Syndicate content Link to our RSS feed / Link to our podcast feed

Friday, August 23, 2013

Podcast: Militaries as Police

Militaries are getting involved in policing throughout Latin America. Adam talks to Sarah Kinosian of the Center for International Policy, who wrote a series of posts to the Just the Facts blog documenting this trend in Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Friday, August 23, 2013

Latin America Security by the Numbers

  • Arturo Corrales, the Minister of Security of Honduras, announced plans to create a new force of 4,500 community police. He plans to supply the force with 175 new vehicles equipped with GPS, 300 motorcycles and 5,000 bulletproof vests. Although the government has not yet specified what will differentiate the community police from the National Police, Corrales maintains that the deployment of this force, which is set to take place by September 1, will lead to a “rapid decrease” in levels of criminal violence.

  • The Congress of Honduras also approved the creation of a new military police force that will consist of 5,000 officers from the Honduran armed forces. Minister of Security Corrales assured that the military police initiative is not at odds with the community police, but rather the two new forces will complement each other. Both proposals have emerged just months before Honduras, the country with the world’s highest homicide rate, holds its next presidential elections.

  • An audit carried out by the Minister of Security in Honduras uncovered the existence of 2,151 “ghost officers” in the National Police Force. Although the government had been paying salaries for 12,800 police agents, only 9,350 actually reported to a post. With a monthly salary of 7,500 lempiras for a basic police agent (roughly US$368, per current exchange rate), multiplied by 2,151 ghost officers, the government has been paying over 16 million lempiras (US$784,697) each month to officers that either did not exist, or who did not do their jobs.

  • Of the 498 weapons that the “mara” gangs had relinquished to the government as part of the El Salvador gang truce, the vast majority do not work. ATF (U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) Special Agent Harry Penate said that in his opinion, these are not the weapons that organized crime participants are actually using.

  • A Brazilian government research institute reports that Brazil has 8,600 more homicides per year than officially reported, which puts the number at 60,000 homicides per year—nearly 18 percent above official statistics. The institution explains that this difference is due to the fact that roughly 10 percent of violent deaths are mistakenly classified as having “undetermined causes.”

  • In Nicaragua, the military’s commander in chief, General Julio Cesar Aviles, said the Navy (which is part of the Army) needs at least 8 more patrol boats to effectively intercept drug shipments in its territorial waters. The extent of these territorial waters is the subject of ongoing disputes with Colombia and Costa Rica.

  • Approximately 160 military personnel from 19 countries went to U.S. Southern Command (SOUTCHCOM) headquarters in Miami for part of PANAMAX 2013, an annual exercise designed to train in a scenario involving defense of the Panama Canal. The latest PANAMAX exercise lasted from August 4 to 16, and involved a component in Panama.

  • Colombia registered a 7 percent increase in homicides from the first half of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012. According to the Center for Security and Democracy at the Sergio Arboleda University, which is critical of the current government’s security policies, the homicide rate for the first half of 2013 was 34.4 homicides per 100 inhabitants, the first time this rate has increased in seven years.

  • According to documents from the Mexican government, Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel controls more than 40 land, sea and air marijuana trafficking routes that run throughout Mexico and to U.S. states, such as California, Montana and Texas, as well as to European countries like Spain and the Netherlands. 90 percent of the marijuana is moved by land, with major routes moving south to north, inland to the coast, and from Guerrero and Oaxaca to Mexico’s capital.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Week in Review

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

U.S. policy

Haiti travel warning

  • The U.S. Department of State issued a new Haiti travel advisory on August 13 that warned visitors of “violent crimes and lack of emergency response infrastructure.” This Travel Warning uses less strong language than the previous one issued in December 2012, which read, "No one is safe from kidnapping regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender or age,” and that "Haitian authorities have limited capacity to deter or investigate such violent acts or prosecute perpetrators."
  • Secretary of State Kerry's trip to Brazil and Colombia

  • Secretary of State John Kerry visited Colombia and Brazil Sunday to Tuesday. Kerry's meetings with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and other officials seemed to go fairly smoothly, while in Brazil, the NSA surveillance scandal overshadowed the visit as Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota took a hardline approach against the United States' surveillance practices. See a previous Just the Facts post and podcast for more details.
  • U.S. aid to Mexico

  • Last Thursday Senator Patrick Leahy froze $95 million dollars in funding for the Mérida Initiative, the United States' aid package to Mexico, because of an inadequate planning. In an opinion piece in Truth-Out, the Center for International Policy's Laura Carlsen wrote, "Thursday’s announcement confirms the hold on the funds and obliges both governments to define a joint strategy that shows some signs of viability. Contacted shortly after the hold, a top Leahy aide summed up the reason behind suspension of the aid,:'We received less than three pages of explanation. Senator Leahy does not sign away a quarter of a billion dollars just like that.'"
  • At the behest of the United States, a Mexican judge issued an arrest warrant for Rafael Caro Quintero, a former drug kingpin who was unexpectedly released last week while serving a 40-year prison sentence for the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique "Kike" Camarena. The Dallas News has an interesting article by journalist Alfredo Corchado looking at the case in the context of U.S.-Mexico relations and U.S. security assistance to Mexico. According to Corchado, officials say money for Mérida "may be returned to Washington in the weeks to come." This week’s Just the Facts podcast has more details on the case
  • Last Friday, the Justice Department said it would not be prosecuting the Border Patrol agents who shot and killed two teens in separate incidents along the Arizona border, due to lack of evidence.
  • This week the United States hosted about 160 military personnel from 19 nations at the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) headquarters in Florida for the PANAMAX 2013 exercise. More from Southern Command, Latin American Herald Tribune and
  • Colombia

