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Friday, January 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Militarization of law enforcement

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

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

  • Elections

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

    New leadership in 2013:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • El Salvador gang truce

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

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

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

  • Colombia peace process

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

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

  • Wednesday, November 13, 2013

    Citizen insecurity in Latin America has grown: UN report

    On Tuesday, the United Nation Development Program released a report that found Latin America continues to be the most unequal and the most insecure region in the world. As the UN noted, “ ‘Citizen Security with a Human Face: evidence and proposals for Latin America,’ revealed a paradox: in the past decade, the region experienced both economic growth and increased crime rates.”

    The report, assessed citizen insecurity in 18 countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Venezuela. It examined a myriad of ongoing problems in the region such as high levels of violence, weak judicial and penal systems, and high rates of economic inequality.

    Some of the statistics revealed:

  • Homicides have reached “epidemic levels” with over 100,000 murders recorded each year. From 2000-2010 the number of homicides rose above one million and grew 11%.
  • In Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Paraguay, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador more respondents said the police were involved in crime than those who believed they protected the population.
  • In the majority of the countries surveyed, common criminals were perceived to be the biggest threat to public security. Only in Mexico and Brazil were organized crime and narcotraffickers perceived to be the biggest threat, while in El Salvador and Honduras gangs were chosen as posing the greatest danger.
  • Latin America has about 50% more private security guards (3,811,302) than police officers (2,616,753) and Latin American private security guards have rates of gun possession per employee ten times larger than Europe. Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and Brazil had disproportionately high numbers of private security guards.
  • The perception of insecurity has also risen. Interestingly enough, the perception of insecurity is higher in Chile, which has the lowest murder rate in the region (2 per 100,000), than in Honduras, which has the highest homicide rate (86.5 per 100,000).
  • In the past 25 years robberies have tripled. In 2012, one in three Latin Americans was a victim of a violent crime. This high level of crime had affected people's daily lives: between 45% and 65% of respondents said they no longer leave their houses at night, while 13% said they had felt the need to move to avoid crime.
  • The findings in the report underscore the importance of calls that have been growing throughout the region for a change in security strategies and for alternative approaches in the fight against the drug cartels. The report put forth several recommendations that have been voiced by analysts, officials and advocates: public institutions must be strengthened; efforts must be coordinated between governments and civil society, as well as between countries; opportunities for human development and growth ought to be increased, while “crime triggers” like alcohol, drugs, arms and weapons should be regulated and reduced through a public health perspective. More from Terra, Animal Politico and the Miami Herald. The report can be downloaded in Spanish here (pdf).

    Friday, August 23, 2013

    The Week in Review

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

    United States policy

    St. Lucia

  • The United States suspended all police assistance to St. Lucia over 12 unlawful killings by police in 2010 and 2011, the country's prime minister, Kenny Anthony, announced Wednesday. Anthony said he planned to introduce legislation to investigate extrajudicial police killings.
  • Mexico

  • The United States is reportedly considering creating a three-tier security system with Mexico, along the country’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize, the Washington Free Beacon reported. The plan called for U.S. funding and technical support for sensors and intelligence gathering. The funding would come in part through the Mérida Initiative. Both the Obama and Peña Nieto administrations have been secretive about the proposal.
  • Brazil

  • Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota told a Congressional committee on Thursday that the recently revealed NSA surveillance practices of the United States could create a “cloud of mistrust between countries.” This comes following remarks of a similar tone that Minister Patriota made during Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to the country.
  • Honduras

  • Honduras announced plans to establish two new police forces this week:

    The first a military police force of 5,000 members, was approved Thursday by the Honduran Congress. The military says the force will trained, vetted and ready to patrol by October, just one month before presidential elections. Congressman and presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez was the architect of the bill had told Congress, “We need to make use of the military, and they should be in the streets until the day we establish peace.”

    As Honduras Culture and Politics blog noted, Liberal party congressman Jose Simon Azcona said the idea for the militarized force came from the U.S. Embassy and that “the government of the United States had offered assistance and were converting four battalions into military police under the previous administration.” The blog also provides a good historical overview of militarized police in the country. More from El Heraldo, Reuters and this week's Just the Facts podcast.

