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Friday, June 28, 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.

Protests: Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Venezuela

There have been many relatively large-scale protests happening in the region recently.

  • Chilean student are protesting for education reform. On Wednesday, over 100,000 students in Santiago marched in a demonstration, which turned violent as students clashed with police.
  • Venezuela has also been experiencing a series of protests involving the education sector.
  • In Costa Rica, people are taking to the streets to show their growing frustration with the administration of President Laura Chinchilla, one of the region’s least popular presidents.
  • In Nicaragua last week, senior citizens protested for greater benefits, particularly a reduced pension. The demonstrations also turned violent, but this week the government and protesters reached an agreement that addressed some demands. The agreement, however, did not include the issue of pensions.
  • In Brazil the nation-wide protests continue to rage on, despite President Dilma Rousseff's counter proposals to address several issues like education, health, and public transport. The New York Times reported on why Brazilians are so upset at their Congress, noting its "penchant for sheltering dozens of generously paid legislators who have been charged — and sometimes even convicted — of crimes." Other articles highlight police violence, poor public services, and the lavish lifestyle of lawmakers as some of the reasons behind the movement. As BBC notes, the government has started to put some reforms in place in response to the massive demonstrations.

    For a list of articles on the protest, visit Just the Facts’ Brazil News page. The Pan-American Post also has offered good coverage. Interesting note: The Rio police are running out of tear gas.

  • Entire Region

  • The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its annual World Drug Report on Wednesday. The report looked at a spectrum of related-issues, particularly new psychoactive substances (NPS), which are unregulated in international markets as they are often used for medical purposes and relatively new. The report also found thatMexico is the world's number two producer of opium and heroin in the world, and ties with Afghanistan as the second-largest producer of marijuana.
  • A U.S. Department of State report found that Iran's influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning, “As a result of diplomatic outreach, strengthening of allies’ capacity, international nonproliferation efforts, a strong sanctions policy, and Iran’s poor management of its foreign relations," according to Bloomberg News.
  • Colombia

  • Last Friday, negotiators from the FARC and Colombian government released a joint report (PDF) offering more detail about the land reform agreement that both parties signed about a month ago. More from Ginny Bouvier of the United States Institute of Peace. Colombia's most powerful criminal organization, the Urabeños, has called for inclusion in the peace talks. More from InSight Crime
  • The Colombian government is ramping up efforts to target crime. This week the government announced plans to invest $2.3 billion into citizen security for 2013-2015. The funding accounts for 2.4% of the country's 2013 national budget, and will cover the addition of 25,000 police to the national force. Colombian media also reported this week that the country is looking to France as a model for how to target common crime. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón met with France's police director to discuss strategies such as the use of a gendarmerie, a militarized police force.
  • More than 12,000 peasant farms have participated in riots protesting eradication programs in the coca-producing region of Catatumbo in northeast Colombia. The violent protests have left four protestors dead and another 50 injured.
  • Mexico

  • Mexico welcomed the U.S. Senate's passage of an immigration bill, but showed concern that border security measures included in the bill "move away from the principles of shared responsibility and neighborliness." According to theLos Angeles Times, “Fernando Belaunzaran, a congressman with Mexico's left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, tweeted this week, ‘ the U.S. is about to militarize the border with Mexico as if we were at war.’”
  • Mexico's Gendarmerie will now have 5,000 members and be part of the national police force, the country's Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong announced over the weekend. In December, President Peña Nieto said the force would initially be comprised of 10,000 members, eventually reaching 30,000 or 40,000. Writing for InSight Crime, Mexican analyst Alejandro Hope has an article on the pros and cons of absorbing the Gendarmarie into the Federal Police.
  • Haiti

  • The Government Accountability Office released a report (PDF) on USAID reconstruction efforts in Haiti. The report criticized USAID's management of funds and projects and called for greater oversight. Several findings illuminated the reconstruction efforts shortfalls, among them -- of the 15,000 houses that were originally planned, just 2,649 are expected to be built.
  • Honduras

  • Honduran Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí resigned after the country’s Congress called for his impeachment over mismanagement and corruption. Since April a congressionally-appointted oversight committee has run his office, citing a myriad of problems: impunity, failure to enact police reform, and misuse of funds.
  • Ecuador

  • Ecuador announced it was withdrawing from the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which was the main point of leverage the United States had over it when considering the issue of granting Snowden asylum. ATPDEA is said to create hundreds of jobs in Ecuador and save exporters $23 million a year, offering U.S. trade benefits on 247 products. The deal was up for renewal in July, but members of the U.S. Congress had said they would vote against extending it if Ecuador granted Edward Snowden asylum. Ecuador then offered the United States $23 million for human rights training to help it avoid "espionage, torture, extrajudicial killings and other acts that denigrate humanity.”

