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Monday, January 27, 2014

Analysis: The Obama administration's new arms sales policy

A new blog post by the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung highlights the first policy directive on conventional arms sales in almost two decades, released by the Obama administration on January 15. The language of the directive emphasizes that human rights be a key part of arms sales decision making, while also pushing for greater promotion of U.S. exports. This new policy comes as the administration has loosened other controls on certain arms exports. Hartung determined:

The release of the new arms transfer policy directive provides an opportunity for Congress to take a closer look at the administration’s arms export decontrol initiative and make changes that will ensure that all significant military items continue to be carefully scrutinized on human rights grounds, and that any loopholes that may make it easier for smugglers to successfully transfer U.S. equipment into the wrong hands are closed.

This new policy will have a significant impact on U.S. arms sales to the region that go through three programs tracked by Just the Facts: the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program, the Direct Commercial Sales program, and the Excess Defense Articles program. In 2011, arms sales to the region through these three programs totaled over $3 billion.

For more information on the directive and its effect, read the post in its entirety on Security Assistance Monitor, a global expansion of Just the Facts that tracks U.S. security assistance worldwide. Stay tuned for the expansion, as Just the Facts will be merged with Security Assistance Monitor soon!

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Year in Review: U.S. Policy in 2013

In 2013, there were some subtle changes in U.S. policy towards Latin America. However, many events in the region have set the stage for the United States to possibly make some difficult policy choices in 2014, from Uruguay legalizing marijuana, to Colombia’s possible peace accords, to new shifts in the drug trade and increased militarization of law enforcement.

As we move into the New Year and start to think about U.S.-Latin America relations going forward, we wanted to take a step back and look at some trends and highlights that will guide decisions going forward. Here is a roundup of events that in some way influenced U.S. security policy towards the region in 2013 and will affect U.S. policy in 2014.

United States’ Security Relationship
In 2013, the Obama administration engaged more with Latin America than it had in the past four years, with Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama traveling to the region and meeting with various leaders.

While the United States continued to devote military assistance for the drug war in Latin America, Mexico and Colombia shifted the focus of their conversations with the United States from security to economics. Despite this shift, the two countries held their spot as the top two U.S. military and police aid recipients in the region and will continue to do so, although the big-ticket aid packages to both, Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative, are in decline.

There were a few developments over the past year to keep an eye on going forward:

  • Although Plan Colombia will be scaled back over the next few years, Colombia's training of foreign forces with U.S. funds will increase. In 2013, there 39 training events in four Central American countries with U.S. funding. (Read more here). In 2014, this cooperation will triple to 152 trainings in six countries, according to the White House. (The total number of trainees is unknown.) This excludes other U.S.-backed trainings within Colombia.
  • Increasing assistance to Central America and Peru. This year the United States continued with Operation Martillo, its counternarcotics surge operation along Central America’s coasts, and funded numerous other military counternarcotics initiatives in Central America, many of which were laid out in our September Just the Facts Military trends report. Although murder rates in Central America were either the same or slightly lower in 2013, heavy violence continued as Mexican cartels spread operations into the region. In the 2014 budget request, funds for the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) increased by $26 million over 2013.

    This year, anti-drug assistance to Peru reached $100 million, almost double 2012's $55 million, due to the country’s increase in coca cultivation and the Peruvian government’s stated commitment to eradicating crops and targeting narcotraffickers and Shining Path rebels.

  • Shifts to the Caribbean: Top U.S. officials said over the course of this year that drug traffickers are shifting their routes back to the Caribbean, a trend that is likely to develop further in 2014, due to increased counternarcotics efforts in Central America.
  • Assistance to Honduras: This year activists and several lawmakers questioned the legitimacy of U.S. security assistance to Honduras, following several reports linking military and police officers to extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. The United States had held up several millions over concerns that the (now) former police chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” had been linked to death squads, claiming it did not directly fund Bonilla and would only fund those “two steps below” him. However, the Associated Press later reported that all units, regardless of rank, were under Bonilla’s control and quoted Bonilla saying the United States had been his “best ally and support.”

    In March, the United States stopped funding a failing police reform altogether after reports that hundreds of officers that had failed confidence tests had remained on the force. Since then, the country has only become more militarized as a newly created military police force started patrolling in October and the corruption, massive fiscal troubles and spiraling crime and violence that racked the country going into 2013 has continued into 2014. It was recently announced that Juan Carlos Bonilla has been fired, but the amount of U.S. assistance released to Honduras remains to be seen in light of all other police and military abuse reports.

  • Militarization of law enforcement

  • In 2013, governments throughout the region increased their use of militaries to carry out law enforcement duties. We documented this trend in Brazil, Guatmala, Honduras and Venezuela. However it is also true in Paraguay, Mexico, and even Argentina (which, after years of excluding the military from internal security, has recently sought more U.S. assistance for Army counternarcotics operations.) Although human rights activists and analysts criticized this trend, the pattern appears to be deepening in the first weeks of 2014.

    In most of these countries, much-needed police reform efforts are flailing, due to lack of funding and political will as violence soars. Much of this has happened with tacit U.S. approval.

  • Elections

    In 2013, a few countries in Latin America voted in new leaders that will affect the region’s security landscape.

    New leadership in 2013:

  • Honduras: Conservative ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez won November’s controversial presidential election amid allegations of fraud. In 2014, he will likely take a hardline approach to security as he has said he wanted to put a “soldier on every street corner.” U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern over the country’s militarized security strategy.
  • Venezuela: On March 5, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died. The 10-month rule of Chávez’ successor, Nicolas Maduro, whose election was hotly contested, has been marked by runaway inflation, political gaffes, increasing censorship of the opposition, an uptick in homicides and increasing militarization. Corruption and drug trafficking in the military remain central issues. Like Chávez, Maduro blamed the United States and the opposition for many of the country’s afflictions, despite initial signs of warming relations with Washington.
  • Paraguay: Horacio Cartes, of the country’s Colorado party, was the first elected leader since the country’s “Golpeachment” in June 2012, despite his ties to corruption and the drug trade. Within a week of Cartes taking his oath, the country’s Congress awarded him the power to deploy the military domestically, in response to a renewed push by a small guerrilla group, the Paraguayan People’s Army.
  • Drug Policy

    In 2013, there was a notable push throughout Latin America to move away from U.S.-promoted prohibition and eradication and towards a drug policy based on a public health approach. This momentum to find alternatives to the drug war can be seen in June’s Organization of American States meeting, themed “Alternative Strategies for Combating Drugs.” So far however the United States has said it will not support marijuana legalization at the national level.

  • Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the production and sale of marijuana. The president of neighboring Paraguay, the largest producer of marijuana in the region, claimed it would encourage cross-border trafficking and drive production in his country. In 2014, it will not only be important to see if these predictions come true, but also if violence associated with other drugs drops, which the Uruguayan government claims will happen as police become more available to focus on heavier narcotics.
  • On January 1, 2014 Colorado became the first U.S. state to regulate commercial production and sale of recreational marijuana. Washington State will soon follow. In 2014 it will be interesting to see whether this leads to a drop in Mexican marijuana trafficking and/or violence on the border. As the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica reaffirmed, it will unlikely lead to change in drug policy towards Latin America.
  • Domestic drugs markets in Latin America increased in 2013, most notably in Argentina and Brazil, which are supplied by coca production in Bolivia and Peru, the latter of which overtook Colombia this year as the world’s biggest producer of cocaine.
  • Although Colombia made no legal changes in 2013, President Santos has indicated on numerous occasions that he is ready for a change if others go in that direction. It could be that in 2014 the country will undergo some changes to its drug policy as a result of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group. The two are currently discussing the issue of drug trafficking at peace negotiations taking place in Havana..
  • One year for Mexican President Peña Nieto

  • During his campaign, President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed a change in Mexico’s war against the drug cartels. He pledged to focus more on violence against citizens rather than on the militarized, U.S.-backed “kingpin” strategy so aggressively pursued by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, which drew criticism for splintering the cartels and causing violence to spike.

    However, this year Peña Nieto’s security strategy showed little departure from years past, sending federal troops to hotbeds of crime and violence and working closely with the U.S. to bring down top traffickers. Unlike Calderón however, he did not publicly promote his war on the cartels, instead choosing to put the spotlight on economy and reform. He also limited U.S. agencies’ access to Mexican security forces, channeling all bilateral law enforcement contact through the Ministry of the Interior, the effects of which remain to be seen.

    Murders did drop slightly in 2013, however the number of kidnappings and extortion skyrocketed and armed citizen self-defense groups surged, citing the government’s inability to protect them from the cartels.

    One year in, Peña Nieto has yet to articulate a clear plan or timeline for his overall security strategy. Heading into 2014, several security problems remain, but two major ones include: ongoing impunity for abuses and corruption committed by security officials, and the rise of vigilante groups that are clashing with the drug cartels and federal troops, particularly in the western part of the country. Many worry the groups will follow the path taken by paramilitary groups in Colombia, widening the criminal landscape.

  • El Salvador gang truce

  • Going into 2013, there was hope the truce between El Salvador’s two rival gangs, the MS-13 and Barrio 18, that had initially caused the murder rate to halve in 2012, would yield even more security gains as neighboring Guatemala and Honduras continued to be plagued by drug trafficking and high homicide rates due to gang violence.

    But going into 2014, the truce is eroding and few believe it will become a viable security solution, no matter the outcome of February’s presidential elections. Although an El Faro report this year revealed the government’s undeniable role in facilitating the truce, the administration of President Mauricio Funes has refused to admit its role, due to an ever-increasing lack of political and public support. The United States did not come out for or against the deal, allotting funding to several other security-focused initiatives over the year, but none specifically aligned with the truce.

    El Salvador ended 2013 with a lower homicide rate than 2012, but disappearances doubled, murders steadily crept up in the last six months of the year – a trend that has continued into 2014 – and mass graves possibly linked to gang violence were found, increasing skepticism about the agreement’s actual gains. If the truce falls apart, El Salvador could see a spike in violence.

  • Colombia peace process

  • In 2013, advances in peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government signaled both sides’ commitment to finding a resolution to end the country’s fifty-year internal conflict. However the talks continue to be met with cautious optimism. The negotiating teams have made more progress than in any previous peace talks, hammering out deals on two of the root causes of the conflict: land reform and the guerrillas’ political participation. The Obama administration expressed strong support for talks throughout the year, which will be crucial in to ensure a post-conflict transition, given Colombia is the U.S.’ main security partner in Latin America.

    Although the talks closed 2013 without much movement on the third agenda point – the drug trade--there remains the sense that both sides are committed to reaching an agreement. President Santos has all but staked his re-election on the negotiations. In 2014, it is likely that the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s smaller—but also nearly 50-year-old—guerrilla group, will begin negotiations with the government.

  • Friday, January 17, 2014

    The Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of some of the top security-related articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.

    U.S. Policy

  • House Committee on Foreign Affairs
    The Houses’ Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing, “NAFTA at Twenty: Accomplishments, Challenges and the Way Forward.” The list of testifying witnesses was a mix of leaders of nonprofit and for profit organizations.
  • Obama to Mexico
    President Obama had a call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Monday, in which he congratulated Peña Nieto for the “important reforms” he pushed through in his first year in office. President Obama will travel to Mexico for a North American summit on February 19.
  • SOUTHCOM in Guatemala
    The head of U.S. Southern Command, General John Kelly, was in Guatemala this week to evaluate the progress of a counternarcotics task force the U.S. helped set up along the country’s northern border with Mexico. The United States and Guatemala are in negotiations to set up a similar task force along the country’s border with Honduras, Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre reported.
  • SOUTHCOM in Honduras
    The United States has offered
    to help Honduras build an international airport at the Soto Cano military airbase, from which U.S. military troops have operated since the early 1980s. Currently Joint Task Force Bravo is stationed there, the main U.S. force used to carry out counternarcotics operations in the country.
  • Help from the Vatican with Cuba
    Secretary of State John Kerry asked the Vatican, which has relatively good relations with the Cuba, to help with the release of American contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned on the island since 2009.
  • U.S. policies on sending migrants to Mexico
    Mexicali, Mexico has become the “world’s biggest landing pad for sent-back immigrants,” the Washington Post reported. Larger cities like Tijuana and Juarez used to be the main “drop-off” points but due to shifting U.S. immigration policies and the strong influence of the drug cartels, U.S. officials are now deporting immigrants to smaller border cities.
  • Omnibus spending bill
    The United States Congress passed a $1.012 trillion omnibus spending bill (PDF)for Fiscal Year 2014. Two of the bill’s provisions are the Defense Appropriations and State Department, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations, which fund many of the aid programs tracked by Just the Facts.
  • Mexico

  • Self-defense and army clash in Michoacán
    The biggest story this week was the vigilante movement in Mexico’s western Michoacán state, particularly around the city of Apatzingan, a stronghold of the Knights Templar drug gang. On Monday the Interior Minister Osorio Chong announced the government would be sending more troops to the region. Until now, federal troops had been reluctant to get involved, or had even worked with the groups, but this week ramped up their engagement to disarm them. By Saturday security forces will control all 27 municipalities in the Tierra Caliente region where Michoacán is located. So far Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has remained fairly silent on the issue, but has appointed a special commissioner to oversee the federal government’s response.

