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Friday, March 7, 2014

For Colombia's Military, a Tough Month

Colombia’s armed forces have had a remarkably rough 30 days. The institution has been rocked by a series of scandals.

  • February 3: An investigative report from Colombia’s principal newsmagazine, Semana, alleged that a military intelligence operation had been spying on political leaders, human rights defenders, and even some members of the government team negotiating with the FARC guerrilla group in Havana, Cuba.
  • February 15: The same magazine revealed audio recordings indicating “an impressive network of corruption” in the armed forces. Allegations include contracts obtained through bribery, arms trafficking, illegal mining investments, and access to cars and fuel for officers presumably jailed for human rights and other crimes.

    A central figure is former Col. Robinson González del Río, who is currently in a military prison in Bogotá. Col. del Río is awaiting trial for one of thousands of cases of so-called “false positives”: soldiers murdering civilians, then falsely claiming them as combat kills in order to reap rewards for high body counts. (Most “false positive” killings took place between 2004 and 2008.) Col. del Río claims to be the nephew of Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who is also jailed for abetting the bloody mid–1990s takeover of the Urabá region in northwestern Colombia.

  • February 18: President Santos dismissed the chief of the armed forces, Gen. Leonardo Barrero, who had been on the job for only six months. Among the leaked phone recordings in Semana is a conversation between Gen. Barrero and Col. del Río. Referring to the colonel’s imprisonment on “false positives” charges, the armed-forces chief encourages him to join with other accused officers to “make up a mafia to denounce the [civilian human rights] prosecutors and all of this crap.”
  • February 26: As Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón prepared to visit Washington, his office mistakenly leaked to the media a detailed agenda and set of talking points. They reveal some sensitive topics that Pinzón planned to take up in his visits with U.S. government officials. Pinzón was to ask Washington not to cut military assistance in the post-conflict phase. He planned to push to maintain the aerial herbicide spraying (fumigation) program, which could be bargained away in ongoing peace talks. The minister also planned to warn U.S. counterparts about “Nicaragua, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and foreign terrorist organizations” as “perceived/potential challenges to regional security.” The memo raises eyebrows, as some of the Defense Ministry recommendations seem to be out of step with Colombia’s on-the-record foreign policy.
  • March 3: Colombia’s Prosecutor-General issued an arrest warrant for Col. Del Río and 14 other military officials, charging them with trafficking weapons to drug-trafficking “criminal groups” like the Urabeños and ERPAC, bands formed by mid-level leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary network that disbanded in the mid–2000s.
  • March 6: Press reports revealed that the Army officer who served in 2013 as liaison to the Human Rights Unit of the civilian Prosecutor-General’s Office, Col. Anstrong Polanía Ducuara, is under investigation for illegally passing to his military superiors sensitive information about human rights cases, including “false positives.”

Colombian opinion polls frequently show the armed forces to have one of the highest favorability ratings of all the country’s institutions, usually more than 75 percent. The Gallup poll released this week, however, found the military at 64 percent favorability, down from 80 percent in December and the lowest level recorded since 2000.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Corruption, Human Rights Scandal Rocks the Colombian Armed Forces

This post first appeared on Just Americas: A Blog by LAWG. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Director of the Latin America Working Group .

Colombia’s Semana magazine revealed in February a massive corruption scandal involving the top ranks of Colombia’s armed forces. Officials were skimming up to 50 percent off of lucrative military contracts. “Give us 5 billion [pesos] and give the other companies 3. If we are all eating, no one will pick a fight,” said one colonel.

Top military commanders, as well as personally benefitting from this corruption, were steering contracts to officers and soldiers under investigation and detained in military garrisons for involvement in extrajudicial executions. According to Semana , “this was a system to buy their silence and ensure that they did not implicate higher-level officials in the sadly famous practice of false positives.”

Colombia’s Attorney General's office is investigating cases, known as the “false positives,” in which over 4,200 people were allegedly extrajudicially executed by members of Colombia's armed forces. Many additional cases are, inappropriately according to Colombian law, still in the military justice system. In the vast majority, these are not cases of civilians who were killed in crossfire but rather of people, usually young men from poor urban and rural neighborhoods, who were detained or lured with promises of jobs, executed and dressed in guerrilla clothing to look like enemy dead, to increase the army's body count. The majority of these killings occurred from 2004 to 2008. In 2009, reforms introduced by then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, including insisting that these cases be transferred to civilian courts rather than the military courts that never punished them, helped to reduce this horrific practice.

While there has been progress in some cases, the majority of extrajudicial executions remain in impunity. The vast scope of these crimes and the similar pattern throughout geographic regions suggest high-level involvement, yet investigations to date have focused on soldiers and lower-level officials, with not a single case against a general, brigade or division commander advanced beyond preliminary stages. In late 2013, a law promoted by President Juan Manuel Santos which would have resulted in more such crimes being assigned to military rather than civilian courts was struck down on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court. President Santos has pledged to reintroduce this regressive law.

Military officials detained and jailed for extrajudicial executions continue to be held in military garrisons where they retain special privileges, can run businesses and can leave freely. Indeed, according to Semana, one “detained” colonel appeared to spend so much time in his apartment, shopping centers, and the Jockey Club that anyone wanting to see him in jail had to make an appointment. In 2011, when Semana exposed the “prison resort” of Tolemeida, the Defense Ministry promised to put an end to these privileges—but two years later, they are still endemic.

In one of the most disturbing revelations, Semana reported that armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero told an officer who was under investigation for extrajudicial executions to “get together and work up a mafia” to denounce the Attorney General’s human rights prosecutors.

The Santos Administration Responds. President Santos dismissed armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero on February 18, replacing him with General Juan Pablo Rodriguez. While Barrero’s dismissal is positive, it is concerning that General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar has been promoted to command the army. Lasprilla oversaw a unit with a pattern of extrajudicial killings when he was commander of the Army’s 9th Brigade in Huila in 2006-07. According to an analysis compiled by Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Attorney General’s office is investigating 38 extrajudicial executions by 9th Brigade soldiers under his command, and the Jesuit research center CINEP and other human rights groups have documented an additional 37 alleged extrajudicial executions.

