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Friday, June 21, 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

  • Twenty-one U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry requesting a detailed report to Congress on human rights abuses committed by security forces in Honduras. The letter stated the senators had “serious questions regarding the State Department’s certification” that Honduras met the human rights conditions necessary to guarantee U.S. aid for FY 2012.
  • On Monday, the State Department issued a travel warning for Honduras as "crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country and the Government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to address these issues."
  • On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on security cooperation with Mexico, looking at the Mérida Initiative, the U.S.' central security package to Mexico.The full testimonies and a live webcast can be found on the committee's website.
  • On Wednesday, the House's Subcommittee on Foreign Relations held a hearing examining the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), the U.S.' main aid packages to Central America and the Caribbean.See the House committee's website for full testimonies of all witnesses and a webcast.
  • John Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, met with top commanders from Peru and Colombia's armed forces in Lima on Wednesday. The AFP reported the commanders discussed narcotrafficking, terrorism and illegal mining. The meeting comes just after last week's announcement that the United States would be giving Peru an extra $20 million for counternarcotics operations, bringing total U.S. investment in Peru's counterdrug initiatives for the year to $60 million, a marked increase from recent years.
  • Cuba and the U.S. announced they will be resuming discussions on migration in Washington D.C. on July 17th. The announcement came as the two countries concluded talks about resuming direct mail service for the first time in fifty years.
  • The U.S. announced it has approved $91.2 million in funding as part of the bilateral Partnership for Growth agreement the U.S. signed with El Salvador in 2011. The money will go towards improving the Salvadoran justice system, improving education, and a crime prevention program called SolucionES. None of the funding will go towards supporting initiatives linked to the country's gang truce however, as the U.S. has reiterated that it will not actively support the truce. InSight Crime raised the question of whether this undermined the agreement, while Central America Politics blog looked at other U.S. support for El Salvador and concluded, "it just looks like the US is going about its business as if there were no gang truce."
  • The United States Southern Command announced this week that is has deployed a Navy Aircraft squadron that "will be operating out of El Salvador flying detection and monitoring missions along with aircraft and surface units from partner nations, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection," as part of "Operation Martillo," the United States' surge counternarcotics operation off of Central America.
  • Brazil

  • The story that has dominated the region this week were the protests in Brazil. What initially started as a protest in response to a 20-cent increase in bus fares has snowballed into a nation-wide movement that culminated with over one million Brazilians taking to the streets in at least 80 cities Thursday. There were some violent clashes between citizens demanding better services and government accountability and police dispensing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds, and so far one protestor has died.

    The movement is apolitical and has no set list of demands. Observers and even the protestors themselves seem unclear about what is exactly happening on a larger scale. As Gabriel Elizondo notes on Aljazeera, "I would be lying if I said I know exactly what is happening here right now. It's complicated. Brazil isn't for beginners, and neither is this current wave of protests."

    Reuters concluded that the protest movements were more "Occupy Wall Street" than "Arab Spring" in terms of motives. Several observers have drawn parallels to the on-going protests in Turkey, such as the key role of social media and the young, educated and middle-class profile of the protestors. However there are significant differences- the main one being the Brazilian government's more conciliatory approach. So far there has been little word from President Rousseff, however she did cancel her trip to Japan to hold an emergency cabinet meeting this morning. The Pan-American Post has offered good coverage this week. See here for a list of links to coverage on Just the Facts.

  • Dominican Republic

  • Since this weekend, the government of the Dominican Republic has deployed about 3,000 troops to the country's capital, Santo Domingo. While the police said there was an immediate drop in crime, human rights groups and some government officials, like the city's district attorney, have voiced concern over human rights abuses. However, the Dominican Republic's police force is notorious for corruption and extrajudicial killings. As the Miami Herald noted, police killed 4,069 people between 1997 and mid-2012. The government justified the move by saying military deployments had worked in other countries like Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guatemala and Ecuador. The government plans to increase the number of troops patrolling the streets to 5,000.
  • El Salvador

  • InSight Crime has a four-part investigation on the truce between El Salvador’s two largest gangs – the MS- 13 and the Barrio 18. One of the pieces examines the positives and negatives of the truce while another features an interview with Barrio 18’s leader who said the gang does not “have political aspirations. We only aspire to have a dignified life.” The investigation also looks at whether the U.S. Treasury’s decision to designate the MS-13 as a transnational criminal organization was founded.
  • Mexico

