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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.
  • Friday, March 15, 2013

    Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of some of the top news highlights from around the region this week.


  • This week was the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. An article co-authored by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former president of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss, in the New York Times says, "Delegates will debate multiple resolutions while ignoring a truth that goes to the core of current drug policy: human rights abuses in the war on drugs are widespread and systematic." Cardoso and Dreifuss call for the human rights movement to take the lead on “calling for an end to the war on drugs and the development of drug policies that advance rather than degrade human rights.
  • The latest "Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community" cites "economic stagnation, high rates of violent crime and impunity, ruling party efforts to manipulate democratic institutions to consolidate power, and slow recovery from natural disasters" as challenges to many positive trends throughout Latin America.
  • This week the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held hearings on human rights issues throughout South America. The issues discussed range from unjust judicial reforms -- such as a recent judicial reform in Colombia that will allow military courts to try soldiers accused of human rights abuses -- to LGBTI rights, preventative detention, indigenous rights, and statelessness to sexual abuses and disappearance in Mexico. Read several articles (mostly in Spanish) that cover some of the hearings here and here. A webcast of the hearings can be viewed on the OAS' website
  • As noted in last week's round up, on March 22, all participating members of the OAS will vote on proposed reforms to the IACHR, which many say will limit the commission's power and have a negative effect on human rights in the region.
  • Colombia

  • According to the news website Colombia Reports, "The homicide rate in Medellin has increased by 21.2% over the first two months of 2013, in respect to the same period last year." To help curb the violence, 700 mobile police were sent to the most violent neighborhoods in and around Medellín. On Wednesday, President Santos ordered National Police Director Jose Roberto Leno Riaño to transfer to the city. He will be stationed there to “take direct charge of the situation until the city becomes calm again.”
  • An article in the Miami Herald highlights that even children have become targets in ongoing gang wars in Medellín. The report depicts the murder of an 11-year-old who crossed an "invisible border" between territories owned by rival gangs on the border of Comuna 13, one of the the city's most violence-ridden neighborhoods.
  • The seventh round of peace talks began this week, which continue to focus on the issue of land. The FARC released a list of eight proposals for land restitution on Tuesday. These proposals look to include Afro-Colombian and other minority groups in the land reform and redistribution process.
  • This week both sides of the negotiating table put forth positive sentiments about the peace talks. President Juan Manuel Santos said that the talks were going well and that peace accords may be reached within a few months if the pace continues at the same rate. Iván Márquez, the head of the FARC’s negotiating team, said the group will do "everything possible" to reach an agreement before the end of the year. This is the first time the group has indicated as much to date.El Espectador reported earlier this week that the ELN might be getting closer to peace talks with the government following the release of two German hostages Friday.
  • As WOLA's Adam Isacson noted in a post on Just the Facts earlier this week, "Colombia manually eradicated 30,000 hectares of coca bushes in 2012. That is 5,000 hectares less manual eradication than in 2011 (as opposed to fumigation, which has been steady at about 100,000 hectares), and a steep drop from a 2008 total of 96,000 hectares. The Colombian government’s budget for manual eradication has dropped by over half since 2010."
    InSight Crime has a good rundown of various theories about why the country's coca eradication program is shrinking.
  • The U.S. Army reported that the Security Assistance Command delivered seven Black Hawk Helicopters to Colombia at the beginning of March. "The aircraft will provide advantages to the Colombians by enhancing their situational awareness and mission effectiveness in the war against drugs and terrorism through air operations," Col. Steve Smith, SOUTHCOM Regional Operations director, said.
  • Drug trafficking has been the main motive behind Colombia's previous and current paramilitary groups, according to a new report put out by the Colombian think tank, Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP). The group says fighting leftist insurgency has been a "grand facade" and is secondary to protecting coca crops and controlling trafficking routes.
    • This report comes on the heels of another report (which was highlighted in last week's post) from Nuevo Arco Iris that, in addition to looking at changes in the FARC's on-the-ground tactics, looks at the consolidation of neo-paramilitary cartels in the country. As InSight Crime notes, "'From Caguan to Havana' charts how the remaining factions of demobilized paramilitary groups and dismantled drug cartels have converged around two criminal structures: the Rastrojos and the Urabeños."


  • France is helping Mexico set up its new 10,000-member gendarmerie mobile police force, Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong told reporters this week. President Peña Nieto has said that the force will be ready for deployment by the end of the year. WOLA's Maureen Meyer echoes an ongoing concern of several analysts that, “By establishing another federal security force made up of elements with primarily military training, Peña is following in the footsteps of his predecessors to militarize public security in Mexico." She also highlights that while the United States has promoted a different model in Latin America, "U.S. law strongly restricts our military" from taking on the role of police.
  • Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope also offers a good critique of President Peña Nieto's security model, which he concludes by saying, "here is a respectful request to the Interior Ministry: get organized now. We want to talk about you with reference to something other than disorder and improvisation."
  • A new report in Mexico says that there were 207 attacks against journalists in the country in 2012, a 20 percent increase from 2011.
  • Guatemala

  • A court in Guatemala upheld a Supreme Court ruling to allow former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt to be tried for genocide.
  • El Salvador

  • InSight Crime founder Steven Dudley released a good article on "5 Things the El Salvador Gang Truce Has Taught Us."
  • Venezuela

  • The United States expelled two Venezuelans diplomats, a second secretary at the embassy in DC & a consular officer in NY, in response to the Venezuelan government's ouster of two U.S. attachés on March 5, the same day Hugo Chávez died.
  • Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela's interim president, accused "far right" figures in the United States of trying to kill opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. According to the Associate Press, "The odds are so stacked against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles that he has compared his run to being 'led to a slaughterhouse and dropped into a meat grinder.'" Caracas Chronicles looks at the other six candidates in the presidential race.
  • Wednesday, January 30, 2013

    What's happening in Honduras?

