Syndicate content Link to our RSS feed / Link to our podcast feed

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Week in Review

This week the Associated Press uncovered that USAID tried to "trigger a Cuban Spring" through a secretly-established social media platform, the DEA said Mexican cartels were setting up shop in Colorado and Washington to cash in on black market marijuana, and the United States stopped sharing radar intelligence with Honduras. Here's a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • The Associated Press published an incendiary investigation this week revealing that USAID used front companies to secretly establish a now defunct Twitter-like social media platform in Cuba in 2010, with the intended purpose of stirring social unrest that might "trigger a Cuban Spring." The platform was also used to collect private data from its 40,000 users.

    On Thursday USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said that while the program was not covert, "parts of it were done discreetly." The White House echoed those claims, saying the program was debated in Congress and reviewed by the Government Accountability Office.

    The Pan-American Post posted an excellent piece outlining the key points of the length AP report, while political analysts Greg Weeks, James Bosworth and Marc Hanson of the Washington Office on Latin America also provided helpful commentary.

  • During a hearing on U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation on Tuesday, James Dinkins, executive associate director for homeland security at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told the Committee on Homeland Security that "We have the best relationship with our Mexican counterparts that we've ever had." He pointed to the coordination between U.S. and Mexican agencies involved in the capture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera as evidence of the strengthening relationship.

    The head of U.S. Northern Command, General Charles Jacoby, emphasized this same point several weeks ago in the wake of reports claiming U.S.-Mexico cooperation had suffered since Mexican President Peña Nieto mandated all contact with U.S. law enforcement go through the Ministry of the Interior.

  • During a budget hearing for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the House’s Committee on Appropriations Tuesday, DEA head Michele Leonhart criticized marijuana legalization measures in Washington and Colorado. She claimed Mexican drug traffickers were "setting up shop" and "are ready to come and sell cheaper" marijuana on the black market in the two states. She also accused many marijuana shops of being supplied by cartel-controlled growing operations. Leonhart's formal testimony can be found here.
  • United States Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske testified during a budget hearing for the agency on Tuesday. His testimony and a webcast of the hearing can be found here.
  • The United States confirmed this week that it stopped sharing radar intelligence with Honduran authorities on March 23 in response to a recently-passed law that permits the military to shoot down aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs. A U.S. embassy spokesperson said the move is unlikely to grossly disrupt either interdiction efforts or cocaine flows, as “80 to 90 percent of illegal drugs that enter Honduras (do so) via maritime routes,” and not by air.
  • In an interview with El Universal Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández noted that increased security cooperation with Colombia and Mexico would be key following the United States' decision to end sharing radar information, as both are equipped with better intelligence technology.
  • Uruguay President Jose Mujica will meet with President Obama at the White House May 12. On the agenda will be Uruguay's recent decision to receive six Guantanamo Bay detainees as well as the country’s recent decision to regulate the sale of marijuana.
  • Colombia’s top court halted U.S.-backed coca crop fumigation in national parks, although as WOLA’s Adam Isacson asserted, crops sprayed in these areas did not account for much of the total acreage affected by the practice. He also described the "quiet but intense" debate over aerial eradication in the country.
  • U.S. Southern Command head General John Kelly, discussed regional counternarcotics strategies with military and civilian leaders from 14 nations in Guatemala City April 1-3 at the annual Central American Regional Security Conference. The participants discussed lessons learned from Operation Martillo, the U.S.-led and funded counternarcotics surge operation in Central America's coastal waters.
  • Some reports this week on U.S. training security forces in the region:
    • The AFP reported 42 members of Guatemala's National Police would be trained in Miami through funding from the Central American Regional Security Initiative April 5 to May 4 and August 30 to September 28. The Guatemalan officers will replicate the trainings for 400 of their counterparts when they return to their country.
    • The Georgia Army National Guard trained members of Guatemala's counternarcotics task force as part of the Defense Department's Regionally Aligned Forces program. According to Southcom, members of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Border Patrol and DEA were involved in the trainings.
    • Green Berets assigned to an airborne Special Forces Group trained with Dominican Republic Special Operations Forces (SOF) as part of a month-long training program that focused on medical skills, marksmanship, and airborne operations.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto met with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández this week, the first visit in six years of a Mexican leader to the Central American country. The two leaders announced they would be forming a "regional front against organized crime" and would re-launch high-level bilateral security talks.
  • Also of note this week: an InSight Crime investigation on violence and the flow of drugs at the tri-border area of Brazil, Colombia and Peru; an informative article in the New Republic about increased migrant deaths on U.S. soil as a result of the crackdown along the U.S.-Mexico border; and an analysis of the five major shortcomings of Brazil's pacification program, which has kicked up in recent weeks, written by Americas Society/Council of the Americas's researcher Rachel Glickhouse for her RioGringa blog. Both Al Jazeera and Rio on Watch published excellent photo essays of the favela occupation.
  • Friday, March 21, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week Mexico's national security commissioner resigned, U.S. Southern Command deployed more ships to help Honduras' Navy interdict drugs and Colombian security forces were deployed to the country's primary cocaine port, where neo-paramilitary groups are terrorizing residents. Here's a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • Colombian Minister of Justice Alfonso Gomez asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield to divert U.S. security assistance away from aerial coca fumigation and towards preventative, development programs like alternative crop incentives. According to Gomez, doing so would free up resources to "attack the causes" of the illicit drug trade, which he asserted needed to be viewed as "an economic and social problem."
  • The Washington Office on Latin America released a report on Colombia’s training of foreign forces throughout the region. The United States strongly supports this practice, as the use of Colombian facilities and trainers can be up to four times cheaper than using U.S. assets. The creation of an International Cooperation Division to help coordinate trainings at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, allocated $15 million in the 2014 budget, suggests this is no passing trend.
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has said his country would receive five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, although U.S. Ambassador Julissa Reynoso said the two countries are still "in consultations and dialogue." As the Pan-American Post noted, if an agreement is reached, Uruguay would become the second Latin American country to accept Guantanamo detainees, after El Salvador accepted two prisoners in 2012.
  • Honduran Defense Minister Samuel Reyes announced U.S. Southern Command would be ramping up its activities off the coast of Honduras to work with the Honduran Navy on counternarcotics operations. SOUTHCOM’s new deployment includes four armed vessels, two cutters and two frigates, one to the Atlantic and the other to the Pacific.
  • On Thursday, Human Rights Watch released a report on the security crisis in the Colombian port city of Buenaventura. The report highlighted the violence, torture and extortion committed by the two predominant paramilitary successor groups in the area, the Urabeños and the Empresa, which caused the displacement of 19,000 people from the city in 2013 alone. El Espectador also profiled the security situation, while freelance journalist James Bargent noted the relatively recent U.S-Colombia free trade agreement has exacerbated the problem.
  • El Tiempo reported that almost 600 soldiers and marines have been deployed to Buenaventura in hopes of wrangling control from the Empresa and the Urabeños, which is said to be Colombia's most powerful criminal group. As the Los Angeles Times noted, "the Buenaventura situation is especially alarming because the Colombian and U.S. governments have poured millions of dollars in aid into the city over the past decade."
  • A sobering but excellent interactive feature (and phone app) from Colombian investigative news organization Verdad Abierta and Colombia's National Center for Historical Memory chronicles 700 massacres that have taken place in the country from 1982-present.
  • Military budgets in Latin America and the Caribbean grew by three percent in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The study found Nicaragua increased its budget by 27 percent, while Honduras and Guatemala increased their budgets by about 18 percent.
  • Honduran authorities discovered opium poppies for the first time during a greenhouse raid in the western part of the country, IPS News reported Monday.
  • On Sunday, El Salvador's Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) named left-wing FMLN candidate and former guerrilla Salvador Sanchez Céren as the country's next president, following a contentious post-election standoff with the conservative ARENA party. Sanchez Céren and his vice-president Oscar Ortíz will begin their terms on June 1. As Central American Politics noted, Sanchez Céren, has appointed six other former leftist rebels to his transition team.
  • As Salvadoran journalist Hector Silva highlighted in an op-ed for El Faro, while the U.S. government historically "does not like to dance" with the country's political left, there are a number of issues, like drug trafficking and immigration, that inextricably link the two nations. There were a number of other helpful articles examining the challenges Sanchez Céren now faces given his razor-thin victory, including these from Al Jazeera, Prensa Libre, and Americas Quarterly
  • U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew traveled to Brazil this week in hopes of repairing relations with the country, which were strained following revelations of NSA espionage earlier this year. Lew also met with Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson visited the region this week as well to meet with government officials from Brazil and Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes. Following her meeting with Cartes, Jacobson said the United States was looking to increase cooperation with the South American nation in the fight against organized crime.
  • On Thursday, five members of the U.S. Congress met with Bolivian President Evo Morales to discuss improving bilateral relations.
  • The head of Mexico's National Security Commission and federal police, Manuel Mondragon, stepped down on Monday. President Enrique Peña Nieto nominated lawyer Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia to be his replacement, profiled by El Universal here. As the Los Angeles Times noted, this is the second high-level Mexican security official to step down in less than two months, noting the resignation of Colombian security advisor General Oscar Naranjo in late January.
  • Brazilian think-tank Igarape Institute released a report, "Changes in the Neighborhood:Reviewing Citizen Security Cooperation in Latin America," which examined a shift in security strategies towards “softer” policies focused on regional cooperation and citizen participation. InSight Crime published an analysis of the report, including an examination of the United States’ role in citizen security throughout the region.
  • Peruvian investigative news website IDL-Reporteros critiqued the Peruvian government’s militarized forced eradication strategy in the VRAE region, which now produces more coca than any other place in the world.
  • Tuesday, March 18, 2014