  • Mexico is offering $500 million dollars to finance infrastructure projects in Central America. The proposal was announced at a meeting of foreign ministers of Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Central America.
  • Univision has a geographical breakdown of disappearances in Mexico. Unsurprisingly, most are located in areas with high levels of violence and a strong organized crime presence. More from InSight Crime.
  • Costa Rica

  • Costa Rica is experiencing a rise in drug trafficking and has become an important transshipment hub, according to a BBC Mundo profile of examined crime in the country. The article sheds further light on Costa Rica’s involvement in global drug trade as previous reports of Mexican and Colombian cartel activity have indicated. The country’s cocaine exports have been reported to reach 39 different locations across the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa.
  • Colombia

  • On Monday, Colombia’s congress passed a law that will expand the jurisdiction of the country’s military courts, allowing them to try military members for human rights abuses. The law is a huge setback for human rights, as noted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, the United Nations and countless civil society groups. While the law could have several implications for human rights justice, HRW Americas director José Miguel Vivanco described the central problem: “The law could result in the transfer of cold-blooded killings by the military known as ‘false positives’ from civilian authorities to the military justice system, where there is virtually no chance for accountability.” See a previous Just the Facts post for more on the bill.
  • Almost 40,000 people have been kidnapped in Colombia in the past 40 years, according to a new report published Thursday by the country's Centro de Memoria Historica. Since 1970 the FARC have been responsible for more kidnappings than any of the country's other illegal armed groups. Colombia Reports highlights the report's graphs and charts.
  • The Thomas Reuters Foundation published a special report on the link between land and peace in Colombia. Journalist Anastasia Moloney examines the security situation in the Cauca department, a long-time FARC stronghold and main drug trafficking corridor that has been on the frontline of the country's conflict for 50 years. Moloney asserts that "As the Colombian government and FARC hold ongoing peace talks in Havana to end Latin America's longest-running insurgency, it will be in rebel fiefdoms like Cauca where peace will be hardest to build and hardest won."
  • Peru

  • A Peruvian court has suspend a military draft that was set to go into effect this week. The court ruled that the draft was discriminatory against poor and uneducated Peruvians as it included exceptions for those in university or for those who pay a fine. Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has said the country has no money to pay for a salary for military service.
  • Ecuador

  • Ecuador passed a controversial Communications Law this week that critics say will restrict freedom of the press and proponents charge will make the country's media more pluralist. According to Reuters, the law will redistribute broadcast frequencies evenly between state media, private broadcasters and indigenous groups. It will also create a watchdog group that can sanction and fine outlets for reporting content "that is critical of government officials and for content that they fail to report that the government believes should be reported." On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State denounced the law, regarding it as a blow to freedom of the press. Analyst James Bosworth contends, "Correa has spent the last several years at war with Ecuador's media and this is a law that will strengthen the president and help silence his opponents."
  • Venezuela

  • Venezuela is implementing new regulations and investing millions of dollars into several jails in an attempt to reform its notoriously inhumane and violent prison system. Prisoners will now receive job training, participate in monitored group activities, wear uniforms, and will be granted two official visits per month as well as one phone call per week. The Venezuelan government has pledged a little bit more than $30 million to repair the Uribana jail and 10 other jails.
  • A recent anti-corruption campaign in Venezuela has resulted in the arrest of a top official from the country’s National Integrated Service of Tax Administration. In previous weeks, Maduro’s government has declared corruption is one of Venezuela's biggest problems. The arrest, along with numerous others made last week, gives credence to Maduro's pledge to target corrupt officials, marked by last week's announcement that the government will create a new anti-corruption unit.
  • Friday, June 14, 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.

