Link to our RSS feed / Link to our podcast feed
Monday, May 6, 2013
This weekend President Obama completed his much-anticipated visits to Mexico and Costa Rica.
In both countries Obama promoted economic growth as the key to fighting organized crime and combating drug-related violence. "The stronger the economies and the institutions for individuals seeking legitimate careers, the less powerful those narco-trafficking organizations are going to be," President Obama said at a joint news conference with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla on Friday.
In Mexico, President Obama met with President Enrique Peña Nieto to discuss bilateral relations between the two countries. As several analysts predicted ahead of the meeting, much of the public discussion centered on the two countries’ economic relationship. The leaders’ joint statement discussed commercial and economic initiatives at length, while giving security cooperation a limited mention at the end of the document.
In a press conference, both leaders skirted around the two key issues of immigration and security, while announcing new economic initiatives, including a set of dialogues between top economy officials from both countries planned for this fall.
On security, President Obama kept the discussion limited, saying, “We will interact with them in ways that are appropriate.” Obama’s visit followed a Washington Post report that Mexico’s new government will no longer allow U.S. officials at its intelligence fusion centers. According to the Associated Press, all U.S.-Mexico law enforcement contact will now go through a “single door,” the federal Interior Ministry. During his visit Obama brushed aside questions of decreased security cooperation by responding, “it is obviously up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures and how it engages with other nations, including the United States."
Peña Nieto has been trying play up Mexico’s economic growth and shift the conversation away from the violence. As the New York Times noted, Obama’s new approach runs the risk of being seen as supportive of presidents more concerned with cosmetic changes than implementing any real change. Human rights advocates also worry that the U.S. taking a step back on security would mean less pressure on the Mexican government to investigate disappearances and other abuses by the police and military. The new approach “suggests that the Obama administration either doesn’t object to these abusive practices or is only willing to raise such concerns when it’s politically convenient,” according to José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division.
“On security, the fact that there were no new announcements underscores the fact that the Peña Nieto government does not have a detailed security strategy,” Maureen Meyer an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America told the New York Times.
Before the trip, the America’s Society/Council of the Americas provided a guide to Obama’s trip which included good analysis of potential discussion topics: trade, immigration, security and energy.
America’s Quarterly interview with the President before his trip to the region can be found here.
The Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute provides several links to what the English-language press and what Mexican columnists had to say about the meeting.
Friday afternoon Obama arrived in Costa Rica, where he met privately with President Laura Chinchilla, had dinner with leaders from the eight-nation Central American Integration System and participated in an investment forum with nearly 200 MBA students and Central American business leaders.
Economic growth continued to be the overriding theme of President Obama’s visit, with particular attention given to trade, energy, and democratic reforms. He called on leaders to reduce energy costs and integrate their economies. As the Associated Press noted, issues such as immigration and education that top the United States’ domestic agenda also played a large role in the regional talks.
Although the summit ended without a joint statement, any agreements or resolutions, or plans going forward, the Los Angeles Times noted Obama’s focus on infrastructure and economic ties marked a shift in U.S. rhetoric away from “tough talk” on plans to crack down on narcotraffickers. However Costa Rica’s La Nación said, the meetings “offered no fruits for the near future.” Christian Science Monitor called Costa Rica the ‘safe choice’ for a “smooth- if uneventful- trip this weekend” and noted that “Few details were made public about the presidents’ private meeting on Friday night, but by Saturday morning the presidents of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras had already left the country.”
Ahead of the talks, several leaders, such as El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes, said they would use the meeting to request more funding for security programs from the U.S., who they say should take more responsibility for combating drug trafficking.
The president announced no new initiatives or funding for security and instead promoted better coordination and use of existing aid. “I’m not interested in militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking. This is a law enforcement problem. And if we have effective law enforcement cooperation and coordination, and if we build up capacity for countries in Central America, then we can continue to make progress.” Obama said in the press conference on Friday.
The change in tone was seemingly well received by the Central American leaders. "That was what most presidents said in this meeting, that is not only about sharing through the suppression of crime, but through prevention, investment in social policy and economic growth policies," said President Funes.
Several leaders such as Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and President Chinchilla continued their calls to rethink drug prohibition in the hemisphere. While Obama said he would maintain the U.S. federal policy prohibiting any drugs, he said he was open to the debate. Central American Politics blog discusses these two opposing viewpoints on how to increase security: one that looks to regulate the drug trade which will thereby improve economic development, and the other, which promotes economic development to regulate the drug trade.
Since 2008 the U.S. has given nearly $500 million in security assistance to the region through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). In 2012, the Obama administration slated $136 million through CARSI to fight drug trafficking. The State Department requested $107.5 million for CARSI for this year, but expected that number to increase to between $150 and $160 million after a review of all current projects, according to Brookings Fellow Diana Villiers Negroponte. While the White House’s 2014 budget request cut aid to Mexico and Colombia, it asked for more money for CARSI and allocated $162 million to combat the drug trade in Central America.
Friday, April 5, 2013
The following is a round-up of some of the top news highlights from around the region since Monday.
The Economist had a couple good articles this week, one on the issue of peasant land reserves in Colombia and another on how Brazil is attempting to deal with crack addicts. According to the latter article, Brazil is the world's largest market for crack, with recent studies indicating 1.1 to 1.2 million people in the country are users.
Reuters takes a look at support for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff ahead of the country's 2014 elections. Recent opinion polls placed her popularity at an all-time high of 79 percent. According to Reuters, however, she "could fail to win re-election" as "the threat of rising inflation and unemployment, a trio of attractive opposition candidates, and the possibility of an embarrassing logistical debacle at the World Cup mean that Rousseff is less of a shoo-in than many observers think." Analyst James Bosworth offers a quick look back to the 2006 and 2010 elections, which both went to the second round, despite the popularity of a single candidate.
Blog del Narco
The Guardian and Texas Observer released a report about Blog del Narco, a website that has been reporting on drug-related violence and deaths since March 2010. With the media being silenced in Mexico, Blog del Narco has emerged as one of the few mediums covering the full extent to which drug-related violence plagues the country. The article revealed that the author, whose identity has been a complete secret until now, is a woman in her mid-20s. On Wednesday, her book, "Dying for the Truth: Undercover Inside the Mexican Drug War" was released. The book is said to provide, "the most gruesome, explicit account yet of the mayhem that the cartel wars have brought to Mexico." Another Guardian/ Texas Observer article explains the significance of Blog del Narco and why it "has become the most important website in Mexico." An excerpt can be read here.
Uruguay Marijuana Bill
Uruguay's Congress will vote next month on a controversial marijuana legalization bill. In the upcoming month before the vote, the government will be hosting educational presentations and panels throughout the country on the benefits of regulating the marijuana market. Public opinion polls in December 2012 showed that 64% of Uruguayans oppose the measure, although it has support in Congress. The new law would permit adults to purchase up to 40 grams of marijuana each month and allow for domestic growth of no more than six plants. Marijuana growth and consumption clubs are provided for under the law, however no more than 30,000 hectares of cannabis may be grown nationwide.
Rios Montt trial
The historic Rios Montt trial re-started this week. A testimony of a former soldier implicated current President Otto Perez Molina in several violent atrocities against the Guatemalan population during the country’s civil war in the 1980s. According to the Associated Press, Hugo Reyes, a soldier who was a mechanic in an engineering brigade, told the court that Perez Molina ordered soldiers to “burn and pillage" during the war. Reyes said that Perez Molina coordinated the burning and looting, in order to later execute people." The Pan American Post links to several good articles about the case, and points out that Reyes also implicated another general who is a key witness for the defense, possibly tarnishing his testimony. On Wednesday, the court heard many testimonies about sexual violence that took place during the civil war. According to Mike Allison's Central American Politics Blog, an estimated 100,000 women of all ages were sexually assaulted during the conflict.
For more information on the trial, check out The Open Society Justice Initiative's blog, which provides a daily account of the case. The Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala has good coverage of the case, as do Mary Jo McConahay and Sonia Perez-Diaz of the Associated Press.
Mexico's 2014 security budget
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed a $4.4 billion security budget for 2014. Of that amount, $1.6 billion will go towards crime prevention; $1.4 billion will go to the penal system, $122 million to the new gendarmerie police force and $231 to intelligence. About $382 million is slated for smaller public security initiatives and will be dispersed to states, municipalities and Mexico City. As InSight Crime pointed out, should this new budget be approved, the gendarmerie, the details of which have yet to be announced, will receive around $384.
Presidents of Peru and Mexico to China
Peruvian President Ollanta Humala traveled to China, Peru's largest trading partner, to discuss trade opportunities in an effort to increase the country's exports. The AFP reported that "Bilateral trade between Peru and China has more than doubled since their free trade deal took effect in 2010, surging from about seven billion dollars to $15 billion in 2012." Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will also travel to China this weekend to discuss trade relations as he kicks off his Asia tour.
Armed groups and illegal gold mining in Colombia
On Monday, Colombian magazine Semana published an excellent series about armed groups' deep involvement in illegal gold mining. A map shows that in the 20 municipalities with the most gold, there is a heavy presence of armed groups and extortion and abuse of mine workers is constant. A letter between FARC leaders, published by Caracol Radio, revealed details about the group's extortion of the mining industry. Illegal gold mining is now reportedly the group's top source of income in several departments throughout the country. According to InSight Crime, "miners are forced to pay 5 percent of their total income to the FARC, 5 percent to guerrilla group ELN, as well as 7 million pesos ($3,800) to the FARC for the entrance of each mechanical digger to a mining site."
Colombia's "emerald czar" dies
Victor Carranza, known as Colombia's "Emerald Czar," died Thursday, theAssociated Press reported. Carranza allegedly financed paramilitary groups, but was never tried, supposedly because of his relationship with top political elites. Colombia accounts for 60% of the world's emerald trade, and Carranza was believed to control about half of all mining operations in the country. On Monday, news website Colombia Reports reported that as Carranza's health was deteriorating he, along with other top players in the industry, requested an "active presence" from the government to prevent a possibly violent war between groups looking to control his assets. InSight Crime has a profile of Carranza that is worth a read.