    BuzzFeed details Ecuador's own surveillance practices targeting journalists, including the U.S.-mediated purchase of a "GSM interceptor" in an effort to "intercept text messages, falsify and modify the text messages." Investigative magazine Vanguardia will publish its last print edition Monday. As newspaper El Comercio explained, the magazine's staff said the closure was not a product of the law, but rather a business decision made by the outlet's owners. Many have linked the closure to a controversial new media law passed last week. The law invokes harsh penalties for language deemed defamatory or libelous by a newly-created government council, but prohibits the government from shutting down media outlets. For more information on the law, check out Reporters Without Borders' description.

  • Venezuela

  • On Tuesday, Venezuelan Charge d’Affaires Calixo Ortega met with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to discuss possibly renewing relations. However, a recent audiotape of a Venezuelan opposition member claiming the opposition called for a coup in a meeting with U.S. diplomats in Washington could keep relations cool between the two countries. These statements add more fuel to President Maduro’s on-going rhetoric of a conspiracy campaign by the opposition to destabilize the government.
  • Cuba

  • Cuba's first privately run wholesale market in half a century will open on July 1st, according to state media. The Economist reported that many see its opening as a further step on Cuba's hesitant path towards freeing up wholesale markets and loosening the state's control of food distribution.
  • 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’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, November 2, 2012

    Recent News Highlights

    The following links and summaries are some recent news highlights from around the region.


    • Last Tuesday, Bolivia's Constitutional Tribunal declared a long-standing law criminalizing defamation of government officials, known as the "desacato" law, unconstitutional for violating freedom of speech. Under the law, individuals can incur a three-year prison sentence for insulting a member of the government.
    • Later in the week Bolivian media was abuzz following comments from Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, who warned those who might dare to criticize the president via social media, saying "I am always going online, and I am writing down the first and last names of the people who insult him on Facebook and Twitter." Morales' Movement for Socialism party (MAS) is currently attempting to push through a law monitoring Bolivian citizens' political commentary on digital news sites and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
    • Earlier this month, reports revealed the government was harassing journalists from media outlets that reported on government corruption, causing them to flee over fears of incarceration. In a most recent example, a Bolivian journalist was set on fire by four masked men while on air at a radio station in the southern city of Yacuiba, along the Argentine border and a drug smuggling route. Fernando Vidal, 78, was a harsh critic of the local government and was reporting on trafficking in the area at the time of the attack. Vidal along with other journalists have been increasingly denouncing a rise in smuggling across the border, particularly of liquid petroleum gas.

      Amnesty International said the attack is "one of the worst instances of violence against journalists in Bolivia in recent years.” Four men have been arrested in the case. Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero along with Vidal's son-in-law, also a journalist, believe two local government officials hired the men.

    • Mexico

    • In Mexico, workers are protesting after the country's Senate passed through a version of labor reform legislation. Members from the conservative National Action Party (PAN) as well as president-elect Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) supported the bill despite differences over certain details in the law, like the election of union leaders by secret ballot, a provision opposed by the union-friendly PRI party, but was ultimately included in the draft.

      Lawmakers say the bill seeks to increase transparency of trade union finances and union leader elections-- the country's two most prominent union leaders (Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico’s largest teachers’ union and Carlos Romero Deschamps of the Oil Workers Union) won uncontested re-election. Mexican trade unions dominate state industry and their leaders are often accused of corruption. The government says the new reforms will create thousands of new jobs, making Mexico more competitive. Some economists and politicians say the reforms could create upwards of 150,000 jobs a year.