Spying on the Government—and the President. But this is hardly the only military scandal in the news. A Colombian military intelligence unit was revealed in January to have been spying on the government’s own peace negotiators out of “Bugglyhacker,” a Bogotá internet café. Newspaper reports indicated that army intelligence was also spying on the Attorney General’s office, police, human rights groups and journalists, in a disturbing echo of the Uribe Administration’s intelligence scandal, which resulted in the disbanding of the presidential intelligence agency, the DAS. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón subsequently sacked two top military intelligence leaders. President Santos initially condemned the spying as illegal, and then backpedaled.

Semana magazine’s coverage also highlighted a wiretapping room known as the “Grey Room,” for which, according to the article, the CIA had provided equipment and training. While the room was supposedly intended for the army to carry out legal wiretaps with the presence of representatives from the Attorney General’s office, Semana asserted that Colombian military intelligence during 2013 used it for unauthorized wiretaps, leading to it being shut down.

In February, President Santos denounced the interception of his own personal emails. It is not yet known who was behind that spying; the President himself speculated that it was an attempt to weaken his reelection bid.

A military source told El Espectador that sectors of the military were concerned that the peace talks could result in reducing their size, limiting their mission to external defense, and limiting their social and economic power; and particularly, that they are concerned they will face justice for crimes while the guerrillas will negotiate judicial benefits.

Defense Minister Pinzón at a Center for American Progress briefing on February 27 asserted that President Santos has stated that the role and size of the military will not be negotiated in the peace talks, in contrast to peace accords in Central America and Africa. Mr. Pinzón 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. He strongly emphasized increasing Colombia’s role in security training globally, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean. These kinds of words are intended to reassure members of the military that they will keep their substantial role and privileges if a peace accord is reached. But they are hardly reassuring to Colombian victims of violence by the armed forces and communities that have endured the brunt of the war from all sides.

Friday, December 6, 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.

Entire Region

  • The Latin Americanist and Pan American Post had roundups of Latin American leaders' reactions to the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela on Thursday. As both noted, Venezuela and Nicaragua have called for three national days of mourning.
  • Colombia

  • President Santos met with President Obama in the Oval Office for two and a half hours Tuesday morning. After the meeting, Santos described relations between the two countries as “at their best moment ever.” See this Just the Facts post for a summary of news and analysis on the visit.

    Despite the optimistic tones of the meeting with President Obama, President Santos criticized the United States’ Cuba policy while speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Congress. “I think Cuba would be willing to change, and both sides have to give in some way,” saying that the moment is “now” for diplomacy to change. At the Organization of American States, President Santos reiterated his stance on creating alternative policies to the drug war and asked members to promote an open discussion on drug policy.

  • Pablo Escobar

  • Monday December 2nd was the 20th anniversary of Pablo Escobar’s death. There was coverage in both English and Spanish on the infamous drug lord’s divisive legacy including pieces from the BBC, El Tiempo (multimedia feature), and BBC Mundo. Longtime Medellín journalist Jeremy McDermott noted that while Medellín remains the epicenter of narcotrafficking in Colombia, the nature of the drug trade and landscape of the criminal underworld has changed significantly since the downfall of Escobar’s Medellín Cartel.
  • Peace Talks

  • On Monday, lead FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo read out a ten-point anti-narcotics plan in Havana. Some of the changes in drug policy listed in the communiqué are not too different from what many leaders in Latin America, including Colombia’s President Santos, have been calling for, which include: demilitarization of drug policy, immediate suspension of (U.S.-backed) coca fumigation programs, and the treatment of psychoactive drug use as a public health problem along with the decriminalization of drug consumption.

    The group also proposed the state recognize the “food, medicinal, therapeutic, industrial and cultural uses of cultivating coca leaves, marijuana and poppy” as part of an illicit crop substitution program. The Colombian government rejected this. As a recommended read from InSight Crime analyzing the obstacles and opportunities in the talks regarding the drug trade noted, “The chance of striking an agreement with such a key member of the drug trafficking underworld offers the Colombian authorities an unprecedented opportunity.” More from the AFP.

  • Colombia's Defense Minister in D.C.

  • On Monday, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón spoke at the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He discussed Colombia’s currently military strategy as well as defense plans going forward. The transcript can be read here.
  • Mexico

  • December 1st marked Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first year in office. There were several analysis, including from: Alfredo Corchado, James Bosworth, the Washington Office on Latin America, David Agren for USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, analyst Alejandro Hope, the Pan-American Post and InSight Crime, which included an overview of Mexico’s current criminal setting.

    Most of the analysis touched on the fact that while President Peña Nieto is distinct from former President Calderón in that fighting the cartels has not been the public focus of his government, the policy of deploying the military and federal police to criminal hotspots has continued. As a result, human rights groups like Human Rights Watch have blasted Peña Nieto for the justice system’s ongoing impunity for murder and abuses committed by security officials. Although homicides have dropped in some areas, kidnapping has skyrocketed. As analyst James Bosworth asserted, “the two key issues, security and economic growth, have not seen the improvements Peña Nieto promised during his campaign.”

  • Fugitive Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero sent President Peña Nieto a letter urging him to resist U.S. “pressure” to capture and extradite him for the 1985 killing of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Quintero had served 28 years of a 40-year sentence when a Mexican court allowed his release, drawing heavy criticism from the United States. Mexico’s Supreme Court has since overturned the ruling and Mexican and U.S. authorities have issued warrants for Quintero’s arrest. More from the Los Angeles Times and Fox News Latino.
  • The Washington Office on Latin America released a new report on security and migration along the United States-Mexico border on Thursday.
  • Transparency International report

  • Transparency International released its 2013 Corruption Index Tuesday and found there has been little improvement in the region’s most corrupt countries. Venezuela, Paraguay and Honduras had the highest indexes of corruption, while Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica ranked as the least corrupt. Central America in general was found to be more corrupt than last year, with an uptick in drug trafficking cited as the main cause. More from InSight Crime and International Business Times.
  • Ecuador

  • In an effort to reduce the size of Ecuador’s armed forces, President Rafael Correa proposed creating financial incentives for officers to retire from the military and law civilian law enforcement bodies.
  • Panama

  • The U.S. Department of Defense said there were no plans for toxin-filled munitions abandoned by the U.S. Army on San Jose Island in 1947 to be returned and destroyed. Despite a statement by Panama’s foreign minister last month that the aging chemical weapons would be returned, the Pentagon has said it would be sending experts to the Central American country. This has been a contentious issue between the two countries for some time.
  • Venezuela

