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Friday, March 14, 2014

The Week in Review

This week the head of Southcom said he can't stop 80 percent of drugs coming from Colombia, the U.S. government made increasingly critical statements against Venezuela's government and El Salvador almost got a new president. Here's a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • On Thursday, the heads of U.S. Southern Command and Northern Command (Mexico and the Bahamas fall under its purview) testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. As in his appearance before the House last week, Southcom commander General Kelly said that he is "unable to get after 74 percent of suspected maritime drug smuggling," because of severe budget cuts that have pared down assets like intelligence equipment and vessels. Kelly said he needed 16 ships capable of transporting helicopters in order to reduce the flow of drugs by 40 percent. He also noted
    that he does not get to use the U.S. Air Force’s surveillance drones.
  • General Kelly also said he had to cancel more than 200 engagements due to the tightened defense spending and that some Latin American leaders are "in disbelief" over legalization in the United States given its push for the drug war. A video of the hearing can be accessed here and General Kelly’s comments from the Pentagon briefing room here.
  • While testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry called on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to "end this terror campaign against his own people,” one of his strongest statements to date about the protests in the country. Kerry said the United States was prepared “to get involved in various ways,” mentioning sanctions but noting that “the economy there is already quite fragile.” A video of the hearing can be viewed here.
  • During the hearing Congressman Matt Salmon (R-AZ) called the statement from the Organization of American States, released last Friday, "shamefully weak," a sentiment shared by Human Rights Watch Americas director José Miguel Vivanco, who said the statement “describes Venezuela as if natural disaster had struck, ignoring government censorship and abuses.” The United States and Panama added lengthy footnote objections to the statement, ultimately pushing for stronger language on demanding dialogue.
  • In an interview with Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, Biden called the situation in Venezuela “alarming,” accusing the government of backing armed militias and not respecting basic human rights. An unofficial source told the Associated Press Biden mentioned the possibility of third-party mediation.
  • The Union of South American Nations met in Chile the day after the inauguration to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. The group released a statement supporting dialogue and resolved to send a delegation to Venezuela to facilitate “dialogue between the government and all political forces and players.”
  • President Maduro announced the government would be stepping up security measures in areas where violence has spiked since the protests started one month ago. According to Reuters, the death toll has reached 28 and Venezuela State Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, said 1,293 detainees had been released and 104 remained in custody. Venezuela Politics and Human Rights published a post tracking the deaths to date, while the Center for Economic Policy Research has a consistently updated blog feature, “Venezuela: Who Are They and How Did They Die?” See our Venezuela news page for links to several articles about the current situation.
  • Guatemala, the United States and Mexico are creating a coalition to ramp up security along their borders, Spanish news agency EFE reported.
  • For the first time, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will hold a hearing on March 25 to discuss the negative impact of the drug war on human rights in Latin America, reported the AFP. The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) is currently holding a review of global drug policy and for the first time has updates available to the public on its blog.
  • The State Department published its 2000-2010 estimates of world military budgets and arms transfers.
  • On Wednesday night, El Salvador's Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared left wing FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén the winner of the country's presidential election. The final tally was 50.11 percent for Cerén to 49.89 percent for Norman Quijano. Quijano's conservative ARENA party has filed numerous petitions calling for the election to be set aside for several reasons, which are laid out by Tim Muth on his blog. ARENA has also submitted alleged proof of electoral fraud to the Attorney General's office. Before the TSE can ratify Cerén, these petitions must be addressed. According to Muth, the TSE will meet Sunday and announce on Monday whether the election will be set aside or if Cerén will be El Salvador’s next president.
  • Last weekend Colombia held congressional elections that many regarded as a referendum on the government's peace process with the FARC. Former President Alvaro Uribe, who has opposed the peace talks, won a Senate seat and his newly formed Democratic Center party won almost 15 percent of the seats in the Senate and 10 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives. Although President Santos's U party maintained a majority, the Democratic Center's strong showing could pose political difficulties for Santos going forward, however as Adam Isacson noted in World Politics Review, "his agenda as a whole will survive." Analyst James Bosworth has a succinct analysis of what the elections mean for Colombia's political landscape on his blog.
  • Several of the newly elected members of Colombia’s congress have been linked to paramilitary groups, including Senator Uribe. The estimates of the exact number of members with ties to paramilitaries has varied between 30, as Inter-Press Service reported, and 70, as Colombian organization Fundación Paz y Reconciliación determined. Colombian investigative news website Verdad Abierta published an excellent report and infographic on the issue, while La Silla Vacía included profiles of the members of congress linked to the paramilitary groups.