    DoD security aid to Latin America and the Caribbean: 2008-2012

    We recently obtained reports from the Defense Department that detail the department’s allocations and spending on foreign-assistance related programs in Latin America in 2011 and 2012. The programs included in the report were Section 1033 Counter-Drug Assistance, Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance and the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (also known as Counter-Terrorism Fellowship Program). The DoD funds a couple other security assistance programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, but the majority goes to counternarcotics assistance through these programs.

    Based on these new numbers and other available DoD data, here's some of what we know about DoD security assistance to the region:

    The top five recipients of Department of Defense military and police aid to Latin America and the Caribbean in 2012:

    1. Mexico: $71,608,748
    2. Colombia: $60,353,979
    3. Western Hemisphere Regional: $16,425,000
    4. Guatemala: $12,525,080
    5. Honduras: $ 8,473,271
    Everywhere else: $54,146,129

    Total:$223,674,189, or about 31 percent of total U.S. military assistance to the region in 2011 ($719,903,342)

    The top five recipients in 2011:

    1. Colombia: $112,436,613
    2. Caribbean Regional: $93,022,000
    3. Mexico:$85,543,892
    4. Western Hemisphere Regional: $66,844,000
    5. Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao): $22,603,000
    Everywhere else: $101,331,939

    Total:$481,781,444, or about 46 percent of total U.S. military assistance to the region in 2011 ($1,041,075,954)

    In 2012, Pentagon foreign-assistance spending in the region was cut in half. The biggest drops were seen in assistance to Colombia, which was cut by almost half, from just over $112 million to just over $60 million, the Caribbean, which was reduced from $93 million to $7 million, and the Western Hemisphere regional account, which dropped from almost $69 million to $16 million. Mexico only lost about $15 million in funding and overtook Colombia as the region’s top recipient of Pentagon foreign assistance.

    The "Netherlands Antilles" has received heightened DoD funding since about 2004 for counternarcotics assistance. The Dutch territory was dissolved in 2010 and its constituent islands -- Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire, Dutch St. Martin, Saba and St. Eustatius -- now have varying legal statuses within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, however the Dutch government is still responsible for the islands' defense. In 2011, the Pentagon gave just over $20 million to the island of Curaçao, right off Venezuela's coast, where the Dutch maintain a naval base and the United States maintains an airbase. The Dutch have been a key partner to the United States in antidrug operations in the Caribbean and participate in Operation Martillo, the United States' counternarcotics surge operation in Central and South America's coastal waters. The islands received no funding in 2012.