    US Policy

  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala visited the White House Tuesday to meet with President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as part of his three-day trip to the United States. The two presidents agreed to deepen cooperation on trade and counterdrug strategies. During a joint press conference following their meeting President Humala said to President Obama, “I am convinced that under your administration we will substantively and qualitatively fight against the scourge of drugs.”
  • New York Times reported on U.S. border agents excessive use of force. The article notes that of 15 people killed by Border Patrol since 2010, 6 were shot in Mexico, mostly for throwing rocks. According to the Times, "In a statement, the Mexican Embassy in Washington criticized the shootings as “disproportionate deadly force,” saying, “In recent years, the results of investigations have unfortunately not even resulted in the prosecution of the agents” who have engaged in fatal shootings “or even fired into Mexican territory." WOLA has an infographic set of slides regarding migration and border security.
  • Voz de America reported that a Venezuelan official in Washington confirmed she would meet with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs next week to discuss re-establishing bilateral relations. The State Department has yet to confirm the statement.
  • United States Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law-Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield has been accused of blocking an investigation into a botched counternarcotics operation overseen by the State Department in Honduras that resulted in the deaths of four Hondurans. Foreign Policy's The Cable reported Brownfield denied the charges and said the investigation was delayed because it was unclear if the case fell under the purview of the DEA or the Department of State. According to Brownfield, "The issue was never whether the incident would be investigated, but rather which U.S. Government organization would review the involvement of U.S. law enforcement support of a foreign police operation overseas."
  • Colombia

  • The Colombian government and FARC guerrillas started a tenth round of peace talks this week, after reaching a breakthrough agreement on land reform on May 26. The negotiating teams began to tackle the issue of the rebel group's political participation. Lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle emphasized that the discussion would focus on participation of the entire group and not individual leaders, many of whom could face criminal charges.
  • In a press statement Tuesday the FARC proposed the government postpone presidential elections scheduled for November 2014 by a year. The government rejected the proposal with President Santos saying, “There is not the slightest chance that can happen. We have an electoral calendar. It will be followed.” More from the Pan-American Post.
  • Juan Forero had two interesting articles in the Washington Post this week. The first looked at harrowing tales of rape and gender-based violence against women committed by paramilitaries in the Putamayo department of southern Colombia. The second article examined security in Medellin, noting that, “In 2007, the city recorded 771 killings for a homicide rate lower than Washington’s. But by 2011, it was back up to 1,649 homicides. The number has since fallen fast once more, but gang expert Luis Fernando Quijano said the sharp rise and fall suggest that gang leaders may be fighting less, not that the state has control.“ The Guardian also had an informative article on security, politics and society in Colombia’s second-largest city.
  • The Colombian Senate passed an amended bill that would transfer many human rights cases against security force members, currently tried in civilian courts, to military tribunals. As Semana magazine noted, even though the legislation was altered to address human rights concerns, the risk of impunity persists. This week the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International all denounced the measure. More from Pan-American Post.
  • Guatemala

  • Former Guatemalan dictator Efaín Rios Montt was released from a military hospital and is now under house arrest. Last month Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. However Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned the ruling on account of a procedural technicality and ordered the trial to resume to where it was on April 19. The re-trial is reportedly set for April 2014.
  • The Guatemalan government has identified over 54 drug trafficking organizations and 70 gang cells operating in the country. It found some 40 cells of Barrio-18 and 30 cells of Mara Salvatrucha street gangs. These reports give weight to accounts that the violence in Guatemala is being fueled by infighting between small local gangs. These smaller groups have either splintered from larger cartels or are contracted by rivaling Mexican cartels (Sinaloa and the Zetas), noted by InSight Crimes. As Central American Politics blog notes, the country's murder rate has increased this year, after a steady decline from 2009 to 2012. May 2013 was the only month which saw less murders than the previous year: 409 murders compared to 426 in May 2012. Prensa Libre has a map detailing the country's criminal groups' areas of operation.
  • Brazil

  • There were a number of reports this week on Brazil’s ramped up security initiatives ahead of numerous major public events, including the World Cup, a visit from the pope, and the 2016 Olympics. In the Guardian, Jon Watts reported on police operation to regain favelas from the powerful 'Red Command' -- Rio's biggest gang-- ahead of the World Cup. He lays out the government's three-step process for securing a neighborhood. "First, a military police battalion, the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE), which specialises in urban warfare, increases searches for drugs and guns. Next the area is surrounded and occupied by BOPE forces. Finally when it is secure, BOPE move out and a resident police unit — known as a UPP — is established." The Associated Press also has more on persisting violence in Brazil and security measures as the Confederation's Cup gets underway while Americas Quarterly looks at a new safety system, the Integrated Command and Control Center (Centro Integrado de Comando y Control—CICC), that President Rousseff inaugurated yesterday.
  • Violent protests broke out Thursday night in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro over a 20-cent increase in bus fares. As the New York Times' Simon Romero pointed out, they "come at time of high inflation, sluggish growth & sharp fall in currency." The RioGringa blog contended that they “have more to do with the evolution of Brazil's middle class amid a stagnation in quality in life.”
  • A Datafolha survey shows President Rousseff ‘s approval ratings have dropped from 65 percent to 57 percent. As analyst James Bosworth notes, “Brazil's economic growth is too slow, but citizens and government officials appear more concerned about inflation. The poll shows voters, particularly women, concerned about rising prices and believing that inflation will get worse.”
  • World Politics Review had an interesting article on Brazil's drone program, which has received more attention since the government announced it would be using UAVs to bolster security during ceremonies for the Confederation Cup soccer tournament. The article highlights how increasing drone use is affecting its foreign policy, noting that the country has an agreement with Bolivia to fly UAVs in its airspace for counternarcotic operations and it has been quietly deploying drones to the Uruguayan and Paraguayan borders.
  • Bolivia