    The other was a community police force of 4500 new civilian police scheduled to begin in September. Secretary of Defense and Security Arturo Corrales (in charge of both the military and police) created the initiative, which was pushed forward by decree instead of law. More from InSight Crime and El Nuevo Diario. Honduras Politics and Culture blog looks at the economics behind the decision.

  • Colombia

    FARC accept responsibility for victims

  • For the first time in history, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has acknowledged that its forces share blame for atrocities committed during the country's armed conflict. At a press conference on Tuesday in Havana, FARC spokesman Pablo Catatumbo read aloud a statement that admitted, “without a doubt, there has also been cruelty and pain provoked by our forces.” More from the Pan-American Post, El Tiempo, Reuters and La Silla Vacía.
  • Labor Protests

  • Massive labor demonstrations involving over 30,000 workers broke out across Colombia starting Monday. The demonstrators include workers from various sectors that are making an assortment of demands from cheaper gas and fertilizer to greater government subsidies and investment in rural areas. President Santos has said he will not negotiate until the widespread road blockades are lifted. So far police have arrested at least 61 protestors.

    Colombia Reports provided a clear rundown of who is striking and why, while the Economist noted that the protests have garnered support from two extreme sides of the political spectrum: far-right politicians loyal to former President Alvaro Uribe and the leftist FARC rebels.

  • Referendum on peace agreement

  • President Santos announced plans to submit a bill to Congress that would allow for a popular vote on the terms of an eventual peace agreement with the FARC. The referendum would be tied to the upcoming legislative elections in March or presidential elections in May. The bill is likely to pass, as the National Unity coalition, of which President Santo’s party is a member, supported the bill.

    The FARC have previously come out against the measure and on Friday paused the peace talks in order analyze the government’s proposal. More from Reuters, Colombia Reports, El Espectador, and Semana.

  • Mexico

  • Over the weekend the Mexican armed forces reported the capture of Mario Ramirez Trevino, alias "X20," head of the Gulf Cartel. This is the second major drug capo the security forces have caught in just over a month. While the Associated Press,New York Times and other analysts claimed the arrest amount to a continuation of the former President Felipe Calderón’s much-criticized U.S.-backed “kingpin strategy,” InSight Crime's Steven Dudley arugued the high-profile arrests of the country’s most violence actors are aligned with President Peña Nieto’s security strategy to prioritize violence reduction.

    As El Comercio noted, it is likely that the northeastern region where both leaders were captured and the principal corridor for trafficking drugs into the United States, will see an increase in violence as members within gangs vie for power and rival organizations fight for territorial control. The United States has reportedly named three new possible leaders for the Gulf Cartel.

  • Venezuela

  • The Venezuelan government announced plans to install about 30,000 surveillance cameras across the country in an effort to target the high levels of crime and violence, the AFP reported.
  • Venezuelan human rights group Provea released a report this week on abuses by the country’s armed forces. The assessment painted a bleak picture. More from Provea and El Universal in English.
  • Paraguay

  • Paraguay’s Congress approved President Horacio Cartes’ request to unilaterally send the military to carry out police duties and internal security operations in cases of terrorism threats. President Cartes, who was sworn in just last week, made the request to target the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), a small leftist guerrilla group that allegedly killed five private security guards at a cattle ranch over the weekend. More from InSight Crime, Associated Press, Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color and this week's Just the Facts podcast.
  • The Pan American Post highlighted remarks from the top drug official in new President Horacio Cartes’ government. In an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, Paraguay’s new drug czar, Luis Rojas, said he does not think legislation to regulate marijuana will have much of an effect on the illicit trade of the drug between the two countries. As the post notes, Paraguay is the biggest producer of cannabis in South America and produces as much as 80 percent of the marijuana that reaches the Uruguayan market.
  • Brazil

  • Brazil’s congress approved a new law this week that will reserve 100 percent of the country’s oil royalties: 75 percent will be invested in education, while 25 percent will go towards healthcare. The country expects next year’s royalties to reach about $800 million. More from the AFP and O Globo.
  • Brazil’s Army blocked the country’s Truth Commission’s access to a facility used as a torture center during the country’s dictatorship from 1964- 1985. The commission is trying to raze the building and construct a historical center of memory.
  • Friday, August 23, 2013

    Podcast: The Week Ahead, August 23, 2013

    Adam looks at new laws giving militaries dramatically greater policing roles in Honduras and in Paraguay, and at Bolivia's intention to buy surface-to-air missiles and other equipment from Russia.