    Because of the enormous drop in spending in the Caribbean and the Netherlands Antilles after 2011, Guatemala and Honduras slid up into the top spots for Pentagon foreign assistance in 2012, although both countries received greater sums in 2011 than in 2012.

    Guatemala received just over $20 million in assistance from the Pentagon in 2011 and just over $12 million in 2012. Much of this went to the Guatemalan Army, which until this year was banned from receiving any funds from State Department-managed programs due to human rights concerns. Because these human rights conditions do not apply to Defense Department spending, the United States was able to get around this ban. For 2014, aid to the Guatemalan Army through the State Department is technically allowed, but has strong human rights conditions attached that Secretary of State Kerry must first certify Guatemala is meeting before any funding is released.

    Among the several initiatives the Defense Department is funding in Guatemala is the Joint Task Force Tecún Umán, along the Mexican border, Joint Task Force Chortí, currently being set up along the Honduran border, a planned joint task force near the El Salvadoran border, and a Naval Special Forces unit operating in coastal areas. Guatemala is also a participant in Operation Martillo.

    The top five recipients from 2008-2012 and the total amount each country received in those five years were:

    1. Colombia: $601,529,271
    2. Caribbean Regional: $445,380,000
    3. Mexico: $310,692,603
    4. Western Hemisphere Regional: $294,199,000
    5. Netherlands Antilles: $93,290,000
    Everywhere else: $450,534,672

    Total: $2,202,225,546 or about 36 percent of total U.S. military assistance to the region over those five years ($6,043,212,995)

    As the above and below charts show, spending to the region overall is in decline. As this Mother Jones article from January of this year highlighted, although big spending in the region for the Pentagon is down, there may be no similar decline in the number of Special Operations Forces in the region performing counternarcotics operations and “building partner capacity.”

    However, according to this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which broadly outlines DOD strategy and priorities, “If sequestration continues, there would be fewer U.S. military forces in other regions, such as the Western Hemisphere and Africa, than there are today.”

    With the exception of 2011, the Pentagon has tended to spend a little over half of what the State Department has allocated. In 2011, the budgets for both were close, but this had more to do with a large drop in counternarcotics funding to Haiti and the large allocation of Mérida funds to Mexico in 2010 ($416,139,000) than it did with a change in Pentagon spending levels. For the most part, the State Department allocates more funding than the Defense Department, with notable exceptions in regional-specific spending and countries where, for either political reasons (Ecuador) or human rights reasons (Honduras and Guatemala), State Department funding is low.

    Friday, February 28, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week, the world's most wanted drug trafficker was captured in a joint U.S.-Mexico military operation, U.S. Southern Command said it didn't have enough money to interdict the majority of drugs at sea, robots started patrolling drug tunnels at the border and Venezuela announced a new ambassador to the United States. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • On Thursday the State Department released its “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013” The Colombian government was particularly upset by the report, which cited impunity and inefficiency in the justice system as principle human rights infractions in the country. Vice President Angelino Garzón responded by saying the report was an “intrusion” into Colombia’s internal politics and that the United States had no place to preach about human rights given its maintenance of the Guantánamo Bay prison facility.

    Some other topics touched on in the report include Mexico’s negligence in accounting for thousands of “disappeared” citizens, extrajudicial killings by security forces in El Salvador, and rampant corruption in government institutions and security forces in Honduras and Guatemala. For Politico, Dana Frank examined the United States’ continued to security relationship with Honduras despite these abuses and current President Juan Orlando Hernández’s own shady past.

  • The heads of U.S. Southern Command and Northern Command (Mexico and the Bahamas fall under its purview) gave their posture statements at a hearing before the House’s Armed Services Committee. Northcom commander General Jacoby underscored that the U.S.-Mexico security relationship remains closer than ever despite recent grumblings suggesting a distancing, pointing to the recent capture of Mexican drug trafficker “El Chapo” Guzmán in a joint military operation as evidence. General Jacoby’s posture statement can be read here (PDF).
  • Among several other topics, Southcom commander General Kelly discussed the effect of budget cuts, claiming he now watches 74 percent of cocaine passing through Honduras’ maritime corridor go by due to insufficient vessels and equipment. He touched on human rights vetting and noted his ever-growing concern over shifts in the drug trade towards the Caribbean. The video can be watched here and General Kelly’s posture statement can be read here(PDF).
  • The Associated Press reported on budget cuts to the Coast Guard, despite an increase in maritime trafficking routes. The article noted, “While security has tightened at the U.S. border, drug smugglers are increasingly turning to the high seas.” InSight Crime argued this indicates a politicization in funding for the drug war. An example of this increased border funding can be seen in the recent deployment of remote control robots to patrol tunnels used to smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • In another hearing this week, “The Posture of the U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Transportation Command,” Colombia was heralded as a military and human rights success story, particularly given that it is now training other countries’ security forces.
  • Colombia's military will soon send "senior officials from the Army specialized in education, training and protocols” to help train national police officers in Guatemala, reported U.S.-Southern Command-sponsored news site InfoSur Hoy.
  • Colombia’s Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón was in Washington D.C. this week for a series of meetings with top U.S. officials, including “High-Level Partnership DialogueSemana published part of a leaked copy of his agenda, noting that he would ask for continued U.S. support in programs like aerial fumigation and other counternarcotics operations.

    While in town Pinzón gave a talk at Center for American Progress where he “laid out an extremely expansive vision of the role of the armed forces post-peace accord, ranging from border security to confronting drug trafficking, transnational crime and continued armed violence in an accord’s aftermath; and from addressing climate change to expanding the military’s role in development,” according to Lisa Haugaard, director of Latin America Working Group. He also strongly emphasized increasing Colombia’s role in security training particularly in Central America and the Caribbean, some of which is done with U.S.-funding. See here for concerns about Colombia’s exportation of training.

