Link to our RSS feed / Link to our podcast feed
Saturday, January 26, 2013
Negotiators from Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas held a third round of talks in Havana, Cuba on January 14-24. The next round is to begin on January 31.
The negotiators are discussing the first of five topics on the talks’ agenda: land and rural development policy. Topics to follow are the guerrillas’ future participation in politics; demobilization and post-conflict; drug policy; and victims’ rights.
We know very few details about what is actually being discussed in Havana. Both sides are respecting the negotiations’ secrecy, avoiding having their content aired before the media. Leaks have been extremely scarce. The dialogues’ disciplined conduct, along with a general atmosphere of seriousness and collegiality, increases confidence that these dialogues may succeed. It also reflects well on the role of diplomats from Norway and Cuba, the two “guarantor” countries the process.
The dialogues’ pace, however, has caused some concern. After the last round of talks ended, FARC negotiator “Jesús Santrich” said that the guerrillas were seeing “concrete results,” and that the talks were advancing at a rapid “mambo rhythm.” Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle acknowledged that there have been “convergences” on some issues, but that “notable differences” remain. Before the last round of talks began, de la Calle had told reporters, “We need a faster pace.” In late December, Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo said that the government expected to be done with the land issue, and to have moved on to the second negotiation topic, by Easter week (late March). De la Calle quickly contradicted him, clarifying that the Santos administration had not set an end date for the negotiating topic. For his part, President Juan Manuel Santos has said that he is unwilling to extend the FARC talks beyond November 2013. A mid-December Gallup poll found 71 percent of Colombians supporting the process, but only 43 percent believing that an accord will actually be reached. 54 percent were “pessimistic.”
January 20 saw the FARC end a two-month unilateral “holiday” cease-fire, with attacks on a pipeline in Putumayo and a police station in Norte de Santander, and the murder of an indigenous leader in Cauca. The FARC have not carried out a large scale offensive, despite Colombian National Police predictions that they were preparing a “terrorist wave” after January 20th. During the two months, the FARC mostly respected the truce. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said that the FARC carried out 57 attacks during the two months. The Bogotá-based Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris think-tank counted 7 to 15 attacks, a nearly 90 percent reduction from the FARC’s usual pace. According to President Santos,
“The truth is that there was an important reduction in this organization’s number of actions, there was a very important reduction in the number of our soldiers and police killed or wounded. With that we can conclude that there was compliance [with the cease-fire]. But a relative compliance, because there were also actions.”
The government did not join in the FARC’s cease-fire. During the two months, Colombia’s armed forces bombed FARC encampments in Nariño and Antioquia, killing dozens of guerrilla fighters. The government continues to reject repeated FARC requests for a bilateral cease-fire. “We want peace, but not at any cost,” said chief government negotiator de la Calle. “Not at the cost of, as a result of the conversations, the guerrillas strengthening themselves to continue the war.”
The current negotiation topic, land and rural development, is difficult and complicated, underlying much of the conflict with a 49-year-old guerrilla group whose base is almost entirely rural. In five recent communiqués (1) (2) (3) (4) (5), the guerrillas laid out ten proposals for land and rural development that, for the most part, cannot be described as radical — in fact, observers note, many of the proposals dovetail with the Santos government’s own positions. While both sides seem to share a concern for Colombia’s remarkably high land concentration (1.15 percent of landholders own 52 percent of agricultural land), they disagree about what to do about it. The FARC would prefer to take unproductive land from cattle ranchers, who own approximately 40 million hectares in Colombia (the country’s total surface area is 113 million hectares; a hectare is 2.5 acres). “From this big balloon of land, at least 20 million hectares could be taken,” chief FARC negotiator Iván Marquez said. The government would prefer to distribute unused land in state hands, or land seized from narcotraffickers, and minimize confrontation with the country’s politically powerful cattle ranchers.
The country’s cattle-rancher federation, FEDEGAN, senses that it has the most to lose from any land redistribution, and has been one of the most vociferous critics of the peace talks so far. FEDEGAN made a point of boycotting a December forum, cosponsored by UNDP and Colombia’s National University, designed to channel civil-society proposals for the negotiators to consider. More than 1,300 participants in that forum produced 546 proposals.
If the talks complete the five points on the agenda, there is a sixth and final issue: how to cement the final accord into Colombian law. The government says it favors a public referendum to approve what was agreed at the negotiating table. The FARC, however, have been calling for a “constituent assembly,” in which representatives, chosen by voters, rewrite Colombia’s constitution. The government rejects this. It is unclear why the FARC is pushing for this, given the strong showing that Colombia’s right wing has enjoyed in recent elections: the likelihood of a conservative majority rewriting the country’s constitution would be high.
No negotiations are currently occurring with Colombia’s other 49-year-old guerrilla group, the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). In early December, though, maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez acknowledged that the group has engaged in contacts with the Santos government. On January 18, after kidnapping five mining workers in Bolívar, the ELN released a video in which Rodríguez asked, “Why aren’t we at the table? That is a question for President Santos.”
Foreign governments’ statements about the talks have been uniformly supportive. “We support the effort. We are impressed by the way that President Santos and his team have organized the conversations,” said U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough. “We, the United States, are not a part of Colombia’s peace process, although we support President Santos’ efforts because we believe that it is extremely important that the Colombian people can finally live in peace and security,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Mike Hammer. "We support the efforts of President Santos in Colombia and the peace process. We have great confidence in President Santos and we are ready, with other countries in the international community, to help the Colombian government to implement it," said Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. “I’m sure that my government and many of its leaders support the current process,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during a January 12 visit to Bogotá. “We fully support this process, and should Colombia consider it useful, we are willing to contribute,” said Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said that the FARC talks are “one of the happiest pieces of news in recent decades for our Americas.” In mid-January, representatives of the two “accompanying” countries in the process, Venezuela and Cuba, met with and received an update from both negotiating teams.
Looking toward later in 2013, the fourth topic on the negotiating agenda, drug policy, could pose challenges for Washington. President Santos has been more critical of the current, U.S.-backed anti-drug approach. For its part, the FARC wants sweeping changes in drug policy; within its ten rural development proposals is a call for the coca leaf to be declared legal for “medical, therapeutic, or cultural purposes. The sides may agree on something — such as limits on forced eradication or aerial herbicide fumigation — that will require some real flexibility from the United States.
Friday, January 25, 2013
The following is a round-up of news highlights from around the region this week.
John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, had his confirmation hearing Thursday. During the hearing he touched on issues concerning Latin America, particularly with regards to Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia. According to Kerry, Colombia is “an example for the rest of Latin America of what awaits them if we can induce people to make a better set of choices, frankly.”
Hillary Clinton also heralded Colombia this week, calling the country’s second-largest city a “model” for security when requesting that Congress allocate sufficient security funds to countries that experienced the “Arab Spring.” According to Clinton, the U.S. should “help these countries like it helped Colombia, where the advances are evident.” On his blog, Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America looks at Medellín’s security efforts in the past decade and warns, “there’s a lot in Medellín’s recent past that Arab democracies would do well not to emulate.”
Christopher Sabitini from the Americas Society/Council of the Americas published an opinion piece on Fox News Latino about what Latin America can expect from the next secretary of state. See here for a recent Just the Facts post on the topic.
There was a fair amount of official U.S. military travel to the region recently:
The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert spent last week in Brazil "where he spoke with naval leadership, toured multiple navy and marine corps bases, and expanded maritime partnership opportunities," according to a U.S. Southern Command press release.
General John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Peru meeting with President Ollanta Humala, Vice Minister of Defense Mario Sanchez, and Peruvian Chief of Defense Admiral Jose Cueto to discuss “shared security concerns and cooperation.”
U.S. Army South’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. Frederick S. Rudesheim, spent several days in Colombia to enhance security cooperation between the two armies and “strengthen personal relationships.”