    The New York Times deftly explained the Mexican government’s “Catch 22:”

    Should it disarm the loosely organized gunmen who have risen up to fight the drug cartels, risking deadly clashes with some of the very citizens it has been accused of failing to protect in the first place?

    Or should it back down and let these nebulous outfits — with little or no police training, uncertain loyalties and possible ties to another criminal gang — continue to fight against the region’s narcotics rings, possibly leading to a bloody showdown?

    Reporting from the New York Times and other outlets indicated that many residents in fact support the vigilante groups and are disillusioned with security force involvement, particularly after the shooting of three civilians Wednesday. For a list of links to coverage in both English and Spanish, see the Just the Facts Mexico news page and the Pan-American Post.

  • Mexico’s police reform
    In the first six months of 2013, Mexico’s 31 states along with the Federal District did not use 88 percent of the available funds the government slated for vetting police. Initially, states were required to complete the vetting programs by December 29, 2013, but because of the delay, will now have until October 2014. More from Milenio and InSight Crime.
  • Colombia

  • Colombian cocaine labs
    Vocativ featured a video special on shifts in the Colombian cocaine trade that highlighted two of the latest trends to shake security forces’ counternarcotics efforts: the move from using huge processing labs in the jungle to small and disposable urban labs and the rise of trafficking the drug in liquid form, which is less detectable. The video also featured an anonymous trafficker who claimed, “legalization would be devastating, it would end the business.”
  • FARC ceasefire ends
    On Wednesday, the FARC ended its 30-day unilateral ceasefire. Colombian think tank CERAC documented the group’s deviation from the ceasefire and found that while the FARC decreased activity by 65 percent, there were 12 violations. Varying sources place the number of violations between four and twelve. Semana magazine wrote that despite these incidents, many analysts said the guerrilla group was largely able to hold the ceasefire, demonstrating the central Secretariat’s control over (almost) all of its fronts, a point that would be key to implementing any eventual peace deal. More analysis from InSight Crime ’s Jeremy McDermott who says while this is true, it also shows the risk of FARC fragmentation is a real possibility.

    On Thursday the government attributed a bombing in western Colombia that wounded 56 people to the FARC. The group said it was “surprised” by the attack and that if one of its fronts had in fact carried it out, it was an error.

  • FARC’s proposed drug reform
    On Tuesday, as the Colombian government and the FARC began their latest round of talks on drug trafficking, the guerrilla group released its proposed drug policy plan to regulate the production and sale of coca, poppy and marijuana. The plan also promoted demilitarization of drug- producing regions and an end to aerial crop fumigations, (See the proposal in its entirety in Spanish here and a summary in here here). Colombian newspaper El Tiempo highlighted various experts saying demilitarizing drug-producing regions is not realistic for the government, given the presence of drug labs and trafficking routes in these same areas.
  • Peru’s “license to kill” law

  • A new law in Peru exempts police officers and soldiers who shoot civilians “in compliance with their duty” from prosecution. The measure drew heavy criticism from civil society organizations who said it was a “license to kill” and will only further existing impunity for abuses. Supporters of the bill said it would allow police to protect civilians more effectively. More from El País.
  • Panama fines North Korea

  • North Korea has agreed to pay Panama a $670,000 fine to reclaim the ship that was found carrying Cuban missile equipment through the Panama Canal last year.
  • Friday, January 10, 2014

    The Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of some of the top security-related articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.

    Argentina

  • On Tuesday Argentina's La Nación newspaper reported the country's military would be sent to the border for their first anti-drug mission, part of a new strategy increasing the armed forces' role in domestic counternarcotics operations. According to the paper, Argentina plans to seek U.S. military assistance for those operations. As Adam Isacson noted, the news marked some big policy shifts in that the U.S. has given virtually no military assistance to Argentina for years and the country has historically maintained civilian control over internal policing duties.

    Argentina's defense minister, Agustín Rossi, confirmed the country purchased 35 hummers from the United States military, but said the vehicles would not be used for counternarcotics missions.

  • Honduras

  • A fantastic read in the New Yorker gives a history of the United States' war on drugs at home and in Latin America, underscoring its failures and highlighting why the U.S. strategy remains "on autopilot" despite the spate of shortcomings. It noted, "What is remarkable is how many times the U.S. has tried such militarized counter-narcotics programs and how long it has been apparent how little they amount to."
  • Other interesting articles this week concerning U.S. involvement in Honduras came from Al Jazeera's “US ambassador to Honduras offers tacit support of brutal crackdown” and the Guardian's “Honduras and the dirty war fueled by the west’s drive for clean energy.”
  • Honduras' outgoing Congress approved for the country's newly established military police to be added to the constitution. The next step is for the legislature to approve the addition. President-elect Juan Orlando Hernández, the architect of the unit, is pushing for this as he has said it would not only be involved in citizen security, but in fiscal crimes as well.
  • Cuba

  • On Thursday Cuban and U.S. officials met in Havana for migration talks. The talks, which are the highest public contact between the two governments, are the latest development in a series of events indicating a thaw in relations. The delegations discussed the status of the 1990s migratory accords, which allowed for the U.S. to issue 20,000 immigrant visas a year to Cubans, as well as the issues of illegal immigration and human trafficking. The Cuban government continues to object to U.S. special exemptions for Cuban immigrants, such as the "wet foot, dry-foot" policy, which the Cubans claim encourages illegal immigration. More from the Associated Press. See here for the full text in English of the Cuban press release on the migration talks.
  • Mexico

  • On Monday Mexico's Federal Police, Marine Corps and Army were deployed to the coast and Michoacán, where clashes between armed vigilante groups and drug cartels is causing violence to spike and main transportation thoroughfares to close.

    On Saturday, some 100 members of a self-defense group took over the Michoacán village of Paracuaro, a stronghold of the Knights Templar drug gang, and detained 15 local police officers accused of colluding with the cartel. Reuters published a vivid photo feature on the incident. El Universal has a helpful interactive feature on the security situation in the state with maps, profiles, a timeline and videos.

  • The government has since sent federal troops to protect the high-profile leader of the group that took over Paracuaro, Jose Manuel Mireles, who was injured in a plane crash Saturday. The Associated Press, noted the decision to do so illustrated the "tricky position in which Mexico's government finds itself with regard to the rebel movement." The government has denounced these groups as outside the law, but hailed Mireles Wednesday for "wounding the cartels, particularly the Templars." More analysis from El País on the federal government’s role in the conflict.

    Local townspeople are now protesting the vigilante's takeover of Paracuaro,while the mayor has requested the federal government's assistance in removing the armed vigilante group. Self-defense groups now control 13 cities and a community in Michoacan.