  • Friday, March 7, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week the Obama administration cut aid to Colombia and Mexico in its proposed budget for FY2015, El Salvador's police chief said the gang truce was technically done and Colombia's military was rocked by more scandals. Here's a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • On Tuesday, the White House released its budget proposal for FY2015, which included considerable cuts in State Department counternarcotics assistance to Mexico. A drop from $195 million spent in 2013 for the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement fund to a potential $80 million in 2015 indicates the Mérida Initiative is on the way out, according to WOLA's Adam Isacson. The proposal also reduced aid to Colombia, for both military and economic assistance, by about 12 percent. Overall the administration is planning to cut antidrug assistance to the region by $285 million in 2015.
  • Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) criticized the sizable drop in economic aid, saying, "After spending billions on counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency, we must not walk away from Colombia’s development and human rights needs, just when they might have the most positive impact." See here for more detailed State Department numbers and other international programs and here for the Congressional Budget Justification, which includes the actual amount spent in 2013 and the request for 2015.
  • Salvadoran journalist Héctor Silva Ávalos published a working paper for the Inter-American Dialogue, “The United States and Central America’s Northern Tier: The Ongoing Disconnect” The paper reviews U.S. security policy in the Northern Triangle -- Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Silva noted U.S. assistance has done little to curb the soaring crime and murder rates that have plagued the region since the end of their civil wars in the 1990s.
  • Silva also published a series on corruption in El Salvador for InSight Crime, including an excellent article on the country's police force and another detailing the logistics of a smuggling ring moving cocaine from El Salvador to New York and Washington, D.C.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense released the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which broadly outlines DOD strategy and priorities. The document said very little about Latin America and the Caribbean. Analyst James Bosworth put together a roundup of all mentions of the region. The report cited transnational organized crime as the greatest threat to security in the region and said it would be "focusing limited resources on working with countries that want to partner with the United States and demonstrate a commitment to investing the time and resources required to develop and sustain an effective, civilian-led enterprise."
  • The State Department also released the 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report that provides country and region profiles. All seven Central American countries were listed as major drug transit countries, as were Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Bahamas, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Jamaica and Mexico. The report estimated that 86 percent of the cocaine smuggled to the United States in the first part of 2013 passed through Central America before moving on to Mexico and across the border, up from 80 percent in 2012, as InSight Crime noted.. MercoPress highlighted that several Caribbean countries were now listed as major money laundering countries.
  • Sunday, voters will go to the polls for the second round of El Salvador's presidential election to chose between Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the leftist FMLN party and Norman Quijano of the conservative ARENA party. The polls indicate Sánchez Cerén will likely be the candidate taking office June 1, according to Tim's El Salvador blog, which offers helpful information and analysis on the election.
  • In Costa Rica it looks likely that Luis Guillermo Solis of the center-left Citizens' Action Party (PAC) will take office following the second round presidential vote in April. Solis' main opponent, Johnny Araya of the Liberal Party, withdrew his name from the vote on Wednesday.
  • El Salvador's police chief, Rigoberto Pleites, told local media this week that the truce between the MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs, "technically no longer exists, given the increase in homicides in the past months." Pleites attributed about 70 percent of the 484 murders that took place between January 1 and March 1 of 2014, to the gangs. According to police numbers, this is about 100 more murders than were registered over the same period last year.
  • Fifteen members Colombia's military, including a colonel embroiled in the military's other recent scandals, were arrested for trafficking weapons to criminal gangs, like the narco-paramilitary group Los Urabeños. El Tiempo also reported that an Army liaison to civilian human rights prosecutors in Colombia might have been illegally passing information on “false positive” cases to commanders. A recent Gallup poll indicated the military’s favorability has fallen 16 points in two months (down from 80 percent in December), following the onslaught on corruption reports.
  • The violent protests in Venezuela continue and to date have left 20 dead and over 300 hundred injured. Countries in the Western Hemisphere have begun to voice their increasing concern over the events unfolding. On Wednesday the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution, nearly unanimously, condemning the "inexcusable violence perpetuated against opposition leaders and protesters in Venezuela." Despite calls for sanctions on Venezuelan leaders from lawmakers, the resolution was even-keeled, calling for an end to violence and promoting dialogue between both sides and support from the region. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) told the Miami Herald that President Obama is "looking at" the sanctions.
  • As today's Pan-American Post noted, the Organization of American States is meeting again today to discuss Venezuela, after members failed to reach a consensus during an eight-hour meeting yesterday. The United Nations issued a statement asking the Venezuelan government to provide information on alleged cases of torture, arbitrary detention and use of force as well as the 65 reported attacks against journalists. The country's national prosecutor Luisa Ortega said "1,322 people have been arrested and received court appearances during the protests and 92 are still in custody, including 15 members of the security forces suspected of human rights abuses,” according to the New York Times.Venezuela Politics and Human Rights published a helpful Q&A on the protests, including a section on what the United States’ best likely course of action would be.
  • 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.

