funds for the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which supports military, police, and civilian funds for public security and judicial reform in Central America. $61.5 million would go to USAID’s Economic Support Fund program, and $100 million to the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program.

    The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), which pursues similar objectives in the Caribbean, would get $54.1 million: $29.1 million through ESF and $25 million through INCLE.

    Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)

    Although $898.2 million has been appropriated worldwide for the Millennium Challenge Corporation—an independent US foreign aid agency that gives grants to countries based on their policy performance—the explanatory statement voices concern about the indicators used to establish candidate countries’ eligibility:

    Weak judicial systems and official and private sector corruption are significant impediments to democratic institutions and economic development and growth in many potential MCC compact countries. There is concern that anti-corruption indicators for eligibility are not sufficiently rigorous, and do not properly reflect adherence to the rule of law in candidate countries including the influence of criminal enterprises and enforcement of private sector contracts.

    Sen. Patick Leahy (D-Vermont), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that appropriates foreign aid funds, voiced concern about El Salvador’s weak record of corruption this summer, when the country’s second MCC aid package ($277 million over five years [PDF]) was approved. He argued that the MCC was designed to reward countries whose governments are taking significant steps to address corruption and strengthen the rule of law, but that corruption and money laundering are widespread, and democratic institutions remain weak, in El Salvador.

    The law advises the MCC to improve its eligibility criteria in this area, and to consult the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce and USAID regarding their evaluations of corruption and rule of law in MCC candidate countries.

    UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

    Funds were earmarked for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Offices in Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico. The Senate Committee recommends a $5.5 million U.S. voluntary contribution to the UNHCHR, of which:

    • $1 million is to support an office in Honduras;
    • $500 thousand is to support an office in Colombia; and
    • $500 thousand is to support an office in Mexico.

    The Honduras office will be a start-up (both the main office and any field offices), and the above funds are contingent on whether the UNHCHR actually sets up an office there.

    Wednesday, February 5, 2014

    A new wiretapping scandal casts doubt on the Colombian military's support for peace talks

    “It’s a relatively small place, near the Galerías shopping mall in western Bogotá. It now doesn’t have the sign outside that had idenfitied it, hanging over the two windows with glass that blocks the view of the interior. In a small terrace, under a black awning, there are eight tables and 24 chairs. Inside there are seven more tables, and a curved staircase that leads to a second floor, which has a large room with a gigantic television and computer workstations. …”

    “Despite the exotic combination of luncheonette and computer instruction center, a secret is hidden there: behind the facade is a National Army signals interception center.”

    The business described here was registered in Bogotá on September 12, 2012, just a few days after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the launch of talks with the FARC guerrilla group. From this room, reports an investigation published to the website (but not the paper version) of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, soldiers and civilian hackers working for Colombian military intelligence carried out illegal wiretaps and email intercepts.

    Their targets included “the same ones as always”–NGOs and leftist politicians. This is outrageous enough. But the Army unit was also tapping into the emails and text messages of the Colombian government team negotiating with the FARC in Havana, Cuba.

    “Jaramillo (Sergio Jaramillo [a negotiator and the high commissioner for peace]), Éder (Alejandro Éder [director of the presidential demobilization and reintegration office, and an alternate negotiator]) and De la Calle (Humberto de la Calle [the lead negotiator]) were some of those whom I remember. The idea was to try to obtain the largest amount of information about what they were talking about, and how it was going,…” a source told

    One of the most important, and most uncertain, questions about Colombia’s peace process with the FARC is the extent to which the country’s powerful military actually supports it. These new revelations multiply the uncertainty.

    President Juan Manuel Santos has gone to great lengths to keep the generals in the tent: defense and security are off the negotiating agenda, a prominent retired general is one of the negotiators, FARC calls for a bilateral cease-fire–which the military resists–have been flatly refused, and the Santos administration has tried (and so far failed) to give military courts greater jurisdiction over human rights cases, in what some analysts regard to be a quid pro quo.

    The chief of Colombia’s armed forces, Gen. Leonardo Barrero, insisted in a recent interview that “we feel very well represented in the dialogues.” But there is little doubt that a significant portion of the officer corps, who have all spent their entire career fighting the FARC, would prefer to end the conflict on the battlefield. It is for that reason that support for ex-president Álvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the negotiations, remains high among the officers. As María Isabel Rueda, a longtime reporter and columnist for Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, recently put it: “Soldiers have hearts too, and some of them still beat more for Uribe than for Santos.”