  • Vice Mexico published a feature on Mireles, "With the moral leader of Michoacan's self-defense groups," documenting his life with the vigilante movement over the course of five days as they planned the takeover and executed it, up through the plane crash that landed Mireles in the hospital.
  • Human Rights Watch researcher Nik Steinberg published a harrowing story in Foreign Policy about ongoing impunity for forced disappearances in Mexico, many committed by members of the country's police and military. He noted a lack of government will to prosecute cases or set up a functioning database of missing individuals.
  • InSight Crime translated Mexican analyst Alejandro Hope’s “5 Predications for Mexico Security in 2014.”
  • Venezuela

  • The high-profile murder of a former Miss Venezuela on Monday has shocked the country and sparked a nation-wide debate about the dire public security situation. On Twitter, the hashtag #NoMasViolenciaVenezuela (No more violence Venezuela) was trending while the statistic was spread that Venezuela's 2013 homicide rate (24,763) was over 2.5 times that of Iraq (9.472), which has about the same population. On Thursday all governors and mayors from the country's 79 municipalities convened in Caracas to review the government's security plan. So far seven arrests have been made for the murders.

    At the meeting, a much-publicized handshake took place between President Maduro and Henrique Capriles, Maduro's rival in April's hotly contested presidential elections. It was the first time the two had been in the same room since Maduro defeated Capriles. President Maduro has since announced the creation of a center for victims of violence as well as a major cabinet reshuffle, including the heads of seven civilian ministries and several military agencies.

  • Colombia

  • The Los Angeles Times published an article on the status of Colombia’s 2011 land restitution statute, which one farmer said was “a beautiful law that gave us hope we might recover our land. But we’re still in limbo and under constant threat.” The piece goes on to describe obstacles to the law's implementation such as protection for those reclaiming their land from paramilitary groups and lack of local development.
  • Following a recent Washington Post article detailing the CIA’s covert involvement in Colombia’s counterinsurgency missions, the FARC issued a communiqué questioning the government’s commitment to the peace talks, saying the article, “raises doubts about the true role of the fatherland-betraying Colombian oligarchy.” In a post published Friday in English, “The Army of Colombia: A Pawn in the CIA’s Chess Game,” the group blasted the government, asserting that “To hand over the command of your military operations to a foreign army and hide it from the country for years is a crime of the offended country; it is an outrage that stains our sovereignty and independence; a crime of treason.”
  • An editorial in Colombia’s most circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, strongly praised Colorado’s marijuana legalization measure, calling it an “urgent and necessary framing of the war on drugs.”
  • Although Colombia seized more marijuana in 2013 than in any year in the past two decades, cocaine seizures fell dramatically to 70 tons, which would mean a 170-ton drop using some 2012 numbers. According to InSight Crime, this shift indicates cocaine traffickers have adapted their strategies, as the United Nations has reported cocaine production in the country remains stable, despite drops in coca cultivation.
  • El Salvador

  • A joint study by the Salvadoran Government and the United States’ Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, found that although criminals’ weapons used to be left overs from the civil war, now 60% of weapons traced come from the United States today.
  • Friday, December 20, 2013

    The Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of some of the top security-related articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.

    Note: This will be the last blog post until January 8th. Happy Holidays!

    U.S. Policy

    Aerial fumigation of coca crops in Colombia halted

  • U.S.- funded aerial fumigation of coca in Colombia has been indefinitely suspended after two planes were shot down in late September and early October, allegedly by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which resulted in the death of one U.S. pilot.

    La Silla Vacía reported the United States has begun a security review of the plane crashes and that Colombia has not carried out any fumigation missions since late September. As InSight Crime reported, Colombia is going to miss its coca eradication target considerably this year, which could mean an increase in the reported amount of coca produced.

  • USAID to leave Ecuador

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced last Thursday it would be leaving Ecuador “as a result of the Government of Ecuador’s decision to prohibit approval of new USAID assistance programs.” Although the agency had reportedly allocated $32 million for programs in the country for the coming years, it will close its doors by September 2014. The news comes just six months after Bolivia expelled USAID for allegedly conspiring against the government.
  • Edward Snowden’s open letter to Brazilians

  • On Tuesday, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden wrote an open letter to Brazilians offering to help the Brazilian government investigate U.S. espionage practices in exchange for permanent asylum. Government officials said it had no plans to offer Snowden asylum.
  • Defense Purchases

  • Honduras purchased $30 million worth of radars from Israel, which are set to arrive in January for counternarcotics operations.
  • Brazil announced it awarded Sweden’s Saab (different than the car company) with a $4.5 billion deal for 36 fighter jets, over U.S.- based Boeing or the French company Dassault. The deal will likely be even more valuable for the Swedish company as it will get contracts for future supply, parts and maintenance for the jets.

    Most headlines attributed the Brazilian government’s decision to forgo Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, which had been considered the front runner for the bid earlier this year, to the diplomatic fallout with United States following revelations of the National Security Agency's espionage programs in the country. “The NSA problem ruined it for the Americans,”according to an anonymous government official. However, the Brazilian government’s official line has been that the decision was based on “performance, the effective transfer of technology and costs, not only of acquisition, but also of maintenance.” As the New York Times noted, the Saab model would be a significantly less-costly investment.

  • Bolivia announced it would be purchasing six Superpuma helicopters for $221.2 million in efforts to ramp up its fight against drug trafficking. This week the government announced that while coca eradication has increased in the country, cocaine seizures are down. More from InSight Crime.
  • Peru has made several defense purchases recently. This week the government announced it would purchase 24 helicopters from Russia intended for anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism missions in the Apurimac and Ene Valley (VRAE) region, which produces more coca than any other region in the world. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the announcement followings the purchase of two Italian-made military transport airplanes for around $122 million and 20 training airplanes from Korea Aerospace Industries.

    On Tuesday Peruvian special forces destroyed 20 clandestine airstrips in the VRAE region. The mission was carried our by 224 security agents, 10 helicopters and five hovercrafts, according to the Associated Press.

