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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, April 5, 2013

    Week in Review

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

  • The Economist had a couple good articles this week, one on the issue of peasant land reserves in Colombia and another on how Brazil is attempting to deal with crack addicts. According to the latter article, Brazil is the world's largest market for crack, with recent studies indicating 1.1 to 1.2 million people in the country are users.
  • Brazil

  • Reuters takes a look at support for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff ahead of the country's 2014 elections. Recent opinion polls placed her popularity at an all-time high of 79 percent. According to Reuters, however, she "could fail to win re-election" as "the threat of rising inflation and unemployment, a trio of attractive opposition candidates, and the possibility of an embarrassing logistical debacle at the World Cup mean that Rousseff is less of a shoo-in than many observers think." Analyst James Bosworth offers a quick look back to the 2006 and 2010 elections, which both went to the second round, despite the popularity of a single candidate.
  • Blog del Narco

  • The Guardian and Texas Observer released a report about Blog del Narco, a website that has been reporting on drug-related violence and deaths since March 2010. With the media being silenced in Mexico, Blog del Narco has emerged as one of the few mediums covering the full extent to which drug-related violence plagues the country. The article revealed that the author, whose identity has been a complete secret until now, is a woman in her mid-20s. On Wednesday, her book, "Dying for the Truth: Undercover Inside the Mexican Drug War" was released. The book is said to provide, "the most gruesome, explicit account yet of the mayhem that the cartel wars have brought to Mexico." Another Guardian/ Texas Observer article explains the significance of Blog del Narco and why it "has become the most important website in Mexico." An excerpt can be read here.
  • Uruguay Marijuana Bill

  • Uruguay's Congress will vote next month on a controversial marijuana legalization bill. In the upcoming month before the vote, the government will be hosting educational presentations and panels throughout the country on the benefits of regulating the marijuana market. Public opinion polls in December 2012 showed that 64% of Uruguayans oppose the measure, although it has support in Congress. The new law would permit adults to purchase up to 40 grams of marijuana each month and allow for domestic growth of no more than six plants. Marijuana growth and consumption clubs are provided for under the law, however no more than 30,000 hectares of cannabis may be grown nationwide.
  • Rios Montt trial

  • The historic Rios Montt trial re-started this week. A testimony of a former soldier implicated current President Otto Perez Molina in several violent atrocities against the Guatemalan population during the country’s civil war in the 1980s. According to the Associated Press, Hugo Reyes, a soldier who was a mechanic in an engineering brigade, told the court that Perez Molina ordered soldiers to “burn and pillage" during the war. Reyes said that Perez Molina coordinated the burning and looting, in order to later execute people." The Pan American Post links to several good articles about the case, and points out that Reyes also implicated another general who is a key witness for the defense, possibly tarnishing his testimony. On Wednesday, the court heard many testimonies about sexual violence that took place during the civil war. According to Mike Allison's Central American Politics Blog, an estimated 100,000 women of all ages were sexually assaulted during the conflict.

    For more information on the trial, check out The Open Society Justice Initiative's blog, which provides a daily account of the case. The Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala has good coverage of the case, as do Mary Jo McConahay and Sonia Perez-Diaz of the Associated Press.

  • Mexico's 2014 security budget

  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed a $4.4 billion security budget for 2014. Of that amount, $1.6 billion will go towards crime prevention; $1.4 billion will go to the penal system, $122 million to the new gendarmerie police force and $231 to intelligence. About $382 million is slated for smaller public security initiatives and will be dispersed to states, municipalities and Mexico City. As InSight Crime pointed out, should this new budget be approved, the gendarmerie, the details of which have yet to be announced, will receive around $384.
  • Presidents of Peru and Mexico to China

  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala traveled to China, Peru's largest trading partner, to discuss trade opportunities in an effort to increase the country's exports. The AFP reported that "Bilateral trade between Peru and China has more than doubled since their free trade deal took effect in 2010, surging from about seven billion dollars to $15 billion in 2012." Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will also travel to China this weekend to discuss trade relations as he kicks off his Asia tour.
  • Armed groups and illegal gold mining in Colombia

  • On Monday, Colombian magazine Semana published an excellent series about armed groups' deep involvement in illegal gold mining. A map shows that in the 20 municipalities with the most gold, there is a heavy presence of armed groups and extortion and abuse of mine workers is constant. A letter between FARC leaders, published by Caracol Radio, revealed details about the group's extortion of the mining industry. Illegal gold mining is now reportedly the group's top source of income in several departments throughout the country. According to InSight Crime, "miners are forced to pay 5 percent of their total income to the FARC, 5 percent to guerrilla group ELN, as well as 7 million pesos ($3,800) to the FARC for the entrance of each mechanical digger to a mining site."
  • Colombia's "emerald czar" dies

  • Victor Carranza, known as Colombia's "Emerald Czar," died Thursday, theAssociated Press reported. Carranza allegedly financed paramilitary groups, but was never tried, supposedly because of his relationship with top political elites. Colombia accounts for 60% of the world's emerald trade, and Carranza was believed to control about half of all mining operations in the country. On Monday, news website Colombia Reports reported that as Carranza's health was deteriorating he, along with other top players in the industry, requested an "active presence" from the government to prevent a possibly violent war between groups looking to control his assets. InSight Crime has a profile of Carranza that is worth a read.
  • El Salvador

  • El Salvador is reportedly planning to request funding assistance from the United States for the country's gang truce. According to InSight Crime, Justice and Security Minister David Munguia Payes said the government only has $18 million of the $150 million that will be needed to fully implement the truce.
  • El Faro had a long but informative article on off-record cash payments to government officials in El Salvador.
  • Monday, April 1, 2013