    Recent reports coming out of Honduras show a country in crisis with a failing justice system and an unstable political climate. From the looks of the current state of affairs, Honduras is in for a rocky 2013.

    Crime and Security

    Crimes increased significantly in Honduras in the second half of 2012, with a sharp increase in the last 45 days of the year.

  • In the past three years, there have been 20,573 homicides, with 7,172 murders registered in 2012, up 68 from 2011. The murder rate is 85.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, which comes to 19.65 homicides per day. For comparison, the murder rates in neighboring Nicaragua and Costa Rica is 12 per 100,000 inhabitants and 11.5 per 100,000 inhabitants respectively.
  • In 2012, 432 people were killed in 115 massacres. In the past ten days, there have been two reported massacres (three people or more killed), in which a combined 14 people were murdered, according the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
  • Last weekend, 534 police officers tested positive for marijuana and/or cocaine consumption. 73 upper level officials are being investigated for receiving illicit funds and 230 failed polygraph tests. Although the Supreme Court has since declared the tests unconstitutional, there will be investigations into the officers that failed the tests. Polygraph tests are administered to police in Colombia and more recently in Mexico (modeled after the Colombian initiative) where police began to be tested in the beginning of January 2013.
  • Honduras has one of the most corrupt police forces in the region. Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Honduran Congress, has said 40 percent of the country’s police are involved in organized crime. According to organized crime analysis website InSight Crime, Honduran police officers "have been accused of acting as killers and enforcers for the country's criminal interests."
  • Financial Troubles

    A large portion of Honduras' problems stems from its inability to pay both its domestic and foreign bills. The government is unable to pay for state services ranging from education to security. Of current concern is how much longer the government will be able to pay its military and police forces.

  • Currently the country's internal debt is around $3 billion; its budget deficit exceeds $1 billion (6% of its GDP), while its foreign debt lies at around $5 billion, the same amount allocated to last year's entire government budget. However, the ability to tax is Honduras’ main fiscal problem. According to the Associated Press, tax evasion is adding to the country’s financial woes, with an estimated 43 percent of revenue due.
  • A bill was recently introduced in Congress that would eliminate tax breaks for companies that import goods and create Honduras' first sales tax. Supporters say it will generate an extra $1.2 billion, doubling the government's tax intake.
  • The surveillance camera system in Honduras' capital city was shut off in early January because the government owes the company running the system over $5 million. According to Insight Crime, power to around 800 cameras monitoring crime hotspots in Tegucigalpa has been suspended until the government can pay its outstanding bill. Reports say the emergency response call system would be the next service to go.
  • So far Congress has only passed a partial budget and has yet to propose a solution to the deficit. The Associated Press reported public funds were being used election campaigns with the vote set to take place in November. President Porfirio Lobo Sosa is currently under investigation for financial fraud.
  • Institutional Problems

    In addition to high levels of impunity for crimes, the country is currently in the middle of an institutional crisis.

  • Current President Lobo encouraged Congress to remove four Supreme Court justices following several decisions that went against his administration. Congress, the majority held by Lobo's National Party, did so without an impeachment trial, however, because the judges have not been replaced, no one can rule on their appeal to be reinstated as the other justices refuse to try the case.
  • Last week, Congress approved a law that would allow lawmakers to impeach any elected official.
  • As stated by Southern Pulse, "in 2013, Honduras is headed down the same road that led to the 2009 political crisis." Southern Pulse notes that the difference is that "Lobo has the support of President of Congress Juan Orlando Hernandez who is also the National Party presidential candidate. The Supreme Court will not be a factor since the Congress has intimidated the justices. The Armed Forces are led by General Rene Osorio who was previously in charge of Lobo’s Presidential Guard." Orlando is the National Party's candidate for the November 2013 presidential elections, which he is expected to win.
  • U.S. involvement in counternarcotics operations

    There has been growing U.S. military involvement in counternarcotics operations in Central America. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) involvement in three operations in which suspects or innocent civilians were killed in Honduras this year highlighted that involvement and draws a watchful eye for what is coming in 2013.

  • In August, the U.S. suspended radar intelligence sharing after the Honduran air force shot down two suspected drug plans. The U.S. resumed sharing radar intelligence in November. On January 17, the Associated Press reported that a drug trafficker was killed in the first U.S.-supported anti-narcotics raid in Honduras following the five-month suspension.
  • Also in August, the U.S. State Department put a temporary hold on about $50 million for antidrug and security efforts. The move to do so was motivated by concerns over the DEA’s role in civilian deaths and unauthorized plane shootdowns, accusations that the police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, was involved with death squads, and the government’s sluggish pace to reform a police force mired with corruption. The $50 million amounts to about half of all U.S. aid to Honduras for 2012 (including humanitarian assistance) and includes $8.3 million in counternarcotics aid, and another $38 million under the Central America Regional Security Initiative.
  • A joint State Department and DEA mission, known as Operation Anvil, began in April and ended in mid-July. Three of the five joint interdiction operations during Anvil included the shootings of Hondurans by either DEA agents, or by Honduran officers trained, equipped and vetted by the U.S., causing the operation to end days ahead of schedule.
  • Honduras is currently participating in Operation Martillo, an operation led by U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South that works to increase offshore monitoring along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and coordinates with governments to intercept drug shipments. As of yet, no other multiagency operations have been announced.