  • There are clashes going on between the Bolivian government and coca growers in the country. According to Southern Pulse: "On 29 May 2013, the government offered the municipality of Apolo, La Paz almost US$1.5 million for local development in an effort to persuade illegal coca growers to turn to alternative crops. Eradication forces and efforts clashed with coca growers on 26 May 2013, resulting in 19 injured. The government plans to use this strategy of development grants coupled with eradication efforts on other regions, as they expect US$3 million more to be funded to these programs later this year by the European Union (EU)." More from InSight Crime.
  • Venezuela

  • "Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights" blog had a helpful analysis of recent Colombia-Venezuela relations. Analyst David Smilde notes, “Colombia’s meetings with Capriles and announcement that it was seeking to strengthen ties to NATO essentially represented a move towards the U.S. Venezuela turned around and themselves strengthened ties to the US.”
  • Smilde’s other post on the blog counters a recent Washington Post editorial, which criticized Secretary Kerry for meeting with Venezeula’s Foreign Minister while in Guatemala. The op-ed argued the U.S. was in effect, "extending a lifeline to Maduro." While the Post said that the U.S. meeting gave Maduro legitimacy while other countries and UNASUR have questioned his legitimacy, Smilde asserts, "The only government in the hemisphere that has not recognized Maduro’s election is the United States. All other countries including the US’s close ally and Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia recognized the election result quickly. Furthermore, Unasur did not call for an audit of the results, it endorsed an audit of the result after the National Electoral Council announced it."
  • The Venezuelan government says it is targeting corruption. President Maduro announced this week that more public officials had been arrested. Venezuela Analysis blog has a run-down of the arrests. President Maduro also announced he is creating a new anti-corruption unit, which will be under his direct control.
  • Argentina

  • Former Argentine President and current Senator Carlos Menem has been sentenced to seven years in prison for smuggling arms to Ecuador and Croatia between 1991 and 1995, while both countries were under an arms embargo. As a senator, Menem has diplomatic immunity and will not serve prison time at the moment. However, legislators may vote to strip him of the privilege. He will appeal to the country’s Supreme Court.
  • Mexico

  • Cherokee Gothic, a blog run by professors at the University of Oklahoma, provides a short run-down and links to four informative articles suggested by Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst.
  • In a post published on InSight Crime, Hope examined the similarities between the current security surge in Michoacan, where the government deployed the military in hopes of regaining control from drug cartels, most notably the Knights Templar, and the one launched in 2006 under Felipe Calderon, which effectively ushered in a more militarized drug war. According to Hope, there are three main similarities: 1. The operation does not have a fixed time limit, 2.There is no transparency regarding the operation, and 3.The participation of the armed forces in public security tasks continues to be unregulated.
  • The Los Angeles Times reported on the increasing emergence of local vigilante groups throughout the country, particularly noting their positive influence in violent parts of Tierra Caliente in Michoacan in western Mexico. Yet despite the vigilante groups' efforts, drug cartels still control the region.
  • The Economist reported on a new police force in Monterrey, called the "Fuerza Civil." The force is made up of people who have never worked in law enforcement that then receive a starting salary of $1,175 a month, double that of a normal police officer. According to the Economist, "The private sector has helped the government, with both money and technical expertise, to recruit and run a new police force."
  • Honduras

  • The Associated Press featured an article on the failures of police reform in Honduras. According to a U.S. document provided to the AP, four out of every ten officers failed a vetting process. By April of this year only seven members from the over- 11,000 member police had been fired, demonstrating how slow the process has been. The report follows last week's announcement that the U.S. had suspended funding for police reform in March.
  • This week the Honduran Congress approved a $4.4 million initiative that will add 1,000 more troops to the country's military to help combat organized crime. The measure highlights concerns that Honduras is increasingly militarizing the fight against organized crime. More from InSight Crime.
  • Resources