El Salvador is reportedly planning to request funding assistance from the United States for the country's gang truce. According to InSight Crime, Justice and Security Minister David Munguia Payes said the government only has $18 million of the $150 million that will be needed to fully implement the truce.
El Faro had a long but informative article on off-record cash payments to government officials in El Salvador.
Friday, March 1, 2013
The following is a round-up of some of the top news highlights from around the region this week.
The most staggering news from Mexico this week was that the government released a database of missing people. According to official numbers, 26,121 people disappeared between December 2006 and November 2012. The database's announcement follows a report put out by Human Rights Watch on February 20 documenting Mexican security forces' participation in forced disappearances.
Given the onslaught of reports on Mexico's disappeared, Steven Dudley of Insight Crime says, "the U.S. government has to question whether the country's navy, its most important ally in combating drugs, is really a trustworthy partner." Dudley likens the case to that of Colombia in which an "embattled government gets large amounts of U.S. assistance, and the very units receiving the aid are connected to systematic human rights abuses."
On the security front for Mexico, there were several other developments this week:
- Mexican newspaper Milenio reported that 922 people were killed in Mexico during the month of February. Milenio featured an interactive map that broke down the murder numbers by state. Chihuahua state had the highest, with 161 registered killings. The newspaper also revealed that 100 members of the country's security forces were killed in the first three months of President Peña Nieto's term.
- The creation of a 200-strong new police unit dedicated to combating drug dealing in Mexico City was announced this week. The unit will work with the city's Attorney General's Office to gather intelligence and search homes suspected of being involved with small-scale drug trafficking.
- The Mexican government has begun giving military training to 10,000 officers that will be part of a new federal police force that President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration will build up over the next few years, known as a gendarmerie. The Associated Press reported the forces are expected to be on the street by the end of the year.
- The secretary of government for Mexico, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, said that a total of $576.3 million would be invested in public security initiatives in 2013, reported Mexican newspaper Excelsior. According to the article, $25.7 million is earmarked for the purchase of vehicles and public security programs on the ground. Another $2.5 million will be spent on explosive materials, while $19.4 million will be spent on protective gear for security forces.
- Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution released a report, "Peña Nieto's Piñata: The Promise and Pitfalls of Mexico's New Security Policy against Organized Crime," that looks at the objectives and limitations of President Peña Nieto's security plan. Insight Crime offers an overview of the report, noting it "outlines the problems facing Peña Nieto as he assumed the presidency, and highlights the differences between his policy and that of the man he replaced, Felipe Calderón."
- The Associated Press profiled the continuing debate over Mexico's self-defense vigilante movement. The president of the country's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), Raul Plascencia, said, "there is a fine line between self-defense organizations and paramilitary groups." In the Guerrero state, where the movement has most intensified, 20 groups announced they would unify under one single command.
- This week, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed the biggest education reform bill the country has seen in seven years. The legislation looks to relinquish some control over a powerful teachers' union, aiming to stop the inheritance and purchasing of teaching positions.
Just one day after the reform was announced, the head of the Mexican National Educational Workers Union (SNTE), Elba Ester Gordillo, was arrested for embezzlement and laundering $200 million in funds. The arrest spawned a media storm and caused many to speculate whether Peña Nieto will go after other political bosses in the country thought to be corrupt. Gordillo has quickly been replaced by Juan Diaz de la Torre, profiled by Vanguardia here.
Government Accountability Office reports
The Government Accountability Office released a report (PDF) indicating that there was an overall decrease in violent crime along the U.S. border between 2004 and 2011. According to Insight Crime, the study "further supports the interpretation that claims of rampant 'spillover violence' in the U.S. border region have been mostly exaggerated." Some findings:
- Assaults against Border Patrol agents decreased from 2008 to 2012, to levels 25 percent lower than in 2006.
- Interviewed officials from state and local law enforcement agencies said they had not observed violent crime from Mexico regularly spilling over into the U.S.
- Over 7 years, Arizona saw the most significant decline (33 percent), Texas (30 percent), California (26 percent), and New Mexico (eight percent from 2005 onward).
- The GAO released another report titled, "Goals and Measures Not Yet in Place to Inform Border Security Status and Resource Needs" (PDF). According to the report, "Border Patrol is developing performance goals and measures to define border security and the resources needed to achieve it, but has not identified milestones and time frames for developing and implementing goals and measures under its new strategic plan."
The sequestration cuts expected to go into effect today could hit Latin American economies hard.
- Shannon K. O'Neil from the Council on Foreign Relations said the effects could mean less military aid transfers, noting that "Secretary of State John Kerry has specifically mentioned that funds destined for disrupting drug networks in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean will be some of the most severely hit." O'Neil also mentions the financial hit that those same countries’ economies might take. A January 2013 World Bank report had estimated that Latin America's total GDP could be reduced by 1.2 percent due to the U.S.' financial uncertainty.
- According to the New Security Beat blog from the Wilson Center, the Secretary of State said the sequestration will force the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to "find $2.6 billion in across-the-board reductions” and “seriously impair our ability to execute our vital missions of national security, diplomacy, and development." The article goes on to detail how the cuts will affect Latin America from a more humanitarian perspective, noting cuts to initiatives in family planning and reproductive health programs.
Brazilian company wins DOD contract
The United States Air Force is buying attack planes from Brazil's Embraer SA company for counterinsurgency missions in Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, "Under this contract, 20 aircraft are scheduled to be delivered to operational air bases in Afghanistan beginning in the summer of 2014 to conduct advanced flight training, surveillance, close air support and air interdiction missions."
According to Reuters, the deal tightens "U.S.-Brazilian defense ties after a politically charged bidding process." The article goes on to note,"Embraer and its privately held partner, Sierra Nevada, beat out U.S.-based Hawker Beechcraft for the $428 million deal, the Brazilian planemaker's first with the U.S. armed forces."
According to political analyst James Bosworth,
Brazilian officials are already signaling that this contract is a good sign for Boeing's chances to win the fighter jet bid in Brazil. There is little doubt that the F/A-18 is the most capable jet in that competition, but Brazil does have serious political and military concerns about the possibility that the U.S. could later restrict access to technology and parts. Embraer's winning a $400 million defense contract related to a top U.S, security priority (Afghanistan) should assuage some of those fears.
- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is "fighting for his life" in a Caracas military hospital the country's vice president, Nicolas Maduro, said Thursday night in a televised speech, the Associated Press reported. Maduro continued on to say, "Our commander is sick because he gave his life for those who don't have anything." A recent poll coming out of Venezuela revealed some interesting statistics: 46% of the population thinks that Chávez is not making decisions; 58% believe Chávez will recover while 30% say he won't return to power; 12.5% say they are unsure what will happen.
- EFE reported that Venezuela plans to create a commission to investigate crimes committed by the state prior to 1998. Hugo Chávez became president in 1999.
Bolivian President Evo Morales's Movement towards Socialism party (MAS) formally nominated him as its candidate for the country's 2014 presidential elections. The move sparked controversy over the constitutionality of President Morales running for a third term, since the constitution says rulers can only have two terms. The MAS is arguing that because the document was changed by referendum in Morales' first term, another term would only be his second under the changed constitution. The country's Constitutional Court is studying the matter.
- On Wednesday, the Honduran National Autonomous University’s Violence Observatory released its annual report, which showed that the country saw 85.5 homicides for every 100,000 residents last year, about ten times the global average of 8.8 per 100,000. Although this number has already been widely reported, it offers even further support to show that the country's security situation is devolving, marred by rising drug trafficking rates and a corrupt police force.
- A new libel law in Honduras sentences people who "incite hate or attack against ideological groups, sexes, or genders" to 3-5 years in prison. Honduras Culture and Politics blog examines the law, questioning, "where are the limits of this law?" According to the post, the law is directed at the media and "could silence dissent as illegal disrespect for the ‘dignity’ of Honduran politicians."
Friday, March 1, 2013
On Thursday, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere held a hearing, titled "Overview of U.S. Interests in the Western Hemisphere: Opportunities and Challenges."
The two witnesses were Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the Department of State Roberta S. Jacobson and Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean Mark Feierstein.
Main points of discussion:
- Colombia as a success story and its cooperation with other governments in the region to fight drug trafficking
- Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere
- Cuba: The discussion almost exclusively focused on Alan Gross
- Counternarcotics: Partnering with Colombia and Mexico to address drug-related
violence in Central America; Violence related to the drug war in Mexico; Caribbean Basin Security initiative
- Evaluation of aid impact in Haiti
- Post-Chávez Venezuela
- Rights of Afro-descendants and indigenous populations
- Environmental issues: Clean energy in the region (Also included discussion on deforestation in the Amazon)
- Trade with Mexico
In her opening testimony Assistant Secretary Jacobson said that relations were on a positive trajectory, with the U.S. focused on fostering economic growth, citizen security, clean energy and strengthening democracy. Secretary Jacobson told the committee that the Obama administration's overall approach to Latin America "is as much about seizing opportunities as it is about countering threats."
Feierstein focused on the shift USAID has made in the region by increasingly working with institutions from the recipient country's government so they may generate revenue for themselves as well as closely working with the private sector. He mentioned the need to focus on crime prevention and investing in youth development. He also noted, "In much of Latin America and the Caribbean, we are well on our way to achieving the USAID goal of largely graduating countries in the region from foreign assistance by 2030."
Chairman of the subcommittee Matt Salmon's (R-AZ) opening statement can be found here and Ranking Member Albio Sires'(D-NJ) can be found here.
Colombia as a model
Several of the subcommittee members heralded Colombia as the region's main success story. Medellin was singled out a couple of times, with Feierstein saying, "Medellin is a success story. It was once seen as a drug capital and just recently it was featured in the New York Times."
When asked by Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) what the U.S. could apply to Colombia from Mexico, Jacobson underscored that there were differences in each country's specific situation (for one, Mexico is a federal system), and that there were both positive and negative lessons to be learned from Colombia.