The debate on drug legalization hit headlines this week as Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a lead champion of drug reform in the region, sparked discussion Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, as he had previously pledged to do. President Molina called for alternative, more science-based approaches to regulate drugs, saying, “Prohibition, this war on drugs, has seen cartels grow, and the results are not what we looked for.” Molina also claimed drug reform would cut violence in Guatemala in half. He was joined by liberal activist/philanthropist George Soros, who echoed Molina, noting, “incarceration is hugely expensive…, the cost of alternatives is smaller than the cost of incarceration.”
On Wednesday, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, who also attended the World Economic Forum, told the Associated Press that Costa Rica, Mexico and Colombia have opened talks with U.S. officials to prepare for the legalization of marijuana in some U.S. states. On Thursday, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia told a diplomatic corps in Bogotá that Colombia "reaffirms its commitment to fight, as we have been fighting, with more costs but also with more effort and more results than any other country in the world against drug trafficking and its ramifications." However, he continued, noting that "that commitment and these results give us the moral stature to insist on the need to evaluate the effectiveness of the so-called 'War on Drugs' which started more than four decades ago and has not achieved its objectives."
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released three proposals for land redistribution and rural development this week, all of which can be found on the group's peace process blog. The proposals included alternatives to illicit crop production as well as the development of a national fund for land redistribution. This would give land appropriated by drug traffickers and armed groups to small farmers and marginalized groups, particularly women. According to news website Colombia Reports, “The government's lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, agreed that an 'overlap' existed between the two sides in their desires to "transform" the rural countryside, but said that "significant differences remain." Round three of the talks concluded Thursday, with no major advances reported, according to Reuters. They are set to start again on January 31 in Havana.
Colombian political analysis website La Silla Vacia examines the FARC’s proposal to legalize coca cultivation in the country and offers six reasons why it makes sense.
Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris posted an exclusive interview between the FARC’s supreme leader Timochenko and newspaper The Voz. It was the first time the leader has talked about the peace process since the talks began.
Colombia’s National Liberation Army, the country’s second largest rebel group, kidnapped five foreign mining employees in the Bolivar department on Tuesday, claiming they were “defending natural resources.” However, the move could be motivated by the Colombian government’s decision to exclude the ELN from the current peace talks, despite the rebels' demonstrated interest in participating. The group has made several indications they are interested in joining the process, including sending a delegation to Cuba that the government rebuffed.
As reported in The Economist, "disgruntled that it has been excluded from the negotiations, which began in November, the ELN has launched a new campaign of attacks to establish its relevance." The day of the kidnapping, the group posted a video with its leader, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, asking, “Why aren’t we at the table? That’s a question for President Santos.”
The newspaper El Heraldo profiled the contentious security situation in the Bolivar department, where the kidnapping took place, saying the region was “in the middle of a war over gold and drugs.”
A Colombian poll showed that 40% of the country would reelect current President Juan Manuel Santos in 2014, which is 30.5% over his closest rival, Antonio Navarro Wolff, who would have 9.5% of the vote.
Honduras still has the highest homicide rate in the world, according to the United Nations. The country hit a record year for murders in 2012 registering 7,172 killings, 68 more than were registered in 2011. The homicide rate of 85.5 per 100,000 in 2012 actually dropped from 86.5 in 2011 despite the increase in murders due to increases in population. As reported in newspaper La Prensa, there have been 20, 515 homicides in the past three years in the country.
Honduras continues to be in the middle of an extended institutional crisis. An article in Upside Down World this week provides a good analysis of the current situation in the country, noting that, "ever since the Honduran Congress flexed its muscles in June 2009, removing the president and demonstrating that the Supreme Court was its tool and not an independent branch of government, Honduras has been living with a legislature that appears to recognize no boundaries to its ambitions."
A piece by Southern Pulse supported this, determining that “in 2013, Honduras is headed down the same road that led to the 2009 political crisis. Crime and inflation are up, foreign investment is down, the government’s finances are in disarray, and the president is talking about polling the Honduran people to see if they want constitutional changes that could jeopardize the 2013 general elections.”
An Associated Press article published on Thursday titled,"Honduran government in chaos, can't pay its bills, neglects basic services," underscores the severity of the financial crisis facing the country. The article notes that the country's foreign debt -- $5 billion -- is equal to last year's entire government budget. "Soldiers aren't receiving their regular salaries, while the education secretary says 96 percent of schools close several days every week or month because of teacher strikes." But, as the piece highlights, "the financial problems add to a general sense that Honduras is a country in meltdown, as homicides soar, drug trafficking overruns cities and coasts and the nation’s highest court has been embattled in a constitutional fight with the Congress."
As political analyst James Bosworth surmises, “The Honduran leadership is inventing its own rules rather than following the constitution, and that mindset is linked to the previous breakdown of the institutions in the 2009 constitutional crisis and coup.”
Federal and state authorities launched a special operation in Mexico State this Friday in response to a sharp increase in violence in the region. Mexican news website Animal Político reports that in the past 24 days, 66 people have been murdered in Mexico State, which has remained relatively untouched by drug war related violence. January 14 has been the most violent day to date this month, with authorities finding 15 bodies in the towns of Toluca, Zinacantepec, Santiago Tianguistenco, Lerma y Ocuilan.
According to Insight Crime, “Officials blame a war between the Familia Michoacana and an alliance formed by two breakaway groups: Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, and a recently formed gang called Guerreros Unidos. Smaller cells of the Zetas may also be in the mix. ” The article provides excellent information and analysis on the dynamics between criminal organizations operating in the region.
The Miami Herald reports that locals in at least a dozen rural towns in Mexico have created self-defense vigilante groups to defend themselves against the drug cartels. As one rights activist stated, “the situation Mexico is experiencing, the crime, is what has given the communities the legitimacy to say, ‘We will assume the tasks that the government has not been able to fulfill.’"
In northern Mexico, 91 of the 158 police officers from the towns of Gómez Palacio and Lerdo who were detained over alleged links to criminal groups two weeks ago, have resigned, reported Mexican news website Animal Político. The military and Federal police are currently handling security in the area.
Mexico’s electoral commission decided not to fine the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) over allegations that the party bought votes in July to secure current president and PRI member Enrique Peña Nieto’s election into office.
Some reports on Mexico were released recently:
Luis Rubio, chairman of the Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo, A.C. (CIDAC) in Mexico City, published a report, “Old Politics and New Government,” with the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy.
The Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center released a report,“New Ideas for a New Era: Policy Options for the Next Stage in U.S.-Mexico Relations,” highlighting “five key issues with the potential to strengthen U.S.-Mexico relations.”
The Washington Office on Latin America published a report entitled, “Border Security and Migration: A Report from South Texas.” The report finds that there was no spillover violence, but an increase in the number of drugs moving across the border, particularly of heroin and meth in 2012. It offers a good look at 2012 migration trends. Wired’s Danger Room provides a short overview of sections of the report that examine drugs and organized crime.
The Migration Policy Institute and the Woodrow Wilson Center published a report last week, "Crime and Violence in Mexico and Central America: An evolving but Incomplete US Policy Response." The report looks at the United States' response to the dramatic increase in Mexico and Central America in recent years that has been driven "in part by a shift in cocaine-trafficking routes throughout the region and, in part, by the incomplete transition from authoritarian to democratic ways of upholding the rule of law."
Earlier in January, Guatemala announced it would stop recognizing Inter-American Court of Human Rights rulings on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987, drawing much criticism from human rights organizations. Nonetheless, the trial against former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity is still moving forward. Ríos Montt is accused of having directed the murder of thousands while ruling the country as de facto president from 1982-1983, during its civil war.