    Week in Review - Monday Edition

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

    Colombia

  • Peace talks between the FARC and Colombian government, scheduled to restart April 2, have been postponed until the end of the month. Both sides are reportedly working on their respective proposals for land reform, the first agenda item of the six points that the talks will address.
  • President Santos President Santos said the Urabeños drug gang was the only neoparamilitary criminal organization (known in Colombia as BACRIMS, for “bandas criminales”) with a national presence. According to Santos, other such groups like the Rastrojos are losing traction. In March, Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris published a report citing BACRIMS as the central threat to Colombian security, recording their presence in 209 of the country’s 337 municipalities. While President Santos attributed the diminished presence of several groups to security forces, it may more likely be the result of consolidation of smaller groups into stronger organizations, as pointed out by InSight Crime.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense reported that the FARC had shoulder-fired air-to-surface missiles. According to the article, “Defense experts say the FARC has long sought to acquire such weapons to counter a key strategic advantage of Colombia's military -- air superiority.” The Colombian government has had the most success against the FARC with its air strikes. As noted in the above-mentioned Nuevo Arco Iris report, in 2012, 15 aerial operations by the government killed 200 guerillas.

    Several analysts said that should the group acquire enough missiles, it could change the war. "If they had a few dozen, it would make a difference: It could limit what the Colombians could do against them from the air," said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "My guess is they don't have that many." The article also notes that U.S. military assistance to Colombia for 2013 is slated to be $266 million.

  • The FARC issued a statement saying they would reject any proposal for peace that includes jail time for guerilla leaders. The Colombian government already has legislation in place that limits the prosecution of FARC members, but does not provide for total amnesty.
  • Peru

  • Peru and the United States have agreed to enhance political-military cooperation.
    The State Department’s press release can be read here, but notes the two countries will collaborate on various security issues like terrorism and drug trafficking. A good article in El País touches on how the agreement to share information, technology and training benefits both sides, and particularly Peru, which has seen an uptick in drug trafficking and coca production in its VRAEM region (the Apurimac and Ene River Valley, and the Mantaro Valley).
  • In May, Peru will begin drafting men between the ages of 18 and 25 for military service to help fill the reported 30,000-member deficit in the armed forces. Parents and university students will be exempt while draftees can pay a fine of $700 to get out of service. The measure has drawn much criticism, as opponents say it favors the wealthy. CNN pointed out that “Nearly a third of Peru's population lives below the poverty line, according to government statistics. A minimum wage salary is 750 soles ($290) per month."

    As InSight Crime notes, Peru has begun to more heavily “militarize the fight against drug traffickers and Shining Path guerillas,” particularly in the country’s largest coca-producing region, the VRAEM. In October, the government announced it would increase military and police budgets by 20 percent and double its police force.

  • Peru is reportedly purchasing 24 Russian Mi-171 helicopters for $407 million for counternarcotics operations in the country. According to reports, the deal could rise to a value of $485.5 million as Peru has supposedly signaled it wants to buy additional onboard weapons and Russia has offered to train Peruvian pilots.
  • Mexico and the border

  • A group of four U.S. senators working on the immigration bill toured the U.S.- Mexico border last Wednesday. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) concluded his visit by saying, “What I learned was that we have adequate manpower, but we don’t have adequate technology.” The senators are part of the “gang of eight,” the bipartisan group developing legislation to reform U.S. immigration laws.
  • According to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), four out of five drug busts made by Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border involve U.S. citizens. The report’s authors recognize that Mexican cartels are controlling the smuggling trade but note, “the public message that the Border Patrol has trumpeted for much of the last decade, mainly through press releases about its seizures, has emphasized Mexican drug couriers, or mules, as those largely responsible for transporting drugs.”
  • The Associated Press has since come out with a report which claims Mexican drug cartels are running drug distribution networks in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the Midwest, South and Northeast.
  • The White House announced President Obama will visit Mexico and Costa Rica May 2-4. In Mexico, he will meet with President Peña Nieto to discuss border security, trade and immigration, among other topics like education. In Costa Rica, he will meet with President Chinchilla and other leaders of the Central American Integration System (SICA) to discuss trade and security.
  • Mexican news website Animal Politico outlines five key components of Mexico’s revised draft of its victims law. The new language includes a definition for “indirect victims” as well as punishment for negligence by authorities. The law has been approved by the Mexican Senate, but still awaits full congressional approval.
  • Russia in Nicaragua

  • William Brownfield, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement says the United States welcomes Russia’s recent involvement in Central America’s drug war and collaboration with Nicaraguan forces to combat narcotics trafficking. The Nicaragua Dispatch reported Brownfield as saying, “I welcome any contribution, any donation and any support that the Russian government wants to give in this hemisphere.” According to the paper, Russia's drug czar Victor Ivanov says his plan is to convert Nicaragua into a regional stronghold for Central America’s drug war.

    In the interview Brownfield also discussed U.S. counternarcotics strategies in Central America, noting he hopes to shift routes away from the region within two to three years.

  • Honduras

  • United States officials claims that no security assistance is given to police units under the control of the country’s national police director, Juan Carlos Bonilla, over concerns that he was involved in extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The Associated Press published a must-read article last week challenging this, alleging that all police units are under Bonilla’s control. The U.S. has denied these claims saying that while it does support Honduran police, it does not support its director and gives no assistance to Bonilla or those directly under him. For more information, see a Just the Facts post published Friday.
  • Venezuela

  • The campaign ahead of Venezuela’s April 14 presidential election continues to be mired in personal and fiery insults between the two candidates, interim President Nicolas Maduro and Henrique Capriles. According to Reuters, over the weekend Maduro “called the country's opposition ‘heirs of Hitler,’ accusing them of persecuting Cuban doctors working in the South American country the way Jews were persecuted in Nazi Germany.” This comes after he accused Capriles of trying to “provoke” violence when plans were announced that he would be campaigning in the same western Venezuela state as Maduro this week. Capriles has since announced that he will start his campaign in the state of Monagas state on Tuesday, and move into Barinas on Wednesday.
  • Chile

  • Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet returned to Chile and announced she will be running for president in the country’s November elections. The Pan-American Post has a good overview of her announcement and links to several articles outlining the challenges facing her despite being the favored candidate. The post highlights Bachelet’s speech in which she said, “the main goal of her administration would be addressing income inequality in Chile, which in 2011 had the most uneven distribution of wealth of any Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country.”
  • Friday, March 22, 2013

    Week in Review

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

    Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

  • Today the Organization of American States (OAS) voted on controversial proposals to reform the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Ecuador is leading the charge on making the changes that many analysts say aim to limit the court’s power and will likely have a negative effect on human rights in the hemisphere. Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) has a guide to the reform vote. As AS/COA notes, one of the reforms calls for funding to only come from within the region, despite the fact that one-third of its current budget comes from Europe. The budget for the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, which protects press freedoms in the Americas, could also be completely cut.