    Tuesday, February 25, 2014

    In their Homes, in their Work, Colombia's Human Rights Defenders Remain at Risk

    By: Lisa Haugaard, LAWGEF

    In their houses, in front of their children, in the middle of meetings, while taking their children or grandchildren to school, while eating in restaurants, while walking to or from work: these are some of the places in which 78 Colombian human rights defenders were assassinated in 2013.

    Community leaders, representatives of poor farmers and victims, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, land rights champions, union leaders, LGBTI and women's rights defenders, youth leaders: these are some of the kinds of defenders assassinated in 2013. Most were poor, from far-flung parts of the country.

    Many were shot with four to seven bullets. Five were tortured.

    According to Somos Defensores ("We are Defenders"), a Colombian nongovernmental program that produces an annual report on attacks against defenders, the number of assassinations of defenders increased from 69 in 2012 to 78 in 2013. Of the 78 defenders assassinated, 15 were allegedly by paramilitary groups, 8 by guerrillas, 5 by members of government security forces, and 50 by unknown authors. Assassinations by paramilitary groups and security forces increased and those by guerrillas decreased in 2013 compared to the previous year. Somos Defensores speculates that the murders of defenders attributed to the guerrillas may have declined due to the current peace talks.

    Defenders experienced a total of 366 aggressions against individual defenders in 2013, ranging from threats, thefts of information, arbitrary detentions and legal harassment, to assaults, forced disappearances and assassinations. One hundred and eighty-five organizations were targeted.

    What was the Colombian government's response? While the Santos Administration's public discourse on human rights defenders remains much better than its predecessor's, it failed to protect defenders adequately and some government agents were responsible for abuses and harassment against them. The lack of effective investigations of crimes against defenders remains a major problem. While threats generate enormous fear amongst human rights defenders, and may be followed by assassinations, they are never investigated; impunity for threats remains at 100 percent. Break-ins of defenders’ offices in which sensitive human rights information is stolen are not taken seriously. The Colombian government must make far greater progress in dismantling paramilitary groups, the illegal armed groups that were only partially demobilized in 2005, if it is to protect human rights defenders and poor communities.

    While the government maintains a vital protection program for defenders, physical protection programs are not sufficient nor do they cover all those needing protection. Despite promises to do so, the government has advanced little in providing collective protection measures for organizations and communities.

    2013 was a year of tremendous social protest in Colombia, in which poor farmers and indigenous people protested the lack of policies to protect their lives and livelihoods. Repression of these protests, especially by the ESMAD riot police, was brutal. According to Somos Defensores, "ESMAD acted as a shock force against protests, with the goal of dispersing them, silencing them and bringing charges against protestors."

    As the Colombian and U.S. governments meet this week in a High-Level Policy Dialogue, improving efforts to protect defenders, including by prosecuting those who threaten and kill them, is on the agenda. That’s as it should be. But now we need to see more results.