The most interesting take-away from the discussion surrounding Colombia, however, was the topic of its training of foreign forces. (See here for a previous post on Colombian training of foreign forces)
Secretary Jacobson said a big benefit of U.S. investment in Colombia is that it now knows how to combat drug trafficking and can work with the U.S. in the hemisphere. She noted that the Colombians have trained over 14,000 forces from 25 countries, saying, "they know how to do things better than us." She also highlighted that Colombians are working with Central American governments to combat drug traffickers as well as working with the Mexican government to train police and helicopter pilots, among other initiatives.
Both witnesses reiterated the U.S. government's support for the peace process, saying it was willing to do whatever necessary to facilitate a successful outcome.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) pushed hard about what the State Department and USAID were doing to promote the rights of Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups in the more geographically isolated regions of the country like Chocó and Tumaco. Jacobson noted that economic assistance to Afro-Colombians has been increased, but that there was a long way to go in terms of improving security and economic opportunity. Feierstein noted the Santos administration's strides to increase equality with the victims law and land redistribution law, which USAID helped to draft.
Iranian influence in the hemisphere
Several members of the subcommittee brought up Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere, most notably, Ranking Member Albio Sires (D-NJ), Rep. Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC). They expressed concern over Iran's economic agreements with several countries in the hemisphere, especially Venezuela, as well as the truth commission that Argentine legislators have approved to investigate the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. The commission would be made up by experts from other countries and allow them to travel to Iran for investigations. The Iranian Parliament has not yet approved the commission.
Jacobson acknowledged that the State Department is monitoring the threat, because "anything is possible," but did not give a sense of urgency. She noted that she is continually working with the intelligence community to monitor the threat and that the State Department will release a report on Iran's influence in the hemisphere in June. The Assistant Secretary mentioned the State Department is working with governments in the region to evaluate Iran's influence, making sure they understand how the U.S. views the situation, sharing information when it can, and teaching other governments how to best monitor the Iran and Hezbollah at their request.
This has been a reoccurring topic in the House in recently, with the passage of a bill in 2012,"Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere," that President Obama signed into law on December 28, and a report earlier this year, "A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border," detailing Iran and Hezbollah's increased presence in the region.
Venezuela post-Hugo Chávez
Although the topic wasn't discussed at length, a couple of members questioned what the U.S.' role would be in ensuring elections in the event of Hugo Chávez's death or resignation.
Jacobson echoed what the standard State Department line has been: that it supports democracy in the country and the Venezuelan people's right to decide their future within the guidelines of the constitution. Feierstein noted that USAID has programs to support civil society and support human rights groups that work with elections. Rep. Albio Sires mentioned that improving relations with Venezuela would be beneficial, as it is the world's 4th-largest producer of petroleum.
Alan Gross was the main focus of all discussion with regards to Cuba. Rep. Theodore E. Deutch (D-FL) emphatically pushed Jacobson on what the State Department was doing to get him out, expressing disbelief that even mutual allies, such as the Vatican, were unable to help.
Jacobson said that the U.S. views this as a humanitarian issue, noting that Gross' mother is currently fighting cancer and lost his daughter to cancer, amid concern over his own health. The Assistant Secretary later noted that the Cuban government has repeatedly refused U.S. requests for a doctor of the Gross family's choosing to see Alan Gross.
The issue of American fugitives seeking refuge in Cuba, like the case of Joanne Chesimard, was also brought up. Jacobson reiterated several times that the U.S.' goal is to ultimately allow Cubans to "make their own decisions."
Mexican Drug Cartels
Del. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (American Samoa) was the only member to ask about Mexico's drug cartels, mentioning the problem of high demand for drugs in the U.S. as well as the problem of U.S. guns showing up at the majority of Mexican crime scenes.
Jacobson admitted that there was a shared responsibility in the fight against drug trafficking. She noted that the Obama administration has put more money towards drugs and that the demand side is improving.
As for Mexico, Jacobson said that the increased pressure on the cartels has noticeably inhibited their ability to operate and has increased their operation costs. She also cited the main problem that resulted from the previous administration's strategy to target kingpins: the fragmentation of large cartels into smaller groups. Jacobson noted that the U.S.' goal is to coordinate with Mexican security forces to lower drug trafficking and violence to levels within police control.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) questioned Feierstein about the USAID mission in Haiti, particularly given Haitian President Martelly's recent comments that relief efforts were uncoordinated and undermining his government and that he wants the money to stop coming in and fix the relief process. He noted that 250,000 Haitians still remain in tent camps.
Feierstein responded by noting that the number of Haitians living in camps is currently around 300,000, down from the 1.5 million when the effort started three years ago. He stressed that the number one priority for USAID is job creation. Noting that without that, or the installation of health or education services, people are unable to move to new housing. He said it was a long-term challenge, but USAID has a long-term plan in place.
Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI)
When asked by Rep. Meeks if the CBSI was a success or failure, Jacobson said "the jury is still out" on the success of the initiative and that there is certainly work to be done. She noted increased cooperation between governments and improved judicial reform. To this end, she mentioned both Canada and the United Kingdom's contribution of extra legislators to work on judicial reforms.
Mark Feierstein said USAID is working on three main objectives in the Caribbean:
1. Support efforts to expand education and employment opportunities
2. Working on the juvenile judicial process
3. Community policing, which they have had the most success with, particularly in Jamaica.
He also mentioned in his testimony that Los Angeles officials had trained officials from Central American governments.
A video of the hearing in its entirety can be seen here.
For more detailed notes on the hearing see a previous Just the Facts post. According to WOLA's Adam Isacson, several topics were left out of the hearing:
- There was no mention, apart from Colombia’s role as a training country, of bi-lateral or regional military involvement or strategy.
- Other than Salmon’s closing remarks, nothing was said about the border or border security.
- Nothing was said about immigration reform.
- There was nothing said about Central American immigrants, it was as if the committee members present believed that everyone in this country who is a Hispanic immigrant has come from either Mexico out of fear of the drug cartels, or from Cuba, out of fear of being repressed.
- Although violence caused by narco-trafficking and organized criminal activity was mentioned, nothing was said about US domestic gun reform and the potential impact that could have on violence in Central America.
- While crop-transitions were mentioned for current farmers of coca, nothing was mentioned about the UN’s recent decriminalization of traditional uses of the coca leaf in Bolivia.
Seven out of eleven subcommittee members attended the event, not including the chairman, Matt Salmon (R-AZ).
From the majority:
Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC)
Rep. Ron DeSantis (FL)
Rep. Trey Radel (FL)
From the minority:
Rep. Albio Sires (NJ), Ranking Member
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY)
Rep. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (AS)
Rep. Theodore E. Deutch (FL)
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
The news coming out of Honduras continues to reveal a flailing economy, political instability, and endemic corruption of the security forces and judicial system. A previous post gave an overview of the country's institutional, financial and security troubles at the outset of 2013. Here's a new update.
Last week, a special Supreme Court of justices hand-picked by the only judge not to get fired - Chief Justice Jorge Rivera Aviles - voted 13-2 not to admit the justices' appeal. While it should be noted that the removed justices were seen as corrupt, the move has elicited a clear message of disapproval from the opposition. In response to the decision, Salvador Nasralla, the Anti-Corruption party candidate for president, said, "They think it's a soccer match, but internationally, if today the justices are not returned, Honduras will be considered a dictatorship and that is serious because it removes the rule of law we've boasted about."
Since removing the justices, the National Congress has passed several new laws, some of which were previously blocked by removed justices:
A new telecommunications law, which will provide little security protection for users online and increase the government's regulation of traditional and social media. President Lobo also accused local media of damaging Honduras' image internationally, saying the violence in the country receives too much coverage and that the justice ministry should sue media outlets before the UN. The government has recently proposed a bill which would create a council intended to monitor all media coverage.
As explained in the prior post, Congress removed four Supreme Court justices at the behest of current President Lobo following several decisions that went against his administration, most notably blocking a police reform law he had been championing. Congress did so without an impeachment trial, prompting the dismissed justices to file an appeal questioning the constitutionality of the decision. Until recently the case had not been tried because there were no sitting justices to rule on the appeal.
- A much-criticized mining law and a "Charter Cities" law authorizing the creation of privatized territories bolstered by foreign investment governed autonomously in which the constitution itself doesn't apply.
- A law allowing lawmakers to impeach any elected official as well as one removing Honduran citizens' rights to challenge the constitutionality of a law. Now citizens may only challenge regulations adopted to enforce the law.
- A police purification law that the previous court claimed did not give officers due process, as well as a bill creating a security agency fusing military defense and internal security. According to Inter-Press Service, this new National Directorate of Investigation and Intelligence (DNII) "does not appear to be accountable to any other body, and does not appear to be under democratic civilian control."
Crime and Security
According to Insight Crime, "Thanks to political instability, rampant corruption in the security forces and judicial system, Honduras has become that path of least resistance [for smuggling].Added to this is the fact that Honduras is the principal air bridge for cocaine from South America, with the departure point being Venezuela." The State Department has reported that some 40% of all cocaine destined to U.S. initially lands in Honduras.
The security situation in the country seems to be getting worse as 1,400 soldiers have been deployed to the country's two largest cities.
- Honduras' Defense Minister Marlon Pascua noted the increased presence of transnational crime in the country, saying, "There are various organizations, not only Honduran, but also with people infiltrated from other countries, Mexican cartels which have relationships with Honduran criminals and Colombian cartels, which also have relationships with criminals here."
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report on U.S.- Honduran relations, over 78% of Hondurans report having little or no confidence in the police force while 68% have little or no confidence in the armed forces. The same report noted that about 80% of crimes are never investigated according to the Honduran government's National Commissioner for Human Rights.
CRS also noted that in 2012, Honduras had roughly 10,600 military personnel, a defense budget of $189 million (1% of GDP) with less than 2% invested in maintenance and procurement, meaning the country depended on international donors for the majority of its equipment/technology.
Footage of hit men carrying out killings last November in Comayagüela, a city just outside the capital, Tegucigalpa, was released last week. The rather graphic video from a surveillance camera shows eight men get out of two vehicles and shoot two men dead and injure another. The video has deepened existing public outrage at endemic impunity and the government's inability to keep citizens safe.