    In a congressional meeting, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) denounced these reforms as well as made sure an article in the Washington Post by Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, former President of Colombia and Secretary General of the OAS, was printed in the formal Senate record.

    The AS/COA guide, along with several sources can be found here.

    Live blog posts can be found here at Americas Quarterly.

    The OAS schedule can be accessed here.

    El País has an overview of the reforms’ supporters.

  • Guatemala

  • On Tuesday the trialbegan for former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his head of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, both accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. The New York Times featured an article last weekend on the recent judicial changes in Guatemala that made the trial possible.

    Daily updates on the trial can be found at this blog, a project from the Open Society Justice Initiative.

    The trial can be watched live here

  • Peru

  • Susana Villarán, Lima’s first leftist (and first female) mayor got to keep her job this week after the city voted to keep her in power in a referendum held Sunday. 51.7 percent of voters supported Villarán staying in office, while 48.3 percent chose to have her removed. Villarán’s more conservative critics say she is inept and inefficient, while her supporters say the elite is trying to remove her for her progressive policies. According to the Guardian, the former human rights activist has “battled to organize Lima's chaotic transit system and reform other corruption-ridden institutions.”
  • The New York Times also featured a good article today on the inequality of income distribution in Peru. It describes the economic and political divide between Lima and the rest of the country.
  • It was also announced this week that Peru is creating a new police “special operative intelligence group” to “identify, locate and capture” paid hitmen, known as ‘sicarios.’
  • Colombia

  • It was reported by some Colombian media that the government and the FARC would reach an agrarian reform this week. However, the two parties did not reach a final agreement. Negotiations are set to begin in Havana again on April 2.

    According to the Associated Press, FARC commander Iván Márquez, “said at least five areas of disagreement remain on agrarian matters: rules limiting the size of agricultural holdings; foreign ownership of prime farmland; limits on the extent of cattle ranching; the widespread cultivation for products used for energy purposes rather than food; and mining.”

  • La Silla Vacía takes a look at “Campesino Reserve Zones,” or collective land reserves that the FARC propose would have political autonomy and their own “administrative justice.”
  • The UN insisted Colombia not grant amnesty to the FARC in a report (PDF) presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Wednesday by the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights. According to news website Colombia Reports, the report also notes the “serious human rights issues” that have yet to be addressed in the country. Specifically referencing the 4,716 civilians reportedly killed by state agents, while only 294 cases have been brought before the justice system.
  • Southcom

  • This week the commanders of U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Southern Command testified before Congress. Much of the discussion centered on the effects budget cuts will have on both commands’ operations. A Just the Facts post from Thursday overviews what happened in hearings in both the House and the Senate. Southcom commander General John Kelly said, “Navy ops in my area of operations will essentially stop -- go to zero, I believe," Kelly said of the sequestration cuts. "With a little luck we might see a Coast Guard cutter down there, but we're gonna lose airborne ISR (aircraft surveillance) in the counter-drug fight, we'll lose the Navy assets," he said.
  • Mexico

    There was a lot of media attention this week surrounding Mexican security. For a collection of articles on Mexico, please see the Just the Facts database. Here are some highlights:

  • A study published this week found 253,000 guns are smuggled from the United States into Mexico each year. This number represents 2.2% of all guns sales in the United States. The value of the annual smuggling trade is $127.2 million. The study in its entirety can be found here.
  • The International Crisis Group released its first report on Mexico this week, “Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal Cartels and Rule of Law in Mexico.” According to the report,

    Mexico must build an effective police and justice system, as well as implement comprehensive social programs, if it is to escape the extraordinary violence triggered by the country’s destructive cartels in extortion, kidnapping and control of transnational crime.

    Read the full report here

  • Insight Crime has a good article this week on President Peña Nieto’s security strategy, which says,

    After just over 100 days in office, two story lines are emerging about Enrique Peña Nieto: one says that the new Mexican president is subtly continuing his predecessor’s "war on drugs;" the other that he is backing off, creating the conditions for a more "peaceful" underworld.

    The article concludes by noting that should the Mexican government turn to “capitulation to large drug trafficking interests” relations could become much more tense.

  • Facing growing criticism over his security strategy and a recent wave of violence, which included a recent death toll of 29 people in one day, Mexican President Peña Nieto has asked for a year before judgment is passed on his anti-violence strategy. “That doesn’t mean that in a year, we’ll achieve the objectives laid out by this administration,” he said, reported the Los Angeles Times. “But I think that yes, in one year is the moment to take stock of how this strategy is going.”
  • Mexico’s Guerrero state will create a legal framework for local self-defense groups that have gained momentum around the country, but particularly there.
    Animal Politico features the eight-point document.
  • Venezuela

  • The Venezuelan government suspended a “channel of communications” with Washington on Wednesday. It claimed Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson violated the country’s sovereignty by making statements about the country’s electoral system, as reported by Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper. MercoPress said it was because Assistant Secretary Jacobson called for “open, fair and transparent elections.”
  • On Tuesday the U.S. “categorically” rejected Interim President Maduro’s accusations that former U.S. diplomats Roger Noriega and Otto Reich were trying to assassinate opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. The U.S. statement said it was not trying to “destabilize or hurt anyone in Venezuela.”
  • 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.
  • Friday, March 8, 2013

    Colombia Peace Process Update (March 8, 2013)

    (Cross-posted from WOLA)

    Since our January 26 Colombia peace process update, negotiators from the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group have held two rounds of talks in Havana. Round five lasted from January 31 to February 10. Round six ran from February 18 to March 1.