    It was a year of contrasts. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is laudably pursuing a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, the best hope in a generation to end Colombia's half century of war. His signature Victims' Law pledges to provide reparations and land restitution to Colombia's victims of violence. But in their homes and communities, Colombia's everyday heroes and heroines of nonviolent defense of human rights remain at risk.

    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 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 6, 2013

    Yes to Peace in Colombia

    By: Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

    This blog appeared in the Huffington Post

    As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met this week with President Barack Obama, it’s time to say, Yes to peace.

    In November 2013, the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group signed an agreement, the second of five agreements which together will make up a final peace accord. With this second agreement, two of the most difficult topics, land and political participation, have been negotiated, showing that this peace process has a real chance to end a fifty-year war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, kidnapped and disappeared, and some 6 million people have been forcibly displaced.

    It’s positive that the U.S. government is supporting this peace process, Colombia’s best hope for a sustainable peace in decades. The United States should support it decisively. U.S. policymakers must also consider how best to support a peace accord financially once negotiations are finalized, including by reorienting aid away from military assistance and towards demobilization and reintegration programs, support for victims of violence, and mechanisms for truth, justice and reparations.

    The Colombian government should facilitate greater participation for victims of violence—including Afro-Colombian and indigenous people and women—in the peace process and its implementation. Strong measures of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition are essential if this agreement is to produce a just and lasting peace, as this letter by a wide range of U.S. faith-based organizations emphasizes.

    And the Colombian government would be wise to open peace negotiations with the remaining, smaller guerrilla groups, to use this momentum to put an end to war.

    But Colombia cannot achieve a sustainable peace without addressing its core human rights problems. Colombia’s human rights crisis is far from over. As noted in a statement by the Latin America Working Group, Washington Office on Latin America, US Office on Colombia, and Center for International Policy:

    The Colombian government must make greater progress in dismantling paramilitary successor groups. In November 2013 alone, more than 2700 people, largely Afro-Colombian, were displaced in Buenaventura, allegedly by paramilitary successor groups. These brutal groups are also responsible for many of the threats and attacks against human rights defenders and are an obstacle to implementing the government’s land restitution program. Dismantling paramilitary successor groups—including by investigating and prosecuting the members of the military and police, local politicians, government officials, large landowners and companies that continue to finance and collude with them—is essential for human rights progress in Colombia.

    Colombia must bring to justice the cases of the more than 3,000 alleged extrajudicial executions, most attributed to the armed forces, committed in the past decade. The Colombian Constitutional Court's decision to overturn the new, controversial law that would have expanded military jurisdiction affords the Santos Administration an opportunity to move forward, not backward, and ensure that human rights crimes allegedly committed by soldiers are effectively tried in civilian courts. Progress in bringing to justice cases of sexual violence committed by all armed actors is also essential.

    The Colombian judicial system must make advances in prosecuting threats and attacks against human rights defenders. Those who defend human rights continue to face grave risks for their work, yet attacks against them are almost never investigated, let alone prosecuted. Though the Santos Administration has implemented important protection programs, it is essential to confront the problem at its source by ending impunity in attacks against defenders.

    The Colombian government must meet its obligations to respect labor rights. To secure passage of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which faced significant public and congressional opposition, the U.S. and Colombian governments signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) that laid out steps that the Colombian government agreed to take in order to protect labor unionists and increase respect for labor rights. It was good to hear the White House mention this, but we need action. The Colombian and U.S. governments must fulfill the pledge they made to the U.S. and Colombian publics by signing this plan.

    While the number of deaths of labor union members has declined and Colombia has created institutions and passed laws, respect for labor rights has not improved on the ground. At least 11 trade unionists have been murdered in 2013 and hundreds have received death threats. As highlighted in a congressional report, “The US-Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground,” indirect employment is still pervasive and growing, the inspection system is ineffective, workers’ protections are weak and the right to organize is routinely denied.