  • There were two informative English-language explainers this week about the amassing corruption scandals rocking the Colombian military, one from Reuters and the other from the Latin American Working Group. The latter noted that the Army's new commander, General Juan Pablo Rodriguez, oversaw a unit implicated in the false positive scandal.
  • Brazil and the European Union approved an undersea communication cable with the stated purpose of reducing dependency on U.S. fiber optic cables and to “guarantee the neutrality of the internet,” protecting Brazil Internet users from U.S. surveillance.
  • An article in Foreign Policy questioned the Pentagon’s support for Suriname’s government, given President Desi Bouterse has been convicted of drug trafficking in the Netherlands and is accused of maintaining links to traffickers currently. His son, Dino Bouterse, was arrested by the DEA and extradited to the United States after he stuck a deal with “Mexican smugglers” (undercover DEA agents) to allow “Hezbollah militants” to train in Suriname. See Just the Facts’ Suriname country page for more information on security assistance to the country.
  • The U.S. State Department announced Tuesday it had given three Venezuelan diplomats 48 hours to exit the country in response to last week’s expulsion of three U.S. consular officials in Venezuela. That same day, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced he would be appointing an ambassador the United States. Though Venezuela and the United States have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 they have maintained embassies. See here for more detailed information on Maximilien Sánchez Arveláiz, the new Venezuelan ambassador to the United States.
  • As the protests continue to rage throughout Venezuela, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sponsored a resolution “asking the administration to study and consider putting in place strong individual sanctions against individuals in the Venezuelan government who hold assets, property and travel visas to the U.S.”
  • The Congressional Research Service published a new report: “Gangs in Central America.”
  • “El Chapo” Guzmán, the world’s most wanted drug trafficker, was captured this weekend in a joint U.S.-Mexico military operation. While Guzmán’s capture was a huge win for the Mexican and United States governments, the general consensus is that it will have little impact on the drug trade while another leader in the Sinaloa cartel will step up to fill his role. Several analysts weighed in on what comes next for narcotrafficking in Mexico -- particularly InSight Crime, which posted a series of good analysis on what his capture means. See our Mexico news page for links to these articles.

    According to reports, the United States’ main contribution was providing intelligence and technology leading up to the capture, while the Mexican Navy, the United States’ main security partner in Mexico, carried out the final capture. Although several indictments have been filed in cities throughout the United States, it is unlikely that Guzmán will get extradited any time soon as lawmakers want him to first face justice in Mexico. President Peña Nieto said he extradition would be possible later. On Thursday the U.S. Treasury Department placed Kingpin Act sanctions against the financial networks of several of Guzmán’s associates. Prensa Libre published a timeline of OFAC sanctions on the Sinaloa Cartel from 2007-2014.

  • Friday, February 14, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week the United States reaffirmed its commitment to fighting narcotrafficking in Central America, a majority of U.S. citizens indicated they wanted a change in U.S. policy to Cuba and Venezuelans took to the streets. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, was in Guatemala and Honduras this week with the head of U.S. Southern Command, General Kelly. In Guatemala, Brownfield met with President Otto Perez Mólina, after which he announced
    an additional $5 million dollars for counternarcotics operations in the country. He also met with Prosecutor General Claudia Paz y Paz and Iván Velásquez Gómez, the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), announcing $4.8 million for that initiative.
  • In Honduras Brownfield reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to supporting counternarcotics initiatives in the country but expressed the State Department’s disapproval of a new law that allows officials to shoot down civilian aircraft suspected of carrying drugs. In a lengthy interview with Honduran newspaper La Prensa, Brownfield said the State Department had found drug flights were down 80 percent in the country and that sea trafficking was on the rise. The visit comes after Honduras’ new president criticized U.S. drug policy in his inauguration speech, calling it a “double standard” and inviting the Obama Administration to have greater cooperation.La Prensa also published a Southcom map showing various illicit trafficking networks across the globe.
  • Mexico's military hosted a competition with cadets and Special Forces from several Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the United States.
  • A new poll released by the Atlantic Council this week found not only that the majority of Americans, but an even higher percentage of Floridians, favor a shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba. This may suggest a shifting tide in relations as a strong anti-Cuba contingent in Florida has been seen as the major political obstacle in thawing relations. Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) published a bi-partisan op-ed on why the United States needs to change its policy towards the island.
  • Human Rights Watch published a report Wednesday on impunity for murders tied to land disputes in Honduras’ contested Bajo Aguán region. U.S. security assistance to Honduras for 2014 has been conditioned on the protection of human rights in this region due to ongoing attacks against activists.
  • The New York Times reported on the links between drug trafficking and deforestation and illegal logging in Honduras. According to the article, “as Honduras has become a central transfer point for drug shipments to the United States, there is more money to pay - and arm - land invaders, who strip the forest and transform the land into businesses like cattle ranching that can be used to launder drug money.”
  • The Associated Press profiled a kidnapping epidemic in Morelos, Mexico and the population’s mistrust of security forces sent to fight it. Locals doubt whether weak government institutions will investigate those responsible and have a long-term impact on the problem.
  • The Christian Science Monitor published a post by Rio Gringa on vigilante justice in Brazil’s biggest cities.
  • Thousands took to the streets in protest of Venezuela Preisdent Nicolás Maduro’s government this week. Student protests in Caracas turned especially violent, leaving three dead: two from the opposition and one government supporter. Each side is blaming the other for the violence. The government is seeking the arrest of opposition leader Leopold Lopez, drawing a wave of criticism, including from the U.S. State Department. Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta posted a video from protests Wednesday night and Venezuela Politics and Human Rights has an excellent analysis and overview. Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reported that the protests have subsided but that citizens were surprised by the heavy military presence. Brazil also experienced some violent protests this week.
  • A California court revoked the U.S. citizenship of a former Guatemalan special forces officer for covering up his role as an army lieutenant in the massacre of 182 villagers in Guatemala. He received the maximum 10 years in prison for deceiving U.S. immigration officials.
  • In an excellent op-ed in the New York Times, Medellín-born author Héctor Abad writes Colombia’s damaging experience with paramilitarism should serve as a warning to Mexico. Abad also notes that the United States has played a significant role in perpetuating a fight against drugs that forces “obedient governments to ignore real solutions.” InSight Crime analyzed the difference in the Mexican government’s approach to these groups in various places, noting its cooperation with the groups in Michoacán but its attempts to halt them in Guerrero.
  • On Thursday the FARC and the Colombian government closed the latest round of the peace talks and said they have made progress towards reaching an agreement on combating the illegal drug trade. The two sides issued a joint statement noting they’ve reached a consensus on several points. More analysis from United States Institute for Peace’s Ginny Bouvier and WOLA.
  • Friday, February 7, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week Colombia’s military was caught spying on peace negotiations in Havana, Guatemala’s President was unhappy about U.S. conditioning aid to the country, U.S. Southern Command geared up for training exercises in the region and the Knights Templar cartel made money off your Super Bowl guacamole. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • The House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing, "Terrorist Groups in Latin America: The Changing Landscape."
  • Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina expressed his discontent with U.S. conditioning security assistance to the country, which place a sizeable portion of aid on hold until Guatemala has shown significant steps towards investigating corruption in its international adoption program and implementing a 2010 reparations plan for victims related to the massacres and displacement that occurred during the construction of the Chixoy dam in the 1980s. “…we are not going to be anyone’s toy, and the laws of Guatemala are going to say how they advance,” he told reporters in a press conference.
  • The Wilson Center released a report this week on violence in Mexico and Colombia. It compiles essays by leading regional exports that compare and contrast the two countries' security situations and looks at what lessons their tactics offer one another.
  • U.S. Southern Command news was active this week. Another frigate (notably the Navy's second-oldest after the USS Constitution which was launched in 1797) was deployed to the Caribbean for "Operation Martillo," the U.S.-led anti-drug surge mission along Central America's coastline, while Joint Combined Exchange Training began with Trinidad and Tobago. Joint Task Force-Bravo, the main Southcom unit in Honduras, started preparing for a joint foreign military exercise in which 1,200 U.S. military members will deploy to Guatemala for training and to provide humanitarian services.