    The negotiators continue to discuss the first agenda item: land and rural development. In a joint communiqué on March 1, the two sides indicated substantial progress: “We have advanced in the construction of an accord on the following issues: land access and use; unproductive lands; formalization of property; agricultural frontier; and protection of [smallholder] reserve zones.” The daily El Espectador reported, “The news, to the extent known, is good: there is now a basic document, written jointly by the two negotiating teams, with about five pages on which accords have been reached.”

    “With the FARC we have passed from convergences to accords about a profound process of rural development,” said the government’s chief negotiator, former Vice President Humberto de la Calle, in a largely upbeat statement. However, he added, “We know we are in a key moment of the dialogues where results are required, that is, accords on the agrarian issue that will allow us to continue with the discussion of the other points of the agreed agenda.” Five other points on this agenda remain, most of them less complicated than the land issue: political participation, ending the conflict, drug policy, victims’ rights, and implementation logistics.

    This moment followed a period of tension in the peace talks, sparked by the FARC’s January 25 capture of two Colombian policemen, Víctor Alfonso González and Cristian Camilo Yate, in the southwestern department (province) of Valle del Cauca. On January 29, the guerrillas issued a statement affirming their claim to have abandoned kidnapping for ransom, but reiterating their intention to continue holding security-force members whom they capture as “prisoners of war.”

    The policemen’s capture sent the talks into their most serious crisis to date. “Things must be called by their names,” lead government negotiator De la Calle said on January 30. “A kidnapping is a kidnapping, it doesn’t matter whom the victim is.” Added President Juan Manuel Santos, “If the FARC believe that through kidnappings, which they promised that they wouldn’t carry out, they’re going to try to pressure the government to agree to what they aspire to, a cease-fire within the dialogue process, then they’re wrong! To the contrary!”

    For reasons that remain unclear — though messages from government negotiators in Havana, especially Gen. Oscar Naranjo, a former National Police chief, likely played a role — the FARC announced on February 2 that they would release the two policemen, plus a soldier whom they had also captured. By February 15, all three had been delivered to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the non-governmental group Colombians for Peace.

    Still, the policemen’s captivity, which brought back memories of the FARC’s past practices of kidnapping thousands of civilians for ransom, took a heavy toll on public opinion. So did an uptick in FARC attacks following the guerrillas’ two-month unilateral cease-fire, which ended on January 20th. Headline-making hostilities included the February 5 detonation of two car bombs in Caloto, Cauca, which killed two people and wounded several more.

    President Santos insisted on February 11 that although “there has been more noise in the media,” the frequency of FARC attacks had not increased. But a February 18 Datexco poll showed 67.34% of Colombians surveyed believing that the FARC peace process would not be successful. On February 25, the bimonthly Gallup poll showed the percentage of Colombians believing that the talks will end the conflict with the FARC falling to 36, from 43 in December. The percentage of Colombian respondents saying they supported the FARC talks fell to 62, from 71 in December. President Santos’s favorability rating, meanwhile, fell to 44 percent, from 53 percent in December. Gallup respondents gave ex-President Álvaro Uribe, who has been actively opposing the talks, a 65 percent favorability rating.

    Tensions rose further with President Santos’s February 20th appearance in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, part of the zone that hosted peace talks which failed eleven years earlier that same day. The President was there to distribute to farmers lands recovered from the FARC. Maximum FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez issued a statement complaining that President Santos’s speech in San Vicente made no mention of the current peace process. “While it’s true that the dialogues have made some important advances toward accords, official attitudes… threaten to mire it in a swamp,” read the statement. “Let’s get it out of there now, Santos. This narrow and calculated conception of the process threatens to drown it. Let’s save it.”

    “[T]he people should understand that we are conversing in the midst of conflict, that this is difficult, often contradictory, but that it is the route that we deliberately chose,” said President Santos on February 23, controversially adding, “At this moment I would have no problem getting up from the table and saying that this is over. But I’m going to make every possible effort so that this doesn’t happen, because just imagine Colombia without that conflict.” On February 26th, FARC negotiators responded with a statement calling on the government not to “kick aside” (patear) the negotiating table.

    This all seemed to contradict the mood at the table in Havana, where negotiators appear to be making steady progress toward an accord. In a February 3 statement condemning what it characterized as “the ultra-right wing’s campaign against the Havana peace process,” FARC negotiators insisted, “The conversations at the table are proceeding normally, nobody has gotten up or formally threatened to leave.” The talks are moving forward “at the speed of a bullet train,” FARC negotiator Rodrigo Granda added on February 10. “We’ve put together at least two or more pages of an agreement, and this is an advance that had not been achieved in previous processes,” lead FARC negotiator Iván Márquez told Semana magazine columnist María Jimena Duzán on February 24. (As mentioned above, El Espectador cited a figure of five pages a few days later.)

    At the March 1 conclusion of the sixth round of talks, the mood was slightly better. On March 3-4, with government permission, a group of Colombian legislators, including Senate President Roy Barreras and members of both houses’ Peace Committees, visited Havana, where they met with both sides’ negotiators. “After hearing Colombians’ concerns throughout the country, we decided it was time to transmit these doubts and concerns about the timeframe of the process to the negotiators on both sides of the table,” said Barreras. FARC negotiator Rodrigo Granda told reporters that following a successful peace process, FARC leaders would not run for office, at least not under the current “electoral regime,” which in his view is stacked against leftist candidates.