It was reported in early January that Guatemala’s murder rate dropped for the the third year in a row in 2012. However several reports about high levels of violence against women have come out as of late, including a short piece by Amnesty International and a longer article by the International Business Times. The IBT article includes an interview with the Inter-American Dialogue’s Central America program associate who reports, “a lot of the violence against women that occurred during the armed conflict is being repeated today.”
The second phase of El Salvador’s government-mediated gang truce began as the the first “peace zone” was inaugurated this week in a town called Ilopango, near the capital of San Salvador. According to the agreement, all gang members in the violence-free areas will not commit any crimes and will participate in gang prevention, reinsertion and job training programs. There are expected to be 18 peace zones in total, while four mayors have already confirmed their participation in the process. The next peace zone will be established in Santa Tecla on the 25th and another in Quezaltepeque on the 31st.
Homicide rates in Nicaragua went down in 2012, with the government registering 675 violent deaths last year, 63 fewer than in 2011, which had a reported 738. That number represents an 8.5% decrease. There was also a reported 9% reduction in overall criminal activity.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is still in Cuba and undergoing physical therapy treatment, as Bolivian President Evo Morales asserted in his state of the union speech Tuesday. Venezuela Vice President Nicholas Maduro traveled to Havana on Wednesday to visit President Chávez. Newly-appoint Foreign Minister Elias Jaua also traveled
to Cuba this week and returned to Caracas on Thursday. In a call to state television, he said that during his visit with Chávez, the president "made decisions about the international agenda, the domestic agenda." He added that while "the president is in the process of recovery, the battle against the most complex and profound part of the sickness is coming." The Venezuelan government said Tuesday that there was no date planned for the president to return to Caracas.
Friday, January 11, 2013
Consolidating "Consolidation": Colombia's Plan to Govern Neglected Territories Stumbles
Colombia's government is negotiating peace with the country's largest and oldest guerrilla group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). If the talks succeed—a strong possibility—Colombia faces a big question: what will be different in the vast territories where the guerrillas have been in control, or operated freely, for decades?
In these areas, violence, drug trafficking, and warlordism have long been the norm, and the government’s presence has been virtually nonexistent. If the government does not establish itself in these jungles, mountains, plains, coasts, and borderlands, the FARC's negotiated end will make little difference; illegality and violence will continue to fill the vacuum. Colombia must follow a successful negotiation with getting the government into the country's ungoverned zones. And not just military occupiers: a real, civilian state whose members provide basic services, operate without impunity, and thus enjoy the population's support.
Will Colombia be able to fill the vacuum and end the cycle of violence? As WOLA’s new report Consolidating “Consolidation” describes, the record of the National Territorial Consolidation Plan—a five-year-old program with that very goal—should worry us that it might not.
Backed by at least half a billion dollars in U.S. assistance, this ambitious program seeks to bring the government into several areas of the country with histories of illegal armed groups, violence, drug trafficking, and statelessness. (It is often called the “La Macarena” program, after the southern Colombian zone where the most advanced pilot project has taken place.) Today, while “Consolidation” has brought security improvements and more soldiers and police to a few territories, the governance vacuum remains far from filled.
In the Consolidation zones, armed groups remain very active, especially outside of town centers. Soldiers are by far the most commonly seen government representatives, and the civilian parts of the government—such as health services, education, agriculture, road-builders, land-titlers, judges, and prosecutors—are lagging very far behind.
In Consolidating “Consolidation,” WOLA sought to identify the reasons why the Consolidation program's military-to-civilian transfer has stalled. Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy Adam Isacson found that while the U.S. and Colombian governments underestimated the difficulty of achieving security and the cost of “state-building,” much of the blame lies with civilian government agencies themselves, most of which have been very reluctant to set up a presence in Consolidation zones.
But we found something even more serious: the entire Consolidation model is losing momentum quickly and may have begun to deteriorate. Based on dozens of interviews and a very close read of available evidence, Consolidating “Consolidation” portrays a program lacking interest and backing at high levels of government. What was once a showcase program stagnated during a year and a half-long “rethinking,” followed by several months of infighting that culminated in the sudden exit of the program's director. Meanwhile, in places like Afghanistan, the United States is edging away from similar missions, which it calls “Stability Operations,” that sought to provide basic services to citizens in ungoverned areas. Instead, U.S. forces are relying more on Special Forces operations and drone strikes.
Programs continue in Consolidation zones in Colombia, thanks in great part to US$227 million in USAID contracts awarded since 2010. But Consolidation, which once promised to bring a functioning government to areas that never had one, may be on its way to becoming a politically driven handout program attached to an open-ended military occupation.
If Consolidation fades away, the report warns, it is not clear what will replace it in Colombia's neglected territories. As Colombia faces the possibility of peace in zones of historic guerrilla control, it is crucial that a plan be in place to prevent a re-emergence of violence. If the peace talks succeed, for a brief period Colombia will have a window of opportunity to bring the government to areas that have long generated violence, bringing their citizens into national civic and economic life for the first time.
The National Territorial Consolidation Plan could offer a way to do this, but only if it returns to its initial vision of a phased, coordinated entry of civilian government. If this scheme, or something like it, is to succeed, it will require political will from the highest levels to ensure that the civilians take over as quickly as security conditions allow. And it will require a renewed—but far more civilian-centered—commitment from the United States.
Please click here to read Consolidating "Consolidation."
Monday, January 7, 2013
The following is a short overview of some of the more significant events of the past year that set the political landscape for the region going into 2013.
Colombia peace talks
One of the biggest and most hopeful happenings in 2012 was the August announcement of peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that began on November 19 in Havana, Cuba. Conversations between government and FARC negotiators began in Norway in mid-October, where they gave a joint press conference. (See here for a timeline of the talks)
President Santos has said that if “firm advances” are not made by April-July 2013, “the process will not continue.” As Colombian political analysis website La Silla Vacia has posited, if the talks fail, the country can expect a political swing to the right, as was seen following in the 2002 failed peace talks, however if they are successful, a more leftist agenda that includes guerrilla participation in politics and increased rural development will be implemented. A December Gallup poll last month showed that while 71% of Colombians supported the peace process, only 43% believed they would end in a peace deal. The second round of talks covering land and rural development came to conclusion December 20 before the discussions broke for the holidays. Talks are set to restart January 14.
Former President Fernando Lugo’s 2008 election marked the end of the Colorado Party’s long-term control of Paraguay politics. However, in June 2012, Paraguay’s Congress (the Colorado party and their allies) hastily voted to impeach Lugo and install Vice President Federico Franco, a move that was triggered by the mishandling of a still un-resolved violent land conflict between police and landless peasants that left 11 campesinos and six police dead. While the impeachment was technically legal, many countries considered Lugo’s rapid removal a coup, resulting in the country’s suspension from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) political bloc and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR). The Mercosur suspension allowed Venezuela to finally enter the bloc, comprised of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, after Paraguay’s long opposition to its inclusion.
El Salvador’s gang truce
In March 2012 a government-mediated truce was brokered between El Salvador’s two most violent gangs -- Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13, the first street gang operating in the U.S. to be labeled a transnational criminal organization) and Barrio 18. The deal lead to a 40% drop in the country's homicide rate, making 2012 the least violent year since 2003 for El Salvador, one of the world’s most violent and insecure countries. In 2011, the county’s National Civil Police (PNC) registered 4,371 homicides, putting it right behind Honduras, which holds the world’s highest murder rate. In 2012, the PNC registered 2,576 murders. Despite skeptics’ fears that the deal would be fleeting, nine months later the truce is still holding and the groups are now conducting talks about how to proceed. In December, the MS-13 and Barrio 18, along with other street gangs, agreed to end gang activity in designated “peace zones” throughout the country, however these zones have yet to be identified and the level of government involvement has also yet to be determined. It is still a very much evolving process, but one to watch in 2013. In November, the Congressional Research Service released a report about the country's political and economic conditions and its relations with the U.S.