  • On Sunday, Venezuelans will go to the polls to elect 365 mayors and 2,389 municipal representatives. Some analysts have described this vote as a “referendum” on President Maduro’s first eight months in office. As Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional reported, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles has campaigned hard for his MUD party, visiting 117 municipalities compared to Maduro’s 21. Americas Society/Council of the Americas has an explainer on the elections and analyst Luis Vincente León looks at possible outcomes from the elections, noting that some of Maduro’s most recent political tricks, such as lowering the prices of electronics and other goods, could tip the scale in his favor. Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog has a useful cheat sheet.
  • El Salvador

  • Most of the firearms in El Salvador come from the United States, according to the country’s national police (PNC). With training from the U.S. Office on Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the PNC has tracked nearly 34,000 weapons, the majority of which came from the United States. While some are left over from Central America’s civil wars, modern weapon discoveries suggest new arms trafficking networks. More from InSight Crime and La Prensa Grafica.
  • Honduras

  • Last week, Honduras’ electoral court announced conservative ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez winner of the country's presidential elections. On Monday, Hernández’s closest competitor and wife of deposed former President Manuel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro of the LIBRE party, filed a formal complaint claiming fraud in the election. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) agreed to count the tally sheets on Wednesday, however officials delayed doing so after claiming members of the LIBRE failed to appear. The LIBRE leadership claimed the TSE's procedures were insufficient and had suggested other mechanisms. As Honduras Culture and Politics blog noted, LIBRE and the TSE had never agreed to specifics in the procedure and therefore had no official start date to begin vote counting. See this Just the Facts post post by Latin America Working group for more on foul play in the electoral process.
  • 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.
  • Friday, March 1, 2013

    Week in Review

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


  • The most staggering news from Mexico this week was that the government released a database of missing people. According to official numbers, 26,121 people disappeared between December 2006 and November 2012. The database's announcement follows a report put out by Human Rights Watch on February 20 documenting Mexican security forces' participation in forced disappearances.

    Given the onslaught of reports on Mexico's disappeared, Steven Dudley of Insight Crime says, "the U.S. government has to question whether the country's navy, its most important ally in combating drugs, is really a trustworthy partner." Dudley likens the case to that of Colombia in which an "embattled government gets large amounts of U.S. assistance, and the very units receiving the aid are connected to systematic human rights abuses."

  • On the security front for Mexico, there were several other developments this week:

    • Mexican newspaper Milenio reported that 922 people were killed in Mexico during the month of February. Milenio featured an interactive map that broke down the murder numbers by state. Chihuahua state had the highest, with 161 registered killings. The newspaper also revealed that 100 members of the country's security forces were killed in the first three months of President Peña Nieto's term.
    • The creation of a 200-strong new police unit dedicated to combating drug dealing in Mexico City was announced this week. The unit will work with the city's Attorney General's Office to gather intelligence and search homes suspected of being involved with small-scale drug trafficking.
    • The Mexican government has begun giving military training to 10,000 officers that will be part of a new federal police force that President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration will build up over the next few years, known as a gendarmerie. The Associated Press reported the forces are expected to be on the street by the end of the year.
    • The secretary of government for Mexico, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, said that a total of $576.3 million would be invested in public security initiatives in 2013, reported Mexican newspaper Excelsior. According to the article, $25.7 million is earmarked for the purchase of vehicles and public security programs on the ground. Another $2.5 million will be spent on explosive materials, while $19.4 million will be spent on protective gear for security forces.
    • Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution released a report, "Peña Nieto's Piñata: The Promise and Pitfalls of Mexico's New Security Policy against Organized Crime," that looks at the objectives and limitations of President Peña Nieto's security plan. Insight Crime offers an overview of the report, noting it "outlines the problems facing Peña Nieto as he assumed the presidency, and highlights the differences between his policy and that of the man he replaced, Felipe Calderón."
    • The Associated Press profiled the continuing debate over Mexico's self-defense vigilante movement. The president of the country's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), Raul Plascencia, said, "there is a fine line between self-defense organizations and paramilitary groups." In the Guerrero state, where the movement has most intensified, 20 groups announced they would unify under one single command.
    • This week, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed the biggest education reform bill the country has seen in seven years. The legislation looks to relinquish some control over a powerful teachers' union, aiming to stop the inheritance and purchasing of teaching positions.

      Just one day after the reform was announced, the head of the Mexican National Educational Workers Union (SNTE), Elba Ester Gordillo, was arrested for embezzlement and laundering $200 million in funds. The arrest spawned a media storm and caused many to speculate whether Peña Nieto will go after other political bosses in the country thought to be corrupt. Gordillo has quickly been replaced by Juan Diaz de la Torre, profiled by Vanguardia here.

    • Government Accountability Office reports

      The Government Accountability Office released a report (PDF) indicating that there was an overall decrease in violent crime along the U.S. border between 2004 and 2011. According to Insight Crime, the study "further supports the interpretation that claims of rampant 'spillover violence' in the U.S. border region have been mostly exaggerated." Some findings:

      • Assaults against Border Patrol agents decreased from 2008 to 2012, to levels 25 percent lower than in 2006.
      • Interviewed officials from state and local law enforcement agencies said they had not observed violent crime from Mexico regularly spilling over into the U.S.
      • Over 7 years, Arizona saw the most significant decline (33 percent), Texas (30 percent), California (26 percent), and New Mexico (eight percent from 2005 onward).
      • The GAO released another report titled, "Goals and Measures Not Yet in Place to Inform Border Security Status and Resource Needs" (PDF). According to the report, "Border Patrol is developing performance goals and measures to define border security and the resources needed to achieve it, but has not identified milestones and time frames for developing and implementing goals and measures under its new strategic plan."
      • Sequester

        The sequestration cuts expected to go into effect today could hit Latin American economies hard.

      • Shannon K. O'Neil from the Council on Foreign Relations said the effects could mean less military aid transfers, noting that "Secretary of State John Kerry has specifically mentioned that funds destined for disrupting drug networks in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean will be some of the most severely hit." O'Neil also mentions the financial hit that those same countries’ economies might take. A January 2013 World Bank report had estimated that Latin America's total GDP could be reduced by 1.2 percent due to the U.S.' financial uncertainty.
      • According to the New Security Beat blog from the Wilson Center, the Secretary of State said the sequestration will force the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to "find $2.6 billion in across-the-board reductions” and “seriously impair our ability to execute our vital missions of national security, diplomacy, and development." The article goes on to detail how the cuts will affect Latin America from a more humanitarian perspective, noting cuts to initiatives in family planning and reproductive health programs.
      • Brazilian company wins DOD contract

        The United States Air Force is buying attack planes from Brazil's Embraer SA company for counterinsurgency missions in Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, "Under this contract, 20 aircraft are scheduled to be delivered to operational air bases in Afghanistan beginning in the summer of 2014 to conduct advanced flight training, surveillance, close air support and air interdiction missions."