    The March 5 death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez then added a measure of uncertainty to the process. Venezuela, along with Chile, is officially designated an “accompanying country” of the peace process, and President Chávez had played an important behind-the-scenes role in convincing the FARC to take part. According to Semana journalist María Jimena Duzán, who spent a week in Havana in February, “Who really convinced the FARC to allow Jaramillo [FARC Eastern Bloc chief Mauricio Jaramillo, the guerrillas’ chief negotiator during the dialogues’ agenda-building phase] to board that helicopter [to Havana] was President Chávez himself. The FARC delegates with whom I spoke in Havana confirmed that to me.”

    “These were his words before beginning his last fatal trip to Havana.’I believe that with the guarantees that the Colombian government offers and that Colombian society offers … the FARC can enter into a political process without arms. … I hope that all the comandantes at the FARC’s various levels, and its combatants and fronts, join in this process, and I hope that they arrive at the best possible accord, and I hope that we can see the day in which peace is signed in Colombia. On that day there will be celebration in Venezuela and in the whole continent.’”

    In an analysis, Juanita Leon of the Colombian politics website La Silla Vacía outlined three possible scenarios for Venezuela’s role post-Chávez:

    1. Interim President Nicolás Maduro is reelected easily, and continues Venezuela’s current facilitating role.
    2. Divisions appear in the pro-Chávez governing bloc, leading Maduro to pressure for the FARC to speed the negotiation.
    3. (The nightmare scenario:) The pro-Chávez bloc sees itself as seriously threatened, and a faction of it seeks the FARC’s help to strengthen its resistance.

    The seventh round of talks is to begin on Monday, March 11 in Havana.

    Friday, March 8, 2013

    Five other stories this week

    While the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has dominated the news this week, there were a few other stories of note, which are highlighted below.

    1. The Economist looks at the risk of Honduras becoming a failed state. The report concludes, "Honduras's politics has become as dysfunctional as its government and security forces." It quotes the head of Honduras's official, but independent, Human Rights Commission as saying, "The rule of law in this country has broken down."

    U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, this week said that police reform in Honduras must continue or "the aid that we offer will be useless."

    2. A new report focuses on changes in the FARC's control in Colombia since 2002, when the last attempted round of peace talks ended. The report, by Colombian NGO Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, discusses how loss of territorial control, desertion and the success of the government's aerial bombing campaigns have forced the guerrilla group to alter their tactics. Some interesting findings:

    • In 2012, 15 aerial operations by the government resulted in the death of 200 guerrillas.
    • The FARC have lost control of the center of the country and has been pushed out to the periphery.
    • The government lacks a strategy against drug trafficking organizations and neo-paramilitaries such as the Urabeños and Rastrojos, which pose the greatest threat to the country's security.

    3. This month marks the one-year anniversary of El Salvador's gang truce between the country’s two most violent gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. Mother Jones and Tumblr's Storyboard project put together a photo essay on the violent conditions that continue in El Salvador.

    Here is another powerful photo essay that notes, "El Salvador, a small country of six million people, is brimming with an estimated 50,000 street gang members, plus another 10,000 who are behind bars. Since the first truce took effect about a year ago, the average daily death toll from gang-related violence has gone down from 14 to five."

    4. Ecuador is leading the charge to reform the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States. Many of the reforms aim to limit the body's power. America's Quarterly published a Q&A with José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director of Human Rights Watch, and Gustavo Mohme, director of Peruvian newspaper La República, on the potential consequences of the reforms.

    5. Today is International Women's Day. In honor, various media outlets have released reports on the high rates of femicide in Latin America. BBC Mundo published a graphic highlighting what it calls a "pandemic" in the region:

  • Between January 2011 and June 2012, 529 women were killed in Mexico.
  • Between January 1, 2012 and October 16, 2012, 512 women were killed in Guatemala.
  • In the first seven months of 2012, 231 women were killed in El Salvador, while in 2011, 647 were killed.
  • An article in Bolivia's El Deber shows there were 442,056 incidences of violence against women in the country between 2007 and 2011.
  • Friday, March 1, 2013

    "Overview of U.S. Interests in the Western Hemisphere: Opportunities and Challenges"

    On Thursday, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere held a hearing, titled "Overview of U.S. Interests in the Western Hemisphere: Opportunities and Challenges."

    The two witnesses were Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the Department of State Roberta S. Jacobson and Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean Mark Feierstein.

    Main points of discussion:

    1. Colombia as a success story and its cooperation with other governments in the region to fight drug trafficking
    2. Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere
    3. Cuba: The discussion almost exclusively focused on Alan Gross
    4. Counternarcotics: Partnering with Colombia and Mexico to address drug-related
      violence in Central America; Violence related to the drug war in Mexico; Caribbean Basin Security initiative
    5. Evaluation of aid impact in Haiti
    6. Post-Chávez Venezuela
    7. Rights of Afro-descendants and indigenous populations
    8. Environmental issues: Clean energy in the region (Also included discussion on deforestation in the Amazon)
    9. Trade with Mexico

    In her opening testimony Assistant Secretary Jacobson said that relations were on a positive trajectory, with the U.S. focused on fostering economic growth, citizen security, clean energy and strengthening democracy. Secretary Jacobson told the committee that the Obama administration's overall approach to Latin America "is as much about seizing opportunities as it is about countering threats."

    Feierstein focused on the shift USAID has made in the region by increasingly working with institutions from the recipient country's government so they may generate revenue for themselves as well as closely working with the private sector. He mentioned the need to focus on crime prevention and investing in youth development. He also noted, "In much of Latin America and the Caribbean, we are well on our way to achieving the USAID goal of largely graduating countries in the region from foreign assistance by 2030."

    Chairman of the subcommittee Matt Salmon's (R-AZ) opening statement can be found here and Ranking Member Albio Sires'(D-NJ) can be found here.

    Colombia as a model

    Several of the subcommittee members heralded Colombia as the region's main success story. Medellin was singled out a couple of times, with Feierstein saying, "Medellin is a success story. It was once seen as a drug capital and just recently it was featured in the New York Times."