Fuero militar in Colombia
In mid-December, the Colombian Congress passed a justice reform bill, known as ‘Fuero Militar’ (Military Jurisdiction), that would likely result in human rights violations by military members -- including extrajudicial executions, torture, and rape -- being investigated and tried by the military justice system. Human rights activists say that limiting the civilian court system’s ability to try and convict members of the armed forces will lead to further impunity and worry that the more than 1,700 cases of extrajudicial execution currently in civilian courts will be moved under military jurisdiction. Most recently the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a statement voicing its “deep concern over the serious setback in human rights” that the reform would represent.
Mexico’s new president
On December 1st, Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as Mexico’s new leader, marking the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), after a 12-year hiatus following its 71-year stronghold of the Mexican political system. Mexican police struggled to manage the thousands of protesters that took to the streets during the inauguration to denounce the PRI's return to power. Security forces arrested several people unjustly and contributed to the outbreak of violence, which led to Amnesty International setting up a support page for victims of police brutality. Peña Nieto’s security proposal for Mexico continues with a militarized approach, but he has vowed to fight violence and other crimes as opposed to targeting drug traffickers. The new Mexican leader has also reiterated his plans to increase economic ties with the U.S. However, it remains to be seen whether or not a PRI-presidential term with Peña Nieto will mark a significant change for Mexico.
President Hugo Chávez’s cancer
The biggest question mark in the region at the moment is who will be ruling Venezuela in the months to come, as there is the ever-growing possibility of a power vacuum. In October, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez publicly stated he had beaten cancer, only to announce in early December that it had returned and he would be undergoing treatment in Cuba. President Chávez, who won re-election in early October despite a strong opposition and debilitating illness, is currently in Cuba recovering from his fourth round of surgery. He was set to be inaugurated on January 10, however due to the increasing likelihood that he will be too ill to be back from Cuba in time, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced Friday that President Chávez will retain power and be sworn in after the date. President Chávez called on Venezuelans to vote for Vice President Maduro to be his successor should he step down or die before being sworn in. The constitution requires that power be handed over to Diosdado Cabello, the recently re-elected speaker of Venezuela’s National Assembly, until another election is held within 30 days. While there is growing uncertainty around the county’s future leadership, some analysts say Chávez’s Socialist Party (PSUV) would most likely be re-elected given the presidential election victory and recent wins in 20 out of 23 states in mid-December’s gubernatorial elections.
Obama’s re-election, Immigration and the Latino vote
In addition to changes in U.S. drug policy, many hope immigration reform will top President Obama’s agenda in his second term, given his victory was largely helped by winning just over 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. In his election speech, Obama mentioned immigration reform as a priority just behind reducing the deficit and tax reform. The hope for 2013 is for the administration to make good on this promise for the eleven million immigrants living in the U.S., and that it scales back on increasingly harsh deportation practices.
Honduras and the DEA
The Drug Enforcement Administration's involvement in several killings in Honduras this year highlighted growing U.S. involvement in counternarcotics operations in Central America. In April, the DEA sent special teams to some of the more rural, drug-ridden areas of Honduras as part of a joint counternarcotics operation known as Operation Anvil. Three of the five joint interdiction operations during Anvil included the shootings of Hondurans by either DEA agents, or by Honduran officers trained, equipped and vetted by the U.S., causing the operation to end days ahead of schedule.
About $50 million due to be assigned to antidrug and security efforts -- amounting to about half of all U.S. aid to Honduras for 2012 and including $8.3 million in counternarcotics aid, and $38 million under the Central America Regional Security Initiative -- is being withheld by Democrats in Congress over concerns about American involvement in the killings and over accusations that the director of Honduras' national police had ties to death squads. The aid is still being withheld, but the U.S. has begun to share radar information with the Honduran air force again.
Honduras currently has the highest murder rate in the world with 86 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Since the 2009 coup, drug trafficking, violence and human rights violations have rapidly increased, while impunity for killings, particularly of journalists and human rights defenders, is high and corruption pervades all government institutions. The country is currently undergoing a constitutional crisis, with the executive and congress attempting to overhaul the Supreme Court. Presidential elections are set to take place this year.
Marijuana legalization and regulation
As the death toll in Mexico continues to climb over the 60,000 deaths recorded during previous Mexican President Felipe Calderón's drug war, and drugs continue to flow into the United States from below the border, as well as throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, experts and Latin American presidents are increasingly calling for alternatives to the "War on Drugs." Earlier in 2012, there was a lot of discussion surrounding drug legalization, particularly following Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s advocacy for the international legalization of drugs in March. There was more discussion about the issue before the fairly uneventful Summit of the Americas held in Colombia in April, after which it seemed to die down a bit. In September at a UN General Assembly meeting, the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala submitted a proposal for drug reform, which Honduras and Costa Rica later backed. The UN then agreed to hold a special session on on drug prohibition by 2015.
Several former leaders, including Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, had already called for changes in global and U.S. drug policies in 2011, but Latin American presidents and former leaders from all political sides continued to call for reform in 2012. In June, Uruguay’s President José Mujica proposed legislation to legalize marijuana that was moving through the country’s congress until a poll in mid-December indicated that 65% of Uruguayans opposed legalization, while only 26% supported it, causing President Mujica to slow down the initiative.
Drug legalization throughout the region will continue to be widely debated, particularly following Colorado and Washington’s passage of referendums in November for legalizing recreational marijuana use. Now that there are legal markets for marijuana in the U.S., many Latin American leaders are questioning why they should continue to invest financial and human resources into enforcing drug laws. As one Mexican official responded, "we can't handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status." Mexico is currently exploring its own legalization measures, modeled on Washington State law.
Friday, January 4, 2013
This post was written by LAWG-EF Executive Director Lisa Haugaard. The original version was published in the Huffington Post. It is also cross-posted with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's LAWGBlog.
U.S. policy towards our Latin American neighbors is, as usual, in need of a few New Year's resolutions. Here goes:
1. Ban assault weapons. Three months before the murders of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, 110 victims of violenceand advocates from Mexico traveled across the United States calling on us to take action to stop the violence that has claimed over 100,000 lives in Mexico in Mexico during the last six years. They asked us to ban the assault weapons that arm Mexico's brutal cartels. Some 70 percent of assault weapons and other firearms used by criminal gangs in Mexico come from the United States. The United States should reinstate and tighten the assault weapon ban and enforce the ban on the import of assault weapons into our country, which are then smuggled into Mexico. Do it for Newtown. Do it for Aurora. Do it for Mexico's mothers and fathers who have lost their children to senseless violence.
2. Deliver comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats and Republicans alike should heed the message delivered by the Latino vote in 2012 and provide a path to citizenship for the eleven million people living in the shadows in the United States and build a flexible, sensible legal immigration system for the future. This historic step would help families and the economy in the United States and Latin America, and would do more to improve U.S.-Latin American relations than any other single action. And right now, the Obama administration should protect the rights of migrants and border communities by stopping deportation practices that send migrants back to dangerous areas to be preyed upon by cartels, and by ensuring U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents are held accountable for abuses.
3. Support peace in Colombia, with justice. In 2013, there's a real chance to end the longest-running conflict in the Americas. The Obama administration sensibly backs Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. But we should also be listening to the voices of families of the disappeared and kidnapped, and the mothers of children murdered by Colombia's army, who are calling for justice along with peace. There must be accountability and truth for the murder, torture, forced displacement and rape perpetrated by all actors: the paramilitaries, the guerrillas and the country's own armed forces. The sad truth is that the Santos administration is moving backwards in accountability for army abuses. Without full truth and a strong measure of justice, there cannot be a lasting peace.