    Finally, the Colombian government must make progress in safe and sustainable land restitution for victims of forced displacement as well as land titling for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The Santos’ Administration’s Victims’ Law represents a historic opportunity for land restitution to Colombia’s internally displaced population and reparations for victims of violence. However, land restitution has been extremely slow, and even the vast majority of those who receive restitution are not yet able to return safely to their lands, as the structures that caused displacement remain intact (see Human Rights Watch's The Risk of Returning Home and Latin America Working Group's Far from the Promised Land). Land titling of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities is also proceeding at a snail's pace.

    Land restitution cannot take place safely without more decisive action by the Colombian government to address the sources of violence from all armed actors—including paramilitaries, guerrillas and the armed forces—that caused people to flee their homes in the first place. It is especially crucial to dismantle the illegal paramilitary successor groups that still wage violence in the countryside, as well as to investigate and prosecute state and private actors that aid or employ them. The Colombian government should also ramp up legal services and protection for victims, and increase protection for land judges.

    Colombia is still experiencing a human rights crisis. But if a peace accord is finalized in the near future, and if the Colombian government increases its attention to these human rights and labor rights issues, there is a real chance that Colombians, including those caught for decades in one of the world’s most brutal conflicts, can live their lives in peace.

    Friday, December 6, 2013

    Honduran Elections: No Cause for Celebrations

    By: Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

    The November 24, 2013 elections in Honduras and their aftermath are a critical moment for the direction of the country. In June 2009 a coup overthrew the elected president, Liberal Party member Manuel Zelaya. In this month´s election, Zelaya´s wife Xiomara Castro de Zelaya under the new Libre party banner ran against the National Party´s Juan Orlando Hernandez, the traditional Liberal Party, a new Anti-Corruption Party and several others.

    The Supreme Electoral Council declared the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernandez the winner, followed by Libre, with the Liberals, and the Anti-Corruption Party also receiving a significant share of votes. The newer parties’ significant vote count has altered the traditional two-party (National, Liberal) Honduran political scene.

    But it is far from time to celebrate a free and fair election.

    The International Human Rights Federation observation team in which Latin America Working Group participated, observing the human rights context as well as electoral mechanics, congratulated the Honduran people for a strong turnout, but observed the following serious problems:

    Incentives for voting, provided by one party. The National Party had booths outside voting places where voters could pick up an envelope with their name on it with a card with discounts for telephone, food, medical care and pharmacy products. This was widespread and open, with the party having run ads promoting it.

    Live people declared dead. Our small team met at least 20 people who had been declared dead and were unable to vote, as well as others whose voting places had been changed, making it difficult for them to vote. “They have not yet managed to kill me yet,” said one very angry “dead” woman we met at a Libre party booth outside a polling place. Many of these people told us that they had voted at the same voting place in last year´s primary.

    Oppressive presence of the military. Honduran law unfortunately confers upon the armed forces the role of transporting and guarding electoral material and filled ballots. This law needs to be changed. The presence of the military on this election day was oppressive. Soldiers with automatic weapons had a prominent presence at voting centers, and in one case we observed soldiers frisking voters as they entered the polling place. Soldiers surrounded the transmission towers of progressive radio and television stations on election day.

    Among the other problems we observed or which were reported to us were a complete lack of transparency in campaign financing, allegations that smaller parties were selling their pollwatcher credentials, immigration agents harassing some international observers, and the fact that the Supreme Electoral Council was formed by four of the nine parties running, rather than being strictly nonpartisan.

    However, the allegations of fraudulent acts with the most impact would be in the transmission of votes between the polling places and the Supreme Electoral Council. Our mission noted with concern before the elections that this system appeared vulnerable to fraud. Two parties, Libre and the Anti-Corruption Party, are contesting the results of the elections and demanding to see the results from the individual polling places and a complete recount of ballots.

    The Supreme Electoral Council must satisfy the legitimate demands of these parties for complete and transparent scrutiny of contested ballots. International observers should audit the vote transmission system, and the Honduran Attorney General’s office for Electoral Crimes should investigate carefully all claims of fraudulent activity.

    In the long term, Honduran election law could be improved by removing the military from a role in administering elections, ensuring that the Supreme Electoral Council is nonpartisan, improving the voter rolls and ensuring transparency in campaign financing.