  • On Monday Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos replaced his entire military and police leadership, including naming a new director for the National Police. According to analysts the decision to do so could be an attempt to bolster the peace talks, as former Army chief, General Sergio Mantilla was considered a hindrance to the peace process. The Economist's Intelligence Unit and Colombia Reports has more details on the new commanders while El Tiempo and Semana magazine have insight into the motives for the decision and its significance. A Just the Facts podcast also examined President Santo’s unexpected decision
  • Colombian news analysis website La SIlla Vacía published a report on the 15 biggest defense contractors in Colombia. In the lead was Elbit, an Israeli drone maker with an over $267 billion contract.
  • Peru

  • Peru's military dealt a blow to the Shining Path, killing two of the group's top leaders and another rebel in a military operation on Sunday. Analysts say that while the attack will hurt the group, it does not signal its demise. As Peru's armed forces chief, Admiral Jose Cueto said, the group "will now try to retool, because they always have young guys who want to advance." Peru's IDL-Reporteros detailed the operation in Spanish and in another article revealed that the United States and other foreign actors played a role in the multi-agency operation. More from the Associated Press in English.
  • Mexico

  • Amnesty International, along with several other activists and NGOs denounced reports that "Three people, two of them children, were detained by Mexican marines in the northern city of Nuevo Laredo in late July and have not been seen since."
  • Proceso reported that the security in Michoacán is worsening, "cheapening the official rhetoric of Enrique Peña Nieto's government that the social-political situation in the state is under control," as Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong had stated on Wednesday. The Associated Press reported that a vocal group of farmers and businessmen from the state demanded the government stop sending federal police to fight the drug cartels who have allegedly abused citizens and are corrupt.
  • InSight Crime examined the Knights Templar, the drug cartel with the strongest presence in Michoacán that recent government reports named as the third most powerful cartel in the country, after the Zeta and Sinaloa cartels. The article includes a video interview with the group's leader that was posted on YouTube over the weekend.
  • Bolivia

  • The Andean Information Network posted an analysis on the Office of National Drug Control Policy's (ONDCP) estimates of potential cocaine production in the Andes. The report found there to be a significant decrease in the region between 2011 and 2012, the largest in Bolivia, which dropped 18 percent. The article pointed to several statistical irregularities in the report, noting, "Although they failed to provide any explanation, the same ONDCP press release reported Bolivia's potential cocaine production for 2011 at 190 metric tons—instead of the whopping 265 metric tons for 2011 reported by the same office a year earlier."
  • Paraguay

  • Conservative business mogul Horacio Cartes was sworn in yesterday as Paraguay’s first democratically-elected president since the controversial June 2012 ouster of Fernando Lugo. The Associated Press reports that in 2008-2009 the DEA targeted him in a mission called "Operation Heart of Stone," over alleged smuggling, money laundering and ties to the drug trade. The Pan-American Post examined the domestic and regional implications of Cartes' presidency.
  • Brazil

  • On Wednesday there were several protests all over Brazil targeting a host of issues from corruption, police brutality, and disappearances, to education and low wages. Brazilians have been protesting Rio de Janeiro's Governor Sergio Cabral since the mass wave of protests that overtook the country in June have subsided. Cabral's critics claim he is corrupt and want an investigation into spending on projects for next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. More from the Associated Press. America’s Quarterly had an assessment of the Brazilian government's response to the protests.
  • The Huffington Post blog had a post this week on security in Rio de Janeiro, specifically looking at the pacification police units (UPP), which the author claims are improving the situation. According to the piece, however, "The social protests that started in June and July 2013 are taking a sinister turn," and "with the changing of the leadership of the military police last week, there are fears that the UPP enterprise will unravel."
  • According to technology website, Phys Org, Brazil is "moving to secure its communications through its own satellite and digital networks to end its dependence on the United States, which is accused of electronically spying on the region." The outlet reported that French-Italian group Thales Alenia Space (TAS) announced on Tuesday that it had won a contract worth about $400 million to build a satellite for Brazil's developing space program.
  • Ecuador

  • On Thursday Ecuador was the first Latin American country to recall its ambassador, Edwin Johnson, from Egypt after security forces massacred about 600 supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. So far, no other Latin American country appears to have followed suit.
  • El Salvador

  • The Center for Democracy in the Americas published a video of interviews with gang leaders in El Salvador's prisons talking about the gang truce. According to CDA, "Everyone we spoke with expressed a strong commitment to the peace process... We heard the same messages over and over from men who know they could spend the rest of their lives in prison: 'We want a better life for our kids and families,' and 'the truce is working.'"
  • Honduras

  • On Thursday Honduras' Congress approved the creation of a 5,000-strong military police unit charged with maintaining "public order." Mario Pérez, president of the Congress' security commission. said the group will “reclaim territory and capture criminals... We do not oppose the police, but it is not the model for the moment.” The chief of the armed forces presented the structure of the new unit. Critics of the decision say it is another step forward in the increasingly militarized policing of the country.

    This announcement follows Monday's declaration that 4,500 community police units will be deployed by September 1. Proponents of the military police however say that this is a longer-term solution and will not produce immediate results. More from Honduras'
    El Heraldo newspaper and InSight Crime.