    If the armed conflict ends in Havana, Colombia’s military will be in for a rough time, institutionally. Officers and soldiers will be expecting gratitude, and there will be parades, medals, and ceremonies. But post-conflict Colombia will also hold the spectacle of officers accused of human rights abuses forced to undergo humiliating confessions as part of a transitional justice process. A truth commission will detail brutal behavior. And the armed forces, faced with a reality in which citizen security threats outrank national security threats, will find it very hard to justify a membership of 286,000 [PDF] soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. Latin America’s second-largest armed forces, and its largest army, could shrink considerably. (Colombia’s 175,000-strong police, however, could grow.)

    If the armed forces choose to resist these post-conflict shifts–starting now, while talks continue–they have some assets to deploy. They are huge and politically popular. They have important allies in Colombia’s political establishment, Álvaro Uribe high among them. And they have a crucial ally in the United States, which has forged a deep and broad military-to-military relationship in the 14 years since “Plan Colombia” emerged. Military sources tell Semana that the Army intelligence unit that oversaw the spying operation gets generous support from the CIA. We do not know, though, whether any of the equipment used in the wiretap/luncheonette came from the United States.

    The U.S. role is very important. The Obama administration, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Southern Command can do much to determine whether Colombia’s civil-military relationship is smooth or friction-filled over the next several years. The key is in the messages that they convey to their allies in the Colombian armed forces–and the central message should be that illegal or undemocratic behavior is counter-productive and will damage the bilateral relationship. And that undermining an elected civilian president’s effort to negotiate peace, or to reconcile the country afterward, counts as “illegal and undemocratic behavior.”

    As criminal investigators try to piece together this new military spying scandal, those messages from the Colombian military’s U.S. “partners” should be louder and clearer than ever.

    Wednesday, February 5, 2014

    Restructuring U.S. aid to Colombia

    The President of Colombia's Congress, Juan Fernando Cristo, was in Washington, DC two weeks ago to promote the idea of a "Plan Colombia II" to lawmakers. This proposed restructuring of aid that would move away from funding security forces, and instead would focus on providing for conflict victims, promoting rural development, ensuring human rights and repairing the justice system. He appeared at WOLA's forum, "Perspectives on Colombia’s Peace Process and Opportunities for U.S. Engagement," which can be viewed here.

    Colombian newspaper El Espectador reported on Senator Cristo’s visit and the increasing debate in Washington about how aid should be restructured in Colombia, should a peace agreement be reached. Some key quotes from Cristo highlighted in the article:

    It is fundamental that once we sign the peace agreement, we have a defined strategy for how the Colombian state, with the cooperation of the international community, will socially, militarily, and territorially deal with the zones where conflict has traditionally existed and where there are illegal activities like coca cultivation.

    It is important that the United States, just as it contributed with Plan Colombia by strengthening the military superiority of the State against the against subversion, also commit politically and economically to the Colombian people to be able to have success in the post-conflict era.

    We achieved positive results [in Plan Colombia], and that’s why we think it’s necessary to continue to strengthen American cooperation, now not for war, but for peace.

    According to WOLA's Adam Isacson, while USAID has begun to rethink its funding in the country, other U.S. government agencies do not yet appear to have begun any deep thinking about how to shift assistance. El Espectador noted that because the State Department will send Congress its budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015 in just a few weeks, redirecting aid for a post-conflict Colombia will more likely happen in 2016.

    Given that Colombia is the United States’ main security partner in the region, U.S. support, financial and otherwise, will be needed for a post-conflict transition. As of right now, the U.S. provides Colombia with around $400 million in assistance, 60 percent of which is military and police aid, including anti-drug strategies like fumigation and interdiction as well as intelligence. An agreement with the FARC on drug trafficking would need to be met with reoriented budgets. As Isacson noted, a move away from investing in the costly drug war will free up assets to support any agreements reached in the peace accord.

    The article highlights two issues on drug policy where analysts say the United States would need to be more flexible to support a peace accord: the extradition of FARC members and aerial fumigation, which the U.S. has supported for years with little success, and which could likely be done away with in an agreement.

    To read the article in its entirety in Spanish, read here.

    CIP intern Sebastian Belloni provided the translations for this blog

    Friday, January 31, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week, the presidential race heated up in Costa Rica and El Salvador, Honduras's new president criticized U.S. drug policies and Nicaragua expanded the military's role in the country. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • On Monday, Honduras swore in its new president, Juan Orlando Hernández. During his ceremony he criticized U.S. drug policy and invited the Obama administration to "work for real" in the fight against drugs. According to Hernandez, ""It strikes us as a double standard that while our people die and bleed, and we're forced to fight the gangs with our own scarce resources, in North America drugs are just a public health issue, for Honduras and the rest of our Central American brothers it's a case of life and death."