  • Uruguay ‘Country of the Year’

  • The Economist named “modest yet bold, liberal and fun-loving” Uruguay ‘The Country of the Year,’ lauding the nation’s most recent legislation legalizing the production and sale of marijuana. “If others followed suit, and other narcotics were included, the damage such drugs wreak on the world would be drastically reduced,” praised the publication.
  • Guatemala contemplating legalizing poppy cultivation

  • Guatemala is going to debate legalizing the cultivation of poppy, a principal component in heroin, for medical purposes. According to the country’s interior minister, the government is considering both regulated legal cultivation and alternative development, International Business Times reported. More from La Tercera.
  • Mexico’s list of the top 69 arrested or killed drug traffickers this year

  • The Mexican government released a list of 69 drug cartel capos captured or killed out of the 122 most wanted drug traffickers in the country. A look at the list reveals the Zeta drug gang has been the most affected of the cartels. More from the Associated Press and Animal Politico.
  • Report on the rise of vigilante groups in Mexico

  • On Tuesday Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) released a report on the rise of vigilante groups in the country. The body said the government should not allow the groups to form as they undermine the rule of law and could lead to more violence, noting however that lack of security in several areas was fomenting their growth. As Animal Politico reported, the Guerrero state government has funded some of these groups. In that state alone, CNDH documented 7,000 members of self-defense groups, which have expanded their reach to 56 percent of the state’s territory.
  • New report examining the FARC’s strategy during peace talks

  • A new report (pdf, summary here) by Colombian think tank Fundación Paz y Reconciliación examined how the FARC’s military strategy has changed during the peace talks. According to the report, the FARC have maintained similar levels of activity since 2010, but have been able to adapt their tactics to the rhythm of the peace talks, planning offensives or declaring truces, depending on the status of the negotiations in Havana. Some interesting findings included:
    • The FARC have 11,000 fighters, as opposed to the 8,000 alleged by the Colombian government, and have a presence in 11 regions and 242 municipalities, or about 20 percent of the country.
    • In the last two months the FARC have allied with the National Liberation Army, the country’s second-largest insurgency. This has lead to an increase in attacks on oil, mining and gas infrastructure in the country.
    • The FARC have increased their influence in social movements and protests, including the recent coca growers strike.

    The report reveals a great deal about the guerrilla group’s sustained capacity. More from InSight Crime and Colombia Reports about the report in English and from Semana and El Espectador in Spanish.

  • Honduras new police and military leadership

  • On Thursday, Honduran President Porifirio Lobo fired the country’s national police chief, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who had been linked to death squads and forced disappearances as a lower-ranking officer. The move came at the behest of President-elect, Juan Orlando Hernández, who has “expressed skepticism” about police reform efforts. Under Bonilla, Honduras’ police have been accused of abuse and extrajudicial killings. More from the Associated Press.

    As Honduras Culture and Politics also noted, there were other major shake-ups in the high command of the country’s security forces: the military is getting a new commander, Fredy Santiago Díaz Zelayaya, who was fundamental in creating the new military police. The Air Force and Navy will also be under new leadership as will the joint military and police task force. See the post for a full run-down of the new positions. As El Heraldo noted, under Hernández, Honduras’ military will continue to play a key role in domestic security.

  • Chile’s new president

  • As of last Sunday, Michelle Bachelet is set to be Chile’s new president. As several outlets have noted, Bachelet made significant promises during her campaign, with increased taxes and education reform as her hallmark initiatives. Many analysts have noted she will need serious momentum to overcome a slowing economy and congressional opposition to push through major proposed reforms, like changing the Pinochet-era electoral system and constitution. More from the Time, Americas Quarterly, the Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor.
  • Friday, December 13, 2013

    The Week in Review


    The following is a round-up of some of the top security-related articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.

    Colombia

    Peace Talks

  • On Sunday, the FARC declared a 30-day ceasefire beginning December 15. The FARC’s statement came a day after the group bombed a police station in Cauca, killing nine. President Santos said the government would continue to fight the rebels throughout the ceasefire, while FARC leader “Pablo Catatumbo” warned on Tuesday there could be more attacks before the ceasefire begins Sunday. More from BBC, Semana, Colombia Reports and Fusion.
  • The Colombian government and the FARC released a joint report detailing the November accord on the guerrilla group's political participation.
  • Aerial eradication

  • The U.S. Ambassador - Designate to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, said ending the aerial eradication program would be a “great mistake.” Whitaker also expressed his support for the peace talks. More analysis from Adam Isacson and the United Institute of Peace’s Ginny Bouvier.
  • U.S. influence in drug policy

  • Colombian news and analysis site La Silla Vacía published a list of the 10 most powerful actors with respect to drug policy in the country. The number one spot went to President Obama and the number 10 spot to former President Álvaro Uribe. The FARC, the U.S. Embassy and Open Sociey Foundations were also included on the list.
  • Bogota mayor

  • On Monday, Colombia's ultra-conservative prosecutor general, Alejandro Ordóñez, removed left-wing Bogota Mayor Guastavo Petro and banned him from holding public office for 15 years. Ordóñez claimed Petro had improvised and mismanaged a shift in responsibility of the city's garbage collection systems to a public collection service, resulting in tons of trash being left on the streets for several days last year. Petro and his supporters called the move an undemocratic right-wing “coup” by ruling conservatives threatened by his leftist views. On Monday and Tuesday, thousands converged on Bogota's main square, Plaza Bolivar, in support of Petro, who, hoping for a “Colombian Spring,” called for massive demonstrations to take place Friday.

    Given Petro was a former M-19 guerrilla, several observers have noted his dismissal could have repercussions for the peace talks in Havana. The guerrillas could interpret the move as a sign there are no political guarantees for leftist politicians, dissuading them from entering into formal politics. As Colombian magazine Semana noted, Ordóñez' decision has rallied support for Petro, not only within the capital city, but from the United States, the FARC, Colombia's political left, sectors of the indigenous population, the United Nations and the European Parliament.

    At his nomination hearing this Wednesday, the U.S. Ambassador - Designate to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, said the move "could erode" the peace process, while the FARC, in a statement released Wednesday, commented, "With a simple signature, Ordoñez gave those of use who have risen up in arms a lesson in what democracy means to the oligarchy in Colombia." Petro has appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and said he plans to appeal the decision, the deadline for which is January. More from the Miami Herald, La Silla Vacía and the Christian Science Monitor on the effect on the peace talks and El Tiempo on the Colombian government’s negative reaction to Whitaker's statement.

  • Uruguay Marijuana bill

  • On Tuesday, Uruguay's Senate approved a bill in a 16 to 13 vote that would allow the government to regulate the production and distribution of marijuana, which lawmakers consider fundamental to reducing drug-related violence in the country. President Jose Mujica is expected to sign the bill into law on Friday, however, he has reiterated he views the measure as an "experiment.” The U.N. International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has come out against the proposal, saying it breaks international anti-drug laws, while bordering countries Brazil and Argentina have expressed concern about increased trafficking. President Mujica told INCB head Raymond Yans to “stop lying” in reference to Yans’ claims that Uruguayan officials would not meet with him.

    More from the Pan-American Post, El País, Reuters, The Economist, and the New York Times, while the Transnational Institute's Drugs and Democracy program has useful infographics on why the measure was implemented and how it will work.

    InSight Crime has a feature looking at short-term and long-term obstacles to the bill, such as pushback from opposition lawmakers that have vowed to repeal the law and low public approval for the measure.

