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Saturday, May 18, 2013
The following is a round-up of some of the top articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.
Brazil is planning to build a 10,000-mile virtual border fence. According to NPR, "The system will use a combination of satellite technology, electromagnetic signaling, tactical communications, drones, and an increased army presence to monitor the border areas." The project is expected to cost $13 billion and require 10 years to complete.
Brazil is expanding naval operations off the coast of Africa to protect their financial and oil interests from piracy and to thwart increased drug trafficking.
Venezuela's national election authority, the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE), concluded its audit of last month's presidential election results and confirmed President Nicolas Maduro as the victor. According to the CNE, there was only a margin of error of 0.02 percent. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles called the audit "a farse" on Twitter.
As noted in Monday's round-up, the Venezuelan government has sent 3,000 troops to the streets in some areas of Caracas. According to the Associated Press, "Human rights activists worry that sending soldiers trained for warfare on policing missions will only make things worse for the residents they are meant to protect." WOLA's Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog and the Guardian have more on the "Secure Homeland" initiative.
International Crisis Group published a report, "A House Divided," that examines the political environment in Venezuela and looks at how the country can avoid political violence and polarization.
The Washington Post published an article on Mexico's new security protocol that prohibits U.S. officials from working inside any of its intelligence fusion centers. According to the Post, all U.S. ties to Mexico, including interactions with the country's army and navy, will go through the civilian Ministry of the Interior.
Costa Rica's President Laura Chinchilla was engulfed in a scandal this week after it was reported that she had used the jet of a Colombian linked to drug trafficking. The affair caused a media storm which was followed by the resignation of three high-level government officials. Communications Minister Francisco Chacon stepped down on Wednesday. Mauricio Boraschi, head of intelligence and security, and presidential aide Irene Pacheco both resigned Thursday. President Chinchilla is also being investigated as Costa Rican law prohibits officials from accepting undisclosed gifts. Reuters, BBC, Bloomberg, and the AFP all have coverage.
The ninth round of peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government began this Wednesday. The round will end May 25. Both sides are still working to reach an agreement on land, the first topic of the talks' five-point agenda. The next point will be the FARC's political participation. WOLA's Adam Isacson posted six weeks of updates to his Colombia Peace Dialogues Timeline on his blog. Colombian political analysis website La Silla Vacía has an informative article examining the three stages of the peace process, the government's preparation, the negotiations and policy implementation, and looks at what the FARC's involvement in formal politics might look like.
The Washington Post featured an article about the FARC's "recruitment of children to boost its weakened fighting units even as it talks peace with the government." The article provides one harrowing tale after another about what child soldiers in the group have endured: "Angel Vivas, who served in the FARC from age 13 to 16, recalled how one 10-year-old fighter was executed for having thrown away his rifle. “The commander shot him right then and there and told the others to throw him in the same hole where he slept,” Vivas said."
Colombia's El País also looked at the issue of child recruitment not just by the FARC but by criminal gangs in the southwestern city of Calí. As far as the information that has been made available to the public, the issue of child combatants has yet to be discussed in the peace talks.
According to sources within Colombia's Ministry of Agriculture, a government body responsible for land redistribution and restitution to victim's of the armed conflict has been illegally granting land to criminal actors and wealthy landowners since 2006. So far 13 people have been charged in the investigation. More coverage from Colombia Reports, El Tiempo and La Opinion.
The Associated Press published a new investigation providing further evidence that units within the U.S.- backed Honduran national police are operating as death squads by killing alleged gang members extrajudicially. The AP looked at U.S. involvement and found:
In the last two years, the United States has given an estimated $30 million in aid to Honduran law enforcement. The U.S. State Department says, it faces a dilemma: The police are essential to fighting crime in a country that has become a haven for drug-runners. It estimates that 40 percent of the cocaine headed to the U.S. - and 87 percent of cocaine smuggling flights from South America - pass through Honduras.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield responded to reports by saying, funding the police was the "lesser evil.":
"The option is that if we don't work with the police, we have to work with the armed forces, which almost everyone accepts to be worse than the police in terms of ... taking matters in their own hands," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield told the AP via live chat on March 28. "Although the national police may have its defects at the moment, it is the lesser evil."
In another interview with EFE this week, Brownfield praised National Police Director Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who has previously been accused of participating in death squads. Brownfield said that he "respects" and "admires" the "effective work" that Bonilla has done. "I want to make it very clear that I am working with the Honduran police, and supplying aid through programs, because everyone in Honduras agrees that they are suffering a problem of violence, homicides, and drug trafficking. And to solve them we have to work with the police,” Brownfield told EFE.
Dan Beeton at Center for Economic Policy Research and LatinNews.com have more coverage of the issue.
Honduras has added a new 'SWAT-like' unit made up of 150-200 members designed to fight crime with military tactics in San Pedro de Sula and Tegucigalpa, the country's capital.
The Organization of American States presented a 400-page report on drug policy to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos yesterday. The first part of the document examined the results of existing drug policies in the region. The second part explored four possible scenarios for how drug policies could develop between now and 2025.
Ahead of the report's release, U.S. officials underscored the United States' position on drug policy: the U.S. will continue to oppose legalization. In an article in Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske reiterated that for the United States, legalization is not a viable solution to the problem. He argued the drug trade was not the only illegal market fueling organized crime, pointing to other sources of income: kidnappings, human trafficking, extortion and corruption.
Earlier in the week, in an interview with El Tiempo, William Brownfield Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs sent a similar message: the legalization of "cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, synthetic drugs” was a red line no country wants to cross." According to Brownfield, if security policies increase costs for drug traffickers 10 to 15 percent, this will prompt drug traffickers to move routes, which "would be good for the hemisphere."
Uruguayan President Mujica gave an interview to EFE in which he defended his government's steps towards marijuana legalization, saying that while he considers the drug a "plague," regulating the market is much better than letting the drug traffickers continue to profit.