4. Try this on for size: a rational policy towards Cuba. The United States should launch a serious dialogue that aims at lifting the failed, 50-year embargo. We know this won't happen overnight. For starters, we should end the travel ban that divides us from our neighbors just off the Florida coast. The Obama administration should also take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; there is no earthly reason it belongs there in 2013. The accusation of giving shelter to Colombia's guerrillas was one of the few rationales for Cuba's inclusion; now Cuba is lauded by Colombia's government for hosting peace negotiations. If we support peace in Colombia, how can we not recognize Cuba's contribution?
5. End the militarized approach to drugs. Latin American presidents of all political persuasions are telling us: we must rethink the "War on Drugs," which has brought suffering without results. For starters, we should stop the tactics that cause the most harm while doing the least good: counternarcotics campaigns that bring Latin American armies into the streets; aerial spraying, which destroys food as well as drug crops. And we should focus on the public health approaches here and abroad that do the most good and the least harm: providing treatment when and where addicts need it; evidence-based prevention campaigns; youth employment and building resilient communities.
6. Focus on aid that helps people, not guns and military aid. As we face another battle on budget cuts, why not put military aid to Latin America on the chopping block. There's no war anywhere in the region, if Colombia's peace talks succeed. Focus on aid that actually helps people: disaster assistance, including reconstruction aid for Haiti; aid for health care, education, micro-loans, improving justice systems, and community development. Ensure that aid programs are consulted with the people they intend to benefit.
7. Speak up for human rights. While the United States isn't perfect, as our Latin American friends readily tell us, our government should speak up for human rights in this hemisphere. But do it fairly. When a left-wing government restricts freedom of the press, the United States should speak against this. When governments the U.S. favors -- like Colombia and Mexico--fail to prosecute human rights abuses committed by their militaries, the United States should press for justice, including by suspending military aid when needed.
8. Decisively support human rights in Honduras. Honduras is in crisis. Since the June 2009 coup in Honduras, human rights protections, never strong, have been severely weakened. Human rights defenders, LGBT community members, leaders in poor farming communities, and opposition activists have been threatened and killed, in crimes for which there is no justice. Military, police and private security guards are unaccountable. The United States should suspend military and police aid to Honduras while using aid and tough diplomacy to help Honduras strengthen the failing justice system.
9. Support the Inter-American human rights system. To its credit, the Obama administration has actively supported the Inter-American human rights system, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which many Latin American governments of left, right and center have recently sought to weaken. 2013 will be an important year to join with civil society groups across the Americas to ensure reforms strengthen, not weaken, this system's role as the last recourse for victims who fail to attain justice in their countries.
10. Finally, clean up our own act. The United States' voice on human rights will be stronger, of course, if our government sticks to human rights principles in its own actions. Drone strikes that kill civilians, rendition, indefinite detention and complete lack of due process for terror suspects weaken U.S. credibility in Latin America as well as in other regions of the world.
Now, if we could keep these resolutions, 2013 would be a banner year for U.S.-Latin American relations.
Monday, December 17, 2012
This post is cross-posted with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's LAWGBlog. It was written by LAWG-EF Executive Director Lisa Haugaard
On December 11th, the day after International Human Rights Day, the Colombian Congress approved a justice “reform” bill that will likely result in many gross human rights violations by members of the military being tried in military courts—and remaining in impunity. The bill, along with a separate ruling by the Council of State, unravels the reforms put in place after the “false positives” scandal in which over 3,000 civilians were killed by soldiers.
In 2007, I participated with a dozen lawyers, human rights activists, a forensic scientist and a judge in an International Verification Mission on Extrajudicial Executions and Impunity in Colombia. We heard from witnesses, family members and lawyers about 130 cases of extrajudicial executions committed in seven different regions of the country. These were not about civilians killed in crossfire or with excessive use of force. The stories we heard were chillingly similar: young men who were seen being taken from their homes, farms and streets by groups of soldiers. When their families came looking for them on a military base, these mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were shown a dead body, now dressed up as a guerrilla. There was their loved one, dead, and called a guerrilla killed in combat.
Now we know that the scandal was far, far worse than we knew then. In 2008 when the Soacha scandal broke, we learned that members of the army were paying criminal “recruiters” to pick up young men whom they thought would not be missed, and delivering them to soldiers to kill in staged battles. When the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Philip Alston, came to investigate in June 2009, he not only documented the enormous scope of the problem, but also noted that soldiers were carrying out these killings for to win incentives such as bonuses or days off. Murder to up their body counts.
The Attorney General’s office is investigating more than 3,000 civilians murdered by soldiers, most between 2004 and 2008. The coalition of human rights groups in Colombia known as the Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos (CCEEUU) has documented 3,512 extrajudicial executions between 2002 and 2010 committed in 31 out of 32 provinces. Of the 80 percent of these cases for which a presumed perpetrator could be identified, 89.2 percent involved members of the armed forces, 8.6 percent the police, and the remainder were from the air force, navy and the prison system. At least 21 territorial brigades and 19 mobile brigades were identified as perpetrators. More than 44 percent of extrajudicial executions were in the zones where the First and Seventh divisions of the army operated.
Under international pressure, the Colombian government put in place some reforms that helped bring the numbers of new extrajudicial executions down dramatically. It established an accord that allowed the Attorney General’s office to investigate the scene of the crime where extrajudicial executions were alleged and make the determination of whether cases should go to civilian or military courts. It began to enforce the Constitutional provision that stated that grave human rights abuses committed by soldiers should be tried in civilian, not military courts, and hundreds of cases were transferred to civilian jurisdiction. But while Colombia did make progress in investigating and prosecuting extrajudicial executions, prosecutions were slow, and higher-level officials under whose command multiple extrajudicial executions took place escaped justice. Indeed, some were promoted.These still limited advances are at risk with the new law. What are the problems with the law?
Which human rights crimes are excluded from military jurisdiction.
The initial version excluded very few crimes from military jurisdiction. After much pressure from Colombian and International human rights groups, the UN, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the U.S. government, the draft law excludes from military justice what sounds like an appropriate list of grave abuses: genocide, crimes against humanity, forced displacement, sexual violence, forced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial execution. That does sound like an improvement. According to the government, the changes will not "generate impunity."
But, as always, the devil is in the details: For example, in Colombian jurisprudence, there’s no official crime listed as “extrajudicial executions.” Most of the “false positive” cases have been tried as “homicides of protected persons,” a crime that is considered a violation of international humanitarian law rather than a human rights violation. Under the new law, violations of international humanitarian law routinely go to military courts. So, not only may new extrajudicial executions be tried in military courts, but many of the false positive cases could be transferred out of the civilian court system into the black hole of military justice. “Sexual violence” is also not a crime, using that phrasing, in the Colombian legal system. Moreover, other gross violations committed by members of the military will now go automatically to military courts, including cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and arbitrary detention.
Who is the first on the scene to investigate potential extrajudicial executions.
It is our understanding that the law gives the military justice system control over the initial investigations. If initial investigations are not handled well, the trail goes cold. Beyond what was established in this law, Council of State just declared void the important agreement between the Attorney General’s office and the Defense Ministry that ensured that the Attorney General would investigate alleged crime scenes for extrajudicial executions and make the initial determination of whether the case would go to military or civilian courts. With these changes, it is much more likely that extrajudicial executions and other crimes committed before execution, including torture, will go uninvestigated.
Who decides where cases go.
The new law sets up a new council (“Tribunal de Garant?as”) that will determine which cases go to military courts, and which to civilian courts, when there is a dispute. Half of the council members must be ex-military. Even if you had the perfect list of human rights crimes that should be excluded from military courts, if the decisions are made by a biased council, wrong decisions will be made.
Where soldiers and officers serve their time.