  • Uruguay

  • Regulación Responsable, a coalition of Uruguayan organizations and individuals that support cannabis legalization, has a video with subtitles explaining Uruguay's marijuana regulation bill.
  • Friday, August 16, 2013

    Podcast: The Week Ahead, August 16, 2013

    Adam looks at the Secretary of State's visit to Colombia and Brazil, the early release of a Mexican drug-trafficker who killed a U.S. agent, and some recent episodes pointing to worsening political polarization in Venezuela.

    Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


    Thursday, August 15, 2013

    Secretary of State Kerry's trip to Colombia and Brazil

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took a quick trip to Brazil and Colombia from Sunday night until Tuesday. This was Secretary Kerry’s second trip to the region, following his attendance at the Organization of American States’ general assembly meeting in Guatemala in June.

    The visit came after of President Obama’s trip to Mexico and Costa Rica in early May and Vice President Joe Biden’s six-day tour to Colombia, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago in late May.

    The Obama Administration has been fairly engaged with the region, mostly with regards to trade. As the New York Times noted, the increased focus on strengthening ties comes at a time when the “United States’ influence has faded as China has surged as a crucial trading partner for an array of Latin American countries and as Brazil has sought to raise its economic and diplomatic profile.”

    Secretary Kerry’s trip also came on the heels of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations that massive global surveillance programs had targeted several Latin American countries -- including several allies like Mexico, Colombia and Brazil – and that the agency had established a data collection center in Brasília, Brazil’s capital city. The leaked documents drew tremendous regional criticism and have roiled relations with several governments, particularly the Rousseff administration in Brazil.


    All reports of Secretary Kerry’s meetings in Colombia, the United States’ strongest ally in the region, indicate that the visit went fairly smoothly with no surprises. In his discussions with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos and Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín, Kerry reportedly discussed the ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC rebels, trade, energy, counternarcotics, and briefly, the NSA leaks. (For a list of links to articles see Just the Facts' U.S. policy news section for Colombia)

    Support for peace process

    As expected, Kerry reiterated the United States’ support for the peace process, calling it “courageous,” “imaginative” and “necessary.” Although the Obama Administration has already voice its approval of the talks, Kerry’s words come at a time when, according to a recent Ipsos poll, 54 percent has criticized the process at every opportunity.

    As was also expected, Secretary Kerry spoke about the high-value the United States places on its relationship with Colombia and lauded its U.S.-backed efforts in the war on drugs, calling the country “one of the very few success stories anywhere.”

    Issues surrounding NSA surveillance programs assuaged

    Ahead of the meeting, there were concerns that the disclosures about NSA surveillance practices would tarnish the visit. Last Thursday President Santos called for further clarification from Washington about U.S. intelligence practices in Colombia. However, it seemed the Colombian government was satisfied with the explanation provided, as both parties downplayed the revelations following Secretary Kerry’s visit. Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín said Colombia had “received the necessary assurances to continue work on this,” while Kerry noted the issue played only a “small part” in the overall discussion.

    U.S. security assistance

    Before heading to Brazil, Secretary Kerry went to the Colombian National Police Counter-Narcotics Directorate for a briefing on U.S.-Colombia collaboration in the drug war and an update on Colombia’s training of third party foreign forces. Between 2010 and 2012, Colombia trained 9,983 military and police personnel from 45 countries – the top recipients being Mexico, Panama, Honduras, Ecuador and Peru. (See here for more on Colombian training of foreign forces.)

    As a recent Just the Facts podcast noted, Kerry spent 28 years as a United States senator and was a big supporter of U.S. military aid packages to Colombia, but did however condemn human rights abuses in the country, even calling for the U.S. not to certify Colombia to receive aid in 2005 over such concerns.

    For a previous post on Secretary Kerry’s record on Colombia see here and to read about what topics Secretary Kerry should have touched on when discussing a lasting peace in Colombia, see here. These include ongoing assassinations of human rights defenders, impunity for military members alleged to have committed human rights abuses and the passage of a military justice system reform that will likely allow that impunity to continue.


    NSA revelations fallout

    Secretary Kerry’s trip to Brazil was more contentious, with the NSA leaks eclipsing the rest of the visit. Brazil, an important ally with whom the United States has a warm relationship (albeit nowhere near as close as with Colombia), has been much more vocal in its condemnation of U.S. intelligence programs. As the New Yorker explained last month, Brazil was the regional center for the NSA spying programs as it is where “all transatlantic cables come ashore,” making it an important telecommunication hub linking South America to Europe and Africa.

    Last week, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, along with the foreign ministers of Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela and Uruguay, met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last week to protest the NSA programs.

    Minister Patriota continued his condemnation in a joint press conference with his U.S. counterpart following an hour-long meeting, sending a clear message: “We need to stop practices that violate sovereignty.” Minister Patriota was unsatisfied with the details Secretary Kerry had shared with him about NSA surveillance programs, which he said presented a “new type of challenge in our bilateral relationship … And if those challenges are not resolved in a satisfactory way, we run the risk of casting a shadow of distrust over our work."

    Kerry responded with vague, appeasing remarks, saying, “Brazil is owed answers with respect to those questions, and they will get them.” He then defended the NSA surveillance program as something “we think we must do to provide security not just for Americans but for Brazilians and for people in the world.”

    Boeing Contract

    That “shadow of distrust” could have big financial implications for the United States. Ahead of the meeting, the Brazilian government took an anticipated discussion over a coveted $4 billion dollar deal (with expected increases) to purchase 36 fighter jets from the U.S. off the table. Before the NSA leaks, Boeing’s F/A-18 fighter jet had been favored over competing French and Swedish warplanes. However Reuters reported the NSA scandal has "set back" the United States' chances to land the deal, recording one Brazilian official as saying, “We cannot talk about the fighters now.… You cannot give such a contract to a country that you do not trust.”