      Workers however rose up saying that under the proposed law, it will be easier for companies to fire employees and they will be forced to accept lower wages. Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) called the reform "simplistic," saying it is not the "magic bullet" to create jobs and could harm workers' interests, particularly those in the informal sector who account for 28.8 million of the country's 50 million workers. Congressman in the lower house will now vote on the bill, however the vote has been delayed as the PRI fight to protect union interests.

    • The PAN, PRD and Citizens' Movement (MC) parties held a press conference Wednesday where they announced they would form a united legislative opposition front against PRI president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto to fight "clientelistic and corrupt practices" during his six-year term.
    • A faction of the Zetas reportedly split off and formed a new group called the Legionaries, according to Insight Crime. A banner hung by the group in Nuevo Laredo in northern Mexico says the organization has a "clear mission to kill people from the Zetas and their families" and their business is "solely and exclusively drug trafficking." The formal split comes following the capture of Zetas leader Ivan Velazquez Caballero, alias "El Taliban" and the recent killing of another head, Heriberto Lazcano, alias "Z-3," whose death was finally confirmed by authorities who used his dead father's DNA to corroborate his demise after Z-3's body disappeared from the morgue.
    • Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, from Mexico, pleaded guilty Tuesday in the 2010 shooting of US border patrol Agent Brian Terry. He claimed to be part of a group that crossed into the US to steal from marijuana smugglers and had entered the country the week prior to the shooting to stash guns and food supplies.
    • Panama

    • There were massive protests in Colon, Panama last week in response to a government law allowing for the sale of state-owned land to private companies in Latin America's biggest duty-free zone. Three people were killed, including a 9 year-old-boy, prompting groups like Amnesty International to call for investigation into excessive use of force.

      After the bill was passed last Friday, protesters from trade unions, student groups and business associations took to the streets, claiming that the sell-off will cause layoffs and a loss of revenue. The Panamanian government has since repealed the law, with assembly president Sergio Galvez saying "An error has been corrected," after the measure passed.

    • A free-trade agreement between Panama and the US was entered into force on October 31, meaning that about 86% of US products will now enter the country tariff-free. The agreement was signed by former President George W. Bush in June 2007 and approved by Panama’s parliament the same year. The U.S. Congress did not ratify the agreement until October 12, 2011, held up with concerns over labor rights and tax laws for U.S.-based corporations in Panama. Opponents of the agreement said it would normalize Panama’s status as a the second-largest tax haven in the world and allow it to remain conducive to laundering money from criminal activity, creating vulnerability to terrorist financing, as was cited in a 2006 Wikileaked memo. President Obama signed the treaty into law on October 21, 2011.
    • United States

    • Last Monday was the final debate in the US Presidential elections, covering foreign policy. There was virtually no mention of Latin America, causing analysts, politicians and voters to express dismay with both candidates.
    • Some saw the lack of discussion about Latin America as a positive sign. In a press conference after his meeting with Hillary Clinton, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota said of the debate, "it’s true that Latin America was not present, to my knowledge, and Brazil was not mentioned, but I think that the debate concentrated really on problem issues and concerns. And today, Brazil, South America in particular, is more of a region of the world that offers solutions than problems. So we interpret that in this positive light."

      Similarly in an opinion piece for Christian Science Monitor, Geoff Thale from WOLA said the scant discussion of Cuba could signal a more rational approach towards the island.

    • The Global Post profiled the relatives of US presidential candidate Mitt Romney,whose father was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. They are reportedly part of a Mormon community often targeted by the cartels.
    • Colombia