The new law makes official what has been happening in practice: soldiers and officers accused of the most heinous crimes will serve their pre-trial detention not in prison but in “centros de reclusión,” and those convicted can serve their time either in prison or special military detention centers. Semana magazine uncovered the luxurious conditions at the Tolemaida center, where convicted officials were able to leave for vacations, run businesses and even teach courses for current military members.
A special fund to defend soldiers.
Soldiers accused of grave human rights violations will have a taxpayer-funded defense.
Why the change?
Members of the military have been clamoring for “judicial security,” claiming that they are being unfairly prosecuted and that they need protection in order to carry out their combat duties. The Santos Administration, under pressure from the military, has shepherded this bill through the Congress. In the final debate, 54 senators voted in favor, 5 against. Senator Juan Manuel Galán, the bill’s sponsor, sounded a nationalistic and defiant note: “This bill isn’t a bill for impunity, but here we are not legislating because some international human rights organizations have come to Colombia during the final debate to tell us Colombians, us legislators what we have to legislate.”
Now that the Colombian Congress has taken this huge step backward, what recourse is available? First, the Colombian government has indicated that it could take steps to ensure that “extrajudicial executions” and “sexual violence” be defined in Colombian law, making it thus more likely that those crimes would go to civilian courts. The international community should hold the Colombian government accountable for this. And all eyes should be on the review of alleged extrajudicial execution cases in civilian courts—as we fear that many such killings will get transferred back to military courts.
But major damage to Colombia’s commitment to human rights has been done. The U.S. State Department should withhold military aid, as the new law violates conditions that require that gross human rights violations allegedly committed by the military be tried in civilian courts. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which just removed Colombia from its watch list, could reconsider. And the International Criminal Court, which has been watching Colombia, is another potential point of pressure.
I keep thinking about the mother of a young man who was offered a job as a bricklayer, but who was taken by soldiers and killed. Just in her area of the Caribbean coast, several dozen young men were similarly offered bricklaying jobs, disappeared and killed, presumed victims of soldiers seeking to increase their body counts. These mothers want the bodies of their sons returned to them, with dignity. And they want justice for their sons. The passage of this justice “reform” bill has just made that just demand harder to achieve.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The following is a translation of an interview with the director of Colombia's national police force, General José Roberto León Riaño, in Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. He discusses U.S. security assistance to Colombia, U.S. sentencing of extradited drug traffickers, and responds to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington.
"In the U.S. they legalize and here people are still dying": Police
Amid the debate over the legalization of marijuana in two U.S. states, General José Roberto León Riaño, director of Colombia's national police, said that although this is a matter for U.S. authorities, it is striking that there they are exploring these options while many in Colombia continue to die in the fight against drug trafficking.
In a conversation with El Tiempo, General León Riaño also spoke about the peace process and warned, as it has happened with other negotiations, that the country should be prepared for the FARC to eventually dissent and step away from the table and decide to continue the violence.
The world is witnessing the debate over the effectiveness of the fight against drug trafficking. Would we have done better if Colombia had been more tolerant?
Colombia is regarded internationally as a success story in the fight against drug trafficking, given that more than 15 years ago the country was considered almost a failed state, almost a narco-democracy. Colombia has dismantled large cartels, extradited the big bosses, reduced illicit crops, and decreased cocaine production. In that vein, it would not be advisable for us to slow down. But, as the president said, you have to look at other alternatives to make the fight more effective.
We will continue with [crop] spraying, manual eradication, seizing drugs, and destroying labs, because the problem still continues. It has declined, but is still present. Also, what has to be looked at, since the dismantling of the cartels, is that there has been a transition to a criminal economy of micro-trafficking. Today, this is what is causing violence in many cities.
Have you raised the issue to the United States that while two states in its country have legalized marijuana, in Colombia, like the president says, we continue to convict farmers who grow it?
The topic was addressed during U.S. Security Advisor Denis McDonough's visit a week ago, when an explanation of some sort was requested for why these two particular states had legalized while here people continue to die in the fight against drug trafficking. This ought to be an issue that they review.
Does extradition work or is this perception that drug traffickers are not afraid of extradition true?
On several occasions the we have inquired and have asked the United States for harsher convictions for drug traffickers, because we have noticed very short sentences. But extradition, independent of the convictions, has served [Colombia] because it breaks communication between the leader and the organization. And secondly, because it sends a message to the new generation of drug traffickers.
But aren't these the same bosses that prefer express extradition? Should we refine that process?
This is already part of a discussion between the Colombian government and the U.S. government. We hope that more attention is paid to what the Colombian government has been asking for, to be more forceful in sentencing drug traffickers.
The U.S. has continued to reduce the aid in Plan Colombia on the basis that the country is now able to continue alone in the fight against drug trafficking. Can the country take on this fight autonomously?
In the case of the police, in various meetings with U.S. authorities, we have indicated that, although we have come a long way in the fight against drug trafficking, the most difficult part is yet to come and it will require more support. Therefore, we have said that the resources coming from United States must address this need, so that we are able to get past this last stretch with good marks and so that we can avoid any setbacks.
What have you asked for?
That they at least not decrease resources or that they stabilize them, because that allows us to continue a strong fight against drug trafficking.
In what ways should they continue to support us?
On issues like spraying, for example. We have also talked about extending the deadline for nationalizing the plan, with the goal of generating the resources that would allow us to be more effective and continue calmly in this last stretch.
When do you think the country will be ready for nationalization?
We have to proceed and be mindful. The results will tell us when the most prudent time would be.
Another topic that the country is focused on is peace. In what sort of timeframe can you imagine a Colombia without conflict?
The first thing to say is that the national police supports the president's initiative to offer a response to Colombians that want a peaceful country. Secondly, we continue to carry out all types of operations with the goal of neutralizing or capturing FARC leaders who continue to sow violence and terror. We hope that peace comes soon, because new generations have the right to live in a country at peace, to have more progress than we have today.
Do you see all FARC members reintegrated into society?
This should be one result of the negotiation table. But I would say that we must also be prepared for a possible dissent. This is what experiences in other countries have shown us; even if they are minimal, all processes have had dissidence.
What would this dissidence be about?
A: Analysis indicates that this dissidence could be a new'BARCIM,'or, possibly, it could link to already existing gangs. But it would be completely dedicated to drug trafficking. (For more information on BACRIM, see here)
Given the cases of the possible use of excessive police force, like what happened with a young man in La Buitrera and a journalist in Sincelejo, what is the director's response? (See Colombian news agency RCN for more information about the young man killed by police in Cali and newspaper El Heraldo about the journalist killed by officers in Sucre.)
The police rejects these acts. They are not institutional policy. Each one of these cases will be dealt with disciplinarily and in cases where there is a place for it, decisions will be made without any hesitation.
What is being done?
Police have been working in a preventative manner. We have a national directive that outlines the protocol for acting while responding to journalists.
The interview came out on December 8, as former Colombian President César Gaviria championed for Colombia to make an independent move towards regulating soft drugs, without waiting for the United States.
"How are we going to demand that the United States changes their anti-drug policies if here we do not change ours? If we want the United States to change their (anti-drug) policy, we have to begin to change our policy. We should change our policy on soft drugs like marijuana. Guidelines for regulated marijuana should be passed and going forward the problem of cocaine should be confronted. Regulated systems function better."
In June, Colombia decriminalized cocaine and marijuana, ruling that anyone caught with less 20 grams (0.705 ounces) of marijuana or one gram (0.035 ounces) of cocaine for personal use will not be prosecuted or detained. On the topic of legalization, Santos has said several times that Colombia would welcome the policy change, should other countries join the initiative.
For more information on U.S. assistance to Colombia, visit the Just the Facts Colombia homepage.
For more information about Colombia's U.S.-aided counterinsurgency and development program, check out the report "Waiting for Consolidation," put out by the Center for International Policy, the Washington Office on Latin America, Indepaz and Minga.