    On the day after the elections, a small, peaceful protest by frustrated Libre voters approached the plaza where the Supreme Electoral Council had set up operations in a hotel. Some 150 heavily-armed police, including the anti-riot police with their tear gas and shields, and the black-clad military police, blocked their entrance. There was no violence, not with international electoral observers in their jackets and the international press in the nearby hotels. But what will happen now that the observers and the press have packed up and left?

    The enormous frustration of voters who feel that once again the faith that they have placed in the electoral system has been violated needs to be heard and needs a solution. It must not meet teargas and batons.

    The international community should be concerned about these elections and their aftermath.

    We must also be concerned about the overall human rights context in Honduras. Yes, there is an extremely high murder rate due to organized crime and street crime. But there are also targeted killings of and threats against human rights defenders, including those who denounce human rights abuses, protect women´s rights and protest environmentally damaging projects such as mining and dams. Journalists and members of the LGBTI community are targeted. Police and other state actors are implicated in many cases, and the vast majority of these crimes remain in total impunity. The human rights unit of the Attorney General’s office that should investigate many of these crimes has been weakened by the recent transfer of dedicated prosecutors.

    Nothing to celebrate yet.

    Tuesday, December 3, 2013

    Five points on President Obama's meeting with Colombia's President Santos

    Today, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met with President Obama for two and a half hours at the White House. This was the fourth meeting between the two leaders since President Santos took office in August of 2010.

    There was a fair amount of media coverage ahead of the meeting, not only about what the discussion would cover, but also about the meeting’s political context. Here are five points various articles and analyses have discussed and what the White House overview of the meeting said about them:

    1. This visit was different. Both Colombia and the United States stressed the meeting was more about their economic ties than their security relationship

    Much of the media attention ahead of the visit focused on the fact that this visit marked a turning point in U.S.-Colombian relations away from centering on security and towards economic partnership. President Santos told Caracol Radio Monday morning this meeting would be “totally different” as Colombia is no longer “coming with the hat out, asking for money.” Now Colombia wants to be seen as a different kind of partner to the United States. “The relations of our two countries find themselves at their best moment ever,” President Santos said in his remarks after the meeting.

    For the past 20 years, the U.S.-Colombia relationship has been defined by Washington’s support for Colombia’s fight against guerillas, paramilitaries and narcotrafficking. In recent years, there was also the added push to get Congress to approve the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The FTA went into effect last year, increasing trade between the countries by 20 percent. While Colombia is still the top recipient of U.S. assistance to the region, aid is at the lowest levels since before 2000, at less than $300 million per year.

    Moreover, EFE and Colombian newspaper El Tiempo noted this meeting was important for President Obama’s image in the region as President Santos was the first (and really only) leader in Latin America “who offered President Obama a hand to recover,” following revelations of the National Security Archive’s extensive surveillance of citizens, companies and leaders throughout the hemisphere. President Obama’s former Latin America advisor, Dan Restrepo said, “this is an important meeting for the United States as it allows it to focus on a positive agenda… it’s a relationship that has turned the page.”

    2. President Obama supports the peace talks

    The peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were expected to be one of the central topics of the private meeting. Also on the agenda: trade, opportunities for energy, education, technology, and Colombia’s role in training security forces in Central America and the Caribbean.

    As expected, President Obama emphasized his “strong support” for the peace process and praised President Santos’ “bold and brazen efforts” in engaging in discussions with the FARC. The administration has expressed support for the peace talks over the past year, but the backing of the United States is crucial in the negotiations.

    So far the negotiating teams have reached agreements on agrarian development and the FARC’s political participation, but as the talks progress and both sides tackle contentious issues such as drug policy, demobilization and reintegration, transitional justice and extradition, international cooperation will be key. As Colombia is the United States’ main security partner in the region, U.S. support, financial and otherwise, will be needed to ensure a successful post-conflict transition.

    Colombian magazine Semana reported President Santos was expected to request support from the U.S. as Colombia moves towards this transition. A statement released today by Latin American Working Group, the Center for International Policy, the Washington Office on Latin America and U.S. Office on Colombia emphasized this:

    U.S. policymakers should also consider how best to support a peace accord financially once negotiations are finalized, including by reorienting aid away from military assistance and towards peace accord implementation, such as demobilization and reintegration programs, support for victims of violence, and mechanisms for truth, justice and reparations.