    Going forward

    Aside from the NSA issue, the New York Times reported, “it was clear at the end of Mr. Kerry’s visit that solutions to certain problems remain unresolved, like Washington’s requirement that Brazilians traveling to the United States have visas, even though Brazilians rank among the highest-spending foreign tourists and Brazilian companies are increasingly investing in the United States.”

    Reuters reported Brazilian officials were optimistic that the two countries will be able to move past the scandal, while the New York Times and Wall Street Journal pointed out that President Roussett’s state visit to Washington – the first from a Latin American leader since 2010 when then-Mexican President Calderón came – is still on for October.

    The Obama Administration has been trying to deepen relations with Brazil, a key ally in the region for energy cooperation, security and environmental policy, and economic integration. Relations have improved under President Rousseff, after a chilling during former President Lula da Silva’s tenure.

    Monday, August 12, 2013

    Secretary of State Kerry in Colombia: His Check List for a Just and Lasting Peace

    This post first appeared as an op-ed in Colombian newspaper El Espectador on August 11, 2013, as Secretary of State John Kerry met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has a lot of thorny matters on his mind: who the United States should support in Egypt, should a reluctant United States get involved to any degree in Syria, how to address Russia, where relations are so frayed that the United States actually cancelled a presidential summit.

    So Colombia, which is such a reliable partner of the United States, and where President Juan Manuel Santos has shown inspirational leadership in opening peace talks, may seem like an easy stop.

    But Colombia is never easy.

    Secretary of State Kerry comes bearing strong diplomatic support for the Colombian peace process. That’s good and important. As long as both sides are at the negotiating table, the Obama Administration stands strongly behind this process. Within the U.S. Congress, the voices raised concerning the peace process are in support, as an April letter from 62 members of Congress made clear. John Kerry is a man who believes in peace; now trying again the impossible task of moving forward a Middle East peace process, he also was involved in ending Central American wars and supporting Central American peace accords.

    The United States can be counted on to provide substantial support for peace accord implementation.

    We hope Secretary Kerry will also contribute to a just and lasting peace in Colombia by encouraging the negotiating teams to include the voice of victims of violence, especially as the discussion on victims approaches. If this peace is to be sustainable, victims of violence must help to build it.

    If this peace is to be sustainable, it must have strong pillars of truth and justice. An independent truth commission is an essential step.

    We know Secretary Kerry’s message will start with support for peace negotiations, but we hope his message does not end there. Even if an accord is signed, and on the long road to peace, Secretary Kerry would be a good friend to Colombia by talking about and helping address the still grim human rights situation on the ground.

    This means talking frankly about the constitutional reform of its military justice system that leaves loopholes so that false positive cases could return to military courts. There must be justice for the over 3,500 ejecuciones extrajudiciales. U.S. security assistance is conditioned on respect for human rights, with the law stating that Colombia must effectively investigate and prosecute in civilian courts members of the security forces credibly alleged to have committed gross human rights violations. Secretary Kerry, as a U.S. senator, called on the State Department not to certify Colombia due to army abuses and lack of progress in prosecuting these crimes.

    For the Obama administration, relying on the Colombian armed forces to "export" safety lessons to other countries seems a cost-effective solution to US budget woes. This is certainly a topic of discussion during the visit. But the fact that so many abuses by the armed forces remain in impunity makes it deeply concerning that the United States is encouraging the Colombian armed forces’ role in training other nation’s military forces.

    Supporting a just and lasting peace also means Secretary Kerry should talk frankly about the ongoing assassinations of human rights defenders. Thirty-seven human rights defenders were assassinated in the first half of 2013. To stop the violence, threats and murders of defenders must be investigated and prosecuted. To stop the violence, the Santos Administration must do more to dismantle illegal armed groups, including paramilitary, BACRIM and guerrillas, and to prosecute the members of the armed forces, companies, politicians y public officials who finance and support them.

    It also means talking frankly about the Labor Action Plan that both governments signed in order to achieve passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. There’s still far to go to carry out this plan. The Colombian government can highlight the fall in the murder of trade unionists as an important and positive change. Unfortunately, this has been the only positive change for a trade union movement that continues to struggle against illegal third-party subcontracting, constant harassment, and arbitrary dismissals for any degree of union activity. The Colombian government must act in favor of workers against these labor violations, implement effective inspection and sanction mechanisms to discourage the use of labor practices that restrict labor rights.

    To pave the way for a just and lasting peace, the United States should encourage as well as fund the creation of meaningful protection for returned and returning communities, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Effective protection plans can only be designed in careful consultation with the communities they are intended to benefit. The United States should continue to fund the innovative Victims’ Law. But it must be done with real protection.

    So no, it’s not an easy stop. But the right words and actions from Secretary Kerry could mean a lot for a just and lasting peace in Colombia.

    Friday, August 9, 2013

    Podcast: The Week Ahead, August 9, 2013

    Adam looks at the Secretary of State's upcoming lightning-fast visit to Colombia and Brazil, new UN estimates of coca-growing in Bolivia and Colombia, and new violence amid struggling police reform in Honduras.

    Links to items mentioned in the podcast:

    Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


    Friday, August 9, 2013

    The Week in Review

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

    United States policy

  • This weekend John Kerry will visit Colombia and Brazil, in his second trip to the region as Secretary of State. In his meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Kerry is expected to discuss the state of trade two years after a free trade agreement went into effect, the ongoing peace talks, overall security and Colombia’s training of foreign forces and increasing security assistance to third countries. See a previous Just the Facts post by WOLA’s Adam Isacson for more on Kerry’s trip to Colombia and record in the region.