Friday, December 7, 2012
Below is a compilation of news highlights and happenings from around the region this past week.
A U.S. delegation traveled to Trinidad and Tobago for the Caribbean-United States Security Cooperation Dialogue, marking the third year of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative(CBSI). At the meeting the U.S. announced a $3.43 million assistance program to combat illicit trafficking in firearms as part of CBSI.
On November 30 the U.S. Congress passed the "Jaime Zapata Border Enforcement Security Task Force Act," also known as H.R.915, a bill which seeks to create a new border security task force within the Department of Homeland Security. The new entity, the Border Enforcement Security Task Force, to be known as BEST, will be comprised of personnel from several U.S. security agencies, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Coast Guard, and FBI, as well as agents from Mexico's public security entity, the Secretaria de Seguridad Publica (SSP).
The case of development worker Alan Gross continues to be a sore note between U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations as this Tuesday marked the third year of his imprisonment. The Department of State released a statement Monday asking the Cuban Government to allow Gross to visit his ailing mother, while the Senate submitted a resolution calling for his immediate and unconditional release. Members of the U.S government have expressed concerns about his health, which the Cuban government claims are false, saying that Gross has received medical care and does not have cancer.
State Department officials asserted it is unlikely that the U.S will trade Gross for the release of five Cuban intelligence agents -- known as the Cuban Five -- who are currently serving treason and espionage charges in a Florida prison, saying the two cases are unrelated.
On Saturday Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as Mexico's new president, amid a mass protesting against the return of the once autocratic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Several analysts have weighed in on how his presidency will impact U.S.-Mexican relations, with many focusing on enhanced economic cooperation between the two nations.
Much of the media attention in Mexico has focused on the violence that took place during the inaugural event. At least 100 protesters were injured during the protest. Police in Mexico City are now being questioned about their role in the violence. The Federal District’s human rights commission (CDHDF) reports that officers dressed in civilian clothes were responsible for the arrest of many protesters. So far the CDHDF has documented the arrest of 22 people who were not involved in the violence and four more who maybe have been tortured. Mexico City's new mayor was also sworn in this week amid the capital's controversy. Amnesty International has set up a support page for victims of the police violence.
Analyst James Bosworth offers a concise, interesting comparison on his blog between the security policies of former Mexican President Felipe Calderón and former Colombian President Alvaró Uribe and the implications for the countries' current leadership with regards to security.
Peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC resumed in Havana on Wednesday after negotiators took a break last week and following an air strike over the weekend near the Ecuadorian border in which Colombian forces killed at least 20 FARC guerrillas, the largest blow to the group since the talks began. President Santos set a deadline for November of 2013 for the talks saying, "This has to be a process of months, rather than years."
The guerrilla group made comments earlier this week that is was still holding "prisoners of war," causing backlash from the government, and particularly its lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle, saying, "The FARC has to respond to the victims, it has to clarify this issue of kidnapping, the way to deal with the issue of kidnapping is not with ambiguities." Two other FARC negotiators denied the claims.
Mercosur is meeting today in Brazil. It is the first time that Venezuela will be participating as a full member while Bolivia and Ecuador's incorporation as full members will be discussed. Brazil anticipates that Paraguay's suspension from the group following the June impeachment/ousting of its president will stand until August 2013. Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, who has returned home following 10 days of cancer treatments in Cuba, will not be attending the trade bloc summit, causing concern over his health status, which some analysts say might affect the outcome of the December 16 gubernatorial elections.
A Los Angeles Times article offers a picture of the U.S.' expanding security role in Central America as the region faces increasing levels of gang violence, where homicide rates in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras significantly top those of Mexico and where government corruption hinders security initiatives. Gangs in Guatemala and other Latin American countries have begun to demand Christmas bonuses from bus drivers, asking for twice as much in monthly extortion fees.
In a feature on shifting illegal immigration trends, ProPublica notes that the rising number of Central American migrants making their way into the United States to flee violence and poverty means security on Mexico's southern border is becoming a priority for officials in Washington as well as Mexico City.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) approved a US$45 million loan to El Salvador to implement the Central American nation’s new social youth violence prevention project. “According to several studies, more than one in every ten dollars generated by the Salvadoran economy is absorbed by the cost of crime and violence,” the ISDB's project leader said.
In Honduras, a recent Supreme Court ruling deeming the cleaning up of corrupt police force unconstitutional adds another barrier to the country’s law enforcement reform. In response, President Lobo called the Supreme court the "enemy of the state" and that the police cleanup will continue."
A report released Monday, which shows 149 people have died at the hands of the Honduran Police in the last 23 months, was used to denounce the ruling.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
You’ve likely heard about the exciting buzz that has been permeating in Colombia. Yes, you guessed it; we’re talking about the announcement of the peace talks! We’ve decided to compile our own list of interesting sources –including the important voices of different civil society actors that are sometimes not heard –for our faithful readers to easily access.
We’ll begin with the voices of civil society and their takes on the peace process. Some of the main points brought up by these actors are:
- Civil society inclusion and participation in the peace process
A Colombian victims’ group, MOVICE, made this official statement regarding the peace talks, in which they welcome peace and call for the inclusion of victims in the peace process, as well as call for a bilateral ceasefire.
LAWGEF and USOC’s statement regarding the peace talks; warmly receiving the negotiations, the organizations call for the full inclusion of civil society, including women, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.
A critical explanation from La Silla Vacia of why civil society’s demand to be included in the actual peace negotiations is unfeasible.
- The topic of a bilateral ceasefire
The Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos (CCEEU), a major coalition of Colombian NGOs, issued this official statement regarding the peace talks, calling for special attention to be given to the victims of the armed conflict and for both parties in the negotiations to refrain from escalating the violence during the actual negotiations.
Colombians for Peace issued an open letter addressed to President Santos, Timochenko of the FARC and Nicolas Rodriguez of the ELN calling for the parties to develop an agreement to respect international humanitarian law as a peace agreement is developed. The letter asks that the government stop bombing civilian buildings and that the FARC stop using landmines and give information about kidnapped persons. Colombians for Peace also emphasize four points to “humanize the conflict” which revolve around: ending the use of landmines, stopping child recruitment, stopping attacks on civilian buildings and establishing a truth commission.
Next, we’ve compiled an assortment of editorials from Colombian newspapers and news magazines such as El Tiempo and Semana.
An interview with León Valencia, director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, in which he analyzes statements from President Juan Manuel Santos and head commander of the FARC, Timoleón Jiménez, alias “Timochenko” regarding the peace talks. He notes that of particular interest is the FARC’s agreement to include laying down its weapons in the agenda. This piece in El Tiempo presents the argument that even when taking into consideration the frustrations of previous talks with the FARC, this time there's a real, genuine possibility that the negotiations will be successful.
A special reconciliation issue from El Tiempo focuses on the need for broader social change in Colombian society, viewing the peace talks as a step on the pathway towards widespread reconciliation.
Experts and analysts weigh in at El Tiempo about the realistic outline of the Colombian peace negotiations without a negotiated ceasefire.
This interesting analysis in Semana looks beyond the public and official announcements about the peace negotiations and instead, examines the important symbols that show why the public should be optimistic about these current peace talks.
Former paramilitary leaders say in an interview with Canal Capital that their peace process failed and caution the government to take into account many of the mistakes that occurred in their peace process when preparing to sit down to negotiate with the FARC.
In Portafolio, several leaders from different Colombian business sectors give their support to the upcoming peace talks, hopeful that if peace negotiations are successful it will be very good for the economy
Just in case those articles were a bit difficult to read in Spanish, we’ve included here some English-language coverage.