  • The Center for Democracy in the Americas has a helpful chronology of the gang truce in El Salvador from March 2012-March2013
  • WOLA latest "Latin America Today" podcast focused on the 43rd annual Organization of American States meeting and shifts in drug policy in the region. Americas Quarterly also offers an overview of other topics besides drug policy that were discussed at the meeting.
  • WOLA had an event with Ariel Ávila -- Former Coordinator, Conflict Observatory at the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a security think-tank in Bogota. Ávila discussed several current topics in Colombia from the peace talks to organized crime and illicit profits. Adam Isacson has a video of the event (in spanish) on his blog.
  • The Institute for Economics and Peace released its 2013 Global Peace Index.Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica were ranked as the most peaceful in Latin America, although Uruguay was the only country to come in above 30 for the global rankings.
  • Friday, April 12, 2013

    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.

  • The U.S. State Department posted its 2014 budget request for foreign aid. According to WOLA's Adam Isacson, this budget offered the lowest U.S. aid to Latin America in a decade without adjusting for inflation. Another post on Just the Facts has charts illustrating the breakdown of the $40.9 billion in aid the U.S. has given to Latin America since 1996.
  • There were four hearings this week that in some fashion pertained to Latin America. On Tuesday the Senate held a hearing on border security, while the House of Representative’s Oversight Committee held another, "U.S. Foreign Assistance: What Oversight Mechanism are in Place to Ensure Accountability?" On Thursday the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing on energy opportunities in the region and on Friday the House Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the Drug Enforcement Administration's budget.
  • The New York Times featured an interesting discussion on the alleged benefits and risks of U.S. military training. Of particular note is a short but pungent article by Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive. Doyle examines the history of U.S. aid in Latin America and contends, “U.S. aid left countries with a legacy of repression and violence."
  • The Wilson Center held an event this week, “The Transnational Nature of Organized Crime in the Americas.” The two-hour event can be watched on its website, where papers from many of the presenters can also be found.

    One of the reports, written by Daniel Rico, argues that Colombia's new criminal groups, known as bandas criminales, or BACRIMS, are bound to become extinct. As Wired Magazine highlights, his report also explains that as these groups become weaker and more fragmented, cocaine is becoming cheaper for Mexican cartels. InSight Crime's Jeremy McDermott posted an article that unpacks the report and is worth a read.

  • Colombia

  • On Tuesday tens of thousands of Colombians gathered for a mass demonstration in support of the current peace process. Among them were Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro and former leftist Senator Piedad Córdoba. The Marcha Patriótica, a new and far-left political movement accused of having ties to the FARC, organized the marches. Critics of the march say it was funded by guerillas. In response, President Santos said, "I don't see any guerillas here, I see Colombians." Historically, participating in the political left in Colombia can be dangerous. In an interview with a Chicago radio station, Adam Isacson noted, Santos' appearance signaled to the FARC that, "there is space for you if you lay down your arms."
  • Over the weekend the FARC added two top leaders to its negotiating team: Victoria Sandino and Jorge Torres Victoria, alias “Pablo Catatumbo.” Catatumbo is the third member of the FARC’s ruling body, known as the Secretariat, to participate in the talks. He is also the commander of the group’s most active unit in southwestern Colombia. To allow both leaders to join, the Colombian military suspended operations in the region.
  • On Sunday former President Álvaro Uribe, who has been a strong critic of the talks, tweeted the coordinates where military operations had been suspended to allow for the FARC leaders' transport. This marked a change from him being an outspoken critic of the talks to actively spoiling them.
  • La Silla Vacía has an excellent interactive map that traces the routes of displaced victims of the conflict that have since become leaders and advocates for other victims. A report by the United Nations says internal displacement in the country continues to increase. According to the document, 130,000 Colombians were displaced in 2010 and another 143,000 were forced from their homes in 2011.
  • Mexico

  • This week the Mexican government announced a drop in drug-related killings. Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong announced Wednesday that 1,101 people were killed in March, bringing the official murder number to 4,249 since December. The government compared this to the 5,127 killed during the same time under former President Felipe Calderón, claiming a 17% drop. However, the Associated Press put the number killed during Calderón’s last four months at 4,934, which would mean only a 14% reduction. In an article in Animal Politico, analyst Alejando Hope shows that murders have been on the decline since May, making it "hard to argue that policies applied in December have had a significant effect on the number of homicides."