    There will also be a new United States ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, who is currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere affairs. More from Semana and Colombia Reports.

  • On Wednesday, SOUTHCOM commander John Kelly met with the President of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina and the head of the armed forces to discuss deepening military cooperation between the two countries, U.S. security assistance to the region, and regional efforts to target organized crime. He also met with the president of the country’s National Directorate of Drug Control.
  • Colombia and Bolivia’s coca crops fell in 2012

  • According to the United Nations, in 2012 coca production in Colombia dropped by 25 percent. The report estimated the total amount of land in Colombia with coca in 2012 to be 120,000 acres, down from 160,000 in 2011 and the lowest figure since monitoring in the country started over 10 years ago. Some key points:
    • Although coca crop production fell, the amount of cocaine produced in 2012, 340 tons, was similar to the amount yielded in 2011. The AP explains this is.
    • Signaling Ecuador’s increasing importance in the drug trade, the two departments with the highest levels of coca were Nariño and Putumayo along the southern border.
    • About 80 percent of coca cultivation was concentrated in eight departments, about half of which occurred in three departments where coca cultivation increased -- Caquetá, Chocó and Norte de Santander.

    The report found the amount of coca planted in Bolivia had declined by seven percent in 2012, from 27, 200 (ha) to 25,300, as part of a downward trend that began when production fell some 12 percent between 2010 and 2011. Bolivia kicked the DEA out in 2008.

    Although the agency has yet to release 2012 coca or cocaine production figures for Peru, it is likely that the country has overtaken Colombia to be the top coca-producing country in the region. In 2011, Peru surpassed Colombia to become the largest producer of cocaine, according to the U.S., though there are concerns political interests can influence estimates. More from La Silla Vacía, InSight Crime, the UN News Centre, UNODC, Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press.

  • Honduras

  • Over the weekend, the Honduran government ordered the military and police to take control of a prison just outside Tegucilgalpa, after a fight involving AK-47s and grenades between rival gangs killed three people and injured 15 others. The security forces, which were also sent to prisons in San Pedro Sula, will be deployed for 90 days. The decision to send in the troops followed the release of an IAHCR report released last Friday which found that “structural deficiencies” had led to the “collapse” of the Honduran prison system, notorious for overcrowding and endemic violence.
  • Venezuela

  • On Wednesday, Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled against opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ challenge to last April’s election results. The court then fined him $1,698 for challenging the election count and thereby “insulting government authority” and “accusing the judicial system of bias in favor of the government,” according to the Associated Press. Capriles’ chief of staff, Oscar Lopez was then arrested Thursday. Although the government’s stated reasons for the warrant have not been revealed, President Nicolás Maduro announced that the government “today captured a chief of the corruption and of the mafias of the Venezuelan right.” More from the New York Times.
  • WOLA’s Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog examined a disarmament law President Nicolás Maduro signed into law last month and in a follow-up post looked at reactions and criticism to the measure.
  • Brazil

  • Rio’s military police installed a new chief following the dismissal of the previous head after he granted amnesty to 450 offices who committed ambiguously-reported low-level “administrative” infractions. The new chief, Colonel Jose Menezes is going to reverse the amnesty although he has said he thought it was a good idea. The police would revise current policy to “establish objective criteria with a view towards clarifying doubts about it,” he said.
  • Colombia

  • A disconcerting report (pdf) released by Colombian NGO Somos Defensores found a jump in murders of human rights defenders in the country in recent years. In 2012, the number of killings (69) was almost 14 times what it was in 2006. So far in 2013, 37 human rights defenders have been killed, a 27 percent increase over the same period last year. The rise coincides with the implementation of the country’s historic Victims law, offering victims of the armed conflict the opportunity to reclaim stolen property and receive compensation. More from a previous Just the Facts post and El Tiempo.
  • Colombian political analysis website La Silla Vacía overviewed several proposals the FARC have made during peace talks with the government in Havana and sorted them according to their viability.
  • The only known tungsten mine in Colombia is controlled by the FARC, according to an in-depth investigative report by Bloomberg on the group’s illegal mining interests. Since the report’s release, Apple, BIC, BMW, Ferrari, Samsung (005930) and Volkswagen have all said they would be opening investigations.
  • Argentina

  • On Tuesday, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner took advantage of the country’s term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and used the opportunity to criticize the veto power of its five permanent members – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. Fernandez and several other speakers from Latin America spoke out against the U.S. surveillance programs in the region revealed by Edward Snowden. More from the New York Times, Associated Press and the BBC.
  • Mexico

  • InSight Crime and the Woodrow Wilson Center released a special series on violence in the city of Nuevo Laredo, an important drug trafficking hub on the border with the United States. The city is largely controlled by the Zetas, however the recent capture of leader Miguel Treviño (Z40) may spark turf wars that will likely cause violence to spike.
  • Alfredo Corchado, the journalist that first broke the story of Treviño’s arrest, profiled the capture for The Daily Beast. The piece depicts Corchado’s experiences as a journalist covering Treviño, and delves into the gang leader’s violent past. According to Corchado, Trevino’s “pep talk consisted of one line: If you don’t kill someone every day, you’re not doing your job.”
  • Peru

  • According to Peruvian news website Caretas, police detected 44 clandestine airstrips in a small town in the country’s central jungle that are used to export drugs to Bolivia. Authorities estimated that about 14 flights carrying 300 kilos of drugs took off each month between January and April of this year. As the article noted, Bolivia is becoming a more important hub for drug trafficking in the region as Brazilian, Argentine and European market demands are on the rise.
  • Wednesday, August 7, 2013

    Colombia: Secretary of State Kerry's visit, and Senator Kerry's record

    Secretary of State Kerry and Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín.