Drug legalization will be the main topic at the OAS' upcoming general assembly meeting, June 4 to 6 in Guatemala.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
This post is cross-posted with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's LAWGBlog. It was written by LAWG-EF Program Assistant Ruth Isabel Robles.
As President Obama prepares to sit down for meetings with President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico and other fellow elected leaders from the Americas at the Summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA) in Costa Rica, over 145 civil society organizations from 10 countries throughout the Americas, including the Latin America Working Group, sent a letter to their respective presidents urging them to address their concerns regarding the dire human rights crisis in the region.
Citing an increase in violence and human rights violations, the letter calls for a shift away from the failed militarized security policies which have exacerbated violence and human rights concerns in the region towards policies that address the root causes of violence...
A common practice throughout Latin America has been the use of the armed forces for citizen security tasks, a practice justified as necessary to combat organized crime and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). However, the undersigned organizations call for a shift away from such policies that promote an inappropriate role for the military in the region, including those supported by the U.S., noting that these policies have played a harmful role and contributed to an increase in human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces.
In Mexico, this militarized response and lack of accountability for security forces has led to the deaths of over 80,000 people in the past six years with more than 26,000 disappeared. While in Guatemala, rates of violence are similar to those seen during the internal armed conflict, which, according to the letter, jeopardizes the peace process and fragile democracy built on the 1996 Peace Accords. But, "the starkest example of a breakdown of democratic institutions" can be found in Honduras where "the rule of law has disintegrated while violence and impunity have soared."
The imposition of large-scale extractive projects on marginalized communities is also a point of concern discussed in the letter. Free Trade Agreements have exacerbated poverty and inequality throughout the region resulting "in forced displacement, especially of indigenous, peasant, and Afro-descendant communities."
These civil society groups urge leaders to come together and generate policies to address the root causes of migration. Flawed regional security policies and the imposition of mega development projects have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, leaving countless in the Americas with few options other than to migrate. As the debate for immigration reform gets underway in the U.S. Congress, civil society groups from across the Americas call for humane and sensible immigration reform to address the policies that force individuals to migrate in the first place.
To address the human rights situation discussed above, the organizations urge their respective officials to make concrete progress on the following measures:
An executive action taken on behalf of the United States to stop the flow of assault weapons and other firearms across the U.S.-Mexico Border
Recognize and protect human rights defenders
Propose a new model for security cooperation that provides alternatives to the ongoing war on drugs, such as regulation rather than prohibition, strong regional anti-money laundering efforts, and withdrawal of the armed forces from domestic law enforcement. They call on the U.S. government to end military aid and instead direct resources towards strengthening the institutionalization of the rule of law in these countries.
Promote development through democratic dialogue with respect for human and environmental rights
Address the root causes of migration and stop the criminalization and deportation of migrants; investigate and prosecute crimes against migrants as they travel through Mexico, as well as human rights violations at the border and within the United States
Although media reports and early statements indicate that many of the discussions will focus on economic cooperation, this letter is a clear statement from civil society that human rights priorities must be squarely on the table as well.
To read the letter in English, click here.
To read the letter in Spanish, click here.
Friday, April 26, 2013
The following is a round-up of some of the top articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.
Ahead of President Obama's visit to Mexico next week, 24 lawmakers sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry to urge the administration to make human rights in Mexico "a central part" of the agenda. The legislators voiced concern about Mexico's human rights record, including "the widespread use of torture in Mexico to obtain confessions" and a fivefold increase in reported abuses by security personnel under former President Felipe Calderón.
As the Pan-American Post reports, President Obama "has not been particularly vocal" about the abuses, and if he does speak up during this trip, "he will likely do so in the context of applauding the Peña Nieto government's response to victims of the violence" with the passage of a law for victims' compensation.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch published an illuminating report on disappearances in Mexico, prompting the government to release an official database of over 26 thousand disappeared between 2006 and 2012.
On Monday a federal district ruled the U.S. government must release the names of all graduates of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). According to The Hill, "Plaintiffs say releasing the names of attendees at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) at Fort Benning - formerly known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas - will help Congress ensure that U.S. funds aren't used to train human-rights violators." The judge found no evidence to support Defense Department claims that the release of such information would violate attendees' personal privacy or create a security risk.
The U.S. State Department released its Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2012. The report was particularly critical of Venezuela for its repression on freedom of expression. It also indicated that police and soldiers were involved in 392 extrajudicial killings in Venezuela last year compared to 173 in 2011.
This week the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the House Appropriations Committee held hearings on the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budget request. During the Senate hearing, several congressional members criticized some cuts to humanitarian assistance in the region. Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Robert Menendez (D-NJ) complained about the decline in humanitarian assistance to Latin America, saying the reduction comes as there is a move away from democracy to dictatorship in the region. According to Menendez, the one bright spot in the agency's request was the Central American Regional Security Initiative, which USAID administrator Rajiv Shah testified would receive a 29 percent increase under the requested budget.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) responded to budget cuts to Cuba as "a terrible precedent, a terrible idea." The planned reduction would cut aid to the island by 25 percent -- from $15 million to about $11.25 million. Senator Menendez also questioned the reduction, asking, "why are we cutting democracy assistance to Cuba? Will cost us when there will be a major political or environmental crisis in the region."
The video of the Senate hearing can be viewed here and the video of the House hearing here.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón arrived in Washington, DC on Wednesday to start his week-long visit to the United States. Minister Pinzón planned to meet with members of Congress and high-level government officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to discuss Colombia's strategies to combat the drug trade and illegal armed groups, according to El Colombiano. "It must be remembered that with all the fiscal cuts the U.S. is applying, there is always the possibility that it will cut funds beyond what was originally agreed upon. For this reason, its important to ensure that these resources are maintained and serve to strengthen capacities that help us to be effective in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and other transnational crimes," Pinzón said.
Peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC restarted this week. On Wednesday the FARC delegation submitted the last of its land reform proposals, calling for tax reform, a rewritten constitution, and the participation of rural residents in policy-making. The government delegation did not immediately respond, but negotiator Humberto de la Calle had previously said that changes to economic policy would not be on the table. During this round of talks, both sides will be pushing for an agreement on the land reform issue, which will allow the negotiators to move on to the remaining four topics up for discussion.
On Thursday a delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombia released its 2012 activity report. While it applauded the Colombian government's victims law, which looks to compensate victims of guerrilla groups and security forces, it expressed concern that the victims of other criminal groups known as Bandas Criminales or BACRIMs are not receiving compensation because they are not covered by the law. Last week a report released by Colombia's national Ombudsman reported that BACRIMs are responsible for 30 percent of human rights abuses in the country.
The FARC thanked 62 members of the U.S. Congress in a statement read in Havana yesterday. The group reiterated the congressional group's calls for U.S. support of the peace process. "We share ... your consideration that the United States is able to support the process, offering an assistance package designed to support a just and lasting peace," the group wrote. Last week the 62 members signed a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State John Kerry calling for a U.S. policy that promotes peace, development and human rights in Colombia. Read the complete letter with signatories here.
Guerrero state governor Angel Aguirre Rivero signed a pact with local vigilante groups to legalize such groups. As InSight Crime reports, "the agreement aims to legally define the self-defense groups' responsibilities, obligations and powers, the governor said. It also sets out plans for the groups to receive training from the Mexican Army in human rights and security strategies."
Also in Guerrero, striking teachers from the radical Education Workers Union (CETEG) went on a rampage Wednesday to protest an education reform law. The teachers destroyed the offices of four major political parties in the town of Chilpancingo, setting fire to the state headquarters of the ruling PRI. The law, signed by President Peña Nieto two months ago, prohibits the traditional practice of buying and selling teaching positions and establishes teacher evaluations. Union members argue that the reform will lead to mass layoffs and privatization of education. The Associated Press has more details and photos of the attacks.
Opposition party PAN released videos that show government officials allegedly planning to use funds from social programs to support the PRI's campaigns ahead of local elections this July. The scandal upset party leaders and put Peña Nieto's "Pact for Mexico" in jeopardy, until the president held an emergency meeting to smooth over relations. According to a statement from the Interior Ministry, the main parties have settled their differences and agreed that "the reform agenda laid out in the Pact comes before party interests."
The Congressional Research Service released a report, "Mexico's Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Violence." The report "provides background on drug trafficking in Mexico: it identifies the major DTOs; examines how the organized crime 'landscape' has been altered by fragmentation; and analyzes the context, scope, and scale of the violence. It examines current trends of the violence, analyzes prospects for curbing violence in the future, and compares it with violence in Colombia."
United States Attorney General Eric Holder visited Mexico on Tuesday to discuss ways to "deepen" cooperation between the two countries on justice and security. His visit comes ahead of President Obama's trip to Mexico on May 2-3.
InSight Crime published an interesting article examining why the Zetas have been so effective at expanding their influence. It argues that the key to the group's success was that "the Zetas understood something the other groups did not: they did not need to run criminal activities in order to be profitable; they simply needed to control the territory in which these criminal activities were taking place."
Since President Nicolás Maduro's narrow victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles on April 14, the Venezuelan government has increasingly cracked down on those critical of the government. Last week both parties agreed to an audit of the vote -- which will take about another three weeks. Since then Capriles has called for the process to include an examination of who voted and if fingerprint scanners meant to prevent double voting functioned. For its part, the government has placed much of its focus on implicating Capriles in the post-election violence that broke out during protests surging with opposition supporters calling for a recount.
On Monday the country's minister of prisons, Iris Varela, called Capriles the "intellectual author" of the violence and said she was "preparing a cell for him," while National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello has launched an investigation into Capriles' role in the violence that killed nine and injured at least 60.
As James Bosworth points out, some media and citizens have provided evidence showing the government has lied about the violence. He writes, "Clinics allegedly destroyed by opposition mobs have been photographed as being just fine. Photos shown on state media of injured 'chavistas' have turned out to actually be opposition supporters who were beaten by pro-government thugs." It was also reported this week that the government is threatening to "throw out" any workers suspected of being Capriles supporters -- over 300 government employees have said to be fired over such claims already. The Associated Press reported that Capriles supporters are being arrested, beaten and threatened by the hundreds. Capriles has reportedly warned that the audit process risks becoming a joke and that he will challenge the election results in court.
On Sunday Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro named a new head of the country's diplomatic mission in the United States. Calixto Ortega, a member of Venezuela’s delegation to the Latin American parliament, was appointed as the new chargé d'affaires in Washington. "We hope one day to have respectful relations with the United States, a dialogue between equals, state-to-state," Maduro said. "Sooner rather than later, the elites running the United States will have to realize there is a new, independent, sovereign and dignified Latin America."
In Honduras a recent poll ahead of the presidential elections in the country showed that 1) at this point no candidate is ensured a win and 2) that many voters are dissatisfied with their choices, as the choice "None of the above" received the highest ranking of all five candidate and 3) that former president Manuel Zelaya's wife, Xiomara Castro is narrowly ahead of all others, while National Party (currently in power) candidate Juan Orlando Hernández's popularity is much lower than many had expected it to be at this point.
Here are the poll numbers:
19%: Xiomara Castro
1,800 police went on strike this week in the country's capital Tegucigalpa, protesting for better wages and working conditions. According to the Associated Press, officers make around $150 a month and are required to pay for their own uniform and bullets. The same officer also noted that police stations lack equipment and do not even have toilets. On Friday InSight Crime reported that residents in the capital say police are working with gangs to extort a fee of almost $80 a month.