  • Venezuelan municipal elections

  • As was expected, Venezuela's ruling PSUV party won the majority of municipal elections that were held last Sunday. The final tally indicated that the PSUV won 44 percent of the local seats and the MUD part won 42 percent. Many had described the vote as a referendum for President Nicolas Maduro’s presidency, and as Venezuela expert David Smilde wrote on WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, “This result clearly gives Maduro some breathing room.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the elections had “met the standards” despite “some questions of irregularities.” More from Christian Science Monitor, NPR, James Bosworth, the Miami Herald, World Politics Review, and the Economist.
  • The Venezuelan government says the country’s homicide rate is expected to drop by 25 percent this year: from a government-recorded 56 homicides per 100,000 people to 39 per 100,000, which would be the lowest rate in four years. In an interview with Reuters, Venezuela’s interior minister attributed the decrease to Plan Patria Segura, an anti-crime initiative that ramped up the presence of troops on the streets.InSight Crime highlighted the inconsistency and unreliability of official crime numbers, as the Venezuelan government has admitted to keeping unwanted statistics secret.
  • Honduras

  • Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has confirmed conservative ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández as the official winner of the country’s presidential elections, despite complaints of fraud and electoral irregularity filed by the opposition LIBRE and Anti-Corruption parties. Secretary of State John Kerry formally extended his congratulations to Hernández on Thursday. Hernández’ confirmation likely means the Honduran government will take a more heavy-handed approach to security, as Adam Isacson noted. More from El Heraldo and the BBC.
  • Chile

  • Chile is holding a presidential runoff election this Sunday, which former President Michelle Bachelet is almost certain to win. Bachelet won 47% of the vote in the first round, almost double that of her conservative rival, Evelyn Matthei. Even Matthei has said she would consider a victory a “miracle.” More from La Tercera.
  • Cuba

  • Cuban police detained, beat, and otherwise harassed over 150 dissidents throughout the county ahead of protests and marches intended to commemorate International Human Rights Day on December 10. About 20 members of the dissident group the Ladies in White were among those detained. The Miami Herald reported Thursday all of those detained have been released.
  • The handshake between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral caused a media storm this week. Conservative lawmakers such as John McCain and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), along with some media outlets, including the Washington Post's Editorial Board, heavily criticized the move while several news agencies and analysts speculated it signaled a thaw in relations. For links to articles on both sides of the debate, see the Just the Facts' Cuba news page.
  • Argentina

  • This week police protests and strikes that started ten days ago spread to 20 of Argentina’s 23 provinces. The strikes and subsequent looting have resulted in mass violence, including the death of 12 people. The officers are demanding higher wages and better work conditions. According to La Nación, the strikes and looting have subsided but are still ongoing in three provinces and parts of Buenos Aires, the capital city. More from the Economist and the Pan-American Post.
  • Thursday, December 12, 2013

    U.S. Ambassador-Designate to Colombia on Aerial Fumigation

    A matter which has come up with respect to counternarcotics is the FARC's insistence- this is a publice insistence, we don't know what they're saying at the table- but publicly, they're insisting on the elimination of the aerial eradication program, which in our view would be a great mistake.

    This is from the testimony yesterday of U.S. Ambassador-Designate to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, at his nomination hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, starting at about 2:27:00 in the video.

    We’ve discussed elsewhere recently why it makes sense to abandon the 20-year-old “aerial eradication” program, to which the U.S. government still devotes over US$40 million each year to spray herbicides from aircraft over Colombia’s coca-growing areas.

    What’s interesting about what Kevin Whitaker said yesterday is what it portends. The fumigation program threatens to be the first issue on which the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas clash with official U.S. policy. The two sides in the Havana talks may be closer to each other on the fumigation issue than either is to the United States.

    There is some probability that the negotiators will agree to end the aerial herbicide spraying program. The FARC, in a December 3 statement, included “the immediate suspension of aerial spraying with glyphosate” among its ten proposals for drug policy, the topic currently on the negotiators’ agenda.

    In its coverage of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s visit to Washington last week, Colombia’s principal newsmagazine, Semana, didn’t seem to think the “banning fumigation” demand would be controversial at the peace talks.

    "The guerrillas presented their ten points. Among them stand out some that probably will be agreed without much discussion: crop substitution, non-criminalization of consumers, and suspension of fumigation. [My emphasis.]”

    This is the first time I’d heard that ending the fumigation program would be something on which the two sides might quickly agree. I asked a reporter who writes about security for Semana. While that reporter did not write this particular story, the reply I received noted, “Truly, the sensation here after the [World Court] settlement with Ecuador is that something has to change with the fumigations.”

    If that’s correct, then the negotiators may be about to do something that the incoming U.S. ambassador views as a “mistake.” Still, if they choose to stop fumigation, the Obama administration will need to be flexible and respect that outcome.

    This blog was written by Adam Isacson and first appeared here, on his personal blog

    Friday, December 6, 2013

    Yes to Peace in Colombia

    By: Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

    This blog appeared in the Huffington Post

    As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met this week with President Barack Obama, it’s time to say, Yes to peace.

    In November 2013, the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group signed an agreement, the second of five agreements which together will make up a final peace accord. With this second agreement, two of the most difficult topics, land and political participation, have been negotiated, showing that this peace process has a real chance to end a fifty-year war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, kidnapped and disappeared, and some 6 million people have been forcibly displaced.

    It’s positive that the U.S. government is supporting this peace process, Colombia’s best hope for a sustainable peace in decades. The United States should support it decisively. U.S. policymakers must also consider how best to support a peace accord financially once negotiations are finalized, including by reorienting aid away from military assistance and towards demobilization and reintegration programs, support for victims of violence, and mechanisms for truth, justice and reparations.

    The Colombian government should facilitate greater participation for victims of violence—including Afro-Colombian and indigenous people and women—in the peace process and its implementation. Strong measures of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition are essential if this agreement is to produce a just and lasting peace, as this letter by a wide range of U.S. faith-based organizations emphasizes.

    And the Colombian government would be wise to open peace negotiations with the remaining, smaller guerrilla groups, to use this momentum to put an end to war.

    But Colombia cannot achieve a sustainable peace without addressing its core human rights problems. Colombia’s human rights crisis is far from over. As noted in a statement by the Latin America Working Group, Washington Office on Latin America, US Office on Colombia, and Center for International Policy:

    The Colombian government must make greater progress in dismantling paramilitary successor groups. In November 2013 alone, more than 2700 people, largely Afro-Colombian, were displaced in Buenaventura, allegedly by paramilitary successor groups. These brutal groups are also responsible for many of the threats and attacks against human rights defenders and are an obstacle to implementing the government’s land restitution program. Dismantling paramilitary successor groups—including by investigating and prosecuting the members of the military and police, local politicians, government officials, large landowners and companies that continue to finance and collude with them—is essential for human rights progress in Colombia.