    Due to staff travel, there will be no "Week Ahead" podcast on August 30.

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





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    Friday, August 16, 2013

    The Week in Review

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

    U.S. policy

    Haiti travel warning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Uruguay

  • Regulación Responsable, a coalition of Uruguayan organizations and individuals that support cannabis legalization, has a video with subtitles explaining Uruguay's marijuana regulation bill.
  • Monday, January 7, 2013

    2012 in Review

    The following is a short overview of some of the more significant events of the past year that set the political landscape for the region going into 2013.

    Colombia peace talks
    One of the biggest and most hopeful happenings in 2012 was the August announcement of peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that began on November 19 in Havana, Cuba. Conversations between government and FARC negotiators began in Norway in mid-October, where they gave a joint press conference. (See here for a timeline of the talks)

    President Santos has said that if “firm advances” are not made by April-July 2013, “the process will not continue.” As Colombian political analysis website La Silla Vacia has posited, if the talks fail, the country can expect a political swing to the right, as was seen following in the 2002 failed peace talks, however if they are successful, a more leftist agenda that includes guerrilla participation in politics and increased rural development will be implemented. A December Gallup poll last month showed that while 71% of Colombians supported the peace process, only 43% believed they would end in a peace deal. The second round of talks covering land and rural development came to conclusion December 20 before the discussions broke for the holidays. Talks are set to restart January 14.

    Paraguay’s golpeachment
    Former President Fernando Lugo’s 2008 election marked the end of the Colorado Party’s long-term control of Paraguay politics. However, in June 2012, Paraguay’s Congress (the Colorado party and their allies) hastily voted to impeach Lugo and install Vice President Federico Franco, a move that was triggered by the mishandling of a still un-resolved violent land conflict between police and landless peasants that left 11 campesinos and six police dead. While the impeachment was technically legal, many countries considered Lugo’s rapid removal a coup, resulting in the country’s suspension from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) political bloc and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR). The Mercosur suspension allowed Venezuela to finally enter the bloc, comprised of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, after Paraguay’s long opposition to its inclusion.

    El Salvador’s gang truce
    In March 2012 a government-mediated truce was brokered between El Salvador’s two most violent gangs -- Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13, the first street gang operating in the U.S. to be labeled a transnational criminal organization) and Barrio 18. The deal lead to a 40% drop in the country's homicide rate, making 2012 the least violent year since 2003 for El Salvador, one of the world’s most violent and insecure countries. In 2011, the county’s National Civil Police (PNC) registered 4,371 homicides, putting it right behind Honduras, which holds the world’s highest murder rate. In 2012, the PNC registered 2,576 murders. Despite skeptics’ fears that the deal would be fleeting, nine months later the truce is still holding and the groups are now conducting talks about how to proceed. In December, the MS-13 and Barrio 18, along with other street gangs, agreed to end gang activity in designated “peace zones” throughout the country, however these zones have yet to be identified and the level of government involvement has also yet to be determined. It is still a very much evolving process, but one to watch in 2013. In November, the Congressional Research Service released a report about the country's political and economic conditions and its relations with the U.S.

    Fuero militar in Colombia
    In mid-December, the Colombian Congress passed a justice reform bill, known as ‘Fuero Militar’ (Military Jurisdiction), that would likely result in human rights violations by military members -- including extrajudicial executions, torture, and rape -- being investigated and tried by the military justice system. Human rights activists say that limiting the civilian court system’s ability to try and convict members of the armed forces will lead to further impunity and worry that the more than 1,700 cases of extrajudicial execution currently in civilian courts will be moved under military jurisdiction. Most recently the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a statement voicing its “deep concern over the serious setback in human rights” that the reform would represent.