17%: Salvador Nasralla
16%: Juan Orlando Hernández
10%: Mauricio Villeda
22%: None of the above
15%: Don't know/Not responding
The fate of the genocide trial against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt remains unclear. This week Guatemala's Constitutional Court passed the case over to a judge who last week called for all testimonies to be annulled -- a move which would put the trial back to square one.
Despite Flores' rulings, the Constitutional Court will decide if the proceedings were legal. So far the court has voted on six of twelve petitions in the case, but has yet to rule if the testimonies will be annulled.
The United States, in a show of support for the proceedings, sent its Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp to the country to meet with officials and civil society groups about the trial.
For a more complete run-down of events, check the Pan-American Post, Open Society's Justice Initiative's blogs and the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala.
On Wednesday Human Rights Watch issued a statement condemning the judicial reform proposals made by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The statement argues that the reforms would "give Argentina's ruling party an automatic majority on the council that oversees the judiciary, which seriously compromises judicial independence." Included in the package is a bill that would require most members of the Council of the Judiciary, the body that selects judges, to be nominated by political parties and chosen by popular vote during the general election. The reforms, which have already been approved by the Senate, are now being considered in the Chamber of Deputies.
Economy Minister Hernán Lorenzino caused a stir on Argentine social media when a video surfaced of him telling an aide "I want to leave" during an interview with a Greek reporter who questioned him about the country’s true inflation rate. The Twitter hashtag "#mequieroir" was retweeted by many and one person made a video remix of the interview mashed with the Peronist March.
This post was written with CIP intern Marissa Esthimer.
Friday, April 19, 2013
The following is a round-up of some of the top articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.
Secretary of State John Kerry testified on the 2014 foreign aid budget request at three hearings this week, one in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. In the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, "Securing U.S. Interests Abroad," there was discussion on the Venezuelan elections and Cuba.
U.S. Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) reported that eleven members of the Salvadoran air force returned from Afghanistan on February 28th. According to SOCSOUTH, El Salvador’s upcoming deployment “will replace U.S. troops in a role that will take them outside the wire as they directly partner with Afghan police." El Salvador is the only country in U.S. Southern Command's purview contributing forces to Afghanistan.
El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes was in Washington, D.C. this week and met with Secretary of State John Kerry and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. According to the website Voices from El Salvador, the agenda included "discussions about regional security issues, the gang truce and reduction of the murder-rate in El Salvador, as well as the temporary protective status (TPS) for Salvadorans." The AFP reported that Funes said Friday he will ask for a face-to-face meeting with Obama in Costa Rica in May to press for more money to fight organized crime in Central America.
The U.S. Department of Justice has accused Guinea-Bissau's top military official, General Antonio Indjai, of plotting to traffic drugs into the U.S. and sell weapons to Colombian rebels. According to Reuters, "The charges said Indjai planned to store FARC-owned cocaine in Guinea Bissau and sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to the organization, to be used to protect its cocaine processing operations in Colombia against U.S. military forces."
Ahead of President Barack Obama's May 2-4 trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said the meeting is an opportunity for Central America to ask President Obama to rethink the United States' antidrug policies.”If we continue doing the exact same thing, we will never be able to claim victory,” she said.
This Sunday, April 21, Paraguay will hold its first presidential election since last year's impeachment of President Fernando Lugo. The two major candidates are wealthy businessman Horacio Cartes of the Colorado Party, which lost power for the first time in 60 years when Lugo was removed from office, and lawyer Efraín Alegre of the ruling Authentic Radical Liberty Party.
As noted by AS/COA, the two candidates have both pledged to tackle poverty, create jobs, and enact Chilean-style economic reforms. Both have also been accused of corruption: Cartes owns a bank found to have tax-haven ties and supposedly heads a money-laundering organization, and Alegre's party allegedly used public funds to buy an alliance between electoral factions. Cartes also set off a media firestorm with statements comparing gay people to "monkeys." Despite the mudslinging, many Paraguayans say their votes will follow old allegiances, with landowners and the elite class supporting the Colorado party.
The election could impact regional politics as Paraguay's government is hoping to regain admittance to Mercosur and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), having been suspended from both following the impeachment. The two organizations have already sent election observers to Paraguay.
As reported in last week's post, the country's attorney general, Luis Alberto Rubí, testified that only 20 percent of all murder cases have been investigated and even fewer tried since President Porfirio Lobo took office. (Several other hearings with top-level officials have been held in the Congress in recent weeks to monitor their progress with regards to security).
Since that time, Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla was removed and replaced by Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales. On Tuesday, the Honduran Congress effectively took control of the Public Prosecutor's office by suspending Rubí and replacing him and his subordinates with a five-member commission that will take over the prosecutor's office for the next 60 days to make decision about to make the organization more effective.
Honduras Politics and Culture Blog has the best description on what is happening in the Honduran government.
There has been a lot of coverage on social media and in the press this week on the aftermath of the Venezuelan presidential elections that were held on Sunday. On Monday, it was reported that interim President Nicolas Maduro beat opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by a razor-thin margin of 1.6 percent (50.6 percent to 49.1 percent). Capriles and his supporters claimed there were election irregularities, and launched mass demonstrations, calling for a recount. After two days of protests and confrontational interchanges with Maduro, Capriles submitted an official request for a full recount of the vote to Venezuela's election authorities, the National Electoral Council (CNE). On Thursday night, the CNE agreed to a full audit of the electronic votes and both candidates accepted. The process will reportedly take about a month. In the meantime, Maduro was sworn in as Venezuela's new president Friday morning with representatives from 47 countries present, including 17 heads of state.