        According to Reuters, the deal tightens "U.S.-Brazilian defense ties after a politically charged bidding process." The article goes on to note,"Embraer and its privately held partner, Sierra Nevada, beat out U.S.-based Hawker Beechcraft for the $428 million deal, the Brazilian planemaker's first with the U.S. armed forces."

        According to political analyst James Bosworth,

        Brazilian officials are already signaling that this contract is a good sign for Boeing's chances to win the fighter jet bid in Brazil. There is little doubt that the F/A-18 is the most capable jet in that competition, but Brazil does have serious political and military concerns about the possibility that the U.S. could later restrict access to technology and parts. Embraer's winning a $400 million defense contract related to a top U.S, security priority (Afghanistan) should assuage some of those fears.


      • Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is "fighting for his life" in a Caracas military hospital the country's vice president, Nicolas Maduro, said Thursday night in a televised speech, the Associated Press reported. Maduro continued on to say, "Our commander is sick because he gave his life for those who don't have anything." A recent poll coming out of Venezuela revealed some interesting statistics: 46% of the population thinks that Chávez is not making decisions; 58% believe Chávez will recover while 30% say he won't return to power; 12.5% say they are unsure what will happen.
      • EFE reported that Venezuela plans to create a commission to investigate crimes committed by the state prior to 1998. Hugo Chávez became president in 1999.
      • Bolivia

        Bolivian President Evo Morales's Movement towards Socialism party (MAS) formally nominated him as its candidate for the country's 2014 presidential elections. The move sparked controversy over the constitutionality of President Morales running for a third term, since the constitution says rulers can only have two terms. The MAS is arguing that because the document was changed by referendum in Morales' first term, another term would only be his second under the changed constitution. The country's Constitutional Court is studying the matter.


      • On Wednesday, the Honduran National Autonomous University’s Violence Observatory released its annual report, which showed that the country saw 85.5 homicides for every 100,000 residents last year, about ten times the global average of 8.8 per 100,000. Although this number has already been widely reported, it offers even further support to show that the country's security situation is devolving, marred by rising drug trafficking rates and a corrupt police force.
      • A new libel law in Honduras sentences people who "incite hate or attack against ideological groups, sexes, or genders" to 3-5 years in prison. Honduras Culture and Politics blog examines the law, questioning, "where are the limits of this law?" According to the post, the law is directed at the media and "could silence dissent as illegal disrespect for the ‘dignity’ of Honduran politicians."

    Wednesday, February 13, 2013

    Update: What's happening in Honduras?

    The news coming out of Honduras continues to reveal a flailing economy, political instability, and endemic corruption of the security forces and judicial system. A previous post gave an overview of the country's institutional, financial and security troubles at the outset of 2013. Here's a new update.

    Institutional problems
    As explained in the prior post, Congress removed four Supreme Court justices at the behest of current President Lobo following several decisions that went against his administration, most notably blocking a police reform law he had been championing. Congress did so without an impeachment trial, prompting the dismissed justices to file an appeal questioning the constitutionality of the decision. Until recently the case had not been tried because there were no sitting justices to rule on the appeal.

  • Last week, a special Supreme Court of justices hand-picked by the only judge not to get fired - Chief Justice Jorge Rivera Aviles - voted 13-2 not to admit the justices' appeal. While it should be noted that the removed justices were seen as corrupt, the move has elicited a clear message of disapproval from the opposition. In response to the decision, Salvador Nasralla, the Anti-Corruption party candidate for president, said, "They think it's a soccer match, but internationally, if today the justices are not returned, Honduras will be considered a dictatorship and that is serious because it removes the rule of law we've boasted about."
  • Since removing the justices, the National Congress has passed several new laws, some of which were previously blocked by removed justices:
  • A new telecommunications law, which will provide little security protection for users online and increase the government's regulation of traditional and social media. President Lobo also accused local media of damaging Honduras' image internationally, saying the violence in the country receives too much coverage and that the justice ministry should sue media outlets before the UN. The government has recently proposed a bill which would create a council intended to monitor all media coverage.
    • A much-criticized mining law and a "Charter Cities" law authorizing the creation of privatized territories bolstered by foreign investment governed autonomously in which the constitution itself doesn't apply.
    • A law allowing lawmakers to impeach any elected official as well as one removing Honduran citizens' rights to challenge the constitutionality of a law. Now citizens may only challenge regulations adopted to enforce the law.
    • A police purification law that the previous court claimed did not give officers due process, as well as a bill creating a security agency fusing military defense and internal security. According to Inter-Press Service, this new National Directorate of Investigation and Intelligence (DNII) "does not appear to be accountable to any other body, and does not appear to be under democratic civilian control."

    Crime and Security
    The security situation in the country seems to be getting worse as 1,400 soldiers have been deployed to the country's two largest cities.