    Mexico’s new president
    On December 1st, Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as Mexico’s new leader, marking the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), after a 12-year hiatus following its 71-year stronghold of the Mexican political system. Mexican police struggled to manage the thousands of protesters that took to the streets during the inauguration to denounce the PRI's return to power. Security forces arrested several people unjustly and contributed to the outbreak of violence, which led to Amnesty International setting up a support page for victims of police brutality. Peña Nieto’s security proposal for Mexico continues with a militarized approach, but he has vowed to fight violence and other crimes as opposed to targeting drug traffickers. The new Mexican leader has also reiterated his plans to increase economic ties with the U.S. However, it remains to be seen whether or not a PRI-presidential term with Peña Nieto will mark a significant change for Mexico.

    President Hugo Chávez’s cancer
    The biggest question mark in the region at the moment is who will be ruling Venezuela in the months to come, as there is the ever-growing possibility of a power vacuum. In October, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez publicly stated he had beaten cancer, only to announce in early December that it had returned and he would be undergoing treatment in Cuba. President Chávez, who won re-election in early October despite a strong opposition and debilitating illness, is currently in Cuba recovering from his fourth round of surgery. He was set to be inaugurated on January 10, however due to the increasing likelihood that he will be too ill to be back from Cuba in time, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced Friday that President Chávez will retain power and be sworn in after the date. President Chávez called on Venezuelans to vote for Vice President Maduro to be his successor should he step down or die before being sworn in. The constitution requires that power be handed over to Diosdado Cabello, the recently re-elected speaker of Venezuela’s National Assembly, until another election is held within 30 days. While there is growing uncertainty around the county’s future leadership, some analysts say Chávez’s Socialist Party (PSUV) would most likely be re-elected given the presidential election victory and recent wins in 20 out of 23 states in mid-December’s gubernatorial elections.

    Obama’s re-election, Immigration and the Latino vote
    In addition to changes in U.S. drug policy, many hope immigration reform will top President Obama’s agenda in his second term, given his victory was largely helped by winning just over 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. In his election speech, Obama mentioned immigration reform as a priority just behind reducing the deficit and tax reform. The hope for 2013 is for the administration to make good on this promise for the eleven million immigrants living in the U.S., and that it scales back on increasingly harsh deportation practices.

    Honduras and the DEA
    The Drug Enforcement Administration's involvement in several killings in Honduras this year highlighted growing U.S. involvement in counternarcotics operations in Central America. In April, the DEA sent special teams to some of the more rural, drug-ridden areas of Honduras as part of a joint counternarcotics operation known as Operation Anvil. 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.

    About $50 million due to be assigned to antidrug and security efforts -- amounting to about half of all U.S. aid to Honduras for 2012 and including $8.3 million in counternarcotics aid, and $38 million under the Central America Regional Security Initiative -- is being withheld by Democrats in Congress over concerns about American involvement in the killings and over accusations that the director of Honduras' national police had ties to death squads. The aid is still being withheld, but the U.S. has begun to share radar information with the Honduran air force again.

    Honduras currently has the highest murder rate in the world with 86 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Since the 2009 coup, drug trafficking, violence and human rights violations have rapidly increased, while impunity for killings, particularly of journalists and human rights defenders, is high and corruption pervades all government institutions. The country is currently undergoing a constitutional crisis, with the executive and congress attempting to overhaul the Supreme Court. Presidential elections are set to take place this year.

    Marijuana legalization and regulation
    As the death toll in Mexico continues to climb over the 60,000 deaths recorded during previous Mexican President Felipe Calderón's drug war, and drugs continue to flow into the United States from below the border, as well as throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, experts and Latin American presidents are increasingly calling for alternatives to the "War on Drugs." Earlier in 2012, there was a lot of discussion surrounding drug legalization, particularly following Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s advocacy for the international legalization of drugs in March. There was more discussion about the issue before the fairly uneventful Summit of the Americas held in Colombia in April, after which it seemed to die down a bit. In September at a UN General Assembly meeting, the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala submitted a proposal for drug reform, which Honduras and Costa Rica later backed. The UN then agreed to hold a special session on on drug prohibition by 2015.

    Several former leaders, including Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, had already called for changes in global and U.S. drug policies in 2011, but Latin American presidents and former leaders from all political sides continued to call for reform in 2012. In June, Uruguay’s President José Mujica proposed legislation to legalize marijuana that was moving through the country’s congress until a poll in mid-December indicated that 65% of Uruguayans opposed legalization, while only 26% supported it, causing President Mujica to slow down the initiative.