    Colombia must bring to justice the cases of the more than 3,000 alleged extrajudicial executions, most attributed to the armed forces, committed in the past decade. The Colombian Constitutional Court's decision to overturn the new, controversial law that would have expanded military jurisdiction affords the Santos Administration an opportunity to move forward, not backward, and ensure that human rights crimes allegedly committed by soldiers are effectively tried in civilian courts. Progress in bringing to justice cases of sexual violence committed by all armed actors is also essential.

    The Colombian judicial system must make advances in prosecuting threats and attacks against human rights defenders. Those who defend human rights continue to face grave risks for their work, yet attacks against them are almost never investigated, let alone prosecuted. Though the Santos Administration has implemented important protection programs, it is essential to confront the problem at its source by ending impunity in attacks against defenders.

    The Colombian government must meet its obligations to respect labor rights. To secure passage of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which faced significant public and congressional opposition, the U.S. and Colombian governments signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) that laid out steps that the Colombian government agreed to take in order to protect labor unionists and increase respect for labor rights. It was good to hear the White House mention this, but we need action. The Colombian and U.S. governments must fulfill the pledge they made to the U.S. and Colombian publics by signing this plan.

    While the number of deaths of labor union members has declined and Colombia has created institutions and passed laws, respect for labor rights has not improved on the ground. At least 11 trade unionists have been murdered in 2013 and hundreds have received death threats. As highlighted in a congressional report, “The US-Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground,” indirect employment is still pervasive and growing, the inspection system is ineffective, workers’ protections are weak and the right to organize is routinely denied.

    Finally, the Colombian government must make progress in safe and sustainable land restitution for victims of forced displacement as well as land titling for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The Santos’ Administration’s Victims’ Law represents a historic opportunity for land restitution to Colombia’s internally displaced population and reparations for victims of violence. However, land restitution has been extremely slow, and even the vast majority of those who receive restitution are not yet able to return safely to their lands, as the structures that caused displacement remain intact (see Human Rights Watch's The Risk of Returning Home and Latin America Working Group's Far from the Promised Land). Land titling of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities is also proceeding at a snail's pace.

    Land restitution cannot take place safely without more decisive action by the Colombian government to address the sources of violence from all armed actors—including paramilitaries, guerrillas and the armed forces—that caused people to flee their homes in the first place. It is especially crucial to dismantle the illegal paramilitary successor groups that still wage violence in the countryside, as well as to investigate and prosecute state and private actors that aid or employ them. The Colombian government should also ramp up legal services and protection for victims, and increase protection for land judges.

    Colombia is still experiencing a human rights crisis. But if a peace accord is finalized in the near future, and if the Colombian government increases its attention to these human rights and labor rights issues, there is a real chance that Colombians, including those caught for decades in one of the world’s most brutal conflicts, can live their lives in peace.

    Friday, December 6, 2013

    The Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of some of the top security-related articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.

    Entire Region

  • The Latin Americanist and Pan American Post had roundups of Latin American leaders' reactions to the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela on Thursday. As both noted, Venezuela and Nicaragua have called for three national days of mourning.
  • Colombia

  • President Santos met with President Obama in the Oval Office for two and a half hours Tuesday morning. After the meeting, Santos described relations between the two countries as “at their best moment ever.” See this Just the Facts post for a summary of news and analysis on the visit.

    Despite the optimistic tones of the meeting with President Obama, President Santos criticized the United States’ Cuba policy while speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Congress. “I think Cuba would be willing to change, and both sides have to give in some way,” saying that the moment is “now” for diplomacy to change. At the Organization of American States, President Santos reiterated his stance on creating alternative policies to the drug war and asked members to promote an open discussion on drug policy.

  • Pablo Escobar

  • Monday December 2nd was the 20th anniversary of Pablo Escobar’s death. There was coverage in both English and Spanish on the infamous drug lord’s divisive legacy including pieces from the BBC, El Tiempo (multimedia feature), and BBC Mundo. Longtime Medellín journalist Jeremy McDermott noted that while Medellín remains the epicenter of narcotrafficking in Colombia, the nature of the drug trade and landscape of the criminal underworld has changed significantly since the downfall of Escobar’s Medellín Cartel.
  • Peace Talks

  • On Monday, lead FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo read out a ten-point anti-narcotics plan in Havana. Some of the changes in drug policy listed in the communiqué are not too different from what many leaders in Latin America, including Colombia’s President Santos, have been calling for, which include: demilitarization of drug policy, immediate suspension of (U.S.-backed) coca fumigation programs, and the treatment of psychoactive drug use as a public health problem along with the decriminalization of drug consumption.

    The group also proposed the state recognize the “food, medicinal, therapeutic, industrial and cultural uses of cultivating coca leaves, marijuana and poppy” as part of an illicit crop substitution program. The Colombian government rejected this. As a recommended read from InSight Crime analyzing the obstacles and opportunities in the talks regarding the drug trade noted, “The chance of striking an agreement with such a key member of the drug trafficking underworld offers the Colombian authorities an unprecedented opportunity.” More from the AFP.

  • Colombia's Defense Minister in D.C.

  • On Monday, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón spoke at the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He discussed Colombia’s currently military strategy as well as defense plans going forward. The transcript can be read here.
  • Mexico

  • December 1st marked Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first year in office. There were several analysis, including from: Alfredo Corchado, James Bosworth, the Washington Office on Latin America, David Agren for USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, analyst Alejandro Hope, the Pan-American Post and InSight Crime, which included an overview of Mexico’s current criminal setting.

    Most of the analysis touched on the fact that while President Peña Nieto is distinct from former President Calderón in that fighting the cartels has not been the public focus of his government, the policy of deploying the military and federal police to criminal hotspots has continued. As a result, human rights groups like Human Rights Watch have blasted Peña Nieto for the justice system’s ongoing impunity for murder and abuses committed by security officials. Although homicides have dropped in some areas, kidnapping has skyrocketed. As analyst James Bosworth asserted, “the two key issues, security and economic growth, have not seen the improvements Peña Nieto promised during his campaign.”