  • According to Insight Crime, "Thanks to political instability, rampant corruption in the security forces and judicial system, Honduras has become that path of least resistance [for smuggling].Added to this is the fact that Honduras is the principal air bridge for cocaine from South America, with the departure point being Venezuela." The State Department has reported that some 40% of all cocaine destined to U.S. initially lands in Honduras.
    • Honduras' Defense Minister Marlon Pascua noted the increased presence of transnational crime in the country, saying, "There are various organizations, not only Honduran, but also with people infiltrated from other countries, Mexican cartels which have relationships with Honduran criminals and Colombian cartels, which also have relationships with criminals here."
    • Last month Honduran authorities found cars and weapons allegedly belonging to the Zetas, including a gold-plated AK-47. "Honduras has become the principal handover point for cocaine between Colombian and Mexican cartels. Transnational organized crime follows the path of least resistance," reported Insight.
  • According to a recent Congressional Research Service report on U.S.- Honduran relations, over 78% of Hondurans report having little or no confidence in the police force while 68% have little or no confidence in the armed forces. The same report noted that about 80% of crimes are never investigated according to the Honduran government's National Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • CRS also noted that in 2012, Honduras had roughly 10,600 military personnel, a defense budget of $189 million (1% of GDP) with less than 2% invested in maintenance and procurement, meaning the country depended on international donors for the majority of its equipment/technology.
  • Footage of hit men carrying out killings last November in Comayagüela, a city just outside the capital, Tegucigalpa, was released last week. The rather graphic video from a surveillance camera shows eight men get out of two vehicles and shoot two men dead and injure another. The video has deepened existing public outrage at endemic impunity and the government's inability to keep citizens safe.
  • Last week, gangs imposed a curfew in parts of the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa, posting signs that said: "At 7 p.m. we want to see businesses closed and people in their houses." According to Insight Crime and La Prensa, gang wars are escalating between Barrio 18, one of the region's largest street gangs, and the Chirizos, a newer local gang. Two police stations formerly located in the area have been closed for years according to residents.
  • In response to news of the gang curfew, last Friday Honduran President Porfirio Lobo deployed the military to the two largest cities in the country in order to crack down on rising crime. 800 soldiers were sent to Tegucigalpa and 600 to San Pedro Sula, as part of "Operation Freedom" (Operación Libertad). Over the weekend 13 people were killed in the country's capital.
  • A Mexican NGO, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal), released a list of the world's most dangerous cities. Honduras' second largest city, San Pedro Sula, topped the list, registering 169 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, while Tegucigalpa, the country's capital came in at number 4.
  • Over 60 subsistence farmers and indigenous leaders have been assassinated by paramilitary units hired by large land owners since the 2009 ouster. According to an article in Upside Down World, a quarter of the country's arable land is monopolized by less than 1% of the farmers. However, due in part to increasing global demand for palm oil, there is a continuing land conflict in the Aguán Valley.
  • Here's a photo of a police stop in Honduras.

    2013 Elections
    The general elections scheduled for November 2013 will be the first since the 2009 vote following the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. Xiomara Castro, wife of ousted ex-president Manuel Zelaya, is ahead in the polls as the candidate for the newly-created leftist LIBRE party, over Juan Orlando Hernandez, the National Party candidate and current head of Congress. The assassination of at least five opposition party activists and candidates in the last year draws attention to fair campaign play in the coming months.

    Financial troubles
    The Honduran government is struggling to pay both its domestic and foreign bills. Public employees have gone unpaid and basic government services suspended.

  • The government is unable to access $500 million worth of assets seized from criminals over the past three years due to inefficiency and corruption with the country's judicial system, according to Insight Crime. Operations by anti-narcotics officers, special investigators, police and prosecutors seized 153 properties, 266 cars and more than $5 million during 2010, 2011 and 2012, however until a judge authorizes the transfers, the Honduran government cannot access it.
  • Tax collection is Honduras' main fiscal problem. On January 31, President Porfirio Lobo announced the creation of a commission consisting of 14 representatives from the public and private sectors to investigate tax exemptions and exonerations. According to Southern Pulse, the commission will propose a budget and submit recommendations after 60 days. According to President Lobo, these benefits extended to businesses and private institutions have not helped stimulate the country's economy.
  • US involvement in counternarcotics operations
    An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times this week notes, "The United States is expanding its military presence in Honduras on a spectacular scale," despite human rights abuses and unconstitutional government actions. As was indicated in a previous post, several articles have come out recently about U.S. military presence and investment in the region, but here are some Honduras- specific numbers and news.

  • The commander of Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) specifically mentioned Honduras in an interview last week as an area of concern, because "constrained resources limit its special operators’ ability to reach ungoverned sections of the country that offer traffickers safe havens." He noted that traffickers return to these rural areas after trainings and operations end, saying, "The problem is that the activity is not persistent." No specific operation plans for Honduras have been revealed by the U.S. government following the end of a joint State Department and DEA mission, Operation Anvil, that resulted in the shootings of suspects and innocent civilians, however it was reported that U.S. Navy SEALs spent 6 months training a 45-man Special Forces anti-trafficking unit within the Honduran Navy. The new unit is called the Honduran Fuerza Especiales Naval or (FEN).
  • 58 members of the House, led by Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Atty. Gen. Eric Holder demanding an investigation into the DEA over its role the murder of four civilians in May 2012.
  • An Associated Press article noted the National Guard's presence in Honduras and highlighted more numbers:
    • In 2012, the U.S. Defense Department spent a record $67.4 million on military contracts in Honduras, triple the 2002 defense contracts there and well above the $45.6 million spent in neighboring Guatemala in 2012.
    • Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon could provide details explaining a 2011 $1.3 billion authorization for exports of military electronics to Honduras — although that would amount to almost half of all U.S. arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere.
  • A report by John Lindsay-Poland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (reposted on Just the Facts) examined Pentagon contracts in Latin America for 2012. According to Poland, “Honduras, which has become a hub for Pentagon operations in Central America, is the site for more than $43 million in non-fuel contracts signed last year.” He also found that the Pentagon contracted $24 million in Honduras for fuel purchases.
  • Wednesday, January 30, 2013

    What's happening in Honduras?

    Recent reports coming out of Honduras show a country in crisis with a failing justice system and an unstable political climate. From the looks of the current state of affairs, Honduras is in for a rocky 2013.

    Crime and Security

    Crimes increased significantly in Honduras in the second half of 2012, with a sharp increase in the last 45 days of the year.

  • In the past three years, there have been 20,573 homicides, with 7,172 murders registered in 2012, up 68 from 2011. The murder rate is 85.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, which comes to 19.65 homicides per day. For comparison, the murder rates in neighboring Nicaragua and Costa Rica is 12 per 100,000 inhabitants and 11.5 per 100,000 inhabitants respectively.
  • In 2012, 432 people were killed in 115 massacres. In the past ten days, there have been two reported massacres (three people or more killed), in which a combined 14 people were murdered, according the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
  • Last weekend, 534 police officers tested positive for marijuana and/or cocaine consumption. 73 upper level officials are being investigated for receiving illicit funds and 230 failed polygraph tests. Although the Supreme Court has since declared the tests unconstitutional, there will be investigations into the officers that failed the tests. Polygraph tests are administered to police in Colombia and more recently in Mexico (modeled after the Colombian initiative) where police began to be tested in the beginning of January 2013.
  • Honduras has one of the most corrupt police forces in the region. Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Honduran Congress, has said 40 percent of the country’s police are involved in organized crime. According to organized crime analysis website InSight Crime, Honduran police officers "have been accused of acting as killers and enforcers for the country's criminal interests."
  • Financial Troubles

    A large portion of Honduras' problems stems from its inability to pay both its domestic and foreign bills. The government is unable to pay for state services ranging from education to security. Of current concern is how much longer the government will be able to pay its military and police forces.