Last week, gangs imposed a curfew in parts of the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa, posting signs that said: "At 7 p.m. we want to see businesses closed and people in their houses." According to Insight Crime and La Prensa, gang wars are escalating between Barrio 18, one of the region's largest street gangs, and the Chirizos, a newer local gang. Two police stations formerly located in the area have been closed for years according to residents.
In response to news of the gang curfew, last Friday Honduran President Porfirio Lobo deployed the military to the two largest cities in the country in order to crack down on rising crime. 800 soldiers were sent to Tegucigalpa and 600 to San Pedro Sula, as part of "Operation Freedom" (Operación Libertad). Over the weekend 13 people were killed in the country's capital.
A Mexican NGO, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal), released a list of the world's most dangerous cities. Honduras' second largest city, San Pedro Sula, topped the list, registering 169 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, while Tegucigalpa, the country's capital came in at number 4.
Over 60 subsistence farmers and indigenous leaders have been assassinated by paramilitary units hired by large land owners since the 2009 ouster. According to an article in Upside Down World, a quarter of the country's arable land is monopolized by less than 1% of the farmers. However, due in part to increasing global demand for palm oil, there is a continuing land conflict in the Aguán Valley.
- Last month Honduran authorities found cars and weapons allegedly belonging to the Zetas, including a gold-plated AK-47. "Honduras has become the principal handover point for cocaine between Colombian and Mexican cartels. Transnational organized crime follows the path of least resistance," reported Insight.
Here's a photo of a police stop in Honduras.
The general elections scheduled for November 2013 will be the first since the 2009 vote following the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. Xiomara Castro, wife of ousted ex-president Manuel Zelaya, is ahead in the polls as the candidate for the newly-created leftist LIBRE party, over Juan Orlando Hernandez, the National Party candidate and current head of Congress. The assassination of at least five opposition party activists and candidates in the last year draws attention to fair campaign play in the coming months.
The government is unable to access $500 million worth of assets seized from criminals over the past three years due to inefficiency and corruption with the country's judicial system, according to Insight Crime. Operations by anti-narcotics officers, special investigators, police and prosecutors seized 153 properties, 266 cars and more than $5 million during 2010, 2011 and 2012, however until a judge authorizes the transfers, the Honduran government cannot access it.
Tax collection is Honduras' main fiscal problem. On January 31, President Porfirio Lobo announced the creation of a commission consisting of 14 representatives from the public and private sectors to investigate tax exemptions and exonerations. According to Southern Pulse, the commission will propose a budget and submit recommendations after 60 days. According to President Lobo, these benefits extended to businesses and private institutions have not helped stimulate the country's economy.
The Honduran government is struggling to pay both its domestic and foreign bills. Public employees have gone unpaid and basic government services suspended.
US involvement in counternarcotics operations
The commander of Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) specifically mentioned Honduras in an interview last week as an area of concern, because "constrained resources limit its special operators’ ability to reach ungoverned sections of the country that offer traffickers safe havens." He noted that traffickers return to these rural areas after trainings and operations end, saying, "The problem is that the activity is not persistent." No specific operation plans for Honduras have been revealed by the U.S. government following the end of a joint State Department and DEA mission, Operation Anvil, that resulted in the shootings of suspects and innocent civilians, however it was reported that U.S. Navy SEALs spent 6 months training a 45-man Special Forces anti-trafficking unit within the Honduran Navy. The new unit is called the Honduran Fuerza Especiales Naval or (FEN).
58 members of the House, led by Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Atty. Gen. Eric Holder demanding an investigation into the DEA over its role the murder of four civilians in May 2012.
An Associated Press article noted the National Guard's presence in Honduras and highlighted more numbers:
An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times this week notes, "The United States is expanding its military presence in Honduras on a spectacular scale," despite human rights abuses and unconstitutional government actions. As was indicated in a previous post, several articles have come out recently about U.S. military presence and investment in the region, but here are some Honduras- specific numbers and news.
A report by John Lindsay-Poland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (reposted on Just the Facts) examined Pentagon contracts in Latin America for 2012. According to Poland, “Honduras, which has become a hub for Pentagon operations in Central America, is the site for more than $43 million in non-fuel contracts signed last year.” He also found that the Pentagon contracted $24 million in Honduras for fuel purchases.
- In 2012, the U.S. Defense Department spent a record $67.4 million on military contracts in Honduras, triple the 2002 defense contracts there and well above the $45.6 million spent in neighboring Guatemala in 2012.
- Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon could provide details explaining a 2011 $1.3 billion authorization for exports of military electronics to Honduras — although that would amount to almost half of all U.S. arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
This post was written by John Lindsay-Poland from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The original article can be found on the FOR blog.
The Pentagon signed $444 million in non-fuel contracts for purchases and services in Latin America and the Caribbean during the 2012 fiscal year, an overall decrease of nearly 15% from the previous year. But US military spending in the region is still considerably higher than during the George W. Bush administration, when the equivalent Pentagon spending in Latin America averaged $301 million a year.
FOR conducted an analysis of Defense Department contracts listed on usaspending.gov for Fiscal Year 2012, building on the review we did last year.
More than a third of funds for these contracts in the region are being carried out in Cuba, with $158 million for housing upgrades, intelligence analysis, port operations and other services. The United States maintains the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba, site of the 11-year-old detention center that holds 171 prisoners without trial, many of whom have been cleared for release.
An additional $130 million in Pentagon contracts was for fuel purchases, including more than $44 million in Brazil, $35 million in Costa Rica, and $24 million in Honduras. Such fuel purchases supply the Fourth Fleet of the Navy, as well as military aircraft and land vehicles used in exercises, operations, and training.
Colombia remained the country with the largest amount of Pentagon contracts in continental Latin America, with $77 million. A multi-year contract shared by Raytheon and Lockheed for training, equipment and other drug war activities accounted for more than a third of Pentagon contract spending in Colombia. Honduras, which has become a hub for Pentagon operations in Central America, is the site for more than $43 million in non-fuel contracts signed last year.
The US Southern Command (SouthCom), responsible for US military activities in Central and South America and the Caribbean, is assisting the Panamanian border police, known as SENAFRONT, by upgrading a building in the SENAFRONT compound. The force was implicated in killings of indigenous protesters (PDF) in Bocas del Toro in 2011, and fired indiscriminately with live ammunition (PDF) on Afro-Caribbean protesters last October.
Many countries that host US military activities hope to receive economic benefits and jobs as a result. But more than five of every six Pentagon dollars contracted for services and goods in the region went to US-based companies. Only nine percent of the $574.4 million in Pentagon contracts signed in 2012 (including fuel contracts) were with firms in the country where the work was to be carried out. In the Caribbean, there were virtually no local companies that benefitted from the $245 million in Defense Department contracts.
A few corporations dominated Pentagon contracts in the region. CSC Applied Technologies, based in Fort Worth, Texas, received more than $53 million in contracts to operate the Navy’s underwater military testing facility in the Bahamas. Lockheed Martin received more than $40 million in contracts, almost entirely for drug war training, equipment and services in Colombia and Mexico.
Pentagon Focus on Guatemala
Although the Pentagon spent less in most Latin American countries in 2012 than the year before, DOD contracts have more than doubled since 2010 in Guatemala, where there is a ban on most State Department-channeled military aid to the army. However, the ban does not apply to Defense Department assistance. The contracts for nearly $14 million in 2012 amount to more than seven times what it was in 2009. In addition, the US military spent another $8.1 million on fuel in Guatemala last year, probably for “Beyond the Horizon” military exercises held there and in Honduras from April to July, and perhaps to support the deployment of 200 Marines to Guatemala in August.
The contracts included new assistance to the Guatemalan special forces, known as Kaibiles, former members of which have been implicated in giving training to the Zetas drug cartel, as well as the worst atrocities during the genocide period of the 1980s. Two contracts, funded by SouthCom and signed in September, were for a “shoot house” and “improvements” at the Kaibiles training base in Poptun, Petén.
SouthCom also funded a contract for construction of a new $3 million counter-drug base in Santa Ana de Berlin, in Quetzaltenango. This year, SouthCom is slated to build a $1.8 million counternarcotics operations center and barracks in Mantanitas, Guatemala, according to an Army Corps of Engineers presentation.
The expenditures included equipment. For the last two years, SouthCom has been providing Boston whaler boats, radios, and tactical vehicles (Jeeps) to Central American militaries. Guatemala is receiving more of the equipment than other countries in the region – 47 Jeeps and 8 Boston whalers, according to a SouthCom document. SouthCom signed a $2.5 million contract in September for Jeeps for Guatemala, and it has purchased more than $2.8 million of Harris military radios for Guatemala since September 2011.
Department of Defense contracts, summaries of which are posted on usaspending.gov, only represent a portion of Pentagon spending. A report to Congress last April (PDF) of Defense Department assistance worldwide showed more than $15 million in military aid to Guatemala in 2010, including $9 million for intelligence analysis, training, boats, trucks, night vision devices, and a “base of operations.” These funds also included more than $6 million of unspecified support for Guatemalan police operations in Cobán, in the Guatemalan highland department of Alta Verapaz. The report didn’t include data after 2010.
On December 7, the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency signed a $1.4 million contract with a Guatemalan firm to manage a 10,000-barrel supply of turbine fuel for the next five years in Puerto Quetzal, on Guatemala’s southern coast. This followed a July 2012 solicitation to deliver 63,000 gallons of jet fuel to another southern Guatemalan site, in Retalhuleu.
FOR compiled data on the “country of performance” for contracts. For Guatemala, we also examined data on additional contracts that reference the country, which included a $2.5 million contract signed in late September with a Chrysler distributor to deliver tactical vehicles – some of the Jeeps slated for the country. The US Army also purchased $7.6 million worth of trousers from a producer in Guatemala in 2012.
Some legislation for DOD drug war construction of bases and other infrastructure limits projects to $2 million, and the Southern Command continues to employ this authority frequently to construct a variety of facilities all over the Americas. Here are some of the facilities the US military is constructing around Latin America.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
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."
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.
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.
Friday, November 2, 2012
The following links and summaries are some recent news highlights from around the region.
- Last Tuesday, Bolivia's Constitutional Tribunal declared a long-standing law criminalizing defamation of government officials, known as the "desacato" law, unconstitutional for violating freedom of speech. Under the law, individuals can incur a three-year prison sentence for insulting a member of the government.