    It was also reported that Air Forces Southern members are in Belize to prepare for an upcoming training exercise and that the USS Pathfinder arrived in Guatemala for a scientific information exchange, a key part of the naval relationship between both countries, according to a representative from the Guatemalan armed forces.

  • The International Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS) published a report that found Latin American countries’ military spending grew 15 percent between 2010 ($61.3 billion) and 2013 ($70.9 billion). ISS found Venezuela increased its defense budget more than any other country in the region over the past year, boosting it by just over 12 percent. Here's an infographic of defense spending from the AFP and another from ISS.
  • Fusion reported on Mexican immigrants in California who have been financing self-defense groups in Michoacán while the Wall Street Journal reported on the Knights Templar's control over the avocado industry in the state, the only one in Mexico certified to export avocados to the United States. According to the article, the cartel profits $150 million each year through extortion and keeping their own farms. The New York Times featured an interview with the head of the Knights Templar, Servando Gómez, and noted the group makes more from illegal mining than drug trafficking. InSight Crime translated a piece published by Animal Politico on the risks and benefits of Mexico’s recent decision to legalize the vigilante groups that have sprung up to fight the cartel’s presence.
  • Peru announced plans to launch a major coca eradication initiative in the VRAE region, which is one of the largest coca-producing regions in the world, believed to have an area of cultivation at around 20,500 hectares. The government announced a target of 16,000 hectares.
  • The United Kingdom’s deputy prime minister backed Colombian President Santos’ calls for an alternative to the drug war, saying, "nobody can say the world is winning the war against drugs."
  • Colombian magazine Semana revealed this week that the Colombian Army has been spying on peace negotiators in Havana from both sides of the table and has continued illegal surveillance of human rights defenders and opposition lawmakers. President Santos quickly removed the head of Army intelligence along with another top intelligence official and demanded the military investigate the incident and submit a report by February 15. The government has since stepped back and changed its rhetoric dramatically, asserting the taps were in fact legal, despite the claims of Semana.

    Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) issued a statement voicing his concern and calling on the U.S. government to carry out an investigation, given his worry that "U.S. intelligence or defense agencies might have unwittingly provided support . . . directly or indirectly, through funds, equipment, training, intelligence-sharing or receipt of tainted intelligence." The incident also raises questions about the military's support for the peace talks, which could have negative implications if a peace agreement in Havana is reached, given the military's size and popularity.

  • According to the Sao Paulo state's Public Safety Department, police killed 335 people in 2013, compared to 546 during the previous year. The Associated Press reported the drop has been attributed to a law enacted earlier this year that prohibits officers from offering first aid to shooting victims (including those they themselves have shot) or from removing the body, such as taking the victim to the hospital. It was also reported this week that in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's military police killed six alleged gang members who were believed to have carried out an attack on a Police Pacification Unit on Sunday that resulted in the death of one officer.
  • Friday, January 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Militarization of law enforcement

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

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

  • Elections

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

    New leadership in 2013:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • El Salvador gang truce