    John Kerry is about to make his second trip to Latin America as secretary of state. The first was in June, when he attended the OAS General Assembly meeting in Guatemala. This time, he is to go to Colombia on Sunday and Monday, and then to Brazil.

    In Colombia, Secretary of State Kerry is expected to discuss with President Juan Manuel Santos the ongoing peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, for which the Obama administration has expressed support; the issue of security and Colombia’s provision of security assistance to third countries; and the state of bilateral trade two years after approval of a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement.

    In his 28 years as a U.S. senator with a strong interest in foreign affairs, John Kerry has a long record of positions on U.S. policy toward Latin America. He opposed the Reagan administration’s massive aid to abusive regimes in Central America, especially aid to the Nicaraguan contras, during the civil wars of the 1980s. He has criticized the U.S. approach to Cuba as “frozen, stalemated.”

    During the past 15 years, though, Senator Kerry consistently supported the aid packages that made Colombia by far the number-one recipient of U.S. military assistance in Latin America.

    His support for “Plan Colombia,” however, was neither full-throated nor wholehearted. While Senator Kerry supported assistance to curtail drug trafficking, he criticized insufficient emphasis on drug treatment to reduce demand at home. He expressed concerns about the possibility that counter-drug aid could evolve into a larger counter-insurgency mission (as it did during the 2000s). He criticized the Colombian government’s human rights record, and endorsed human rights conditions that his Senate colleagues applied to U.S. military assistance. He has even at times urged the State Department not to certify improvements in the Colombian military’s human rights record, as required by foreign aid law.

    Here are excerpts from Senator John Kerry’s record on Colombia, the country that Secretary of State John Kerry will be visiting in a few days.

    From his 1998 book The New War, where he characterized drug cartels as a principal threat.

    Drugs have made Colombia rich; the nation is awash in profits earned by the export of cocaine to the US and the rest of the world. But the country has been all but stolen from its people, virtually taken over by the drug cartels. … A willing army of young Colombians enlist with the cartels, dreaming of easy money, while some young Colombians join the police, army, and customs department just to make money by cooperating with drug criminals.

    From the June 22, 2000 Senate debate on the “Plan Colombia” aid appropriation, where he supported the aid package as a flawed but necessary option. Here, he raised concerns about counterinsurgency entanglements, displacement, human rights, and insufficient attention to domestic drug demand. He said he expected Europe to counter-balance the U.S. aid package’s lopsided emphasis on military aid. This did not happen.

    Colombia’s situation is bleak, and this may be its last chance to begin to dig its way out. If we fail to support aid to Colombia, we can only sit back and watch it deteriorate even further.
    … My first concern is the fine line that exists between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations, particularly since they are so intertwined in Colombia. It is impossible to attack drug trafficking in Colombia without seriously undercutting the insurgents’ operations. We must acknowledge that the more involved in Colombia’s counternarcotics efforts we become the more we will become involved in its counterinsurgency, regardless of our intentions to steer clear of it. But, because the drug trade is the most destabilizing factor in Colombia, our cooperation with the government will over the long run, advance the development and expansion of democracy, and will limit the insurgents’ ability to terrorize the civilian population. But our military involvement in Colombia should go no further than this. Efforts to limit number of personnel are designed to address this.
    I appreciate the concerns expressed by my colleagues that the United States contribution to Plan Colombia is skewed in favor of the military, but we must keep in mind that our contribution is only a percentage of the total Plan. … As part of our contribution, and to balance military aid, the United States must continue to support Colombian requests for additional funding from international financial institutions and other EU donors. We must also continue to implement stringent human rights vetting and end-use monitoring agreements, and make sure that our Colombia policy does not end with the extension of aid.
    Second, I am concerned that even if the Plan is successful at destroying coca production and reducing the northward flow of drugs, large numbers of coca farmers will be displaced, worsening the current crisis of internally displaced people in Colombia.
    My third major concern with respect to this aid package is that it does not adequately address Colombia’s human rights problem. … I would like to commend my colleagues on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee for bolstering the human rights component of this legislation.
    Despite my reservations, the potential benefits of this plan are too large to ignore. In light of the changes made by the committee, I believe the plan can help advance United States interests by reducing drug trafficking and thereby promoting stability and democracy in Colombia. We must now work to ensure that our concerns do not become realities.
    … Increasing funding and expanding drug treatment and prevention programs are absolutely imperative if we are to coordinate an effective counterdrug campaign, particularly if we are to expect any real improvement in the situation in Colombia.
    … As we support Colombia’s efforts to attack the sources of illegal drugs, we need to make sure we are addressing our own problems. … It is clear that drug treatment works, and there is no excuse for the high numbers of addicts who have been unable to receive treatment. As we increase funding for supply reduction programs in Colombia, we must increase funding for treatment to balance and complement it.

    A July 26, 2004 letter to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe from 23 U.S. senators, including Senator Kerry, expressing human rights concerns and supporting the work of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    We remain deeply concerned about the continued levels of violence directed at the civilian population. There are reports of increased violations, such as extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, attributed directly to Colombian security forces. In addition, guerrillas continued their indiscriminate use of explosive devices against civilians while paramilitary forces carried out assassinations and massacres despite the existence of a cease fire. We believe that an adherence to UNHCHR’s recommendations will help to establish the “democratic security” for all Colombians to which you are personally committed.