    • A total of 15 Colombian government security force members since formal peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government began in Oslo, Norway on October 18. Last week nine soliders were killed in combat, while six police were killed Monday in the southwestern Cauca department.
    • The FARC proposed a cease-fire during the talks, but President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly refused their request. A group of Colombian NGOs has called on the government to stop fighting for the month between December 15 and January 15. A recent Gallup poll showed 72% of Colombians support the peace process, but only 39% believe they would be successful. Another recent poll indicates President Santos' approval rating has gone up seven points to 58% since the announcement of the peace talks.
    • In an interview with W Radio, President Obama said his hope was that a "peaceful Colombia would be created and that the FARC lay down their arms and recognize that although they disagree with the government they should participate in the political process instead of using violence."
    • Last Thursday, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, criticizing a proposed constitutional amendment which would expand the jurisdiction of the military. According to the letter, the measure would, "result in serious human rights violations by the military—including extrajudicial executions, torture, and rape—being investigated and tried by the military justice system."
    • Colombia is also in the process of producing their own unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or "drones." Although Colombia has been using US drones since 2006, this will be the first domestically-produced UAV used by the country's military.The drones will reportedly be used for military operations as well as for other functions such as monitoring oil pipelines.
    • Colombian drug lord Henry de Jesus Lopez Londoño, alias "Mi Sangre," was arrested
      in a Buenos Aires supermarket. Mi Sangre was a top leader of the Urabeños drug gang and was in charge of expanding and maintaining the group's presence and control throughout Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city.
    • Speaking at a trade-show on defense and security, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said within two years the country would be adding 25,000 members to its armed forces,which currently have about 450,000 members, making it the second-largest military in South America following Brazil.
    • Honduras

    • The Honduras Truth Commission released a report on human rights violations before and after the 2009 coup. The blog Honduras Accompaniment Project summarizes the reports findings: "In total, the Truth Commission received “1,966 reports from citizens about human rights violations by state agents and armed civilian apparatuses protected by state institutions” between June 2009 and August 2011. Based on these reports, the Commission analyzed 5,418 human rights violations and categorized 87 forms of aggression."
    • Brazil

    • In Brazil several convictions have been handed out to officials in former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government-- including his then chief of staff Jose Dirceu-- who were found guilty of using public funds to pay monthly installments to opposition congressmen in return for their support, known as the "Mensalão" case, in which about 40 officials were implicated. The case is historic in showing a strengthening of the rule of law in the country as Brazil has a long history of impunity for political corruption.
    • In another landmark legal proceeding, a federal judge in Sao Paulo agreed to charge a soldier and two officers with the kidnapping of a dissident during Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, marking the second accusation of a top military officer for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship, despite a 1979 amnesty law.
    • On October 28th, Brazil held run-off municipal elections, with President Rousseff's and former President Lula's Workers’ Party (PT) winning the majority of the mayoral races, including Sao Paulo. Analysts say this puts the party in a favorable position for the 2014 presidential elections.
    • In Sao Paulo 600 police were sent to the city's largest favela, Paraisópolis, as part of a larger initiative that was launched on Monday called "Operação Saturação," or "Operation Saturation,"intended to stifle drug trafficking and organized crime throughout the city. According to numbers from Sao Paulo's Secretary of Public Security,crime rates in Sao Paulo are on the rise, with the city registering 144 homicides in the month of September against the 71 that occurred in the same month last year and 145 homicides in October, an 86% increase from 2011 when 78 murders were registered in the same month that year.

      According to government statistics, 40 people have been killed since last Thursday, 124 in the past 23 days, with a large part of the murders being carried out by men on motorcycles or in cars. A spokesman for the Sao Paulo police force denied the operation was launched in response to the recent wave of murders, saying they "received intelligence that there were criminals, weapons and drugs" inside the favela and that "there will be more actions like this in the coming days."

    • Venezuela

    • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez replaced Defense Minister General Henry Rangel Silva, appointing Navy Admiral Diego Molero Bellavia to the post. Rangel, a close ally of Chavez, will be the candidate for Chavez' United Socialist Party (PSUV) for governor of Trujillo in state elections on December 16. The US accused Rangel in 2008 of "materially assisting" the drug trafficking operations of Colombia's Farc guerrillas.
    • President Chavez said on Thursday he will be attending the upcoming Mercosur presidential summit set for December 7 in Brasilia. Venezuela became a full Mercosur member July 31 following the group's decision to suspend Paraguay, whose Senate had barred Venezuelan participation. Brazil's foreign ministry noted the benefit of Venezuela's inclusion to the regional trade bloc saying, “With the entry of Venezuela, Mercosur has now a population of 270 million inhabitants (70% of South America population), GDP at current prices of 3.3 trillion dollars (79.6% of South American GDP) and a territory of 12.7 million km2 (72% of South American area), extending from Patagonia to the Caribbean and asserting itself as a global energy power.”