  • Currently the country's internal debt is around $3 billion; its budget deficit exceeds $1 billion (6% of its GDP), while its foreign debt lies at around $5 billion, the same amount allocated to last year's entire government budget. However, the ability to tax is Honduras’ main fiscal problem. According to the Associated Press, tax evasion is adding to the country’s financial woes, with an estimated 43 percent of revenue due.
  • A bill was recently introduced in Congress that would eliminate tax breaks for companies that import goods and create Honduras' first sales tax. Supporters say it will generate an extra $1.2 billion, doubling the government's tax intake.
  • The surveillance camera system in Honduras' capital city was shut off in early January because the government owes the company running the system over $5 million. According to Insight Crime, power to around 800 cameras monitoring crime hotspots in Tegucigalpa has been suspended until the government can pay its outstanding bill. Reports say the emergency response call system would be the next service to go.
  • So far Congress has only passed a partial budget and has yet to propose a solution to the deficit. The Associated Press reported public funds were being used election campaigns with the vote set to take place in November. President Porfirio Lobo Sosa is currently under investigation for financial fraud.
  • Institutional Problems

    In addition to high levels of impunity for crimes, the country is currently in the middle of an institutional crisis.

  • Current President Lobo encouraged Congress to remove four Supreme Court justices following several decisions that went against his administration. Congress, the majority held by Lobo's National Party, did so without an impeachment trial, however, because the judges have not been replaced, no one can rule on their appeal to be reinstated as the other justices refuse to try the case.
  • Last week, Congress approved a law that would allow lawmakers to impeach any elected official.
  • As stated by Southern Pulse, "in 2013, Honduras is headed down the same road that led to the 2009 political crisis." Southern Pulse notes that the difference is that "Lobo has the support of President of Congress Juan Orlando Hernandez who is also the National Party presidential candidate. The Supreme Court will not be a factor since the Congress has intimidated the justices. The Armed Forces are led by General Rene Osorio who was previously in charge of Lobo’s Presidential Guard." Orlando is the National Party's candidate for the November 2013 presidential elections, which he is expected to win.
  • U.S. involvement in counternarcotics operations

    There has been growing U.S. military involvement in counternarcotics operations in Central America. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) involvement in three operations in which suspects or innocent civilians were killed in Honduras this year highlighted that involvement and draws a watchful eye for what is coming in 2013.

  • In August, the U.S. suspended radar intelligence sharing after the Honduran air force shot down two suspected drug plans. The U.S. resumed sharing radar intelligence in November. On January 17, the Associated Press reported that a drug trafficker was killed in the first U.S.-supported anti-narcotics raid in Honduras following the five-month suspension.
  • Also in August, the U.S. State Department put a temporary hold on about $50 million for antidrug and security efforts. The move to do so was motivated by concerns over the DEA’s role in civilian deaths and unauthorized plane shootdowns, accusations that the police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, was involved with death squads, and the government’s sluggish pace to reform a police force mired with corruption. The $50 million amounts to about half of all U.S. aid to Honduras for 2012 (including humanitarian assistance) and includes $8.3 million in counternarcotics aid, and another $38 million under the Central America Regional Security Initiative.
  • A joint State Department and DEA mission, known as Operation Anvil, began in April and ended in mid-July. Three of the five joint interdiction operations during Anvil included the shootings of Hondurans by either DEA agents, or by Honduran officers trained, equipped and vetted by the U.S., causing the operation to end days ahead of schedule.
  • Honduras is currently participating in Operation Martillo, an operation led by U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South that works to increase offshore monitoring along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and coordinates with governments to intercept drug shipments. As of yet, no other multiagency operations have been announced.
  • Friday, January 11, 2013

    Week in Review

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

  • President Obama named the nominees for the his national security team, with John Kerry at Department of State, Chuck Hagel at the Department of Defense and John Brennan at the CIA. The Washington Office on Latin America's Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy, Adam Isacson, examined what these appointments could mean for Latin America and looked at four likely outcomes: more Special Forces deployments to the region; a greater intelligence community presence; greater use of drones and robotics; and more emphasis on cyber-security.
  • United States Southern Command leader General John F. Kelly visited Honduras and El Salvador this week to discuss continued military cooperation with both nation's heads of state and ministers of defense.
  • Mexico

  • The Mexican Congress confirmed Eduardo Medina Mora to replace Arturo Sarukhan as the country's ambassador to the U.S. Medina Mora was President Calderón's former attorney general from 2006-2009 and the Secretary of Public Safety under President Fox from 2005-2006. Jorge Chabat, a political science professor at the Mexico City- based Center for Economic Research and Teaching, told BusinessWeek that Medina Mora will "prevent the U.S. perspective from dominating on this issue." The new ambassador cited security as one his top priorities. He has weighed in on U.S. policy, suggesting the United States make drug, arms and immigration reforms, as Animal Politico notes. Medina Mora also called for the United States to reform guns laws in the wake of the Newtown shooting, calling it a "window of opportunity" to make changes.
  • On Wednesday, new Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law a bill designed to track drug war victims and compensate their families up to $70,000 per innocent victim. The fund will compensate surviving victims of drug violence as well. According to Reuters and the Los Angeles Times, the measure requires authorities to pay for victims' medical care and establish a national registry of victims. Mexico's government has yet to announce how much money is allocated for the initiative or how many victims it considers innocent.

    Former President Felipe Calderón vetoed the bill last summer over apparent technical flaws, drawing much criticism from human rights groups. The removal of the veto, "is a positive sign that this government will begin to take seriously the rights of the victims of the violence," according to Amnesty International. “But for it to make a real difference, the Mexican authorities at all levels must ensure the law is complied with effectively."