    The most urgent of UNHCHR’s recommendations is to cut ties between the army and paramilitary forces engaged in abuses, by suspending, investigating and vigorously prosecuting officials engaged in such collaboration.

    … We remain concerned about the commitment of the Attorney General’s office to investigate high-level officials implicated in human rights violations and links to paramilitary groups.

    The United Nations also raises important points regarding the vulnerability of human rights defenders, journalists and union leaders. Your government’s protection program for human rights and union leaders is important. However, progress investigating and prosecuting threats and attacks against such leaders is essential.

    An October 15, 2004 statement from the Kerry for President campaign

    President Uribe has achieved deserved popular support for his efforts to make Colombia more secure. I have been encouraged by declining levels of murders, massacres and kidnappings and progress in addressing the challenges of drug trafficking, guerrillas and paramilitaries. I am further encouraged that the Colombian government has agreed to use the recommendations of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a framework for achieving the just peace that all Colombians deserve.
    A persistent cycle of violence, such as that occurring in Colombia, can ultimately be broken only by combining greater security efforts with ending impunity, strengthening the rule of law and the defense of human and labor rights. For Colombians, that means condemning and putting a stop to the kidnappings, killings, and extortion practiced by outlawed guerrilla groups and by paramilitary groups who continually violate international humanitarian law. It also requires severing all links between the security forces and the paramilitaries; punishing those in uniform who have perpetrated these links and engage in extrajudicial killings and abuses; and better protecting judges, prosecutors, journalists, human rights activists and unionists from intimidation, violence and murder.
    In Colombia, we must focus on the fight against narco-trafficking and counterinsurgency at the same time as we support the rule of law, alternative development, and the expansion of legitimate state authority to achieve a durable peace. As a Senator I have consistently supported Plan Colombia; and, as President, I will work with President Uribe to keep the bipartisan spirit in Washington alive in support of Plan Colombia, while insisting on progress on ending the violence against civilians.

    A July 1, 2005 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 22 U.S. senators, including Senator Kerry. The letter urges the secretary of state not to “certify” that the Colombian military’s human rights record is improving, thus freeing up a portion of military assistance. This letter includes an early mention of a practice that, three years later, would erupt in Colombia as the “false positives” scandal of extrajudicial executions.

    We believe there has been insufficient progress in suspending from the armed forces, investigating and vigorously prosecuting security force members who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights, or who have aided or abetted paramilitary organizations. Even some of the highest-profile cases have not advance.
    … Greater progress in breaking links between the army and paramilitary forces is
    imperative. The United Nations notes “continued reports… of cases in which
    coordinated operations have been carried out by members of the security forces and
    paramilitary groups, and cases in which the victims had been detained by members of the paramilitary forces and subsequently reported by the army as having been killed in combat.”
    … We believe that it is time for the State Department to make clear to the Colombian government that further progress regarding its own security forces is necessary prior to certification. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

    Statement on World Refugee Day, June 20, 2012

    In Colombia, where conflict has displaced an estimated 4 million people, our partners are helping the government to provide reparations and land restitution to affected individuals and families.

    September 4, 2012 statement upon the announcement of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC

    Colombians have suffered for far too long from the violence and insecurity associated with its decades-long internal armed conflict. President Santos has taken the difficult steps toward negotiating a political solution and has indicated that lessons learned from prior peace talks will be taken into consideration. This is an important and welcome sign. Any negotiation that helps strengthen Colombia’s democracy, promote the respect for the rule of law and human rights, and bring peace to the country is a good thing and deserves support.

    Senator Kerry at his January 24, 2013 confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

    One of the great stories of Latin America is Colombia … President Uribe stepped up in a critical moment and began the process of rescuing that nation, President Santos is now doing an amazing job, we strengthened the relationship by passing the economic trade agreement. We have to build on that. And that is an example for the rest of Latin America of what awaits them… [Also] hope to bridge the gap with some of the other countries.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013

    Militarization of law enforcement in Venezuela

    As is the case with the military in Honduras and Guatemala, both profiled in previous Just the Facts posts, it looks like troops will be on the streets in Venezuela for the next few months, if not longer. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been under pressure to reduce the high levels of crime and violence that continue to plague the country, which has the highest homicide rate in South America. In May, President Maduro deployed troops throughout the country following reports in April of a record high of 58 homicides a day. The soaring crime rate is caused by several compounded factors: a weak judicial system, a dysfunctional penal system, and rampant corruption among government officials, the police and the military, the latter of which has been accused of having entire branches that function like drug trafficking organizations.

    Critics of Plan Patria Segura, or the “Safe Homeland Plan,” say the only thing it has done is militarize the country, pointing to some data that indicate June was one of the most violent months in 2013. For its part, the Venezuelan government says it is making progress and that the opposition and media are attempting to delegitimize the government by magnifying the crime rate.

    However, it is difficult to obtain specific data on crime, as the Venezuelan government has admitted to keeping figures secret from the public. In an interview with InSight Crime, WOLA’s Venezuela analyst David Smilde noted that the country has a military tradition that does not promote transparency. "There is very little tradition of transparency or the people's right to know," said Smilde. "The military assumes it is the moral backbone of the country, and [Interior Minister] Rodriguez is a military person. From their perspective, the only reason you would release information is if it supports what you're doing.”