- Later in the week Bolivian media was abuzz following comments from Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, who warned those who might dare to criticize the president via social media, saying "I am always going online, and I am writing down the first and last names of the people who insult him on Facebook and Twitter." Morales' Movement for Socialism party (MAS) is currently attempting to push through a law monitoring Bolivian citizens' political commentary on digital news sites and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
- Earlier this month, reports revealed the government was harassing journalists from media outlets that reported on government corruption, causing them to flee over fears of incarceration. In a most recent example, a Bolivian journalist was set on fire by four masked men while on air at a radio station in the southern city of Yacuiba, along the Argentine border and a drug smuggling route. Fernando Vidal, 78, was a harsh critic of the local government and was reporting on trafficking in the area at the time of the attack. Vidal along with other journalists have been increasingly denouncing a rise in smuggling across the border, particularly of liquid petroleum gas.
Amnesty International said the attack is "one of the worst instances of violence against journalists in Bolivia in recent years.” Four men have been arrested in the case. Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero along with Vidal's son-in-law, also a journalist, believe two local government officials hired the men.
- In Mexico, workers are protesting after the country's Senate passed through a version of labor reform legislation. Members from the conservative National Action Party (PAN) as well as president-elect Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) supported the bill despite differences over certain details in the law, like the election of union leaders by secret ballot, a provision opposed by the union-friendly PRI party, but was ultimately included in the draft.
Lawmakers say the bill seeks to increase transparency of trade union finances and union leader elections-- the country's two most prominent union leaders (Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico’s largest teachers’ union and Carlos Romero Deschamps of the Oil Workers Union) won uncontested re-election. Mexican trade unions dominate state industry and their leaders are often accused of corruption. The government says the new reforms will create thousands of new jobs, making Mexico more competitive. Some economists and politicians say the reforms could create upwards of 150,000 jobs a year.
Workers however rose up saying that under the proposed law, it will be easier for companies to fire employees and they will be forced to accept lower wages. Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) called the reform "simplistic," saying it is not the "magic bullet" to create jobs and could harm workers' interests, particularly those in the informal sector who account for 28.8 million of the country's 50 million workers. Congressman in the lower house will now vote on the bill, however the vote has been delayed as the PRI fight to protect union interests.
- The PAN, PRD and Citizens' Movement (MC) parties held a press conference Wednesday where they announced they would form a united legislative opposition front against PRI president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto to fight "clientelistic and corrupt practices" during his six-year term.
- A faction of the Zetas reportedly split off and formed a new group called the Legionaries, according to Insight Crime. A banner hung by the group in Nuevo Laredo in northern Mexico says the organization has a "clear mission to kill people from the Zetas and their families" and their business is "solely and exclusively drug trafficking." The formal split comes following the capture of Zetas leader Ivan Velazquez Caballero, alias "El Taliban" and the recent killing of another head, Heriberto Lazcano, alias "Z-3," whose death was finally confirmed by authorities who used his dead father's DNA to corroborate his demise after Z-3's body disappeared from the morgue.
- Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, from Mexico, pleaded guilty Tuesday in the 2010 shooting of US border patrol Agent Brian Terry. He claimed to be part of a group that crossed into the US to steal from marijuana smugglers and had entered the country the week prior to the shooting to stash guns and food supplies.
- There were massive protests in Colon, Panama last week in response to a government law allowing for the sale of state-owned land to private companies in Latin America's biggest duty-free zone. Three people were killed, including a 9 year-old-boy, prompting groups like Amnesty International to call for investigation into excessive use of force.
After the bill was passed last Friday, protesters from trade unions, student groups and business associations took to the streets, claiming that the sell-off will cause layoffs and a loss of revenue. The Panamanian government has since repealed the law, with assembly president Sergio Galvez saying "An error has been corrected," after the measure passed.
- A free-trade agreement between Panama and the US was entered into force on October 31, meaning that about 86% of US products will now enter the country tariff-free. The agreement was signed by former President George W. Bush in June 2007 and approved by Panama’s parliament the same year. The U.S. Congress did not ratify the agreement until October 12, 2011, held up with concerns over labor rights and tax laws for U.S.-based corporations in Panama. Opponents of the agreement said it would normalize Panama’s status as a the second-largest tax haven in the world and allow it to remain conducive to laundering money from criminal activity, creating vulnerability to terrorist financing, as was cited in a 2006 Wikileaked memo. President Obama signed the treaty into law on October 21, 2011.
- Last Monday was the final debate in the US Presidential elections, covering foreign policy. There was virtually no mention of Latin America, causing analysts, politicians and voters to express dismay with both candidates.
- Some saw the lack of discussion about Latin America as a positive sign. In a press conference after his meeting with Hillary Clinton, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota said of the debate, "it’s true that Latin America was not present, to my knowledge, and Brazil was not mentioned, but I think that the debate concentrated really on problem issues and concerns. And today, Brazil, South America in particular, is more of a region of the world that offers solutions than problems. So we interpret that in this positive light."
Similarly in an opinion piece for Christian Science Monitor, Geoff Thale from WOLA said the scant discussion of Cuba could signal a more rational approach towards the island.
- The Global Post profiled the relatives of US presidential candidate Mitt Romney,whose father was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. They are reportedly part of a Mormon community often targeted by the cartels.
- A total of 15 Colombian government security force members since formal peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government began in Oslo, Norway on October 18. Last week nine soliders were killed in combat, while six police were killed Monday in the southwestern Cauca department.
- The FARC proposed a cease-fire during the talks, but President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly refused their request. A group of Colombian NGOs has called on the government to stop fighting for the month between December 15 and January 15. A recent Gallup poll showed 72% of Colombians support the peace process, but only 39% believe they would be successful. Another recent poll indicates President Santos' approval rating has gone up seven points to 58% since the announcement of the peace talks.
- In an interview with W Radio, President Obama said his hope was that a "peaceful Colombia would be created and that the FARC lay down their arms and recognize that although they disagree with the government they should participate in the political process instead of using violence."
- Last Thursday, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, criticizing a proposed constitutional amendment which would expand the jurisdiction of the military. According to the letter, the measure would, "result in serious human rights violations by the military—including extrajudicial executions, torture, and rape—being investigated and tried by the military justice system."
- Colombia is also in the process of producing their own unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or "drones." Although Colombia has been using US drones since 2006, this will be the first domestically-produced UAV used by the country's military.The drones will reportedly be used for military operations as well as for other functions such as monitoring oil pipelines.
- Colombian drug lord Henry de Jesus Lopez Londoño, alias "Mi Sangre," was arrested
in a Buenos Aires supermarket. Mi Sangre was a top leader of the Urabeños drug gang and was in charge of expanding and maintaining the group's presence and control throughout Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city.
- Speaking at a trade-show on defense and security, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said within two years the country would be adding 25,000 members to its armed forces,which currently have about 450,000 members, making it the second-largest military in South America following Brazil.
- The Honduras Truth Commission released a report on human rights violations before and after the 2009 coup. The blog Honduras Accompaniment Project summarizes the reports findings: "In total, the Truth Commission received “1,966 reports from citizens about human rights violations by state agents and armed civilian apparatuses protected by state institutions” between June 2009 and August 2011. Based on these reports, the Commission analyzed 5,418 human rights violations and categorized 87 forms of aggression."
- In Brazil several convictions have been handed out to officials in former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government-- including his then chief of staff Jose Dirceu-- who were found guilty of using public funds to pay monthly installments to opposition congressmen in return for their support, known as the "Mensalão" case, in which about 40 officials were implicated. The case is historic in showing a strengthening of the rule of law in the country as Brazil has a long history of impunity for political corruption.
- In another landmark legal proceeding, a federal judge in Sao Paulo agreed to charge a soldier and two officers with the kidnapping of a dissident during Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, marking the second accusation of a top military officer for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship, despite a 1979 amnesty law.
- On October 28th, Brazil held run-off municipal elections, with President Rousseff's and former President Lula's Workers’ Party (PT) winning the majority of the mayoral races, including Sao Paulo. Analysts say this puts the party in a favorable position for the 2014 presidential elections.
- In Sao Paulo 600 police were sent to the city's largest favela, Paraisópolis, as part of a larger initiative that was launched on Monday called "Operação Saturação," or "Operation Saturation,"intended to stifle drug trafficking and organized crime throughout the city. According to numbers from Sao Paulo's Secretary of Public Security,crime rates in Sao Paulo are on the rise, with the city registering 144 homicides in the month of September against the 71 that occurred in the same month last year and 145 homicides in October, an 86% increase from 2011 when 78 murders were registered in the same month that year.
According to government statistics, 40 people have been killed since last Thursday, 124 in the past 23 days, with a large part of the murders being carried out by men on motorcycles or in cars. A spokesman for the Sao Paulo police force denied the operation was launched in response to the recent wave of murders, saying they "received intelligence that there were criminals, weapons and drugs" inside the favela and that "there will be more actions like this in the coming days."
- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez replaced Defense Minister General Henry Rangel Silva, appointing Navy Admiral Diego Molero Bellavia to the post. Rangel, a close ally of Chavez, will be the candidate for Chavez' United Socialist Party (PSUV) for governor of Trujillo in state elections on December 16. The US accused Rangel in 2008 of "materially assisting" the drug trafficking operations of Colombia's Farc guerrillas.
- President Chavez said on Thursday he will be attending the upcoming Mercosur presidential summit set for December 7 in Brasilia. Venezuela became a full Mercosur member July 31 following the group's decision to suspend Paraguay, whose Senate had barred Venezuelan participation. Brazil's foreign ministry noted the benefit of Venezuela's inclusion to the regional trade bloc saying, “With the entry of Venezuela, Mercosur has now a population of 270 million inhabitants (70% of South America population), GDP at current prices of 3.3 trillion dollars (79.6% of South American GDP) and a territory of 12.7 million km2 (72% of South American area), extending from Patagonia to the Caribbean and asserting itself as a global energy power.”