    Saturday, July 30, 2011

    Podcast: The Week Ahead: Peru's New President, Press Freedom in Ecuador, U.S. Congress

    Adam discusses challenges facing newly inaugurated President Ollanta Humala in Peru; Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's lawsuit against a newspaper; cuts in U.S. aid to Mexico and other ways that the U.S. Congress is affecting Latin America policy.

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


    Friday, May 6, 2011

    Ecuador's controversial referendum

    Ecuadorians are voting tomorrow on a list of ten questions, proposed by left-of-center President Rafael Correa, having to do with possible legal and constitutional reforms. Polls indicate that while awareness of the questions is low, all of them will be approved.

    Some, particularly those having to do with judicial independence and press freedom, are very controversial. Here is the English text of the ten questions.

    1. Do you agree with amending Article 77, number 9 of the Constitution, incorporating a clause to prevent the expiration of preventive detentions when this expiration has been caused by the person on trial, and to punish unreasonable obstacles to justice placed by judges, prosecutors, experts or auxiliary judicial officials?

    (If approved, this measure could keep criminals from being released prematurely. But it could also allow preventive detentions to drag on indefinitely for those “innocent until proven guilty.”)

    2. Do you agree that alternatives to deprivation of liberty [imprisonment] should apply?

    (If approved, this measure could regulate judges’ practice of giving condemned criminals alternative penalties like house arrest or probation.)

    3. Do you agree with prohibiting private financial-system institutions, as well as private national media companies, their directors and principal shareholders, from owning or holding shares outside the financial or communication sectors, respectively?

    (This is one of the more controversial questions. If approved, it would prevent the formation of large private media/entertainment conglomerates like Time-Warner or News Corporation in the United States. On the other hand, it would represent an important infringement on property rights. Critics of this question view it as a symptom of President Rafael Correa’s very poor relations with Ecuador’s major private media outlets.)

    4. Do you agree with substituting the current Judiciary Council with a Transitional Judiciary Council, comprised of three members, one designated by the executive branch, one by the legislative branch and one by the transparency and social-control branch, so that within the time limit of 18 months, it may exercise the powers of the Judicial Council and restructure the judiciary?

    (This is one of the more controversial questions. If approved, it would speed judicial reforms called for by the country’s new constitution. However, it would notably weaken checks and balances, as President Correa’s supporters would dominate the proposed Transitional Judiciary Council.)

    5. Do you agree with modifying the composition of the Judiciary Council, amending the Constitution and reforming the Organic Code of the judicial branch? (Numerous changes are spelled out in a long annex to this question.)

    (Supporters of this controversial question say that it will streamline judicial processes. Opponents argue that it will give President Correa effective control over the judicial branch, as judges and other officials will no longer be chosen by an independent commission, but by a commission including representatives of some branches of government dominated by Correa supporters.)

    6. Do you agree that the National Assembly, without delay, within the period specified in the Organic Law of the legislative branch, after the publication of this plebiscite’s results, make “unjustified private enrichment” a crime within the penal code?

    (This is a controversial question. Supporters claim it will give the government new tools to fight corruption. Opponents cite the vagueness of the “unjustified” term, which is not further defined but is clearly different from “illegal,” and worry that the President and his supporters may use it to pressure and silence political opponents.)

    7. Do you agree that businesses dedicated to gambling, such as casinos and gaming rooms, should be prohibited in the country?

    (This question has the support of many conservative Ecuadorians who do not otherwise back President Correa. However, banning gambling could eliminate several thousand jobs.)

    8. Do you agree that spectacles that end with the killing of an animal [such as bullfights] should be banned in your county?

    (It is still not clear whether this applies just to bullfights or to cockfights as well.)

    9. Do you agree that the National Assembly, without delay, within the period specified in the Organic Law of the legislative branch, should issue a Communications Law creating a Regulation Council, which would regulate the diffusion of content on television, on the radio and in the written press that contain violent, sexually explicit or discriminatory messages, and that would establish criteria to hold communicators or broadcasters responsible?

    (This is a very controversial question, again related to President Correa’s poor relations with Ecuador’s major private media outlets. The idea of a state body to regulate media content has alarmed press-freedom groups. Similar statutes to punish content considered violent, discriminatory, or otherwise harmful have been very controversial in Venezuela and Bolivia.)