    Drug legalization throughout the region will continue to be widely debated, particularly following Colorado and Washington’s passage of referendums in November for legalizing recreational marijuana use. Now that there are legal markets for marijuana in the U.S., many Latin American leaders are questioning why they should continue to invest financial and human resources into enforcing drug laws. As one Mexican official responded, "we can't handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status." Mexico is currently exploring its own legalization measures, modeled on Washington State law.

    Wednesday, January 2, 2013

    Paraguay, six months later

    Site of the June 15 confrontation in Curuguaty, Paraguay (source: CODEHUPY).

    December 22, 2012 marked six months since Paraguay’s Congress, acting with remarkable haste, voted to impeach the country’s elected president, Fernando Lugo, who was in his last year in office. The incident that triggered the vote was a violent confrontation between campesino land squatters and police in Curuguaty, which left 17 people dead on June 15th.

    Six months later, Paraguay’s neighbors continue to question President Lugo’s rapid expulsion. The country remains suspended from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) political bloc, and from the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) economic bloc.

    The Curuguaty episode of June 15th, meanwhile, remains unresolved. While both sides — landless peasants and police — acted violently, so far charges have only been filed against the peasants.

    In its year-end report, the National Human Rights Coordinator of Paraguay (CODEHUPY), an umbrella group of 26 organizations, discusses what has happened. Here are translated excerpts:

    Like a bolt of lightning on a clear day, on the morning of June 15 came the confrontation in Curuguaty — which even today remains confused — that cost the lives of 11 peasants and six policemen. The episode took place on lands in dispute known as Marina Cue. The land had been fraudulently appropriated years before [during the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner] by Blas N. Riquelme, a businessman, ex-congressman and ex-president of the [long-ruling, but opposition in June] Colorado Party, and had been occupied for about a month by peasants who requested that the National Institute of Rural Development and Land designate the property for land reform.

    An independent investigation carried out by CODEHUPY revealed that there was no proportional use of force in the repression. In that investigation, credible eyewitnesses said that at least two peasants, Adolfo Castro and Andrés Avelino Riveros, were executed by police agents when they had surrendered with their hands up. The accounts affirm that Adolfo Castro was holding his young son when police shot him in the head.

    Other testimonies contend that several peasants wounded during the repression were executed afterward by police agents, after the shots had already ceased and the security forces already controlled the site.

    The first accounts of the confrontation caused shock and commotion in public opinion. While there had been a long prior history of violence and repression against peasants fighting for land, never before in recent history had the country seen a situation with so many dead.

    The pain was followed by a search for whom to blame. But neither the government — taken by surprise — nor the press had precise information about how and why the Curuguaty massacre had happened, leading to a wide variety of claims about who shot first. At first there were strong rumors about the presence in the zone of snipers from the Army of the Paraguayan People (EPP [a very small group claiming to be leftist guerrillas]), but that version was discarded during initial investigations.

    Opposition political parties took advantage of citizens’ confusion and indignation to accuse [then-President] Fernando Lugo, once again, of encouraging violence in the countryside. They were supported in this campaign by much of the written and broadcast media hostile to the government.

    The possibility of impeachment began to be mentioned. The country was only nine months away from its next general election, and there was no evidence that the government had encouraged peasant violence.

    On June 21 and 22, 2012, the Paraguayan Congress carried out the impeachment, which was questioned in its impartiality, objectivity, as well as in its respect for the principle of due process. Its result was the removal of President Fernando Lugo Méndez, who was democratically elected on April 20, 2008.

    Since then, the criminal investigation of what happened at Curuguaty has developed in a most troubling way. At least 13 campesinos were detained at the site of the incident, and held without charge until December. Several of those arrested went on a hunger strike to protest their long imprisonment.

    Prosecutors had six months to put together a case. On December 14th, the government’s prosecutor issued charges of land invasion and murder against fourteen campesinos. A judge will review these charges in February.