Monday, January 30, 2012
(If you follow this blog regularly, you may recall a period in November when it was nearly dormant, as "Just the Facts" program staff paid a research visit to a region of Colombia that has been a significant destination of recent U.S. assistance. Here is a report of what we learned on that trip.)
For nearly 5 years, with U.S. support, Colombia’s Montes de María has been a priority region for the government’s National Territorial Consolidation Plan (PNCT, or “Consolidation”). The PNCT, as we have explained elsewhere, is the successor program to “Plan Colombia.” It is a combined military and civilian “state-building” strategy operating in a few zones that have seen little prior government presence. Montes de María is a historically conflictive region of 15 municipalities (counties) located inland from the Caribbean Sea, about 2 hours’ drive south of Cartagena.
In November 2011, researchers from two Washington-based organizations (Washington Office on Latin America [WOLA] and Center for International Policy [CIP]) and two Bogotá-based organizations (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz [INDEPAZ] and Asociación MINGA) visited several municipalities of the Montes de María region, including all four in which the Consolidation program is operating. These are San Onofre and Ovejas in the department of Sucre, and El Carmen de Bolívar and San Jacinto in the department of Bolívar. (WOLA staff also visited the region in August 2011, accompanying U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern [D-Massachusetts].)
We found a zone where, following several years of relative peace, tensions are rising. The national government is gearing up to launch an ambitious land-restitution program. Consolidation, meanwhile, gives a big role to the military while assisting small farmers, including returning displaced populations, and improving local government. This is happening amid a backdrop of rapid concentration of land in fewer hands, a notable increase in violence against small-farmer leaders, doubts about local leadership, and the presence of “new” paramilitary groups.
The land restitution program, an initiative coming from Bogotá, and the “Consolidation” program, designed in Bogotá and Washington, confront an environment that is complex at best and outright hostile at worst. To succeed, both will require extensive political will, resources, attention from top leaders, and a well-defined plan. These elements are not yet in place, we conclude from our interviews of military and civilian officials, local government leaders, development practitioners, civil-society leaders, analysts and others.
Montes de María
In a country that never implemented a true land reform, the Montes de María region is notable for being home to some of Colombia’s most cohesive and active small-farmer (campesino) activism. It is also notable for the ferocity of the landowner-supported paramilitary backlash against this activism in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A remarkable 2010 report from Colombia’s Historical Memory Group, detailing this fertile area’s struggle for land, puts it well.
This zone combines two essential conditions. First, it was the epicenter of the most important campesino movement of the 20th century’s second half, not just in Colombia but perhaps in Latin America: the National Association of Campesinos (ANUC), a contemporary of the also notable Campesino Federation in Peru. And the second reason was that in that zone — not coincidentally — was incubated a political-military program of regional state capture and configuration of a submissive society, which included the dismantling of campesino organizations and the reversal of the grants of small landholdings carried out since the 1960s.
The paramilitary terror campaign in Montes de María, which reached its height in 2000-2002 and encountered no military opposition, included dozens of massacres so brutal that the names of the towns where they occurred (El Salado, Chengue, Macayepo, Mampuján) are infamous throughout Colombia. In the four municipalities where the PNCT is focused, according to a confidential report from a PNCT-funded consultant, violence since 1995 forcibly displaced more than 110,000 people, or over half the population.
Over the course of the 2000s, Montes de María grew steadily more peaceful. The paramilitaries who came to dominate the zone underwent a negotiated demobilization process with the government, and (perhaps more importantly) began to encounter significant opposition from Colombia’s Marines — the principal military force in the zone — during the second half of the decade. The FARC guerrillas, for their part, were dispersed from the area following a 2007 bombing raid that killed their longtime commander. At present, Colombia’s security forces — the Marines, supported by other armed services within the Joint Caribbean Command, police in the towns, and three 150-man police carabinero units in the countryside — face little violent opposition in Montes de María.
Still, illegal activity remains common. Coca (the plant used to make cocaine) is not cultivated, but large quantities of cocaine continue to pass through on their way to the Caribbean. “New” paramilitary groups, especially the Rastrojos and Urabeños, are present especially in the northern and western part of the region.
Montes de María, meanwhile, gained notoriety throughout Colombia for the linkages between its political machines and the AUC paramilitary group. Colombia’s “para-politics” scandal hit the local political class very hard, sending governors and senators to jail. Their patronage and influence networks remain intact, however, as the same political groups remain in control in most municipalities following October 2011 mayoral and gubernatorial elections. The newly elected governor of Sucre department, reported Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper El Tiempo, comes from a “caste that has governed for years in spite of ‘paramilitarism.’”
Though they won a majority of votes, local politicians were the targets of most of the anger we heard from citizens in the region. Corruption remains at epic levels. The largest municipality in the region, El Carmen de Bolívar, went through about three dozen acting mayors in 2009. Residents of San Onofre said that it costs about US$2 million to run a successful campaign, using funds of unclear provenance, to win the impoverished municipality’s mayorship.
With lower violence, and some displaced people seeking to return, Montes de María is hosting some flagship government projects supported by the international community. These include the land restitution program initiated by a law passed in June 2011; a European Union-backed “Peace Laboratory” of social and economic development programs; a proposal to declare much of the region a “Campesino Reservation Zone” in which sales of small landholdings would be restricted; and, of course, the National Territorial Consolidation Plan.
The Consolidation Program in Montes de María
The Colombian government launched the PNCT in Montes de María in mid-2007, making it the second zone (after the La Macarena region of south central Colombia) to receive significant investment coordinated by a national Center for Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI). At first, the program was headed by an active-duty military officer, a Marine general who was known in the region for breaking with precedent and confronting the paramilitaries.
The Montes de María effort counted with advice and support from U.S. Southern Command, and starting in early 2008, with resources from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), a unit designed to carry out smaller “quick-impact” development projects in a more agile, shorter-term and less bureaucratic manner. Southcom and OTI supported the creation of a “Fusion Center,” later renamed a “Coordination Center”: an office in Cartagena at which military, police and civilian development representatives would work together in the same space to coordinate the PNCT’s management. The Coordination Center, managed by the Colombian Presidency’s “Social Action” office, opened its doors in early 2009. (For a thorough look at the Montes de María Consolidation program as of mid-2009, see CIP’s “After Plan Colombia” report published that year.)
The OTI program (whose missions are designed to be short-term) ended in mid-2010, with USAID’s role shifting to management of a five-year, $32 million project to support the Consolidation effort in Montes de María. The contract for this project was awarded to CHF International, a Washington, DC-area corporation. CHF worked with the Coordination Center on a set of assistance and capacity-building programs for the four municipalities chosen for “Consolidation.”
The CHF-supported programs, which bear the highly visible name “Colombia Responde,” started work during the second half of 2010. Colombia Responde seeks “to work collectively with multiple actors and in coordination with local and regional governments to establish a sustainable state of peace and security” in Montes de María.
In 2009 the Consolidation program’s main goal in Montes de María was to help a small number of returning communities of displaced people recover land and improve their economic conditions. While that is still a component, the Colombia Responde mission is broader. The program now has two objectives: to strengthen local government and civil society capacities, and to increase economic opportunities.
Colombia Responde staff, along with consultants working as public policy advisors, put a heavy emphasis on capacity-building, offering frequent training and workshops on subjects like management, planning, participation and transparency. Under a project called Participatory Action for Community Engagement, the program works with communities on short-term plans for development, and community leaders are trained to develop realistic plans and budgets. Twenty such community plans had been presented to mayors’ offices, where co-financing is expected, as of late 2011. Further training aims to equip local governments and community leaders to guarantee transparency over how money is spent.
Colombia Responde’s income-generation activities have included some “quick-impact” infrastructure projects, especially improvements to sections of tertiary roads linking farmers to markets. However, the bulk of primary road-building has been carried out by the Colombian Marines. Instead, the Colombia Responde program sponsors “productive projects” — agricultural development programs — with recipient communities, most of whom include formerly displaced people who have returned. Participants in productive projects, we were told, are consulted about what they wish to produce, and receive technical support, food security assistance and credit. If the crop in question takes a few years before the first harvest (like cacao, a frequent choice of communities), growers receive a subsidy equivalent to minimum wage from a fund that will be replenished from the eventual profits of their production.
Colombia Responde manages a project for formerly displaced farmers called “Return to My Land,” which accompanies their return to their communities of origin by providing for basic needs. As part of that project, some farmers are to receive assistance in obtaining clear title to their landholdings. This land formalization process — which is parallel to the land-restitution program just getting underway throughout the country — is excruciatingly slow and complicated. In Ovejas municipality, for example, Colombia Responde expects to title over 300 landholdings, but as of November 2011 had only managed 25.
For its part, the Colombian military and police forces’ participation in the Consolidation program, with a modest but unknown level of U.S. support, has been large and at least as visible as Colombia Responde. The Marines and police have focused on providing security, building roads and other infrastructure, and meeting regularly with communities.
Evaluations of the PNCT in Montes de María
At a Bogotá gathering of campesino leaders to discuss the Campesino Reserve Zones proposal, we had an opportunity to talk separately with representatives of communities from San Onofre, El Carmen and Ovejas participating in Colombia Responde programs. Even without Consolidation officials present, the group was effusive in its praise of the program. In particular, they noted the rapidity with which assistance arrived, the way the process was taking their input into account, the armed forces’ improved relations with the population, and the fact that this was the first time Colombian government institutions had treated them with respect.
On the minus side, they admitted that land titles had been slow to arrive and that trust in the local governments (mayors’ offices) remained low. They also felt estranged from nearby communities that were not receiving assistance from the program.
Most concerns and critiques about the program came either from communities not participating in the program (including some from outside the PNCT’s four municipalities in Montes de María) and from campesino activists, analysts and development workers not affiliated with the program. The principal critiques we heard were the following.
The program’s limited geographic scope, which excludes much of the Montes de María region: “How can you only work in four out of 15 municipalities?” the head of another development program asked. “It’s like a mother of 15 favoring four of her children.”