Scholar Milburn Line calls for the United States to do a better job in visibly supporting the peace talks. The article suggests it’s time for the U.S. to reexamine its foreign policy in Colombia, including the impact of Plan Colombia, and vigorously support peace negotiations that are more rewarding for U.S. foreign policy and legacy in the region.
Colombia Report’s editorial describes the peace process as a complex process that must incorporate all Colombians, with emphasis on the populations affected most by the conflict, in order to have a successful peace negotiation and sustainable peace throughout the country. It prioritizes systems and strategies for fully supported demobilization and long-term reintegration programs for those fighting.
This Colombia Reports op-ed suggests that the peace talks are “destined to fail” because, in its opinion, the conditions of these negotiations are no different than those of the past. It also argues that the FARC is a terrorist organization that the “desperate-to-please” Santos administration should not negotiate with.
This blog in the Financial Times examines the international politics and possible motives of the peace process, ultimately arguing that successful negotiations are win-win for all: Colombia will have achieved peace and President Santos stands to gain a potential boost in popularity; Cuba creates a reason for the U.S. to relax its embargo; Venezuela helps end gun-smuggling which is good for the region; and the U.S. Plan Colombia policy can be seen as a success and will save the U.S. money not supporting Colombia anymore.
A fairly optimistic article in Commentary Magazine that says peace talks have the potential to be successful this time around mainly due to the fact that “the FARC has been essentially defeated militarily” as a result of the crushing setbacks by the military under the Uribe Administration, forcing the FARC to now negotiate.
Finally, here are some very valuable experts in themes such as conflict resolution and regional security policy.
Hear actual voices from Colombian civil society in this live recording from the event,“The Colombian Peace Talks: Perspectives from Civil Society,” hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America and cosponsored by LAWGEF and other groups.
Colombia Calls is a great blog from long-time astute observer of the peace process and senior program officer for Latin America in the Center of Innovation at the U.S. Institute for Peace, Ginny Bouvier.
The International Crisis Group’s official report is an excellent, comprehensive analysis on the state of the armed conflict and peace negotiations.
The Washington Office on Latin America’s Adam Isacson, Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy, weighs in with reasons to be more optimistic with this peace process than with past attempts and some possible obstacles.
Aldo Civico, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, has this insightful blog on “Engaged Anthropology, Peace Building, and Human Rights.” Civico has served as a conflict resolution facilitator to international institutions, government, corporations and non-governmental organizations in Italy, Haiti, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia.
This post is cross-posted with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's LAWGBlog. It was written by LAWG intern Chelsey Crim.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
President Barack Obama was re-elected Tuesday night, winning over 300 electoral votes and the popular vote by 2.6 million over Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Romney led the popular vote for most of the night, until western states like California closed their polls and counted their ballots. In the end, Obama handily took the electoral college with 303 vote to Romney's 206 and the popular vote with a narrow margin of victory, winning 50% of the vote to Romney's 48%.
Tuesday's election was historic in the United States for several reasons -- marijuana was legalized in two U.S. states, same-sex marriage was passed in another three -- but also of particular note was the increase in the Hispanic electorate's importance. President Obama won just over 70% of the Latino vote, compared to Romney's 27%, ensuring his slight victory in a number of battleground states like Colorado, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Nevada.
Leading up to the election, many analysts, politicians and voters were disillusioned that Latin America was noticeably absent from both candidates campaigns, especially in relation to issues such as the Mexican drug war that has claimed some 60,000 lives since 2006, the re-election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the Cuban embargo and Brazil's growing economic presence.
Before the election took place, regional analysts and leaders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes and OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, said they expected few changes with regards to U.S. policy in the region, regardless of the outcome.
Reactions to President Obama's victory throughout the region held a similar tone. There was a general consensus that Obama was the preferred victor of the two candidates, but that the region expected more attention and cooperation from his administration in the next four years.
Aside from the usual congratulatory messages, many leaders took the opportunity to voice their concerns over a domestic problem that reverberates throughout the region -- immigration reform -- reminding Obama that he owed a large part of his victory to Latinos.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos congratulated President Obama saying his re-election was "good news for Colombia," and noting that now the two countries can "continue to work in cooperation, with the same proposals and objectives and getting results."
Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón also applauded Obama's re-election as something "positive for the United States and Colombia," but said President Obama had to fulfill his obligation to the international community and the region as a whole, which "expected more" from him. Garzón highlighted the contentious immigrant situation in the U.S., saying "It's good to point out that Colombian immigrant workers have rights that must be respected, human rights, including the right to have American citizenship and residence."
Ecuador's deputy foreign minister, Marco Albuja, echoed these sentiments on Twitter, asking Obama to "always remember the transcendental latino vote." He added that he hoped the new administration would pass immigration reform to "find a definitive solution to the more than 10 million people in [the US] without a defined migrant status."
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who showed his support for President Obama during the campaign, extended his congratulations, calling Obama "an extraordinary person," but also commenting that he expected little change because "the foreign policy of the United States is inertial and they will need many years to change it.... Everything will practically be the same in Latin America."
Paraguay also weighed in on the immigration issue with Foreign Minister José Félix Fernández Estigarribia pressing Obama to recognize that "part of his win he owes to our Latin American compatriots," and he hoped "President Obama contributes to improving relations with [the rest of] Latin America and to solving the latino immigration problem."
For Honduras, President Porfirio Lobo's government, which enjoyed strong support by Obama in its 2011 election following a contentious 2009 coup, said it did not expect "much change in general relations with the United States," but secretary of planning, Julio Raudales, did comment that "Obama's reelection is good news." Former Honduran President Ricardo Maduro told local television he hoped Obama would focus his attention "towards the south."
Bolivian President Evo Morales had a more critical response to Obama's re-election. After condemning the U.S. electoral process, he suggested Obama settle the score with Latino voters by doing away with the Cuban embargo. He also took a jab at Obama's refusal to extradite Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a former president accused of corruption and genocide in Bolivia.
"He was reelected thanks to latinos and the best thing he could do to recognize their vote is end the embargo in Cuba," Morales said. "If he wants to dignify his government, it would be important to stop protecting delinquents that escape from many countries, Bolivia included."
With respect to the country's economy, the Bolivian leader gave little clout to the U.S. election, saying "who wins in the United States does not affect the Bolivian people... We should export but [the US] market cannot define our political economy."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has not commented since the election, but during the campaign he said that if he were an American, he would vote for Obama, although he later said he did not expect much change in U.S. foreign policy.
Cuban President Raul Castro has also yet to publicly respond, however Cuban state-run news website CubaSi reiterated the general feeling of indifference, saying "The news of Barack Obama's triumph in yesterday's general elections in the United States was received with some relief and without great optimism."
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner congratulated President Obama with a letter and also via Twitter, adding that it is "his turn" to "take his place in the history of his people and the world," and assume his "role as global leader to overcome this political and economic crisis."
In this election the Republican Party, as it is wont to do, adopted a more aggressive stance towards the region, particularly with regards to leftist governments, that signaled a possible unwelcome return to the diplomacy of Bush's presidency. Across the board, there was more a sense of relief that Romney lost than excitement that Obama won.
While in practice the policy differences might have been marginal, a Romney presidency would likely have included bellicose rhetoric towards Venezuela and Cuba and potentially cause greater political polarization in the hemisphere, as Inter-American Dialogue president Michael Shifter noted most recently in Foreign Policy magazine.
As Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas points out in the Miami Herald, there are several pending situations could force a change in the region's political and economic landscape, pulling more attention to it, such as the death of Hugo Chavez, the death of Fidel Castro or his brother Raúl, the possible success of peace talks in Colombia, and China's financial growing financial involvement.
Although the issues that shifted the rhetoric away from Latin America during the campaign are still front and center-- Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, jobs, etc-- there is hope that going forward Obama will prioritize the region, and at the very least immigrants looking for a home in the United States, in his second term.