    When asked by Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) what the U.S. could apply to Colombia from Mexico, Jacobson underscored that there were differences in each country's specific situation (for one, Mexico is a federal system), and that there were both positive and negative lessons to be learned from Colombia.

    The most interesting take-away from the discussion surrounding Colombia, however, was the topic of its training of foreign forces. (See here for a previous post on Colombian training of foreign forces)

    Secretary Jacobson said a big benefit of U.S. investment in Colombia is that it now knows how to combat drug trafficking and can work with the U.S. in the hemisphere. She noted that the Colombians have trained over 14,000 forces from 25 countries, saying, "they know how to do things better than us." She also highlighted that Colombians are working with Central American governments to combat drug traffickers as well as working with the Mexican government to train police and helicopter pilots, among other initiatives.

    Both witnesses reiterated the U.S. government's support for the peace process, saying it was willing to do whatever necessary to facilitate a successful outcome.

    Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) pushed hard about what the State Department and USAID were doing to promote the rights of Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups in the more geographically isolated regions of the country like Chocó and Tumaco. Jacobson noted that economic assistance to Afro-Colombians has been increased, but that there was a long way to go in terms of improving security and economic opportunity. Feierstein noted the Santos administration's strides to increase equality with the victims law and land redistribution law, which USAID helped to draft.

    Iranian influence in the hemisphere

    Several members of the subcommittee brought up Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere, most notably, Ranking Member Albio Sires (D-NJ), Rep. Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC). They expressed concern over Iran's economic agreements with several countries in the hemisphere, especially Venezuela, as well as the truth commission that Argentine legislators have approved to investigate the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. The commission would be made up by experts from other countries and allow them to travel to Iran for investigations. The Iranian Parliament has not yet approved the commission.

    Jacobson acknowledged that the State Department is monitoring the threat, because "anything is possible," but did not give a sense of urgency. She noted that she is continually working with the intelligence community to monitor the threat and that the State Department will release a report on Iran's influence in the hemisphere in June. The Assistant Secretary mentioned the State Department is working with governments in the region to evaluate Iran's influence, making sure they understand how the U.S. views the situation, sharing information when it can, and teaching other governments how to best monitor the Iran and Hezbollah at their request.

    This has been a reoccurring topic in the House in recently, with the passage of a bill in 2012,"Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere," that President Obama signed into law on December 28, and a report earlier this year, "A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border," detailing Iran and Hezbollah's increased presence in the region.

    Venezuela post-Hugo Chávez

    Although the topic wasn't discussed at length, a couple of members questioned what the U.S.' role would be in ensuring elections in the event of Hugo Chávez's death or resignation.

    Jacobson echoed what the standard State Department line has been: that it supports democracy in the country and the Venezuelan people's right to decide their future within the guidelines of the constitution. Feierstein noted that USAID has programs to support civil society and support human rights groups that work with elections. Rep. Albio Sires mentioned that improving relations with Venezuela would be beneficial, as it is the world's 4th-largest producer of petroleum.

    Cuba

    Alan Gross was the main focus of all discussion with regards to Cuba. Rep. Theodore E. Deutch (D-FL) emphatically pushed Jacobson on what the State Department was doing to get him out, expressing disbelief that even mutual allies, such as the Vatican, were unable to help.

    Jacobson said that the U.S. views this as a humanitarian issue, noting that Gross' mother is currently fighting cancer and lost his daughter to cancer, amid concern over his own health. The Assistant Secretary later noted that the Cuban government has repeatedly refused U.S. requests for a doctor of the Gross family's choosing to see Alan Gross.

    The issue of American fugitives seeking refuge in Cuba, like the case of Joanne Chesimard, was also brought up. Jacobson reiterated several times that the U.S.' goal is to ultimately allow Cubans to "make their own decisions."

    Mexican Drug Cartels

    Del. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (American Samoa) was the only member to ask about Mexico's drug cartels, mentioning the problem of high demand for drugs in the U.S. as well as the problem of U.S. guns showing up at the majority of Mexican crime scenes.

    Jacobson admitted that there was a shared responsibility in the fight against drug trafficking. She noted that the Obama administration has put more money towards drugs and that the demand side is improving.

    As for Mexico, Jacobson said that the increased pressure on the cartels has noticeably inhibited their ability to operate and has increased their operation costs. She also cited the main problem that resulted from the previous administration's strategy to target kingpins: the fragmentation of large cartels into smaller groups. Jacobson noted that the U.S.' goal is to coordinate with Mexican security forces to lower drug trafficking and violence to levels within police control.

    Haiti

    Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) questioned Feierstein about the USAID mission in Haiti, particularly given Haitian President Martelly's recent comments that relief efforts were uncoordinated and undermining his government and that he wants the money to stop coming in and fix the relief process. He noted that 250,000 Haitians still remain in tent camps.

    Feierstein responded by noting that the number of Haitians living in camps is currently around 300,000, down from the 1.5 million when the effort started three years ago. He stressed that the number one priority for USAID is job creation. Noting that without that, or the installation of health or education services, people are unable to move to new housing. He said it was a long-term challenge, but USAID has a long-term plan in place.

    Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI)

    When asked by Rep. Meeks if the CBSI was a success or failure, Jacobson said "the jury is still out" on the success of the initiative and that there is certainly work to be done. She noted increased cooperation between governments and improved judicial reform. To this end, she mentioned both Canada and the United Kingdom's contribution of extra legislators to work on judicial reforms.

    Mark Feierstein said USAID is working on three main objectives in the Caribbean:

    1. Support efforts to expand education and employment opportunities

    2. Working on the juvenile judicial process

    3. Community policing, which they have had the most success with, particularly in Jamaica.

    He also mentioned in his testimony that Los Angeles officials had trained officials from Central American governments.

    A video of the hearing in its entirety can be seen here.