Planning, either not enough of it or too much: During the PNCT’s initial phases in Montes de María (2007-2010), an official with program responsibilities told us, the Cartagena-based Coordination Center came under some criticism for a lack of a detailed workplan. The office’s small staff (a military representative, a police representative, and two representatives of the Colombian Presidency’s Social Action office) had a set of programmatic objectives and the outlines of actions to take. But its project plan did not go much further. “They had a proposal. But a proposal is not a workplan,” this official said. CHF — which reports directly to USAID, not the Colombian government — endeavored to make more thorough and professional planning a priority once it began work in 2010.
On the other hand, we heard sentiment from some communities that planning was getting so much emphasis that it appeared to be a substitute for action. “We see a lot of workshops and meetings, but not enough results,” said a community leader from Ovejas participating in a training workshop. While this may simply be impatience with non-immediate payoffs, these sentiments are a concern because a perception of inactivity could hurt the program’s credibility among the population.
- The military’s outsized role: Military and police representatives of the Coordination Center assured us that, in the field, the PNCT presence is “fundamentally civilian.” As elsewhere in Colombia, however, the PNCT involves military personnel playing roles that have little or nothing to do with combat or protecting the population, and that could, under adequate security conditions, be played by civilians. These include building infrastructure, especially what will be the only paved east-west road crossing Montes de María. Some interviewees criticized the quality and slowness of this road’s construction — it was being built when we visited in 2009, and is not finished yet — alleging that the Transportation Ministry could have done a better job than the Defense Ministry. Others, however, acknowledged that damage elsewhere from severe flooding since 2010 caused both civilian and military road builders to be called to fix highways elsewhere.
Other unusual military roles we heard about were soldiers providing health services, training schoolchildren in avoiding domestic abuse, and forming Campesino Leaders’ Associations to work with the PNCT. In a related concern — a charge we have been unable to corroborate — leaders from Ovejas told us that active-duty military officers have been buying up land from campesinos in their municipality.
- An alleged unwillingness to work with existing organizations and processes: “We didn’t come here to divide people,” the Coordination Center’s staff told us. But elsewhere, we heard repeated concerns about the arrival of a large, well-funded program in a zone that — unlike the remote agricultural frontier of the La Macarena region — already has a number of social organizations and development programs. “Colombia Responde has an ‘Adam complex,’” a campesino leader in El Carmen said, accusing the program of acting as though nothing had come before it. A leader from Ovejas complained that the program is “creating unnecessary alternative networks.” Others charged that Colombia Responde was not hiring existing businesses and organizations to carry out projects, that contracts were instead being given to outside groups, or to newly formed groups.
Some whom we interviewed clearly see the PNCT as competition, while others, somewhat conspiratorially, see a conscious divide-and-conquer strategy. “For the viejos of the ANUC, it really pains them to see how the group is being divided,” an activist in El Carmen told us. An official from an existing development program that follows a slower, more process-oriented methodology worried that the PNCT’s quick-impact projects were changing the local culture: “people want to see the money first before they work with you.”
A lack of focus on the justice system: The Consolidation program intends to strengthen the presence of civilian government institutions in zones that have historically seen very little such presence. In Montes de María, where the security situation does not prevent civilian government agencies from operating, that civilian presence has increased at least slightly. The justice system, however, lags badly behind. Residents of El Carmen de Bolívar told us that their town, the largest in the region, has only three judges. San Onofre has only one judge and one prosecutor. This is simply not enough to adjudicate cases of violent crime, corruption, human rights, land fraud, and other issues of central importance to the success of “Consolidation.”
Concern about local political leaders’ ethics and interests. The PNCT places a strong emphasis on working with local governments, which channel significant resources from the central government, command police, and share responsibilities for managing issues like land tenure and assistance to displaced people. Some mayors and governors of Montes de María ran into serious trouble in the “parapolitics” scandal. While current officials do not face accusations of the same gravity, we repeatedly heard strong opinions about disorganization, influence-peddling (“politiquería”), clientelism, and corruption among departmental and municipal officials who are meant to be the PNCT’s principal partners. We also heard concerns that elected officials, even when not accused of corruption, are likely to protect the interests of their largest campaign contributors: the large landholders and agribusinesspeople who have been accelerating their acquisitions of farmland in Montes de María region in the past few years.
A troubled context: land tenure and victims
It is this issue — the land, who controls it, who is buying it, who is selling it, and who is being forced off of it — that hangs over Montes de María like a storm cloud. Land tenure is the central concern in this unusually fertile and strategically located region. The Consolidation and land-restitution programs, under the leadership of apparently well-intentioned officials, are seeking to address this concern. But they are coming online within a complicated context of competing agendas and growing tensions over land ownership.
By 2007, the FARC’s eviction from the area and the military’s policy of confronting paramilitary violence brought a period of calm — and with it, a very sharp rise in agricultural property values. Wealthy investors and shadowy corporations — their partners’ identities a closely held secret — have since been scouring Montes de María for land to buy, and increasing the region’s already unequal landholding.
Colombian journalist Alfredo Molano names some of the mysterious companies, whose names we also heard during our visits: “Tierras de Promisión, Arepas Don Pancho [or “Don Juancho”], Agropecuaria El Carmen, and Agropecuaria El Génesis.” Some encourage land sales while cloaked in the guise of development aid associations. Names frequently cited include the “Federation of Leaders of Montes de María” and the “Friends of Montes de María Corporation.” The latter group identifies itself, down to its logo, in a way that makes it closely and confusingly resemble the Montes de María Peace and Development Foundation, the non-profit organization that manages the European Union’s “Peace Laboratory” projects.
They have many potential buyers among the region’s remaining smallholding campesinos, many of whom received their parcels from the government after the land movement activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Some are selling to the newcomers because the offers appear generous. Some are selling because, years after being displaced to cities like Cartagena and Sincelejo, they no longer wish to live in the countryside.
Many more, however, are selling because they see no other choice. Of these, some owe unsustainably large amounts on the government loans they used to purchase their properties — loans they could not pay after being violently displaced a decade ago. Others are selling because the recently arrived land purchasers are buying up all of their neighbors’ parcels, leaving them surrounded by private holdings, at times even cut off from access to roads and water. Many of those forcibly displaced have seen their land titles stolen out from under them by criminals colluding with corrupt land-registry officials. And still others, discussed below, are selling in the face of threats and intimidation. Data gathered by the Colombian NGO ILSA (Latin American Institute for Alternative Society and Law) have shown a strong correlation between areas of massive land purchases and areas of greatest displacement in Montes de María.
The buyers are not all shady speculators. Some of Colombia’s largest companies — Argos, Monterrey, Colanta — have launched agribusiness projects in Montes de María within the past few years. Crops that have been massively planted include teak trees, sugar cane (mainly for biofuels) and African oil palm (for food and biofuels). These vast areas of monoculture are profitable, but employ few people: palm oil, for instance, requires about one employee per hectare.
One of the pioneers of African oil palm monoculture in Colombia is Carlos Murgas, a former agriculture minister. Murgas has invested heavily in oil-palm cultivation around the site of a processing plant in María La Baja municipality, which borders two of the municipalities chosen for the Consolidation program. (We requested a meeting with directors of the processing plant, but were turned down.) Local leaders told us that unlike other investors in big monoculture projects, Murgas is not massively buying up property: his company is instead encouraging — some said pressuring — nearby communities to grow palm for the oil-processing plant. “Murgas is a great expert in agricultural economy,” writes Alfredo Molano, “which allowed him to see clearly that the true business is not in owning land, but in controlling its use.” Or as one development expert more succinctly put it, “Why have more property if you’re Murgas?”
The region’s remaining smallholding campesinos are organizing to respond to the concentration of land. In 2010, the government of Juan Manuel Santos surprised many by agreeing in principle to a longstanding request of the region’s campesino groups: the establishment of a “Campesino Reservation Zone” in which sizes of parcels and sales of land would be limited. The idea of creating such a zone — a figure established by a 1994 law — had gone nowhere during the 2002-2010 government of Álvaro Uribe, who favored an unfettered free market in the countryside and publicly associated the Reservation Zones with the guerrillas’ agenda. The process of creating such a zone is advancing, with one nearing approval and demarcation in Montes de María.
Campesino groups want a larger zone than what the government has proposed. On the other side, some in the government — including officials with responsibility for the Consolidation program — are concerned that the Reservation Zone will go too far in restricting the market for land, depressing values and thus making it impossible to obtain credit. Supporters of the Reservation Zone proposal, in turn, voiced suspicions that the Consolidation program “goes in the other direction,” as communities that benefit from the PNCT may be less willing to participate in the Zone. Needless to say, the investors who are busily buying up land in the region are staunchly opposed to the creation of a Campesino Reservation Zone, and by some accounts are scrambling to accumulate as much territory as possible before the Zone is officially declared.
Tensions and Threats
With this array of forces, and the big land-restitution program on the way, tensions and threats increased in Montes de María in 2011. We were alarmed by the frequency of violent acts against campesinos in the region. We are concerned that these may be the first signs of a violent landowner backlash.
When discussing threats against them, communities generally did not refer to the “new” paramilitary groups active throughout much of northern Colombia, especially the department of Córdoba immediately to the west. While groups like the “Rastrojos” and “Urabeños” are present in the area, they said, they have mainly confined their activities to narcotrafficking. “They make their shipment and then leave,” a San Onofre resident told us.
Instead, local leaders referred most often to armed men — “hombres armados” — as those responsible for acts of violence and intimidation. Some intimated that they may be linked to large landowners and land purchasers.
At least four leaders of groups that have received land, or are petitioning for land, were killed in the Montes de María region between May 2010 and June 2011. Most were killed in San Onofre, the municipality where paramilitary leader “Cadena” located his headquarters at the height of the 2000-2002 violence.
- On May 18, 2010, Rogelio Martínez was killed near the La Alemania farm in San Onofre. La Alemania is a well-known case: a 550-hectare farm that the government granted to 52 organized families in 1997, only to have it stolen by AUC paramilitaries.
- Óscar Mausa, a displaced leader trying to recover his original lands in Antioquia department, was killed on November 24th, 2010 in San Juan Nepomuceno.
- Éder Verbel was killed on March 23, 2011 in San Onofre. (For its activism on behalf of victims, the Verbel family was featured in a 2005 New York Times article about San Onofre.)