    The "Safe Homeland Plan," or “Plan Patria Segura,” is part of Venezuela's "Full Life Mission," an anti-crime initiative launched under President Chávez in June of last year that had a budget of over five billion bolivars (US$ 1.16 billion) for its first year, according to the Venezuelanalysis blog. Marino Alvarado, director of human rights organization PROVEA (Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos), has noted that Plan Patria Segura goes against the philosophy of the mission, which promoted the armed forces "should only act under exceptional circumstances and not be used to for public order." According to the BBC, it is the 21st citizen security plan since 1999, when Hugo Chávez first took office.

    Plan "Patria Segura"

    On May 13, the Venezuelan government sent 3,000 members of the Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) to the streets of Caracas, marking the start of Plan Patria Segura. The country's minister for justice and internal affairs, Miguel Rodriguez, said the first phase of the plan was "designed to last "around six months," at which point the soldiers would be replaced with police and members of the National Bolivarian Police.

  • So far, according to some government numbers, about 40,000 soldiers have been deployed. In total, 80,000 troops will be deployed and the military will have a presence in every state in the country.
  • In early July, 1,541 troops were sent to the Guárico state in northern Venezuela and on July 1, President Maduro announced on his Twitter account that there would be a "new stage" of the plan, which included increasing the amount of troops and implementing “intelligent patrol,” which means units now assigned to territories of about a square kilometer will use GPS technology.

    He also ordered more troops be sent to the Miranda state, which he claimed has double the rate of crime compared to the rest of the county.

  • Most recently 30,000 troops were deployed to the Amazonas, Apure, Portuguesa, and Nueva Esparta states on July 15.
  • WOLA's Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog noted the government is using the plan to "to round up undocumented immigrants in poor barrios of Caracas and eventually deport them."
  • The government claims there have been significant reductions in crime, such as a 200 percent decrease in kidnappings, a 53 percent drop in homicides in Caracas, and a 30-35 percent decline in crime in areas where the plan was focused. In an interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez claimed there had been a 53 percent drop in crime in the first month of the initiative and a five percent decline in murders overall. However, last month Rodriguez claimed there had been dramatic drop in murders of just over 60 percent. As WOLA’s Adam Isacson pointed out in a previous Just the Facts podcast, the government has only presented percentages and no absolute counts, giving little credence to its claims. Smilde highlighted this tendency in the InSight Crime interview, noting, "Any given year if you add up the percent reduction in crime that the government claims, you would end up with zero crime at the end of the year."

    While human rights activists have opposed the measure, saying it marks a return to the country's tradition of militarized policing, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez has said, "There is no militarization here." "The National Armed Boliviarian Force is meeting with community councils. You tell people in El Valle (...) you're going to take the Army away and they will revolt, because they love their Armed Forces."

    Other critiques

    In May, when the plan was first announced, Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog highlighted several reasons to question the initiative. Among them were:

  • Impunity: Deploying military to the streets does nothing to address the issue of high rates of impunity for criminals. The Economist reported in January of this year that there was 96% impunity for homicides.
  • Human rights training: In 2008, as an attempt to move away from a militarized police force, former President Hugo Chávez created the National Bolivarian Police (PNB) to create a “preventative, professional, and non-militarized citizen security force.” Before the reform, the National Guard was responsible for training the police. The PNB officers now receive training with an emphasis on human rights and deferential force from a civilian-run policing university. As the crime rate continues to climb, citizens and other police officers have accused the PNB of being “soft” for their less aggressive tactics.

    Deploying the military, which receives no such training, to high-crime areas gives weight to the notion that repression is more effective. Human rights organizations worry the military is not ready to handle law enforcement in a humane way. Such criticism arose recently after three people were killed in two states by the National Guard.

  • Lack of oversight: There are no mechanisms through which citizens can regulate military corruption or abuses against themselves or other citizens. The military and National Guard are not subject to the oversight bodies created by the policing university, the General Police Council and new policing laws. In some states there are citizen-run police oversight committees -- some police officers have even expressed concern that the military may commit abuses against detainees and are worried that in the event abuses occur that the police would be blamed, once the detainee is transferred.
  • However, this is not to say that the reform has been a success. Although there has been an ongoing police reform since 2006, the notoriously corrupt force has been consistently accused of extrajudicial executions, torture, involvement with organized crime and kidnapping. Earlier this month, Transparency International published a report on worldwide corruption, which found the police to be considered the most corrupt entity in Venezuela.

    Since President Nicolas Maduro took office in April, he has criticized police forces throughout the country, calling the police in Caracas "mafiosos," alleging they were responsible for 90 percent of the kidnapping in the capital. He also has demanded several forces be investigated for corruption, and has called the force in Amazonas "a disaster," after announcing it would be investigated for criminal activity.

    Taking all this into consideration, Isacson cited several “longer-term solutions” to Venezuela’s security problems, including:

  • Improving the capabilities of the new national police force, the PNB
  • Ensuring that the PNB patrol more often and in crime-ridden areas where they often have no presence
  • Reforming the justice system and the notoriously violent prison system.
  • Some aspects of the above recommendations were included in recent public security reforms, however they have yet to be implemented. It will be interesting to see if any non-governmental statistics mark improvement in the midst of Plan Patria Segura and if there will be any indication that some of the foundational flaws with security see some improvement. As Isacson noted, it is “unclear at best” if the Plan Patria Segura’s goals include targeting central problems with law enforcement in the country, such as shortening response times, giving patrols real-time crime-mapping data, improving relations with communities or improving crime investigations.