    On the same day of the announcement, 14 people were killed in the western Michoacán state.

  • The AP noted that there is reason to question the Mexican government's numbers because “much of that data originally comes from the 31 states and federal district, with inconsistent or misreporting of cases and subjective criteria on what constitutes a cartel-related crime.”
  • As Mexican President Peña Nieto has focused much of his discourse on the economy and other non-drug war related issues, his administration has “asked the media... to change the narrative with respect to numbers and figures,” according to Osorio Chong. As an extension of this trend, on Monday Proceso magazine reported that the Mexican government had sealed information about organized crime in the country – the number of cartels in existence, their names, leaders and areas of influence – for the next 12 years. As InSight Crime notes, this is just a continuance of “a broader strategy of the Peña Nieto administration to deny access to information to non-governmental and governmental entities alike.”
  • An organization that monitors the press in the country, The Observatory of Coverage of Violence, found that in the first three months of the Peña Nieto administration, the appearance of the words “homicide,” “organized crime” and “drug-trafficking” had fallen 50 percent.
  • Honduras

    According to Honduras’s chief prosecutor, Luis Rubí, 80% of homicides in the country go unpunished. “The country is not prepared for this wave of crime, it has overwhelmed us” Rubí said. There was also significant discrepancy in reported police reform numbers this week. The Ministry of Security reported that 652 agents had been fired from the force, while the Dirección de Investigación y Evaluación de la Carrera Policial (DIECP), the unit charged with evaluating officers, reported that only seven of 230 that had failed polygraphs had been removed.

    Venezuela

  • Venezuela’s presidential elections will take place this Sunday. The candidates officially ended their campaigns on Thursday with dueling rallies. Encapsulating the themes of their campaigns, former vice president and interim President Nicolas Maduro said, “I am the son of Chávez, I am ready to be your president,” while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles played up the rampant insecurity in the country and said, "If you want a future, you have to vote for change, for a different government." Maduro is the expected victor.
  • There has been a lot of coverage of the race as it comes to a close. Venezuela Analysis has posted daily updates while WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog offers good analysis of the election. The AP has an interesting article on Maduro’s outlandish campaign tactics while the Atlantic discusses Maduro’s advantages in what it dubs an unfair election. Reuters reported that Capriles denied Maduro’s claims that he would do away with the government’s welfare programs and Caracas Chronicles criticized his campaign tactics. Reuters also has a very useful “Factbox” with information about both candidates.
  • Analyst James Bosworth posted an infographic map depicting violence in Venezuela that shows every state in the country having a higher murder rate than the national average of Colombia, Guatemala or Mexico.
  • This week Maduro claimed right-wing Salvadoran politician Roberto D’Aubuisson was plotting to kill him. The Venezuelan government released alleged recordings of D’Aubuisson hiring someone to carry out the assassination. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes said, “the least [his government] could do” would be to investigate the case. D’Aubuisson denies the voice on the recording is his.
  • Cuba

  • On Tuesday a couple accused of kidnapping their two sons from protective custody in the United States fled to Cuba on a fishing boat, but was promptly handed over to U.S. authorities by their Cuban counterparts. Afterwards, the AP published an article that said the incident showed "the Cold War enemies are capable of remarkable cooperation on many issues,” and went on to highlight the undocumented cooperation that goes on between the two ideologically-warring nations.
  • In an article in Foreign Policy, Bill Leogrande asserted, "The moss powerful lobby in Washington isn't the NRA. It's the Castro-hating right wing that has Obama's bureaucrats terrified and inert."
  • Guatemala

  • This week it was reported that Guatemala’s air fleet got a boost for counternarcotics operations. Reuters reported that Brazil’s state development bank helped finance Embraer’s recent sale of Super Tucano planes to Guatemala. It was also reported by the website InfoDefensa that the U.S. would be giving six helicopters to the Guatemalan air force.
  • Today is day number 16 of former dictator Rios Montt trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. This week both the prosecution and defense presented experts in various fields from military to international law to forensics. The Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) has live coverage of the trial as does the Open Society Justice Initiative.
  • Friday, March 15, 2013

    Week in Review

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

    Region

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

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

    Mexico

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

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

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

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