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

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

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

  • Colombia peace process

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

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

  • Friday, January 17, 2014

    The Week in Review

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

    U.S. Policy

  • House Committee on Foreign Affairs
    The Houses’ Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing, “NAFTA at Twenty: Accomplishments, Challenges and the Way Forward.” The list of testifying witnesses was a mix of leaders of nonprofit and for profit organizations.
  • Obama to Mexico
    President Obama had a call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Monday, in which he congratulated Peña Nieto for the “important reforms” he pushed through in his first year in office. President Obama will travel to Mexico for a North American summit on February 19.
  • SOUTHCOM in Guatemala
    The head of U.S. Southern Command, General John Kelly, was in Guatemala this week to evaluate the progress of a counternarcotics task force the U.S. helped set up along the country’s northern border with Mexico. The United States and Guatemala are in negotiations to set up a similar task force along the country’s border with Honduras, Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre reported.
  • SOUTHCOM in Honduras
    The United States has offered
    to help Honduras build an international airport at the Soto Cano military airbase, from which U.S. military troops have operated since the early 1980s. Currently Joint Task Force Bravo is stationed there, the main U.S. force used to carry out counternarcotics operations in the country.
  • Help from the Vatican with Cuba
    Secretary of State John Kerry asked the Vatican, which has relatively good relations with the Cuba, to help with the release of American contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned on the island since 2009.
  • U.S. policies on sending migrants to Mexico
    Mexicali, Mexico has become the “world’s biggest landing pad for sent-back immigrants,” the Washington Post reported. Larger cities like Tijuana and Juarez used to be the main “drop-off” points but due to shifting U.S. immigration policies and the strong influence of the drug cartels, U.S. officials are now deporting immigrants to smaller border cities.
  • Omnibus spending bill
    The United States Congress passed a $1.012 trillion omnibus spending bill (PDF)for Fiscal Year 2014. Two of the bill’s provisions are the Defense Appropriations and State Department, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations, which fund many of the aid programs tracked by Just the Facts.
  • Mexico

  • Self-defense and army clash in Michoacán
    The biggest story this week was the vigilante movement in Mexico’s western Michoacán state, particularly around the city of Apatzingan, a stronghold of the Knights Templar drug gang. On Monday the Interior Minister Osorio Chong announced the government would be sending more troops to the region. Until now, federal troops had been reluctant to get involved, or had even worked with the groups, but this week ramped up their engagement to disarm them. By Saturday security forces will control all 27 municipalities in the Tierra Caliente region where Michoacán is located. So far Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has remained fairly silent on the issue, but has appointed a special commissioner to oversee the federal government’s response.

    The New York Times deftly explained the Mexican government’s “Catch 22:”

    Should it disarm the loosely organized gunmen who have risen up to fight the drug cartels, risking deadly clashes with some of the very citizens it has been accused of failing to protect in the first place?

    Or should it back down and let these nebulous outfits — with little or no police training, uncertain loyalties and possible ties to another criminal gang — continue to fight against the region’s narcotics rings, possibly leading to a bloody showdown?

    Reporting from the New York Times and other outlets indicated that many residents in fact support the vigilante groups and are disillusioned with security force involvement, particularly after the shooting of three civilians Wednesday. For a list of links to coverage in both English and Spanish, see the Just the Facts Mexico news page and the Pan-American Post.

  • Mexico’s police reform
    In the first six months of 2013, Mexico’s 31 states along with the Federal District did not use 88 percent of the available funds the government slated for vetting police. Initially, states were required to complete the vetting programs by December 29, 2013, but because of the delay, will now have until October 2014. More from Milenio and InSight Crime.
  • Colombia

  • Colombian cocaine labs
    Vocativ featured a video special on shifts in the Colombian cocaine trade that highlighted two of the latest trends to shake security forces’ counternarcotics efforts: the move from using huge processing labs in the jungle to small and disposable urban labs and the rise of trafficking the drug in liquid form, which is less detectable. The video also featured an anonymous trafficker who claimed, “legalization would be devastating, it would end the business.”
  • FARC ceasefire ends
    On Wednesday, the FARC ended its 30-day unilateral ceasefire. Colombian think tank CERAC documented the group’s deviation from the ceasefire and found that while the FARC decreased activity by 65 percent, there were 12 violations. Varying sources place the number of violations between four and twelve. Semana magazine wrote that despite these incidents, many analysts said the guerrilla group was largely able to hold the ceasefire, demonstrating the central Secretariat’s control over (almost) all of its fronts, a point that would be key to implementing any eventual peace deal. More analysis from InSight Crime ’s Jeremy McDermott who says while this is true, it also shows the risk of FARC fragmentation is a real possibility.

    On Thursday the government attributed a bombing in western Colombia that wounded 56 people to the FARC. The group said it was “surprised” by the attack and that if one of its fronts had in fact carried it out, it was an error.

  • FARC’s proposed drug reform
    On Tuesday, as the Colombian government and the FARC began their latest round of talks on drug trafficking, the guerrilla group released its proposed drug policy plan to regulate the production and sale of coca, poppy and marijuana. The plan also promoted demilitarization of drug- producing regions and an end to aerial crop fumigations, (See the proposal in its entirety in Spanish here and a summary in here here). Colombian newspaper El Tiempo highlighted various experts saying demilitarizing drug-producing regions is not realistic for the government, given the presence of drug labs and trafficking routes in these same areas.
  • Peru’s “license to kill” law

  • A new law in Peru exempts police officers and soldiers who shoot civilians “in compliance with their duty” from prosecution. The measure drew heavy criticism from civil society organizations who said it was a “license to kill” and will only further existing impunity for abuses. Supporters of the bill said it would allow police to protect civilians more effectively. More from El País.
  • Panama fines North Korea

  • North Korea has agreed to pay Panama a $670,000 fine to reclaim the ship that was found carrying Cuban missile equipment through the Panama Canal last year.
  • Friday, January 10, 2014

    The Week in Review

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

    Argentina

  • On Tuesday Argentina's La Nación newspaper reported the country's military would be sent to the border for their first anti-drug mission, part of a new strategy increasing the armed forces' role in domestic counternarcotics operations. According to the paper, Argentina plans to seek U.S. military assistance for those operations. As Adam Isacson noted, the news marked some big policy shifts in that the U.S. has given virtually no military assistance to Argentina for years and the country has historically maintained civilian control over internal policing duties.

    Argentina's defense minister, Agustín Rossi, confirmed the country purchased 35 hummers from the United States military, but said the vehicles would not be used for counternarcotics missions.