  • As of Thursday, Mexico will be divided into five national security regions, effective immediately. News website Animal Politico published the twelve security initiatives that the Mexican government agreed to implement within the next 45 days, including the creation of a national crime prevention program, a police education program along with new operation protocols, and the creation of specialized units focused on kidnapping within the federal police force, among others.
  • Last Friday, a cash-for-weapons voluntary disarmament program was extended in Mexico City. Since the program began on December 24th, authorities have confiscated nearly 1,500 weapons.
  • A few good reports were put out on Mexican security this week:

  • The Inter-American Dialogue published a working paper by Alejandro Hope "Peace now? Mexican security policy after Felipe Calderón," that offers an analysis of the security challenges facing the Peña Nieto administration. He looks at former President Calderón's institutional legacy and changes in Mexico's security climate. For Hope, Peña Nieto will likely offer adjustments to Calderón's strategy, the biggest difference between the two possibly involving "more tone than substance."
  • In a report for the Woodrow Wilson Center titled,"In the Lurch Between Government and Chaos: Unconsolidated Democracy in Mexico," Luis Rubio of the Center of Research for Development (CIDAC) looks at how organized crime took advantage of Mexico's weak institutions and what reforms the government must implement to build "competent democratic institutions" and "restore economic growth."
  • "Mexico Drug Policy and Security Review 2012," by Nathan P. Jones for Small Wars Journal examines Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's new security policy and concludes that the initiative shares "more similarities than differences" with the much-criticized security agenda of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. It offers a good overview of the policy's components.
  • Bolivia

  • Bolivia re-entered the United Nation's 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs on January 10 with an exception that allows for chewing coca leaves within the country's border. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, "this represents the successful conclusion of an arduous process in which Bolivia has sought to reconcile its international treaty obligations with its 2009 Constitution, which obliges upholding the coca leaf as part of Bolivia’s cultural patrimony." The new reservation was opposed by at least 15 countries, including the United States, Russia, Germany, Mexico, and Japan. However, for Bolivia's proposal to have been blocked, 63 countries would have needed to object.

    The vote comes with recent media attention to the country's controversial coca-leaf regulating program, which a recent report from WOLA suggests is working. According to both the White House and the UN, the total acreage of coca cultivation in Bolivia dropped in 2011 between 12-13 percent. Bolivian President and former coca farmer Evo Morales has planned two celebrations for Monday.

  • Brazil

  • In Brazil, ex-President Lula has been implicated in a vote-buying scandal that has rocked the country. Brazil's top prosecutor said Wednesday that he will look into allegations that former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was involved in the embezzlement and vote-buying scheme, known as the "mensalão" case. Brazilian businessman Marcos Valério de Souza, who received a 40-year sentence for his role in the scandal, testified that he deposited funds for Lula da Silva's "personal spending." So far the case has brought down several top officials in the Lula administration, including his chief of staff, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
  • Colombia

  • Colombia's prosecutor general re-opened an investigation into former President Álvaro Uribe over his alleged involvement with paramilitary groups while he was governor of the Antioquia department in the 1990s. On his well-maintained Twitter account, he denied the charges, amounting them to "Slander from imprisoned criminals," and starting the hashtag "Criminal Revenge," (#VenganzaCriminal) for the case.
  • On Wednesday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced that the two-month unilateral ceasefire they declared at the beginning of peace talks on November 20th will end on January 20th. The FARC's lead negotiator, Ivan Marquez, said in a news conference in Havana that "only the signing of a bilateral ceasefire would be possible," which the Santos administration has repeatedly refused. According to news website Colombia Reports, violence attributed to the FARC decreased by 80 percent during the first week of January, compared to the same period in January 2012, which NGO Nuevo Arco Iris said was the most violent month in the past eight years. Also of note in the peace talks is that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter will be traveling to Colombia this Saturday to meet with President Santos and negotiators from both sides of the table.
  • The Washington Office on Latin America released a report today titled "Consolidating 'Consolidation,'" The new report examines Colombia's U.S.-backed counterinsurgency program, the National Territorial Consolidation Plan. According to the report, the U.S. has invested a least half a billion dollars of U.S. assistance into the five-year-old program, which "seeks to bring the government into several areas of the country with histories of illegal armed groups, violence, drug trafficking, and statelessness." The report notes that while “Consolidation” has "brought security improvements and more soldiers and police to a few territories, the governance vacuum remains far from filled."
  • Venezuela

    On Tuesday the Venezuelan National Assembly passed a measure giving President Chávez, who is recovering from his fourth cancer surgery in Cuba, "as long as he needs," saying that he could be sworn in in front of the Supreme Court after the January 10th inauguration date set forth in the constitution. On Wednesday, the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) upheld the decision. On Thursday, the would-be inauguration date, thousands of Chávez supporters gathered outside the presidential palace in Caracas in solidarity. Several Latin American leaders also traveled to Caracas to show their support for Chávez and the Venezuelan government's decision to keep him in power.

    An interesting twist to the ruling was Supreme Court President Luisa Estela Morales' reference to an obscure 19th century U.S. vice president, William R. King, who took his oath of office 20 days after the new government came to power -- while in Cuba being treated for tuberculosis.

    The news this week has been filled with debate about the constitutionality of the Venezuelan government's decision to allow Chávez to stay in power.

    The opposition has argued that since the president-elect was unable to be sworn in by Jan. 10, power should be transferred to the next-in-line in succession, who would be the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello with an election to follow. Opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado told CNN, "This is a decision that was clearly taken in Cuba by the Cubans."

    U.S. congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who previously led the House's Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed, saying,"The delay of his swearing-in is yet another example of the trampling of the constitution by this despot. The Venezuelan constitution states that the leader of Venezuela needs to take the oath of office on January 10 in front of the National Assembly or the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice."

    Some analysis examining the Venezuelan constitution contend the ruling to allow Chávez to stay in power and extend his swear-in date was constitutional. Others say it is a matter of legal interpretation, as there is no precedent for the situation and the constitution does not provide a concrete solution.

  • On the Washington Office on Latin America's Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, David Smilde gives a clear analysis of the case. According to Smilde, the government's decision is based on an article in the constitution that allows an extension of power in the case of extended trips abroad, essentially allowing Chávez to be "indefinite leave with no mechanisms for reviewing that leave or verifying his condition." Technically the Supreme Court has the power to determine if Chávez is permanently mentally or physically unfit to rule, in which case he could be removed from power and elections would ensue. This is unlikely to happen however, as the court said he had justified his "extended trip abroad." As Smilde posits, with the National Assembly and Supreme Court's support, "Chávez could conceivably be on life-support for weeks or months, but still hold the office of president whether or not that would have been his wish."