- Antonio Mendoza, a displaced-community leader and town councilman from the left-of-center Polo Democrático party, was killed on June 20, 2011 in San Onofre.
San Onofre victims’ movement leaders said that the second half of 2011 was a bit calmer, though threats continue to arrive frequently. In Ovejas, meanwhile, tensions continue around the efforts of 113 families to recover La Europa, a farm granted to them in 1969 from which they were displaced by paramilitaries. Upon returning to the area, the families discovered that much of their farmland had been purchased by a shadowy company called “Arepas Don Juancho.” Campesino houses on the La Europa farm were torn down, or burned down, by “unknown men” on at least two occasions in 2011. In San Jacinto, residents’ commemoration of the 1999 Las Palmas massacre hosted an uninvited guest: men taking pictures from an SUV parked nearby. When they investigated the vehicle’s license plate, they found that it belonged to “señores de la compra de tierras” (men involved in land purchases).
Some of the most troubling recent incidents are occurring in María La Baja, the municipality with the region’s most extensive oil-palm cultivation. We heard recent accounts of groups of armed men entering hamlets in areas where land values are high, especially because of access to irrigation. With lists in hand, they threaten and interrogate community members, demanding information about their economic activity and resources they receive from the municipal government.
Most alarming of all, María La Baja leaders said they had counted 11 cases of rape by armed groups in September and October. The sexual violence appears to follow a pattern in which the armed men invade a house, threaten the male owner, and attack the owner’s wife, not his daughters or any other women present. The armed men then leave, and in most cases the family abandons the land.
Fear is increasing, especially in areas where land purchases are greatest. These threats are a huge limit on campesino organizations’ work. Memories of the bloodshed of 10 years ago are still very fresh, and it does not take much to dissuade people from organizing and pressing for land claims. “You have to be careful,” Ovejas community leaders told us. “You can’t use words like ‘social mobilization’ or talk about human rights.”
A reorganization at the top
It is within this context that the U.S.-backed Consolidation program, and the Colombia Responde program, must operate. On one side are small farmers claiming their land, fearing dispossession, and promoting measures like Campesino Reservation Zones. On the other are large landholders and their backers in the local political system.
The PNCT is in an uncomfortable position: its mandate requires it to work with the small farmers on land titling (and land restitution) and productive projects. But its mandate also requires it to work with local governments, increasing the capacities of institutions that have shown little interest in protecting small farmers and that have even collaborated with the dispossessors.
In order to confront local resistance and protect their beneficiaries, the PNCT and Colombia Responde — as well as the agencies that will carry out land restitution — will need clear, strong, visible backing from the central government in Bogotá. But the messages from the capital are mixed.
For most of 2011, the Santos administration appeared to have placed the PNCT on the back burner. The program was undergoing a “rethinking” and reorganization process, with 15 thematic working groups involving 60 government agencies. Results of this review were to be announced with a formal launch expected last June, then postponed until after the October local elections. But no formal announcement of a new strategy has come.
Instead, the Colombian Presidency has reorganized its well-resourced social development agency, previously known as “Social Action,” in a way that appears to place the Consolidation program on a more prominent, autonomous and perhaps less military-heavy footing.
In November, “Social Action” was replaced by an even larger agency in the Colombian presidency, known as “Social Prosperity.” This agency has four programs, of which one — Territorial Recovery and Development — includes the Consolidation program. The head of this program, Álvaro Balcázar, previously ran the Consolidation effort in the La Macarena region. Balcázar told us that the Colombian government is committing US$1.5 billion to the PNCT nationwide between 2011 and 2014.
Now that Bogotá has finished rearranging things, the central government will have to do more to make its presence felt in Montes de María. Helping the campesinos of Montes de María win the right to remain on their land and enjoy greater economic prosperity may prove to be difficult, especially as the restitution program gets underway. If this is truly the mission of the Coordination Center and the Colombia Responde program, then these entities will need more resources and more direct political backing from “Social Prosperity.” Their recipient communities will also need more protection from the national security forces.
Based on our observations of Montes de María, we recommend that the Consolidation program adopt the following adjustments on an urgent basis.
Do more to protect campesino communities in the four municipalities, whether or not they are direct recipients of PNCT assistance. This means improving response times and the quality of investigations after threats are issued. In rural zones, it also means having procedures in place to determine whether the response should fall to the armed forces or to the police, which (other than specialized units) normally do not operate outside of town centers. The absence of guerrillas alone does not mean that Montes de María is now a zone of social peace. The security forces must work to eliminate the presence of “new” paramilitaries and other criminal groups. The justice system must do more to confront the tackle elements of the state on which these criminal groups, and the region’s illegal land purchasers, depend.
In order to do so, the justice system must be present in Montes de María in the first place. Numbers of judges, prosecutors and investigators must increase, and their offices will need modern equipment, particularly databases and technology necessary to adjudicate land claims. Cases of murdered land-rights leaders need to result in rapid, visible verdicts against those responsible. Curtailing impunity is the best way to prevent future murders.
Actions must assure campesinos that “Consolidation” will not dispossess them. We repeatedly heard fear that a greater presence of the state will mean pressures to get small farmers off of their land. In the minds of many, the state is equivalent to large landholders, including those currently making massive purchases. The PNCT needs to break with that, demonstrating through actions that the program intends to help farmers remain on their land — and to do so without pushing them into a monoculture economy. Titling of land is the action that offers the clearest assurance that “despojo” is not forthcoming. The security forces must ensure that protecting campesino lands and communities is a priority, which would be a historic change. And leaders in Bogotá need to be present in the zone frequently, both to accompany campesinos receiving land, and to stare down opposition from those accumulating and concentrating land.
Work with local officials will remain challenging, given ongoing complaints about clientelism, corruption, and favoring of large landholders. This is crucial because in the population’s eyes, local officials’ behavior can either uphold or destroy the credibility of the entire Colombia state. The main recommendation here is that the Consolidation program continue to do what its officials say it is doing: building management capacities and focusing resources especially on local-government officials who, in the program’s judgment, appear to be most capable and honest. If PNCT officials encounter evidence of local authorities’ corruption, then they must ensure that the justice system investigates and punishes that corruption. Another area worth exploring is the encouragement and protection of whistleblowers within local government.
A frequent request we heard from communities is that the PNCT place more emphasis on building roads, which are necessary to the economic success of the “productive projects” the PNCT is supporting. We second this recommendation, despite the reality that roads are very expensive, and that the damage from flooding since 2010 has been significant.
We also heard requests that PNCT development planning work with campesino and displaced organizations that already exist, rather than create new structures. While we were unable to determine the extent to which the PNCT is actually doing this, we relay this recommendation because we heard it several times.
Finally, as elsewhere, the Consolidation program needs to ensure that its military component relinquishes non-security duties to civilians as quickly as possible. A greatly increased military role in civilian life, with soldiers as road-builders and community organizers, must not be a permanent legacy of the Consolidation program in Montes de María.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Colombia was upgraded last week to investment grade by rating agency Standard and Poor’s. Following the upgrade, the Colombian peso rose to its highest point in two weeks and stocks rose to their highest in two years, Bloomberg reported. Standard and Poor’s upgraded the country due to “a ‘favorable’ growth outlook and ‘resilient’ economy.” Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings still rates Colombia one level below investment grade, although the rating agency gives the country a “positive outlook”. Despite this positive news, violence has continued throughout the country. Below is a rundown of some of the most recent news stories.
Huila, Norte de Santander
- EL TARRA, NEIVA: Three rebels were killed by the military on the border of Tolima and Huila over the weekend. Their bodies have been transferred to Neiva, the capital of the Huila department, for identification. Authorities believe one of the guerrillas may be Arquímedes Muñoz, alias “Jerónimo,” one of the men closest to FARC leader Alfonso Cano. Two other rebels and one soldier were also killed during a confrontation in a rural area of El Tarra, in Norte de Santander over the weekend, according to the article.
- CUMBITARA: Early last Wednesday, two soldiers were killed and five were injured in Cumbitara, a rural area of Nariño department. The attack has been attributed to 29th Front of the FARC. There is no mention of how the soldiers were attacked, though it is reported that this was the second attack in less than 48 hours in Nariño. On Tuesday, the ELN attacked the police and military barracks in Balalaika, in the municipality of Santacruz-Guachavéz.
- PUERTO ASIS: Last weekend, the FARC attacked a military base in Puerto Asis, a town in the Putumayo department. The rebels reportedly attacked using two shells fired from a homemade mortar, although initial reports stated that 11 rounds were fired into the base. No casualties were reported.
- SAN MIGUEL: “Oliver Solarte” a top member of the FARC, was killed Tuesday by the Colombian military in San Miguel, a town in the Putumayo department, near the border with Ecuador. According to President Juan Manuel Santos, the guerrilla “managed all the drug trafficking and arms trafficking for the southern bloc of the FARC.” He was also the rebel group’s contact with Mexican drug cartels. Santos called the operation a “very important strike” in the government’s continuing struggle against the FARC. Solarte had been wanted for extradition by the United States and Colombia had been seeking him for “terrorism, kidnapping, rebellion, and murder.” according to CNN.
- PEREIRA: The Águilas Negras have threatened Maria Eugenia Londoño, Vicente Villada, Juan Carlos Valencia, Diego Osorio, Guillermo Castaño, Jairo Quintero, Gustavo Marin , Hernando Aguirre, Carlos Valencia and Gerardo Santibañez of the Risaralda chapter of Sindicato de Trabajadores y Empleados de Servicios Públicos Autónomos y Descentralizados de Colombia (Simtraemsdes), according to Santibañez, one of the directors of the workers' union being targeted. Santibañez tells El Tiempo that the threats are “recurring” and that the group is “sadly” accustomed to the threats. The article reports that the group is being targeted as a “military objective” for the Águilas Negras.
Valle del Cauca
- BUENAVENTURA: UNHCR reported Thursday that confrontations between armed groups over illegal mining in the Anchicayá River has forced more than 800 Afro-Colombians to leave their homes along the river for the port city of Buenaventura since the beginning of the month. UNHCR says it “plans to visit the area with government officials and NGO representatives in the next few days to gather first-hand information about the population movement.”
This post was written by CIP Intern Erin Shea