    No police agents are under investigation, much less facing trial, a situation that Amnesty International calls “shocking,” since “according to reports, during the confrontation there were more than 300 officers, many of them with firearms, as opposed to only around 90 peasants.”

    In early December, a key possible witness in the campesinos’ defense was killed. Vidal Vega, a local peasant leader who was not present at the Curuguaty massacre, was shot four times by hitmen on a motorcycle. “Vega was expected to be a witness at the criminal trial,” reported the Associated Press, “since he was among the few leaders who weren’t killed in the clash or jailed afterward.”

    Thursday, November 8, 2012

    Latin America's Response to Obama's Re-election

    President Barack Obama was re-elected Tuesday night, winning over 300 electoral votes and the popular vote by 2.6 million over Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Romney led the popular vote for most of the night, until western states like California closed their polls and counted their ballots. In the end, Obama handily took the electoral college with 303 vote to Romney's 206 and the popular vote with a narrow margin of victory, winning 50% of the vote to Romney's 48%.

    Tuesday's election was historic in the United States for several reasons -- marijuana was legalized in two U.S. states, same-sex marriage was passed in another three -- but also of particular note was the increase in the Hispanic electorate's importance. President Obama won just over 70% of the Latino vote, compared to Romney's 27%, ensuring his slight victory in a number of battleground states like Colorado, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

    Leading up to the election, many analysts, politicians and voters were disillusioned that Latin America was noticeably absent from both candidates campaigns, especially in relation to issues such as the Mexican drug war that has claimed some 60,000 lives since 2006, the re-election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the Cuban embargo and Brazil's growing economic presence.

    Before the election took place, regional analysts and leaders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes and OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, said they expected few changes with regards to U.S. policy in the region, regardless of the outcome.

    Reactions to President Obama's victory throughout the region held a similar tone. There was a general consensus that Obama was the preferred victor of the two candidates, but that the region expected more attention and cooperation from his administration in the next four years.

    Aside from the usual congratulatory messages, many leaders took the opportunity to voice their concerns over a domestic problem that reverberates throughout the region -- immigration reform -- reminding Obama that he owed a large part of his victory to Latinos.

    Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos congratulated President Obama saying his re-election was "good news for Colombia," and noting that now the two countries can "continue to work in cooperation, with the same proposals and objectives and getting results."

    Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón also applauded Obama's re-election as something "positive for the United States and Colombia," but said President Obama had to fulfill his obligation to the international community and the region as a whole, which "expected more" from him. Garzón highlighted the contentious immigrant situation in the U.S., saying "It's good to point out that Colombian immigrant workers have rights that must be respected, human rights, including the right to have American citizenship and residence."

    Ecuador's deputy foreign minister, Marco Albuja, echoed these sentiments on Twitter, asking Obama to "always remember the transcendental latino vote." He added that he hoped the new administration would pass immigration reform to "find a definitive solution to the more than 10 million people in [the US] without a defined migrant status."

    Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who showed his support for President Obama during the campaign, extended his congratulations, calling Obama "an extraordinary person," but also commenting that he expected little change because "the foreign policy of the United States is inertial and they will need many years to change it.... Everything will practically be the same in Latin America."

    Paraguay also weighed in on the immigration issue with Foreign Minister José Félix Fernández Estigarribia pressing Obama to recognize that "part of his win he owes to our Latin American compatriots," and he hoped "President Obama contributes to improving relations with [the rest of] Latin America and to solving the latino immigration problem."

    For Honduras, President Porfirio Lobo's government, which enjoyed strong support by Obama in its 2011 election following a contentious 2009 coup, said it did not expect "much change in general relations with the United States," but secretary of planning, Julio Raudales, did comment that "Obama's reelection is good news." Former Honduran President Ricardo Maduro told local television he hoped Obama would focus his attention "towards the south."

    Bolivian President Evo Morales had a more critical response to Obama's re-election. After condemning the U.S. electoral process, he suggested Obama settle the score with Latino voters by doing away with the Cuban embargo. He also took a jab at Obama's refusal to extradite Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a former president accused of corruption and genocide in Bolivia.

    "He was reelected thanks to latinos and the best thing he could do to recognize their vote is end the embargo in Cuba," Morales said. "If he wants to dignify his government, it would be important to stop protecting delinquents that escape from many countries, Bolivia included."