Despite Capriles' calls for protesters to remain peaceful, several of the demonstrations turned violent, resulting in the death of at least seven people while around 60 were injured. The Union of South American Nations held an emergency meeting in Lima, Peru on Wednesday and released a statement recognizing Maduro as Venezuela's legitimately-elected leader and congratulating CNE for finding a solution (i.e. the recount). The statement also created a special commission that would aid the Venezuelan government's investigation into the post-election violence.
President Maduro responded to the mounting public dissent by not only claiming that Capriles was attempting a coup, but that the U.S. Embassy had been "financing and leading all the violent acts." Amid all the accusations, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said the U.S. would maintain a "turning of cheek approach to Maduro,” stating, "It still doesn’t make sense to get in, you’ll excuse me, a pissing match with Nicolas Maduro any more than it did with Chávez.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the White House have repeatedly endorsed a recount. In an official statement, the White House "notes the acceptance by both candidates for an audit of the ballots and supports calls for a credible and transparent process to reassure the Venezuelan people regarding the results."
The Pan American Post had good coverage of the happenings in Venezuela this week while WOLA's Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights Blog offers good analysis.
The Los Angeles Times has an interesting opinion piece on the "winners and losers" in the wake of the election.
On Thursday, a judge in Guatemala suspended the landmark trial of former dictator Rios Montt, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. Judge Carol Patricia Flores nullified the testimony of several victims of the Rios Montt government's scorched-earth campaign between 1982 and 1983. According to CNN, Flores "ruled that because all of the issues at the lower courts had not been settled, the current proceedings are invalid, the state-run AGN news agency reported. The ruling in effect rewinds the legal process against Rios Montt to where it was in November of 2011, in a pre-trial phase."
Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz said that the ruling was illegal and that her office would be challenging it. Amnesty International published a press release today denouncing the move to annul the trial. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) also said it would be investigating Flores. The CICIG announcement made reference to a paid advertisement written by former government officials that appeared in El Periódico newspaper that said a genocide trial was a threat to peace and stability. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina supported the statement.
The Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala has a comprehensive summary of each days' events as does the Open Society Justice Initiative and Central American Politics blog. Independent photojournalist James Rodríguez has a good photo essay of the trial on his blog, MiMundo.org.
U.S. Army South commanding general, Maj. Gen. Frederick S. Rudesheim, visited Guatemala to discuss the formation of the new U.S.-backed Guatemalan Interagency Border Unit that will be established by the Mexican border.
Sixty-two members of the U.S. Congress signed a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that calls for a U.S. policy that promotes peace, development and human rights in Colombia. According to the letter, "The United States can help support the peace process by offering an aid package designed for peace, reorienting aid that for the last dozen years has supported a government at war." The Washington Office on Latin America and the Latin American Working Group issued a joint statement and Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper has coverage in Spanish.
According to Colombia's national ombudsman, hybrid criminal organizations, known as BACRIM (Spanish acronym for criminal gangs) are responsible for 30 percent of human rights abuses in the country. Last year, 12,165 people claimed to be victims of the groups. As InSight Crime pointed out, while the Colombian government has recently made comments claiming that 90 percent of the country is BACRIM-free, a Bogotá think-tank in March cited them as the greatest threat to the country's security, claiming the government has not taken adequate measures against them. The BACRIM are not counted as actors in the country's armed conflict and therefore victims of their abuses are not covered under the government's victims' law.
On Monday, officials unveiled a new police force dedicated to fighting drug dealing in Mexico City. The 150-member division includes 50 new graduates of the police academy with plans to add 50 more, and will focus on combatting micro-trafficking operations through intelligence gathering, video surveillance, and follow-ups to emergency calls. Animal Político has more details on the make-up of the force, which went into operation on Monday, following the academy's graduation ceremony.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Viridiana Rios argues that instead of spending billions of dollars fighting drug cartels in Mexico, the U.S. should support reforms to the justice system because "the right way to fight a drug war in Mexico is not to aim at eliminating criminal organizations, as many have assumed, but rather to create conditions in which war does not pay. This will not be achieved with the strategy Washington has embraced. Even if all criminal organizations were eliminated, new ones would emerge as long as profits could be made from cocaine."
This post was written with CIP intern Marissa Esthimer
Friday, March 29, 2013
Last week Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) William R. Brownfield traveled to Costa Rica and Honduras to discuss the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and collaborative counternarcotics and security strategies. While there he announced funding for upcoming initiatives in both countries.
In Honduras, Assistant Secretary Brownfield met with Vice President María Antonieta Guillen de Bográn, Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales, Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla, and Defense Minister Marlon Pascua.
Brownfield announced the U.S. would be providing $16.3 million to combat crime in the country: $6 million to create a special police unit to combat large-scale crimes (to be called the Major Crimes Task Force), and another $10.3 million to equip and train police and prosecutors.
Recently, two troubling Associated Press reports have linked U.S. funding to Honduran police units carrying out "death-squad style" killings. In August the United States froze about $30 million in aid to Honduras over concerns that its police director, Juan Carlos 'El Tigre' Bonilla, had been involved in extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The United States has since released some of the money under strict conditions, saying it only would go to specially vetted units not under Bonilla's control, in accordance with the Leahy Law.
The AP investigation revealed that under Honduran law, all police units are in fact, under Bonilla's control. Some of the aid announced by Brownfield "will go to the Gang Resistance Education and Training program under the director of community policing, who also told the AP that he reports directly to Bonilla," according to the AP.
In an interview with the AFP, Brownfield insisted that the U.S. does not have relations with Bonilla and would not offer him "neither a dollar nor a cent." He recognized that as director Bonilla is responsable for all units, but that not all "15,000 or 16,000 members of the Honduran National Police report directly to the director." To give "two degrees of separation" between U.S. funding and individuals and units accused of human rights abuses, Brownfield said the U.S. would also give no support to the 20 officials directly below Bonilla.
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, has also refuted the claims, saying the U.S. is monitoring individuals and institutions receiving the funds and that aid will continue to flow into Honduras.