    10. Do you agree that the National Assembly, without delay, within the period specified in the Organic Law of the legislative branch, should after the publication of this plebiscite’s results, should make it a criminal offense not to include employees in the Ecuadorian Social Security Institute?

    (As many as a million workers, in a country of 14 million people, are currently outside the social security system. Many are maids and childcare providers.)

    Thursday, February 24, 2011

    Freedom of the Press

    Government-sponsored forum to denounce "media terrorism," Caracas, 2009.

    The Press Emblem Campaign, a Swiss-based NGO, declared Latin America to have been the most dangerous region in the world for journalists in 2010. Last year, the NGO counted 37 journalists killed in Latin America, a third of the world’s total (14 in Mexico, 10 in Honduras, 4 in Colombia and Brazil, 2 in Venezuela, and one each in 3 other countries).

    Throughout the region, though, reporters’ work is also complicated by states pursuing non-violent, legal means. A recent trend has been the proposal or passage of laws that prohibit or punish certain types of reporting. Nearly all of these laws have a noble stated purpose, but suffer from a vagueness of language that can open the door to abuse. In particular, these laws appear to enable leaders to silence critical or investigative journalism.

    The most recent example is in Ecuador, where citizens will vote this year on a referendum to change the Constitution and introduction of new laws. One question on the ballot asks whether voters would favor “a Communications Law that would create a Regulation Council to regulate broadcast and print media that contains violent, sexually explicit or discriminatory messages, and establishes criteria to hold the broadcasters or media outlets responsible.”

    The ballot measure could pass, since most citizens naturally oppose messages of violence, discrimination or other offensive content. However, critics of the proposed law note that it may empower the Ecuadorian government to review and approve all news reporting before its publication or broadcast. “Its objective,” said Vicente Ordoñez of Ecuador’s National Journalists’ Union, “is to establish prior censorship of journalists’ work.” This would be a large step backward for freedom of expression in Ecuador.

    The Ecuadorian proposal follows a measure sent to Nicaragua’s pro-government-majority National Assembly in February that, as part of a law to punish violence against women, would have created the crime of “media violence” (violencia mediática). This provision was later withdrawn.

    In January, Panama’s National Assembly considered a law, encouraged by President Ricardo Martinelli, that would have made it a crime of up to four years’ imprisonment to “offend, insult, publicly vilify” the president or other public officials. This bill was also withdrawn.

    In December, the National Assembly of Venezuela approved changes to the country’s Organic Telecommunications Law and Social Responsibility on Radio and Television Law. “The social responsibility law,” CNN explained at the time, “explicitly states that no broadcaster or internet provider can broadcast things that incite hatred, cause ‘anxiety or unrest among the public order’ or promote the assassination of leaders.” With such vague terms as “anxiety or unrest,” “alteration of public order,” “motivating intolerance” or “ignoring authority,” the law is written in such a sweeping way that it could conceivably be applied to all opposition media.

    In November, Bolivia approved legislation with another laudable goal – combating racism – that included another troubling provision. The country’s new Law Against Racism would impose fines on, or even suspend the licenses of, media that are publishing or broadcasting racist or discriminatory messages. The trouble is that the government gets to decide whether an article or broadcast meets the standard that would trigger a fine or clusure – and the criteria it uses could be politicized. Much depends on the regulations that the government will develop to implement the law. During a November visit to Bolivia, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay warned, “Prohibiting the dissemination of racist ideas, if not adequately regulated, could affect the right to freedom of expression. … [I]nternational law requires that limitations be stipulated by law, that they be defined in a clear and precise manner, and that they be implemented by an independent body.”

    Monday, September 27, 2010

    Recent Violence Against the Press in Mexico

    Public security in Mexico has deteriorated to the point at which, on Sept. 19, the El Diario de Juárez newspaper published a front-page editorial calling out to drug traffickers for guidance in reporting. Titling it “What do you want from us?” El Diario printed the editorial amid increased violence against journalists. To see an English translation of the editorial, click here.

    The most recent case of violence against the press involved the shooting of 21 year old El Diario photojournalist Luis Carlos Santiago in a mall parking lot in the border town of Ciudad Juárez. Santiago is just one of atleast 56 people that the Inter American Press Association has confirmed to have been murdered since 2005. Overall, slain journalists are just a handful of the 28,000 total dead since the Calderon administration launched the campaign against drug cartels in 2006.