    With respect to the country's economy, the Bolivian leader gave little clout to the U.S. election, saying "who wins in the United States does not affect the Bolivian people... We should export but [the US] market cannot define our political economy."

    Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has not commented since the election, but during the campaign he said that if he were an American, he would vote for Obama, although he later said he did not expect much change in U.S. foreign policy.

    Cuban President Raul Castro has also yet to publicly respond, however Cuban state-run news website CubaSi reiterated the general feeling of indifference, saying "The news of Barack Obama's triumph in yesterday's general elections in the United States was received with some relief and without great optimism."

    Argentine President Cristina Kirchner congratulated President Obama with a letter and also via Twitter, adding that it is "his turn" to "take his place in the history of his people and the world," and assume his "role as global leader to overcome this political and economic crisis."

    In this election the Republican Party, as it is wont to do, adopted a more aggressive stance towards the region, particularly with regards to leftist governments, that signaled a possible unwelcome return to the diplomacy of Bush's presidency. Across the board, there was more a sense of relief that Romney lost than excitement that Obama won.

    While in practice the policy differences might have been marginal, a Romney presidency would likely have included bellicose rhetoric towards Venezuela and Cuba and potentially cause greater political polarization in the hemisphere, as Inter-American Dialogue president Michael Shifter noted most recently in Foreign Policy magazine.

    As Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas points out in the Miami Herald, there are several pending situations could force a change in the region's political and economic landscape, pulling more attention to it, such as the death of Hugo Chavez, the death of Fidel Castro or his brother Raúl, the possible success of peace talks in Colombia, and China's financial growing financial involvement.

    Although the issues that shifted the rhetoric away from Latin America during the campaign are still front and center-- Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, jobs, etc-- there is hope that going forward Obama will prioritize the region, and at the very least immigrants looking for a home in the United States, in his second term.

    Monday, September 21, 2009

    U.S.—Paraguay Military deal is over. What happened?

    On Thursday the 17th, Paraguay rejected a military cooperation deal with the United States which would have placed about 500 U.S. military and other personnel in the country. U.S. Ambassador to Asunción Liliana Ayalde said, “We regret the decision but we respect it.”

    Given the diplomatic rifts that the U.S.-Colombia base deal has caused in South America, the increase in weapons purchases throughout the region, and the increasingly tense tone of Unasur meetings, the decision is not surprising. President Fernando Lugo said that the round of U.S. exercises scheduled for 2010 was “neither prudent nor convenient at this time and could raise concerns among the other members of the Mercosur and Unasur.”

    Unlike many other members of Unasur, Paraguay has consistently denounced the recent increases in Latin American governments’ arms purchases, and has not acquired weapons in the last few years. According to the Paraguayan foreign affairs minister, Hector Lacognate, the Paraguayan position is “pacifist.”

    Lacognate maintained that beyond the military dimension, “[w]e have an excellent bilateral agenda with the United States, with more than 30 agreements currently in place.”

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    New legislation to extend ATPDEA to Paraguay and Uruguay

    Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) introduced new legislation - S. 1665: ATPDEA Expansion and Extension Act of 2009 - this week to include Uruguay and Paraguay in the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA). Presently, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru benefit from ATPDEA, which authorizes the President to grant duty-free treatment or reduced tariffs to a wide range of products, with the goal of promoting economic development and providing alternatives to the production of cocaine. (Bolivia has been suspended from eligibility due to its failure to cooperate with U.S. counternarcotics policy).

    In April of this year, similar legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate, which called for the extension of ATPDEA benefits to Paraguay. Senator Lugar's new bill aims to extend benefits to both Paraguay and Uruguay.

    The ATPDEA Expansion and Extension Act of 2009 asks for Uruguay's wool-based textiles to be included under ATPDEA's benefits, which currently excludes from duty-free treatment "textiles and apparel articles" that previously have not been deemed eligible. It also asks for a two-year extension of ATPDEA benefits to all eligible countries - moving the current 'expiration date' from December 31, 2009 to December 31, 2012.

    Senator Lugar introduced the legislation on Monday, one day before Uruguayan President Tabaré Vásquez made an official visit to the United States.