For 2013, the U.S. Congress approved around $36 million for programs in Honduras, $26 million of which was marked for police and security initiatives, according to Brownfield. Of this funding, Congress is reportedly withholding $11 million over human rights concerns.
Brownfield estimated police reform in the Central American country could take five to ten years. He noted the U.S.' current strategy "is to support the process over the years and at the same time work with small, specialized units" of vetted officers that would be monitored. He also added that the U.S. was looking to create specialized anti-gang and anti-drug units that would work with the FBI and DEA.
These reports follow last year's revelations that Honduran citizens had been killed during U.S.-funded counternarcotics operations by specially vetted security force units.
Speaking at a recent event at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in Washington on Central American security, Assistant Secretary Brownfield said, "We do not need to create law enforcement 'paradise' in Central America. What we need to do is improve capabilities by 10 or 15 percent. That will drive up the cost for the trafficking organizations of doing business in and through Central America."
While in Costa Rica Assistant Secretary Brownfield met with Anti-Drug Commissioner Mauricio Boraschi and Public Security Minister Mario Zamora. He announced the U.S. government would provide $6-$7 million to fight drug trafficking. The funds, he said, would provide for "training of prosecutors and investigators, the professionalization of police corps, for border control tasks, and for supporting anti-drug police units during land and sea operations."
Brownfield also revealed another $1.6 million would be provided to government institutions and NGOs to fight domestic violence.
A recent Associated Press article notes that in 2012 the U.S. spent more than $18.4 million in direct security in Costa Rica. The article discusses increased U.S. involvement in the country and is definitely worth a read. It cited risk-analysis firm Southern Pulse director Sam Logan as saying Costa Rica was "the closest the U.S. has to a protectorate in Central America."
In the past few years, Costa Rica has been threatened by rising domestic drug consumption, increasing levels of violence and expanding presence of Mexican drug cartels. Organized crime is also on the rise. As President Laura Chinchilla and Brownfield have both noted, Costa Rica is a “victim of its geography,” located between cocaine producing countries in South America and the region's number one consumer - the United States. The country has become a more attractive transit country for traffickers as counternarcotics operations targeting more traditional routes have shifted smugglers' tactics.
According to the U.S. State Department's 2013 International Narcotics Strategy Report, law enforcement agencies in the army-less country are under-resourced and have limited capacity. In 2012, Costa Rica increased its police budget by 11% to $351.5 million, which the Wall Street Journal pointed out was slightly less than the Baltimore police force's budget.
In a radio interview while in Costa Rica, Brownfield warned the situation is likely to worsen. He said tackling crime would "require more force, more collaboration between the United States and Costa Rica during the next two to three years" and that more focus on maritime interdiction and border and port security would be required. He underscored the importance of creating opportunity but also the need for the threat of legal consequences for those involved in drug trafficking.
During the interview, Brownfield said that the argument that the United States’ role as the main consumer in the region creates the problem is "up to a certain point, stuck in the 1990s," citing that cocaine and methamphetamine consumption has dropped considerably in the past seven years.
The White House just announced that President Obama will be traveling to Mexico and Costa Rica May 2-4. In Mexico he will meet with President Peña Nieto to discuss border security, trade, and immigration, among other topics. In Costa Rica he will meet with President Chinchilla and other leaders of countries part of the Central American Integration System (SICA), also to discuss trade and security.
Friday, March 8, 2013
While the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has dominated the news this week, there were a few other stories of note, which are highlighted below.
1. The Economist looks at the risk of Honduras becoming a failed state. The report concludes, "Honduras's politics has become as dysfunctional as its government and security forces." It quotes the head of Honduras's official, but independent, Human Rights Commission as saying, "The rule of law in this country has broken down."
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, this week said that police reform in Honduras must continue or "the aid that we offer will be useless."
2. A new report focuses on changes in the FARC's control in Colombia since 2002, when the last attempted round of peace talks ended. The report, by Colombian NGO Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, discusses how loss of territorial control, desertion and the success of the government's aerial bombing campaigns have forced the guerrilla group to alter their tactics. Some interesting findings:
- In 2012, 15 aerial operations by the government resulted in the death of 200 guerrillas.
- The FARC have lost control of the center of the country and has been pushed out to the periphery.
- The government lacks a strategy against drug trafficking organizations and neo-paramilitaries such as the Urabeños and Rastrojos, which pose the greatest threat to the country's security.
3. This month marks the one-year anniversary of El Salvador's gang truce between the country’s two most violent gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. Mother Jones and Tumblr's Storyboard project put together a photo essay on the violent conditions that continue in El Salvador.
Here is another powerful photo essay that notes, "El Salvador, a small country of six million people, is brimming with an estimated 50,000 street gang members, plus another 10,000 who are behind bars. Since the first truce took effect about a year ago, the average daily death toll from gang-related violence has gone down from 14 to five."
4. Ecuador is leading the charge to reform the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States. Many of the reforms aim to limit the body's power. America's Quarterly published a Q&A with José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director of Human Rights Watch, and Gustavo Mohme, director of Peruvian newspaper La República, on the potential consequences of the reforms.
5. Today is International Women's Day. In honor, various media outlets have released reports on the high rates of femicide in Latin America. BBC Mundo published a graphic highlighting what it calls a "pandemic" in the region:
Between January 2011 and June 2012, 529 women were killed in Mexico.
Between January 1, 2012 and October 16, 2012, 512 women were killed in Guatemala.
In the first seven months of 2012, 231 women were killed in El Salvador, while in 2011, 647 were killed.
An article in Bolivia's El Deber shows there were 442,056 incidences of violence against women in the country between 2007 and 2011.
Friday, March 1, 2013
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."
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.
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."
Friday, February 22, 2013
The following is a round-up of some of the top news highlights from around the region this week.