    For more detailed notes on the hearing see a previous Just the Facts post. According to WOLA's Adam Isacson, several topics were left out of the hearing:

    • There was no mention, apart from Colombia’s role as a training country, of bi-lateral or regional military involvement or strategy.
    • Other than Salmon’s closing remarks, nothing was said about the border or border security.
    • Nothing was said about immigration reform.
    • There was nothing said about Central American immigrants, it was as if the committee members present believed that everyone in this country who is a Hispanic immigrant has come from either Mexico out of fear of the drug cartels, or from Cuba, out of fear of being repressed.
    • Although violence caused by narco-trafficking and organized criminal activity was mentioned, nothing was said about US domestic gun reform and the potential impact that could have on violence in Central America.
    • While crop-transitions were mentioned for current farmers of coca, nothing was mentioned about the UN’s recent decriminalization of traditional uses of the coca leaf in Bolivia.

    Seven out of eleven subcommittee members attended the event, not including the chairman, Matt Salmon (R-AZ).

    From the majority:
    Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC)
    Rep. Ron DeSantis (FL)
    Rep. Trey Radel (FL)

    From the minority:
    Rep. Albio Sires (NJ), Ranking Member
    Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY)
    Rep. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega (AS)
    Rep. Theodore E. Deutch (FL)

    Monday, February 25, 2013

    Killings of Human Rights Defenders Increase in Colombia: What Is Going Wrong?

    This post was written by Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund. The original article can be found on the LAWG Blog. To read the original version, click here.

    "What is going wrong in Colombia?" asks the coalition of human rights defenders in Colombia. The government of Juan Manuel Santos last year invested time and funding in mechanisms to protect communities and people at risk, among them human rights defenders.

    And yet, in 2012, every five days a defender was assassinated in Colombia, and every 20 hours one defender was attacked. In 2012, 357 men and women in Colombia were attacked for their work as human rights defenders, according to Somos Defensores ("We Are Defenders"), which maintains a unified database of attacks against human rights defenders. Sixty-nine defenders were assassinated, a jump from 49 assassinations in 2011. Indeed, this is the highest number of aggressions against defenders registered by the database in the last ten years, and a 49 percent increase since 2011. The attacks include: 202 threats, 69 assassinations, 50 assaults, 26 arbitrary detentions, 5 forced disappearances, 1 arbitrary use of the penal system, 3 robberies of information, and 1 case of sexual violence.

    "Is it possible that protecting leaders and defenders goes beyond providing bulletproof vests, bodyguards and laws that sit unused on top of the desks of ineffective government officials?"
    Somos Defensores 2012 annual report.

    There were efforts to improve and expand the coverage of the protection program in the last year, according to Somos Defensores. This was driven by substantive discussions in the National Roundtables for Guarantees between local and national human rights and social organizations and government officials. In 2012, the government's National Protection Unit received 9717 requests for protective measures, of which 3668 were approved. There was little progress in implementing collective protection measures, however, which are essential for returning communities, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other communities at risk. Contingency plans were developed for various zones by the Interior Ministry but not a single one was implemented; according to the Ministry, local authorities are responsible for implementation.

    There were advances in 2012 in judicial rulings regarding the protection of defenders, including a Supreme Court ruling that crimes against defenders or land rights leaders should be considered crimes against humanity, given a context of systematic persecution. Other advances included: the network of international agencies in Colombia established a National Prize for Defending Human Rights in Colombia, and the government pledged to launch a media campaign on the rights of defenders in 2013.

    But the sad truth is: even if protection plans were fully implemented, no amount of protection can make up for the lack of progress in investigating and prosecuting attacks against human rights defenders. Three agencies that should help the most in defending defenders--the Attorney General's office, the Ombudsman's Office (Defensoría del Pueblo), and the Inspector General's office (Procuraduría General) were "absent" in 2012. In particular, "it is discouraging that after 8 long years of silence from the administration of Volmar Antonio Pérez [the Ombudsman], we hoped for a positive change, but it did not happen."

    The 69 defenders who lost their lives include indigenous leaders, people involved in organizing over mining companies, hip-hop musicians who organized against violence, youth leaders, community organizers, heads of victims' associations, land rights crusaders, union organizers, Afro-Colombian leaders, the organizer of a women's handicraft cooperative and an LGBT defender. Of the 69 murders, 9 are believed to have been committed by paramilitaries, 11 by the FARC guerrillas, 1 by the armed forces, and the vast majority are unknown. This represents an increase of assassinations attributed to the FARC compared to the 5 believed to be committed by this guerrilla group in 2011.

    Defenders were threatened by phone, visits to their homes, and distribution of threats via pamphlets, flyers, emails and text messages. Paramilitary successor groups such as the Black Eagles, Rastrojos and Urabeños were behind the majority of threats.

    Of all types of aggressions against defenders in 2012, paramilitaries were believed to be responsible for 41 percent; guerrillas for 9 percent; the Colombian government (army, police, intelligence, Attorney General's office, etc.) for 13 percent; and 37 percent were unknown.

    Somos Defensores notes that some of the increase in aggressions listed in the database may be due to the greater determination of the human rights community in Colombia to document abuses against them despite their fears.

    The year 2012 was "an endless round of meetings, workshops, encounters, studies, cell phones for protection, bullet proof vests, bullet proof cars, bodyguards, arms and conferences to debate the eternal situation of insecurity and persecution of a legal and legitimate exercise of rights that each day costs more lives in Colombia, but without attacking the real causes of the violence against human rights defenders in Colombia: the lack of investigations, and the real prevention of aggressions, impunity, corruption, stigmatization, and the abandonment of many leaders in regions of the country that are handed over to the control of armed actors, corrupt politicians and multinational corporations."