    An earlier post from Smilde provides an excellent overview and analysis of the complexity of the situation and looks at a discussion from UCV law professor José Ignacio Hernández.

  • Dan Beeton at the Center for Economic and Policy Research examines the Venezuelan constitution and argues that the government's decision to keep Chávez in power is in line with the constitution. According to Beeton, an article in the document says a leader can be sworn in after the inauguration date and offers no deadline for when it can take place. The only instance in which elections would be held would be if he was removed as a result of “death; resignation; removal from office by decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice; permanent physical or mental disability certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly; abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly; and recall by popular vote.” This is the chief argument that Venezuelan officials have been making.
  • An editorial in the Los Angeles Times commented on the lack of information about President Chávez's health, saying, "Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his allies need to stop treating his health like a national secret."
  • According to the AP, Vice President Maduro, along with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez Kirchener and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, is traveling to Cuba this weekend to visit President Chavez.
  • Amid the debate about Venezuela's leadership and as the possibility of a power vacuum grows, crime analysis website Insight Crime reports that crime and violence have been on the upswing in the midst of the political upheaval, with more than 75 murders being registered in Caracas in the first six days of 2013.
  • Univision offers a useful timeline of Chávez's political career, which can be found here.
  • An English version of the Venezuelan constitution can be found here

    The text for the Supreme Court's decision can be found here

    Thursday, January 20, 2011

    Illicit Financial Flows out of Latin America

    The Center for International Policy's Global Financial Integrity program released a new report this week that estimates the quantity and patterns of illicit financial flows coming out of developing countries. The report, "Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries, 2000-2009," (PDF) finds that approximately $6.5 trillion was removed from the developing world from 2000 through 2008, averaging $725 billion to $810 billion per year.

    Most notable for Latin America, the new GFI report, authored by Dev Kar and Karly Curcio, places both Mexico and Venezuela in the top ten countries with the highest measured cumulative illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2008. According to the new report, from 2000 to 2008 $416 billion in illicit money flowed out of Mexico, placing Mexico third on the list, just behind China ($2.18 trillion) and Russia ($427 billion). Venezuela falls eighth on the list, with $157 billion in illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2008.

    CIP's Global Financial Integrity program explains that the term "illicit financial flows" pertains to

    the cross-border movement of money that is illegally earned, transferred, or utilized. Illicit financial flows generally involve the transfer of money earned through illegal activities such as corruption, transactions involving contraband goods, criminal activities, and efforts to shelter wealth from a country's tax authorities.

    The report does not include estimated amounts of illicit flows leaving countries as a result of strictly cash transactions, which is often how narcotrafficking and organized crime transactions are conducted. As Karly Curcio, one of the report's authors, states in a recent blog post, "The model is not able to capture illegal, cash-only transactions and smuggling related activities, so the negative economic impact of illicit flows from [Mexico] is almost certainly understated."

    The policy implication, according to GFI, of this huge amount of illicit flows out of the developing world is that for every $1 in economic development assistance that goes into a developing country, $10 is lost via illicit outflows. "Illicit outflows deprive governments of tax revenues crucial for providing public goods like domestic security, ... [and] also drain capital needed for various investment projects, poverty alleviation, and economic growth," writes Curcio. Using Mexico as an example, GFI's new estimates put the flow of illicit money out of Mexico at some $46.24 billion each year, while, over the last eight years for which data are available, the country received an average of just $212 million in Official Development Assistance. Given the ratio of inflows to outflows, it is unclear how countries like Mexico can address their development needs when such a large amount of money pours out of their economies each year.

    While Mexico and Venezuela rank third and eighth in the developing world, here is a list of the average annual illicit financial outflows from Latin American & Caribbean countries, from highest to lowest:

    1. Mexico ($46.24 billion)
    2. Venezuela (17.5 billion)
    3. Argentina ($10 billion)
    4. Chile ($7.8 billion)
    5. Costa Rica ($4.4 billion)
    6. Panama ($3.9 billion)
    7. Honduras ($2.8 billion)
    8. Brazil ($2.6 billion)
    9. Colombia ($2.1 billion)
    10. Ecuador ($1.5 billion)
    11. Guatemala ($1.5 billion)
    12. El Salvador ($1 billion)
    13. Uruguay ($837 million)
    14. Nicaragua ($774 million)
    15. Jamaica ($706 million)
    16. Bolivia ($590 million)
    17. Paraguay ($476 million)
    18. Peru ($311 million)
    19. The Bahamas ($121 million)
    20. Belize ($43 million)
    21. Antigua and Barbuda ($16 million)
    22. St. Kitts ($16 million)
    23. St. Lucia ($9 million)
    24. Dominica ($66 million)

    You can find more information about illicit financial flows on GFI's website.
    More information on the report can be found here, or download the full report (PDF).

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    Recent News Overview in Mexico

    Institutional impunity, human rights violations, and terror continue to fuel Mexico’s weakening security environment. Among the latest pieces of news related to violence in Mexico and drug trafficking:

    • Mexican President Felipe Calderón strongly criticized California’s Proposition 19 ballot initiative that would legalize the sale and use of marijuana. Calderón alleged that, if passed, the California provision would encourage U.S. consumption, thus expanding the market for Mexican traffickers.
    • U.S. officials reported via the Associated Press that the Zetas drug cartel is thwarting efforts to reclaim the body of David Michael Hartley, a U.S. citizen shot on Lake Falcon, along the Texas-Mexico border, while on a fishing trip. Including Hartley, the death toll for U.S. citizens in Mexico is on pace to exceed the record 90 murders in 2009.
    • A USA Today report, “The fear is always there,” documents the dangers of being a Mexican mayor amid the increasing influence of drug cartels. The most recent murder of Antonio Jiménez Baños marks the 12th slaying of a Mexican mayor this year. Experts fear that political assassinations will affect the long-term stability of Mexican democracy because the best and brightest may be too intimidated to run.
    • In response to weak police forces and poor information-sharing practices, President Calderón advanced legislation to consolidate police forces, to create a ‘Mando Unico’ that, it is hoped, will weed out corrupt police officers and drug cartel influence. Opponents of the legislation charge that Calderón should focus on strengthening internal affairs units, increasing civilian oversight, and improving information collection on existing police.
    • Amid violent political assassinations, impunity, and civil unrest, Slate magazine claims that there are a few lessons Mexico can draw from the Colombian experience.

    This post was written by CIP intern Allison Gilchrist