Human Rights Watch released a report, "Mexico's Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored," documenting Mexican security forces' participation in forced disappearances. The report's findings were alarming and highlighted Mexico's police problem. As analyst James Bosworth notes, "The number of police abuses listed in this report - including illegal detentions, corruption and collusion with organized crime - is incredibly high and much worse than the military abuses." It also underscores the failures of country's judicial system, noting that prosecutors delay or avoid investigations. Some of the reports findings include:
Security forces were involved in 149 of the 249 cases of forced disappearances investigated.
The HRW report comes on the heels of a civil society group identifying Acapulco in the Guerrero state as Mexico's most violent municipality in 2012. Of those included on the list of the most violent municipalities in the country, five out of the top twenty were located in Guerrero.
The Guerrero state has also seen a growth in the widely debated "self-defense" vigilante groups. This week the Associated Press reported the first killing of a suspect by one such group, while El Universal claims it was the second. Animal Politico offers a good interactive map of the vigilante groups.
- None of the 249 cases investigated by HRW have led to a conviction in a court of law.
- In 54 cases of force disappearance, the Mexican Army, Navy or Federal Police were involved. Local police were involved in about 40 percent of the 249 cases.
- The number of those disappeared under former President Felipe Calderón, previously thought to be 25,000, is actually 27,000.
El Chapo Guzman, head of Sinaloa Cartel
Authorities are investigating whether a shootout occurred in the Guatemalan department of Petén last night that resulted in the death of El Chapo Guzman, head of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and Latin America's biggest drug trafficker. According to Insight Crime, the country’s Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez confirmed that there had been two confrontations, while a Guatemalan army spokesman said there was no sign that a shootout had occurred at one of the sites. Lopez said one of the dead allegedly "looked like" El Chapo, however reports of what happened remain confused. The Insight Crime article provides good analysis of what the news-- albeit likely false, according to the website-- would mean for Mexico.
Colombian NGO Somos Defensores reported that 2012 was the deadliest year in the past decade for human rights activists in Colombia. According to the group, one human rights advocate was attacked every 20 hours and one was killed every five days, reported news website Colombia Reports. Semana magazine has an infographic on the data.
A good article in Christian Science Monitor looks at the recent wave of FARC attacks and its impact on peace talks between the government and the rebel group, which began a new round on Monday. According to the article, "the fact that negotiations have withstood the strain is a promising sign of the strength of the process, analysts say."
Colombia's ELN rebel group announced that it was working with the FARC to fight natural resource-mining mega projects together in the Antioquia department. The announcement, posted on the ELN's website, says that leaders of the two groups met in early February and decided "to keep fighting against mega projects including mining exploitation, large dams for hydropower and monocultivation of woods and agro fuels that impoverish people and the environment."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released its annual Human Rights report on Colombia today. The document highlights continued concerns about attacks on human rights defenders, military jurisdiction over crimes committed against civilians by soldiers, impunity for human rights violations and the ongoing threat of neo-paramilitaries. It praises the current peace process in Havana and the passage and beginning steps of implementation of the Victims Law.
The former head of Honduran police, General Ricardo Ramirez del Cid, accused police and military officers for his son's murder last Sunday. Officials said the teenager was killed by gang members, however, Ramirez claimed corrupt security force members killed his son in a failed kidnap attempt.
Honduran newspaper El Heraldo reported an alarming statistic that more than 60,000 murders committed over the past ten years in the country have yet to be investigated.
Given reports of a recent increase in revenge killings between rival gangs, there are concerns that the gang truce between the MS-13 and the 18th Street gangs could be breaking down. According to Insight Crime, "recent killings had seen the murder rate creep up to an average of 6.6 a day since the start of this year, up from 5.3 at the end of 2012. However, the rate still remains far below the average of 14 murders a day registered before the truce."
The Associated Press put out an article on Monday looking at U.S. counternarcotics assistance to Costa Rica. Although the country's crime levels remain the second-lowest in Central America (after Nicaragua), in recent years the country has seen a spike in crime due to its increasing involvement in the drug trade. To counter this trend, "Costa Rica's conservative government has proposed looser wiretapping laws, easier confiscation of suspect assets and quicker approval of U.S. warships docking in Costa Rican ports," reports the AP.
The article notes that the U.S. spent over $18.4 million in direct security aid to Costa Rica in 2012. It also continues to equip the army-less country with gear such as night vision goggles, provides law enforcement with training and invested in a $2m satellite and radio communications station on the Pacific Coast linked to the U.S. anti-drug command in Key West.
On Wednesday, a seven-member delegation of U.S. congressmen traveled to Cuba and met with imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross and with Cuban President Raúl Castro to discuss improving bilateral relations.
A senior official in the Obama administration said there is "a pretty clear case" for Cuba to be removed from the State Department's "state sponsors of terrorism" list (which includes Syria, Sudan and Iran), according to the Boston Globe. The article mentions that while Congress must vote on whether or not to lift the embargo, the Obama administration can act unilaterally to remove Cuba from the terrorist list, which has been a key obstacle to negotiations with the Castro government. Both the White House and State Department have denied they are considering removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror.
Caricom meeting in Haiti
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder attended a summit in Haiti of the 15-member Caribbean Community, known as Caricom. The discussion centered on crime and security concerns, but the main point of media coverage surrounded gun control. The group asked for the United States’ help in ensuring an international arms treaty included provisions dealing with small arms. "It is the small arms and ammunition which do the most damage in the Caricom region," said Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, which is in charge of security issues within the bloc.
U.S. in the region
United States Southern Command leader John Kelly visited Panama this week and met with President Ricardo Martinelli, Minister of Public Security Jose Mulino, and the directors of Panama's National Aeronaval Service (SENAN), National Border Service (SENAFRONT), and the Panamanian National Police. He then spent two days in Guatemala to meet with senior government and security officials. This was General Kelly's second trip to Central America this year.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
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.