    Friday, February 22, 2013

    Week in Review

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

    Mexico

  • Human Rights Watch released a report, "Mexico's Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored," documenting Mexican security forces' participation in forced disappearances. The report's findings were alarming and highlighted Mexico's police problem. As analyst James Bosworth notes, "The number of police abuses listed in this report - including illegal detentions, corruption and collusion with organized crime - is incredibly high and much worse than the military abuses." It also underscores the failures of country's judicial system, noting that prosecutors delay or avoid investigations. Some of the reports findings include:
    • Security forces were involved in 149 of the 249 cases of forced disappearances investigated.

    • None of the 249 cases investigated by HRW have led to a conviction in a court of law.
    • In 54 cases of force disappearance, the Mexican Army, Navy or Federal Police were involved. Local police were involved in about 40 percent of the 249 cases.
    • The number of those disappeared under former President Felipe Calderón, previously thought to be 25,000, is actually 27,000.
  • The HRW report comes on the heels of a civil society group identifying Acapulco in the Guerrero state as Mexico's most violent municipality in 2012. Of those included on the list of the most violent municipalities in the country, five out of the top twenty were located in Guerrero.
  • The Guerrero state has also seen a growth in the widely debated "self-defense" vigilante groups. This week the Associated Press reported the first killing of a suspect by one such group, while El Universal claims it was the second. Animal Politico offers a good interactive map of the vigilante groups.
  • El Chapo Guzman, head of Sinaloa Cartel

    Authorities are investigating whether a shootout occurred in the Guatemalan department of Petén last night that resulted in the death of El Chapo Guzman, head of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and Latin America's biggest drug trafficker. According to Insight Crime, the country’s Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez confirmed that there had been two confrontations, while a Guatemalan army spokesman said there was no sign that a shootout had occurred at one of the sites. Lopez said one of the dead allegedly "looked like" El Chapo, however reports of what happened remain confused. The Insight Crime article provides good analysis of what the news-- albeit likely false, according to the website-- would mean for Mexico.

    Colombia

  • Colombian NGO Somos Defensores reported that 2012 was the deadliest year in the past decade for human rights activists in Colombia. According to the group, one human rights advocate was attacked every 20 hours and one was killed every five days, reported news website Colombia Reports. Semana magazine has an infographic on the data.
  • A good article in Christian Science Monitor looks at the recent wave of FARC attacks and its impact on peace talks between the government and the rebel group, which began a new round on Monday. According to the article, "the fact that negotiations have withstood the strain is a promising sign of the strength of the process, analysts say."
  • Colombia's ELN rebel group announced that it was working with the FARC to fight natural resource-mining mega projects together in the Antioquia department. The announcement, posted on the ELN's website, says that leaders of the two groups met in early February and decided "to keep fighting against mega projects including mining exploitation, large dams for hydropower and monocultivation of woods and agro fuels that impoverish people and the environment."
  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released its annual Human Rights report on Colombia today. The document highlights continued concerns about attacks on human rights defenders, military jurisdiction over crimes committed against civilians by soldiers, impunity for human rights violations and the ongoing threat of neo-paramilitaries. It praises the current peace process in Havana and the passage and beginning steps of implementation of the Victims Law.
  • Honduras

  • The former head of Honduran police, General Ricardo Ramirez del Cid, accused police and military officers for his son's murder last Sunday. Officials said the teenager was killed by gang members, however, Ramirez claimed corrupt security force members killed his son in a failed kidnap attempt.
  • Honduran newspaper El Heraldo reported an alarming statistic that more than 60,000 murders committed over the past ten years in the country have yet to be investigated.
  • El Salvador

    Given reports of a recent increase in revenge killings between rival gangs, there are concerns that the gang truce between the MS-13 and the 18th Street gangs could be breaking down. According to Insight Crime, "recent killings had seen the murder rate creep up to an average of 6.6 a day since the start of this year, up from 5.3 at the end of 2012. However, the rate still remains far below the average of 14 murders a day registered before the truce."

    Costa Rica

    The Associated Press put out an article on Monday looking at U.S. counternarcotics assistance to Costa Rica. Although the country's crime levels remain the second-lowest in Central America (after Nicaragua), in recent years the country has seen a spike in crime due to its increasing involvement in the drug trade. To counter this trend, "Costa Rica's conservative government has proposed looser wiretapping laws, easier confiscation of suspect assets and quicker approval of U.S. warships docking in Costa Rican ports," reports the AP.

    The article notes that the U.S. spent over $18.4 million in direct security aid to Costa Rica in 2012. It also continues to equip the army-less country with gear such as night vision goggles, provides law enforcement with training and invested in a $2m satellite and radio communications station on the Pacific Coast linked to the U.S. anti-drug command in Key West.

    Cuba

  • On Wednesday, a seven-member delegation of U.S. congressmen traveled to Cuba and met with imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross and with Cuban President Raúl Castro to discuss improving bilateral relations.
  • A senior official in the Obama administration said there is "a pretty clear case" for Cuba to be removed from the State Department's "state sponsors of terrorism" list (which includes Syria, Sudan and Iran), according to the Boston Globe. The article mentions that while Congress must vote on whether or not to lift the embargo, the Obama administration can act unilaterally to remove Cuba from the terrorist list, which has been a key obstacle to negotiations with the Castro government. Both the White House and State Department have denied they are considering removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror.
  • Caricom meeting in Haiti

    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder attended a summit in Haiti of the 15-member Caribbean Community, known as Caricom. The discussion centered on crime and security concerns, but the main point of media coverage surrounded gun control. The group asked for the United States’ help in ensuring an international arms treaty included provisions dealing with small arms. "It is the small arms and ammunition which do the most damage in the Caricom region," said Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, which is in charge of security issues within the bloc.

    U.S. in the region

    United States Southern Command leader John Kelly visited Panama this week and met with President Ricardo Martinelli, Minister of Public Security Jose Mulino, and the directors of Panama's National Aeronaval Service (SENAN), National Border Service (SENAFRONT), and the Panamanian National Police. He then spent two days in Guatemala to meet with senior government and security officials. This was General Kelly's second trip to Central America this year.