  • Fugitive Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero sent President Peña Nieto a letter urging him to resist U.S. “pressure” to capture and extradite him for the 1985 killing of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Quintero had served 28 years of a 40-year sentence when a Mexican court allowed his release, drawing heavy criticism from the United States. Mexico’s Supreme Court has since overturned the ruling and Mexican and U.S. authorities have issued warrants for Quintero’s arrest. More from the Los Angeles Times and Fox News Latino.
  • The Washington Office on Latin America released a new report on security and migration along the United States-Mexico border on Thursday.
  • Transparency International report

  • Transparency International released its 2013 Corruption Index Tuesday and found there has been little improvement in the region’s most corrupt countries. Venezuela, Paraguay and Honduras had the highest indexes of corruption, while Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica ranked as the least corrupt. Central America in general was found to be more corrupt than last year, with an uptick in drug trafficking cited as the main cause. More from InSight Crime and International Business Times.
  • Ecuador

  • In an effort to reduce the size of Ecuador’s armed forces, President Rafael Correa proposed creating financial incentives for officers to retire from the military and law civilian law enforcement bodies.
  • Panama

  • The U.S. Department of Defense said there were no plans for toxin-filled munitions abandoned by the U.S. Army on San Jose Island in 1947 to be returned and destroyed. Despite a statement by Panama’s foreign minister last month that the aging chemical weapons would be returned, the Pentagon has said it would be sending experts to the Central American country. This has been a contentious issue between the two countries for some time.
  • Venezuela

  • On Sunday, Venezuelans will go to the polls to elect 365 mayors and 2,389 municipal representatives. Some analysts have described this vote as a “referendum” on President Maduro’s first eight months in office. As Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional reported, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles has campaigned hard for his MUD party, visiting 117 municipalities compared to Maduro’s 21. Americas Society/Council of the Americas has an explainer on the elections and analyst Luis Vincente León looks at possible outcomes from the elections, noting that some of Maduro’s most recent political tricks, such as lowering the prices of electronics and other goods, could tip the scale in his favor. Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog has a useful cheat sheet.
  • El Salvador

  • Most of the firearms in El Salvador come from the United States, according to the country’s national police (PNC). With training from the U.S. Office on Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the PNC has tracked nearly 34,000 weapons, the majority of which came from the United States. While some are left over from Central America’s civil wars, modern weapon discoveries suggest new arms trafficking networks. More from InSight Crime and La Prensa Grafica.
  • Honduras

  • Last week, Honduras’ electoral court announced conservative ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez winner of the country's presidential elections. On Monday, Hernández’s closest competitor and wife of deposed former President Manuel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro of the LIBRE party, filed a formal complaint claiming fraud in the election. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) agreed to count the tally sheets on Wednesday, however officials delayed doing so after claiming members of the LIBRE failed to appear. The LIBRE leadership claimed the TSE's procedures were insufficient and had suggested other mechanisms. As Honduras Culture and Politics blog noted, LIBRE and the TSE had never agreed to specifics in the procedure and therefore had no official start date to begin vote counting. See this Just the Facts post post by Latin America Working group for more on foul play in the electoral process.
  • Friday, December 6, 2013

    Honduran Elections: No Cause for Celebrations

    By: Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

    The November 24, 2013 elections in Honduras and their aftermath are a critical moment for the direction of the country. In June 2009 a coup overthrew the elected president, Liberal Party member Manuel Zelaya. In this month´s election, Zelaya´s wife Xiomara Castro de Zelaya under the new Libre party banner ran against the National Party´s Juan Orlando Hernandez, the traditional Liberal Party, a new Anti-Corruption Party and several others.

    The Supreme Electoral Council declared the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernandez the winner, followed by Libre, with the Liberals, and the Anti-Corruption Party also receiving a significant share of votes. The newer parties’ significant vote count has altered the traditional two-party (National, Liberal) Honduran political scene.

    But it is far from time to celebrate a free and fair election.

    The International Human Rights Federation observation team in which Latin America Working Group participated, observing the human rights context as well as electoral mechanics, congratulated the Honduran people for a strong turnout, but observed the following serious problems:

    Incentives for voting, provided by one party. The National Party had booths outside voting places where voters could pick up an envelope with their name on it with a card with discounts for telephone, food, medical care and pharmacy products. This was widespread and open, with the party having run ads promoting it.

    Live people declared dead. Our small team met at least 20 people who had been declared dead and were unable to vote, as well as others whose voting places had been changed, making it difficult for them to vote. “They have not yet managed to kill me yet,” said one very angry “dead” woman we met at a Libre party booth outside a polling place. Many of these people told us that they had voted at the same voting place in last year´s primary.

    Oppressive presence of the military. Honduran law unfortunately confers upon the armed forces the role of transporting and guarding electoral material and filled ballots. This law needs to be changed. The presence of the military on this election day was oppressive. Soldiers with automatic weapons had a prominent presence at voting centers, and in one case we observed soldiers frisking voters as they entered the polling place. Soldiers surrounded the transmission towers of progressive radio and television stations on election day.

    Among the other problems we observed or which were reported to us were a complete lack of transparency in campaign financing, allegations that smaller parties were selling their pollwatcher credentials, immigration agents harassing some international observers, and the fact that the Supreme Electoral Council was formed by four of the nine parties running, rather than being strictly nonpartisan.

    However, the allegations of fraudulent acts with the most impact would be in the transmission of votes between the polling places and the Supreme Electoral Council. Our mission noted with concern before the elections that this system appeared vulnerable to fraud. Two parties, Libre and the Anti-Corruption Party, are contesting the results of the elections and demanding to see the results from the individual polling places and a complete recount of ballots.

    The Supreme Electoral Council must satisfy the legitimate demands of these parties for complete and transparent scrutiny of contested ballots. International observers should audit the vote transmission system, and the Honduran Attorney General’s office for Electoral Crimes should investigate carefully all claims of fraudulent activity.

    In the long term, Honduran election law could be improved by removing the military from a role in administering elections, ensuring that the Supreme Electoral Council is nonpartisan, improving the voter rolls and ensuring transparency in campaign financing.

    On the day after the elections, a small, peaceful protest by frustrated Libre voters approached the plaza where the Supreme Electoral Council had set up operations in a hotel. Some 150 heavily-armed police, including the anti-riot police with their tear gas and shields, and the black-clad military police, blocked their entrance. There was no violence, not with international electoral observers in their jackets and the international press in the nearby hotels. But what will happen now that the observers and the press have packed up and left?

    The enormous frustration of voters who feel that once again the faith that they have placed in the electoral system has been violated needs to be heard and needs a solution. It must not meet teargas and batons.

    The international community should be concerned about these elections and their aftermath.

    We must also be concerned about the overall human rights context in Honduras. Yes, there is an extremely high murder rate due to organized crime and street crime. But there are also targeted killings of and threats against human rights defenders, including those who denounce human rights abuses, protect women´s rights and protest environmentally damaging projects such as mining and dams. Journalists and members of the LGBTI community are targeted. Police and other state actors are implicated in many cases, and the vast majority of these crimes remain in total impunity. The human rights unit of the Attorney General’s office that should investigate many of these crimes has been weakened by the recent transfer of dedicated prosecutors.

    Nothing to celebrate yet.