    The El Diario journalist incident is indicative of a larger trend confronting Mexico. In response to Luis Carlos Santiago’s death, the Paris-based Reporters without Borders commented that the “level of violence and mayhem is staggering in many parts of Mexico”. Unable to protect the sanctity of the press, the Calderon administration and law enforcement have demonstrably failed to protect basic human rights and civil liberties of society, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mexican institutions have also failed to administer the rule of law and protect democratic governance within the country. The editorial also comments on the fact that drug dealers and traffickers have been accepted as the de-facto authorities of whole cities and towns:

    “You are the de-facto authority in this city because the legal powers have not been able to do anything to stop our companions from dying”

    The editorial also charged that:

    “This is not a surrender…This is about a truce with those who have imposed the force of law in this city, so that [they] will respect the lives of those who dedicate themselves to the job of informing the public.”

    A free press is of paramount importance in any society, but especially in a society where law enforcement is either too corrupt or too intimidated to answer questions and keep the public adequately informed about the state of their country’s security environment. Some Mexican newspapers, including Imagen from the Zacatecas state, have expressedly stopped reporting on the violence and have printed prepared articles for fear of retaliation; and for good reason. Journalists are often faced with the option of ‘plomo o plata’, or ‘lead or silver’. Essentially, journalists either accept cartel money in exchange for selective reporting, or they will be killed.

    The choice has been either silence or death for the Mexican press. Calerdon recently announced an initiative to protect journalists from drug violence and threats. The initiative includes an assistance center for reporters under threat from drug leaders and will move to charge crimes against journalists as a federal offense.

    Only time will tell whether or not the initiative can effectively reform the law enforcement that has traditionally been unwilling or too intimidated to protect journalists from the influence of drug cartel violence.

    This post was written by CIP intern Allison Gilchrist

    Tuesday, August 31, 2010

    Freedom of the Press

    Cover of Venezuela's El Nacional with the word 'Censurado'August has been a troubled month for freedom of the press in the Americas. Here are a few examples.

    • Unidentified gunmen shot and killed veteran radio broadcaster Israel Zelaya Díaz in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Zelaya is at least the eighth Honduran reporter killed so far this year amid an atmosphere that has become far more dangerous since the June 2009 coup that deposed elected President Manuel Zelaya. “The unsolved murders suggest a deeper breakdown of law and order and undermine Honduras’ desire to put last year’s political violence behind it,” read an August 27 Miami Herald editorial. “As disturbing as the journalists’ deaths has been the Honduran government’s swift dismissal of the possibility that the victims were killed because of their line of work,” charged an August 8 Houston Chronicle editorial. “After minimizing the crimes, Honduran authorities are slow and negligent in pursuing the killers,” charges a hard-hitting July 27 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Honduran government’s minister of human rights, a newly created post, wrote the New York Times to defend its actions: “The investigations have not concluded in the rest of the cases and continue at a standard pace. Therefore, one should not talk about killing with ‘impunity’ in any of these cases, as the [CPJ] report does.”

    • The government of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has feuded constantly with two of the country’s principal daily newspapers, La Nación and Clarín. The latter is part of the country’s largest media company. In the latest episode last week, President Fernández proposed to regulate the production of newsprint paper as a “public interest.” In other words, the Argentine government would control the supply of newsprint. The president justifies the move by alleging that the country’s main newsprint supplier, Papel Prensa, was sold to Clarín and La Nación under pressure from the military government that ran Argentina at the time. Fernández accuses the papers of benefiting from “crimes against humanity”; Argentina’s opposition issued a joint statement charging, “Like the dictators, they believe they can build an official history by censuring the press, controlling their materials and, with this new power, form an extraordinary state communication apparatus so that society only hears their side of the story.” Said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner, “We have concerns about journalistic freedom all over the world and certainly, there’s a strong domestic debate occurring right now in Argentina. We’re paying close attention to developments and it’s a part of our bilateral conversation.”