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.
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.
- 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
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.
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.
- 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."
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.
- 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.
Here's a photo of a police stop in Honduras.
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.
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.
The Honduran government is struggling to pay both its domestic and foreign bills. Public employees have gone unpaid and basic government services suspended.
US involvement in counternarcotics operations
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:
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.
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.
- 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.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
This post was written by John Lindsay-Poland from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The original article can be found on the FOR blog.
The Pentagon signed $444 million in non-fuel contracts for purchases and services in Latin America and the Caribbean during the 2012 fiscal year, an overall decrease of nearly 15% from the previous year. But US military spending in the region is still considerably higher than during the George W. Bush administration, when the equivalent Pentagon spending in Latin America averaged $301 million a year.
FOR conducted an analysis of Defense Department contracts listed on usaspending.gov for Fiscal Year 2012, building on the review we did last year.
More than a third of funds for these contracts in the region are being carried out in Cuba, with $158 million for housing upgrades, intelligence analysis, port operations and other services. The United States maintains the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba, site of the 11-year-old detention center that holds 171 prisoners without trial, many of whom have been cleared for release.
An additional $130 million in Pentagon contracts was for fuel purchases, including more than $44 million in Brazil, $35 million in Costa Rica, and $24 million in Honduras. Such fuel purchases supply the Fourth Fleet of the Navy, as well as military aircraft and land vehicles used in exercises, operations, and training.
Colombia remained the country with the largest amount of Pentagon contracts in continental Latin America, with $77 million. A multi-year contract shared by Raytheon and Lockheed for training, equipment and other drug war activities accounted for more than a third of Pentagon contract spending in Colombia. 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.
The US Southern Command (SouthCom), responsible for US military activities in Central and South America and the Caribbean, is assisting the Panamanian border police, known as SENAFRONT, by upgrading a building in the SENAFRONT compound. The force was implicated in killings of indigenous protesters (PDF) in Bocas del Toro in 2011, and fired indiscriminately with live ammunition (PDF) on Afro-Caribbean protesters last October.
Many countries that host US military activities hope to receive economic benefits and jobs as a result. But more than five of every six Pentagon dollars contracted for services and goods in the region went to US-based companies. Only nine percent of the $574.4 million in Pentagon contracts signed in 2012 (including fuel contracts) were with firms in the country where the work was to be carried out. In the Caribbean, there were virtually no local companies that benefitted from the $245 million in Defense Department contracts.
A few corporations dominated Pentagon contracts in the region. CSC Applied Technologies, based in Fort Worth, Texas, received more than $53 million in contracts to operate the Navy’s underwater military testing facility in the Bahamas. Lockheed Martin received more than $40 million in contracts, almost entirely for drug war training, equipment and services in Colombia and Mexico.
Pentagon Focus on Guatemala
Although the Pentagon spent less in most Latin American countries in 2012 than the year before, DOD contracts have more than doubled since 2010 in Guatemala, where there is a ban on most State Department-channeled military aid to the army. However, the ban does not apply to Defense Department assistance. The contracts for nearly $14 million in 2012 amount to more than seven times what it was in 2009. In addition, the US military spent another $8.1 million on fuel in Guatemala last year, probably for “Beyond the Horizon” military exercises held there and in Honduras from April to July, and perhaps to support the deployment of 200 Marines to Guatemala in August.
The contracts included new assistance to the Guatemalan special forces, known as Kaibiles, former members of which have been implicated in giving training to the Zetas drug cartel, as well as the worst atrocities during the genocide period of the 1980s. Two contracts, funded by SouthCom and signed in September, were for a “shoot house” and “improvements” at the Kaibiles training base in Poptun, Petén.
SouthCom also funded a contract for construction of a new $3 million counter-drug base in Santa Ana de Berlin, in Quetzaltenango. This year, SouthCom is slated to build a $1.8 million counternarcotics operations center and barracks in Mantanitas, Guatemala, according to an Army Corps of Engineers presentation.
The expenditures included equipment. For the last two years, SouthCom has been providing Boston whaler boats, radios, and tactical vehicles (Jeeps) to Central American militaries. Guatemala is receiving more of the equipment than other countries in the region – 47 Jeeps and 8 Boston whalers, according to a SouthCom document. SouthCom signed a $2.5 million contract in September for Jeeps for Guatemala, and it has purchased more than $2.8 million of Harris military radios for Guatemala since September 2011.
Department of Defense contracts, summaries of which are posted on usaspending.gov, only represent a portion of Pentagon spending. A report to Congress last April (PDF) of Defense Department assistance worldwide showed more than $15 million in military aid to Guatemala in 2010, including $9 million for intelligence analysis, training, boats, trucks, night vision devices, and a “base of operations.” These funds also included more than $6 million of unspecified support for Guatemalan police operations in Cobán, in the Guatemalan highland department of Alta Verapaz. The report didn’t include data after 2010.
On December 7, the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency signed a $1.4 million contract with a Guatemalan firm to manage a 10,000-barrel supply of turbine fuel for the next five years in Puerto Quetzal, on Guatemala’s southern coast. This followed a July 2012 solicitation to deliver 63,000 gallons of jet fuel to another southern Guatemalan site, in Retalhuleu.
FOR compiled data on the “country of performance” for contracts. For Guatemala, we also examined data on additional contracts that reference the country, which included a $2.5 million contract signed in late September with a Chrysler distributor to deliver tactical vehicles – some of the Jeeps slated for the country. The US Army also purchased $7.6 million worth of trousers from a producer in Guatemala in 2012.
Some legislation for DOD drug war construction of bases and other infrastructure limits projects to $2 million, and the Southern Command continues to employ this authority frequently to construct a variety of facilities all over the Americas. Here are some of the facilities the US military is constructing around Latin America.