    3. The United States’ security relationship with Colombia is changing

    The United States is planning to decrease its role in security operations in Colombia and shift its assistance into economic arenas, according to reports from a phone call between journalists and a White House senior official. The official said U.S. security assistance was “designed to be phased out over time” and because “conditions have been improving on the ground” security assistance is likely to be scaled back.

    As an article in Foreign Policy noted, elite forces from U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Air Force have deployed to Colombia since 2000 to work closely with the Colombians and that U.S. Special Forces will continue to train Colombian security forces. (See here for information of U.S. military training of Colombian forces)

    Speaking at an event yesterday in Washington, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said the Colombian military would continue to train military and police forces in Central America and the Caribbean with U.S. funding. As expected, President Obama and President Santos covered this topic and agreed to triple joint U.S.- Colombian trainings throughout the hemisphere:

    In 2013, this security assistance included 39 capacity-building activities in four Central American countries focused on areas such as asset forfeiture, investigations, polygraphs, and interdiction. The United States and Colombia announced the Action Plan for 2014, which aims to increase assistance through 152 capacity-building activities in six countries in Central America and the Caribbean.

    4. Human rights and Labor issues exist that must be addressed

    The statement mentioned above from the four Washington-baed NGOs called for the meeting to highlight serious labor and human rights problems that persist in the country. Some of the issues discussed during the meeting:

    • Land Restitution and Afro-Colombians
      Colombia passed the historic Victim’s Law in 2011, which aimed to offer reparations to victims and return land to some of the more than five million Colombians displaced because of violence. This process has been extremely slow, and those that have received restitution from the government often cannot return to the land for fear of being threatened or killed by armed actors, particularly paramilitary successor groups. Land titling for Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups in Colombia, who also continue to be marginalized and targeted, has been particularly slow.

      The White House underscored the $68 million slated by USAID in support of this effort and said it intended to “expand the coverage of legal protection of land rights, especially those of small farmers, by strengthening the Colombian government’s land titling efforts.”

    • Labor rights
      Labor rights continue to be a huge issue in Colombia. Since January at least 11 trade unionists have been killed and hundreds more threatened. Impunity for murder cases of unionists runs at about 90% and workers who try to form unions are fired en mass. When the Colombian government signed the FTA, it also signed a “Labor Action Plan,” which obligated lawmakers to take specific steps to protect unionists and increase respect for labor rights. The majority of these steps have yet to be taken.

      Regarding the Labor Action Plan, the White House said the two countries planned to “hold formal meetings through at least 2014 on Action Plan commitments and recognize advances under the Action Plan ad areas where challenges remain.”

    The organizations’ statement also called for greater progress to be made in dismantling paramilitary successor groups, responsible for much of the violence and drug trafficking taking place today. It highlighted the need to investigate and prosecute the politicians, military and police members and large landowners that collude with these groups as well as the need to bring the over 3,000 military members accused of extrajudicial killings to justice.

    5. U.S. political divisions and the peace process

    This point was not discussed at all in English media, but touched on in Colombia. So far support for the peace process has been bipartisan, although some anti-Castro lawmakers have voiced their opposition to Havana hosting the talks. As Restrepo and Georgetown Professor Erick Langer noted, the U.S Congress has elections coming up next November and Colombia must be ready to ensure this bipartisan support continues in light of the uncertain makeup of next year’s Congress.

    “Santos has to ensure that the Republicans feel that they are part of this process and it is not just an Obama issue. Traditionally the United States has maintained strong support for Colombia. But with the degree of polarization that exists currently in Washington creates the worry that this could change,” Langer said.

    During his visit Santos also spoke to the Organization of American States, met with Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, with Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, among others. On Wednesday morning, he will appear on Morning Joe followed by a breakfast with the Washington Post’s editorial board and a lunch at the Chamber of Commerce.

    For a list of links to more articles in Spanish and English, please see our Just the Facts Colombia news page.