  • Honduras

  • A fantastic read in the New Yorker gives a history of the United States' war on drugs at home and in Latin America, underscoring its failures and highlighting why the U.S. strategy remains "on autopilot" despite the spate of shortcomings. It noted, "What is remarkable is how many times the U.S. has tried such militarized counter-narcotics programs and how long it has been apparent how little they amount to."
  • Other interesting articles this week concerning U.S. involvement in Honduras came from Al Jazeera's “US ambassador to Honduras offers tacit support of brutal crackdown” and the Guardian's “Honduras and the dirty war fueled by the west’s drive for clean energy.”
  • Honduras' outgoing Congress approved for the country's newly established military police to be added to the constitution. The next step is for the legislature to approve the addition. President-elect Juan Orlando Hernández, the architect of the unit, is pushing for this as he has said it would not only be involved in citizen security, but in fiscal crimes as well.
  • Cuba

  • On Thursday Cuban and U.S. officials met in Havana for migration talks. The talks, which are the highest public contact between the two governments, are the latest development in a series of events indicating a thaw in relations. The delegations discussed the status of the 1990s migratory accords, which allowed for the U.S. to issue 20,000 immigrant visas a year to Cubans, as well as the issues of illegal immigration and human trafficking. The Cuban government continues to object to U.S. special exemptions for Cuban immigrants, such as the "wet foot, dry-foot" policy, which the Cubans claim encourages illegal immigration. More from the Associated Press. See here for the full text in English of the Cuban press release on the migration talks.
  • Mexico

  • On Monday Mexico's Federal Police, Marine Corps and Army were deployed to the coast and Michoacán, where clashes between armed vigilante groups and drug cartels is causing violence to spike and main transportation thoroughfares to close.

    On Saturday, some 100 members of a self-defense group took over the Michoacán village of Paracuaro, a stronghold of the Knights Templar drug gang, and detained 15 local police officers accused of colluding with the cartel. Reuters published a vivid photo feature on the incident. El Universal has a helpful interactive feature on the security situation in the state with maps, profiles, a timeline and videos.

  • The government has since sent federal troops to protect the high-profile leader of the group that took over Paracuaro, Jose Manuel Mireles, who was injured in a plane crash Saturday. The Associated Press, noted the decision to do so illustrated the "tricky position in which Mexico's government finds itself with regard to the rebel movement." The government has denounced these groups as outside the law, but hailed Mireles Wednesday for "wounding the cartels, particularly the Templars." More analysis from El País on the federal government’s role in the conflict.

    Local townspeople are now protesting the vigilante's takeover of Paracuaro,while the mayor has requested the federal government's assistance in removing the armed vigilante group. Self-defense groups now control 13 cities and a community in Michoacan.

  • Vice Mexico published a feature on Mireles, "With the moral leader of Michoacan's self-defense groups," documenting his life with the vigilante movement over the course of five days as they planned the takeover and executed it, up through the plane crash that landed Mireles in the hospital.
  • Human Rights Watch researcher Nik Steinberg published a harrowing story in Foreign Policy about ongoing impunity for forced disappearances in Mexico, many committed by members of the country's police and military. He noted a lack of government will to prosecute cases or set up a functioning database of missing individuals.
  • InSight Crime translated Mexican analyst Alejandro Hope’s “5 Predications for Mexico Security in 2014.”
  • Venezuela

  • The high-profile murder of a former Miss Venezuela on Monday has shocked the country and sparked a nation-wide debate about the dire public security situation. On Twitter, the hashtag #NoMasViolenciaVenezuela (No more violence Venezuela) was trending while the statistic was spread that Venezuela's 2013 homicide rate (24,763) was over 2.5 times that of Iraq (9.472), which has about the same population. On Thursday all governors and mayors from the country's 79 municipalities convened in Caracas to review the government's security plan. So far seven arrests have been made for the murders.

    At the meeting, a much-publicized handshake took place between President Maduro and Henrique Capriles, Maduro's rival in April's hotly contested presidential elections. It was the first time the two had been in the same room since Maduro defeated Capriles. President Maduro has since announced the creation of a center for victims of violence as well as a major cabinet reshuffle, including the heads of seven civilian ministries and several military agencies.

  • Colombia

  • The Los Angeles Times published an article on the status of Colombia’s 2011 land restitution statute, which one farmer said was “a beautiful law that gave us hope we might recover our land. But we’re still in limbo and under constant threat.” The piece goes on to describe obstacles to the law's implementation such as protection for those reclaiming their land from paramilitary groups and lack of local development.
  • Following a recent Washington Post article detailing the CIA’s covert involvement in Colombia’s counterinsurgency missions, the FARC issued a communiqué questioning the government’s commitment to the peace talks, saying the article, “raises doubts about the true role of the fatherland-betraying Colombian oligarchy.” In a post published Friday in English, “The Army of Colombia: A Pawn in the CIA’s Chess Game,” the group blasted the government, asserting that “To hand over the command of your military operations to a foreign army and hide it from the country for years is a crime of the offended country; it is an outrage that stains our sovereignty and independence; a crime of treason.”
  • An editorial in Colombia’s most circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, strongly praised Colorado’s marijuana legalization measure, calling it an “urgent and necessary framing of the war on drugs.”
  • Although Colombia seized more marijuana in 2013 than in any year in the past two decades, cocaine seizures fell dramatically to 70 tons, which would mean a 170-ton drop using some 2012 numbers. According to InSight Crime, this shift indicates cocaine traffickers have adapted their strategies, as the United Nations has reported cocaine production in the country remains stable, despite drops in coca cultivation.
  • El Salvador

  • A joint study by the Salvadoran Government and the United States’ Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, found that although criminals’ weapons used to be left overs from the civil war, now 60% of weapons traced come from the United States today.
  • Friday, December 20, 2013

    The Week in Review

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

    Note: This will be the last blog post until January 8th. Happy Holidays!

    U.S. Policy

    Aerial fumigation of coca crops in Colombia halted

  • U.S.- funded aerial fumigation of coca in Colombia has been indefinitely suspended after two planes were shot down in late September and early October, allegedly by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which resulted in the death of one U.S. pilot.

    La Silla Vacía reported the United States has begun a security review of the plane crashes and that Colombia has not carried out any fumigation missions since late September. As InSight Crime reported, Colombia is going to miss its coca eradication target considerably this year, which could mean an increase in the reported amount of coca produced.