    • The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and National Public Radio have all recently covered Mexico’s troubling phenomenon of “narco-censorship,” in which media outlets fail to report about drug cartel violence out of fear for reporters’ lives. Notes the L.A. Times, “When convoys of narco hit men brazenly turned their guns on army garrisons in Reynosa, trapping soldiers inside, it was front-page news in the Los Angeles Times in April. It went unreported in Reynosa.” Affiliates of Televisa, the country’s largest television network, were hit by small bomb attacks in Monterrey and Matamoros on August 15. Associated Press reports about a heavily anonymized blog, “Blog del Narco,” that has quickly won a huge readership in Mexico because it reports on the cartel violence that major media outlets ignore. With nine journalists killed so far this year, journalists’ associations in northern Mexico now recommend that reporters wear helmets and bulletproof vests.

    • In Venezuela, reporting on violence carries risks from another direction: the government. A court declared a one-month ban on publishing pictures of crime and violence after one of the country’s main dailies, the opposition-aligned El Nacional, ran a gruesome photo of crime victims’ bodies strewn across a clearly overwhelmed morgue. Opponents of President Hugo Chávez’s government allege that the crime-images ban, imposed with a month to go before highly contested September 26 legislative elections, is designed to reduce voters’ outrage at the country’s very high crime rates. The government at first sought to sanction El Nacional for running the photo and thus threatening “the rights to health, physical, psychological and moral integrity of children and adolescents”; the charge was later dropped.

    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Just the Facts Podcast: The week

    Abigail and Adam discuss Colombia-Ecuador relations, arms sales to the FARC, the Haiti rebuilding cost, the Falklands dispute, press freedom, citizen security in Mexico, and upcoming congressional hearings.

    You can now subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


    Tuesday, September 15, 2009

    Freedom of the Press, or lack thereof

    CIP Intern Hannah Brodlie compiled this collection of recent reports of friction between governments and the news media throughout Latin America. Concerns about freedom of the press are on the increase. 

    • A massive September 10 tax raid on Argentina’s largest newspaper publisher, Grupo Clarín, fueled nationwide controversy over President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's proposed media bill. The “Media Reform Bill” would replace broadcast regulations dating back to 1980 with the stated goal of increasing competition and preventing media monopolies. It would force some of the biggest media groups (especially Clarín) to sell their assets. Critics of the bill insist that the raid and the bill stem from a personal grudge between the government and the newspaper, and argue that the law would allow “direct and indirect government control over media and journalistic content." See this Houston Chronicle article for the troubling details of the increasingly personal fight between Clarín and the Kirchners (the president and her predecessor and husband, Néstor Kirchner).
    • In July the Venezuelan government closed 34 radio stations and two small television stations for allegedly failing to comply with regulations, and they’ve opened investigations into more than 200 others. In addition, attacks by pro-government militants on Globovisión, the only strongly anti-Chavez station in the country, have been largely ignored by officials. In fact, Venezuelan prosecutors recently opened a criminal probe into Globovisión to determine whether they were trying to incite rebellion by airing a string of text messages from viewers, some of which called for a coup.
    • In Ecuador, television station Telemazonas has also been accused of broadcasting a secret government recording of a meeting President Rafael Correa held in his office. The station's director has said that the participants in the meeting were speaking of “public matters,” referring to how they had passed the constitution through the constituent assembly in 2008. Telemazonas is accused of violating media regulations and broadcasting law for the fourth time, and President Correa has said he will ask for its closure.
    • Despite a recent statement from President Álvaro Uribe reiterating the government’s commitment to journalistic freedom in Colombia, the recent discovery that opposition journalists were a major target of years of illegal wiretapping and surveillance from the presidential intelligence service (DAS) suggests otherwise. For example, according to the Foundation for Press Freedom, the number of press freedom violations increased drastically due to the DAS activities, from January to June of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008.
    • In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has also been publicly attacking the media, saying that he considers his critics in the press to be “weapons” of his political enemies. He has called on his party to close ranks against media critics and religious leaders who “generate” opposition. Ortega has said that "the State must act as necessary to regulate the activity of the media." A Ley de Colegio de Periodistas would do just that: establish “ethical” regulations for journalism and introduce conditions for its practice.
    • At the end of July, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted, "During this year, at least nine reporters have been killed in the region for reasons that may have been related to their journalistic activity. Three of these reporters were killed in Mexico."