    The same day Hernandez also deployed the controversial military police to the streets as part of "Operation Morazan ," the latest joint military and police effort to target soaring crime, violence and drug trafficking. The plan includes increasing security force presence on the streets and public transportation.

  • La Silla Vacía found Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' rhetoric about changing drug policy does not match with the number of actual changes implemented. The tough critique, which examined seven aspects of President Santos' drug policy, including several U.S.-backed initiatives like fumigation and development plans, finds that little change has been made and that he has also been fairly absent from the country's Drug Policy Advisory Commission. WOLA dealt with some of these policy issues in a post this week, "Eleven Ways Colombian and FARC Negotiators can Reform Drug Policy and Build a Lasting Peace."
  • The U.S. Border Patrol posted its 2013 apprehension statistics , which also include information on the location of apprehensions and the amount and type of narcotics seized. In "What New Border Patrol Statistics Reveal about Changing Migration to the United States," WOLA's Adam Isacson provides useful graphics highlighting a variety of trends, such as an increase in non-Mexican migrants, a drop in apprehensions to 1970s levels, and a shift in the location of the highest apprehension rates from Arizona to South Texas. More from the Washington Post on Border Patrol shootings and InSight Crime on the regional implications of a U.S. drone crash on the border.
  • Roberta Jacobson was interviewed on CNN Thursday night to discuss the United States' priorities in the region.
  • In an article in Science Daily , researchers at Ohio State University looked at the link between rapidly disappearing rainforests in Central America and the acceleration and shifts of the drug war.
  • The Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, submitted to Congress the annual "World Threat Assessment. " The report briefly discussed instability in Haiti, economic and security threats in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) and made one reference to the spread of Mexican drug cartels influence into Central America and role in the country's high levels of violence.
  • Defense, law enforcement and civilian leaders from 20 countries met in Santo Domingo from Tuesday to Thursday for a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored conference on countering transnational organized crime in the Caribbean. As Francisco Palmieri, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central America and Caribbean Affairs said, "As the regional security initiatives in Colombia, Mexico and Central America produce successes, we know transnational crime and violence will inherently become a greater challenge in the Caribbean." The article goes on to describe several ongoing U.S. security initiatives in the region.
  • Naval Forces Southern Command hosted a conference for U.S. Navy officials working at embassies across Latin America and the Caribbean to coordinate engagements for 2014.
  • Nicaragua’s Congress approved constitutional reforms that eliminate presidential term limits and expand the role of the military. The Associated Press has a useful rundown of the reforms in the bill, including allowing active members of the military and police to run for political office and allowing the military to provide security for private companies. Confidencial also documented changes to the military code that allow the military chief of staff to indefinitely keep his post as well as create a reserve force.
  • There are two key presidential elections happening in El Salvador and Costa Rica this weekend:

  • In El Salvador, the elections will be a close race between the FMLN's Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Norman Quijano from the ARENA party. The outcome will have security implications as Sánchez Cerén promotes strengthening the role of the National Civil Police and scaling back the military, while Quijano is pushing for a more mano duro, or iron fist approach.

    The Center for Democracy in the Americas published a helpful guide to the Salvadoran elections, highlighting the major candidates and parties in the running and obstacles facing them. The Pan-American Post published a useful summary Thursday and WOLA's Geoff Thale discussed the stakes of the election on Adam Isacson's podcast and published a written overview, noting the United States' crucial role as a remaining powerful force in El Salvador.

  • While the Obama Administration has remained neutral, the elections in El Salvador have become politicized in the United States, with several Bush-era officials (Elliot Abrams and Jose R. Cardenas) calling for the ruling FMLN party to be voted out, accusing it of links to the drug trade. Salvadoran journalist and political analyst Hector Ávilos posted an article examining U.S. involvement in the drug war, arguing the drug trade has been tied to many Salvadoran governments, several of which were backed by the United States during the Reagan and Bush eras.

    Other helpful articles on the election: analysis on Central American Politics blog, "Don't Fear El Salvador's Leftists" from former U.S. ambassador William Walker, this from El Faro, and a reading list from Tim's El Salvador Blog, which includes this useful Reuters article.

  • As for Costa Rica's presidential election, the Tico Times published poll numbers and the Pan-American Post provided a short guide to those running and the political landscape.