  • USAID to leave Ecuador

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced last Thursday it would be leaving Ecuador “as a result of the Government of Ecuador’s decision to prohibit approval of new USAID assistance programs.” Although the agency had reportedly allocated $32 million for programs in the country for the coming years, it will close its doors by September 2014. The news comes just six months after Bolivia expelled USAID for allegedly conspiring against the government.
  • Edward Snowden’s open letter to Brazilians

  • On Tuesday, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden wrote an open letter to Brazilians offering to help the Brazilian government investigate U.S. espionage practices in exchange for permanent asylum. Government officials said it had no plans to offer Snowden asylum.
  • Defense Purchases

  • Honduras purchased $30 million worth of radars from Israel, which are set to arrive in January for counternarcotics operations.
  • Brazil announced it awarded Sweden’s Saab (different than the car company) with a $4.5 billion deal for 36 fighter jets, over U.S.- based Boeing or the French company Dassault. The deal will likely be even more valuable for the Swedish company as it will get contracts for future supply, parts and maintenance for the jets.

    Most headlines attributed the Brazilian government’s decision to forgo Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, which had been considered the front runner for the bid earlier this year, to the diplomatic fallout with United States following revelations of the National Security Agency's espionage programs in the country. “The NSA problem ruined it for the Americans,”according to an anonymous government official. However, the Brazilian government’s official line has been that the decision was based on “performance, the effective transfer of technology and costs, not only of acquisition, but also of maintenance.” As the New York Times noted, the Saab model would be a significantly less-costly investment.

  • Bolivia announced it would be purchasing six Superpuma helicopters for $221.2 million in efforts to ramp up its fight against drug trafficking. This week the government announced that while coca eradication has increased in the country, cocaine seizures are down. More from InSight Crime.
  • Peru has made several defense purchases recently. This week the government announced it would purchase 24 helicopters from Russia intended for anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism missions in the Apurimac and Ene Valley (VRAE) region, which produces more coca than any other region in the world. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the announcement followings the purchase of two Italian-made military transport airplanes for around $122 million and 20 training airplanes from Korea Aerospace Industries.

    On Tuesday Peruvian special forces destroyed 20 clandestine airstrips in the VRAE region. The mission was carried our by 224 security agents, 10 helicopters and five hovercrafts, according to the Associated Press.

  • Uruguay ‘Country of the Year’

  • The Economist named “modest yet bold, liberal and fun-loving” Uruguay ‘The Country of the Year,’ lauding the nation’s most recent legislation legalizing the production and sale of marijuana. “If others followed suit, and other narcotics were included, the damage such drugs wreak on the world would be drastically reduced,” praised the publication.
  • Guatemala contemplating legalizing poppy cultivation

  • Guatemala is going to debate legalizing the cultivation of poppy, a principal component in heroin, for medical purposes. According to the country’s interior minister, the government is considering both regulated legal cultivation and alternative development, International Business Times reported. More from La Tercera.
  • Mexico’s list of the top 69 arrested or killed drug traffickers this year

  • The Mexican government released a list of 69 drug cartel capos captured or killed out of the 122 most wanted drug traffickers in the country. A look at the list reveals the Zeta drug gang has been the most affected of the cartels. More from the Associated Press and Animal Politico.
  • Report on the rise of vigilante groups in Mexico

  • On Tuesday Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) released a report on the rise of vigilante groups in the country. The body said the government should not allow the groups to form as they undermine the rule of law and could lead to more violence, noting however that lack of security in several areas was fomenting their growth. As Animal Politico reported, the Guerrero state government has funded some of these groups. In that state alone, CNDH documented 7,000 members of self-defense groups, which have expanded their reach to 56 percent of the state’s territory.
  • New report examining the FARC’s strategy during peace talks

  • A new report (pdf, summary here) by Colombian think tank Fundación Paz y Reconciliación examined how the FARC’s military strategy has changed during the peace talks. According to the report, the FARC have maintained similar levels of activity since 2010, but have been able to adapt their tactics to the rhythm of the peace talks, planning offensives or declaring truces, depending on the status of the negotiations in Havana. Some interesting findings included:
    • The FARC have 11,000 fighters, as opposed to the 8,000 alleged by the Colombian government, and have a presence in 11 regions and 242 municipalities, or about 20 percent of the country.
    • In the last two months the FARC have allied with the National Liberation Army, the country’s second-largest insurgency. This has lead to an increase in attacks on oil, mining and gas infrastructure in the country.
    • The FARC have increased their influence in social movements and protests, including the recent coca growers strike.

    The report reveals a great deal about the guerrilla group’s sustained capacity. More from InSight Crime and Colombia Reports about the report in English and from Semana and El Espectador in Spanish.

  • Honduras new police and military leadership

  • On Thursday, Honduran President Porifirio Lobo fired the country’s national police chief, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who had been linked to death squads and forced disappearances as a lower-ranking officer. The move came at the behest of President-elect, Juan Orlando Hernández, who has “expressed skepticism” about police reform efforts. Under Bonilla, Honduras’ police have been accused of abuse and extrajudicial killings. More from the Associated Press.

    As Honduras Culture and Politics also noted, there were other major shake-ups in the high command of the country’s security forces: the military is getting a new commander, Fredy Santiago Díaz Zelayaya, who was fundamental in creating the new military police. The Air Force and Navy will also be under new leadership as will the joint military and police task force. See the post for a full run-down of the new positions. As El Heraldo noted, under Hernández, Honduras’ military will continue to play a key role in domestic security.

  • Chile’s new president

  • As of last Sunday, Michelle Bachelet is set to be Chile’s new president. As several outlets have noted, Bachelet made significant promises during her campaign, with increased taxes and education reform as her hallmark initiatives. Many analysts have noted she will need serious momentum to overcome a slowing economy and congressional opposition to push through major proposed reforms, like changing the Pinochet-era electoral system and constitution. More from the Time, Americas Quarterly, the Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor.