The following is a round-up of some of the top news highlights from around the region over the past week.
Peace talks between the FARC and Colombian government, scheduled to restart April 2, have been postponed until the end of the month. Both sides are reportedly working on their respective proposals for land reform, the first agenda item of the six points that the talks will address.
President Santos President Santos said the Urabeños drug gang was the only neoparamilitary criminal organization (known in Colombia as BACRIMS, for “bandas criminales”) with a national presence. According to Santos, other such groups like the Rastrojos are losing traction. In March, Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris published a report citing BACRIMS as the central threat to Colombian security, recording their presence in 209 of the country’s 337 municipalities. While President Santos attributed the diminished presence of several groups to security forces, it may more likely be the result of consolidation of smaller groups into stronger organizations, as pointed out by InSight Crime.
The U.S. Department of Defense reported that the FARC had shoulder-fired air-to-surface missiles. According to the article, “Defense experts say the FARC has long sought to acquire such weapons to counter a key strategic advantage of Colombia's military -- air superiority.” The Colombian government has had the most success against the FARC with its air strikes. As noted in the above-mentioned Nuevo Arco Iris report, in 2012, 15 aerial operations by the government killed 200 guerillas.
Several analysts said that should the group acquire enough missiles, it could change the war. "If they had a few dozen, it would make a difference: It could limit what the Colombians could do against them from the air," said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "My guess is they don't have that many." The article also notes that U.S. military assistance to Colombia for 2013 is slated to be $266 million.
The FARC issued a statement saying they would reject any proposal for peace that includes jail time for guerilla leaders. The Colombian government already has legislation in place that limits the prosecution of FARC members, but does not provide for total amnesty.
Peru and the United States have agreed to enhance political-military cooperation.
The State Department’s press release can be read here, but notes the two countries will collaborate on various security issues like terrorism and drug trafficking. A good article in El País touches on how the agreement to share information, technology and training benefits both sides, and particularly Peru, which has seen an uptick in drug trafficking and coca production in its VRAEM region (the Apurimac and Ene River Valley, and the Mantaro Valley).
In May, Peru will begin drafting men between the ages of 18 and 25 for military service to help fill the reported 30,000-member deficit in the armed forces. Parents and university students will be exempt while draftees can pay a fine of $700 to get out of service. The measure has drawn much criticism, as opponents say it favors the wealthy. CNN pointed out that “Nearly a third of Peru's population lives below the poverty line, according to government statistics. A minimum wage salary is 750 soles ($290) per month."
As InSight Crime notes, Peru has begun to more heavily “militarize the fight against drug traffickers and Shining Path guerillas,” particularly in the country’s largest coca-producing region, the VRAEM. In October, the government announced it would increase military and police budgets by 20 percent and double its police force.
Peru is reportedly purchasing 24 Russian Mi-171 helicopters for $407 million for counternarcotics operations in the country. According to reports, the deal could rise to a value of $485.5 million as Peru has supposedly signaled it wants to buy additional onboard weapons and Russia has offered to train Peruvian pilots.
Mexico and the border
A group of four U.S. senators working on the immigration bill toured the U.S.- Mexico border last Wednesday. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) concluded his visit by saying, “What I learned was that we have adequate manpower, but we don’t have adequate technology.” The senators are part of the “gang of eight,” the bipartisan group developing legislation to reform U.S. immigration laws.
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), four out of five drug busts made by Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border involve U.S. citizens. The report’s authors recognize that Mexican cartels are controlling the smuggling trade but note, “the public message that the Border Patrol has trumpeted for much of the last decade, mainly through press releases about its seizures, has emphasized Mexican drug couriers, or mules, as those largely responsible for transporting drugs.”
The Associated Press has since come out with a report which claims Mexican drug cartels are running drug distribution networks in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the Midwest, South and Northeast.
The White House announced President Obama will visit 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 like education. In Costa Rica, he will meet with President Chinchilla and other leaders of the Central American Integration System (SICA) to discuss trade and security.
Mexican news website Animal Politico outlines five key components of Mexico’s revised draft of its victims law. The new language includes a definition for “indirect victims” as well as punishment for negligence by authorities. The law has been approved by the Mexican Senate, but still awaits full congressional approval.
Russia in Nicaragua
William Brownfield, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement says the United States welcomes Russia’s recent involvement in Central America’s drug war and collaboration with Nicaraguan forces to combat narcotics trafficking. The Nicaragua Dispatch reported Brownfield as saying, “I welcome any contribution, any donation and any support that the Russian government wants to give in this hemisphere.” According to the paper, Russia's drug czar Victor Ivanov says his plan is to convert Nicaragua into a regional stronghold for Central America’s drug war.
In the interview Brownfield also discussed U.S. counternarcotics strategies in Central America, noting he hopes to shift routes away from the region within two to three years.
United States officials claims that no security assistance is given to police units under the control of the country’s national police director, Juan Carlos Bonilla, over concerns that he was involved in extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The Associated Press published a must-read article last week challenging this, alleging that all police units are under Bonilla’s control. The U.S. has denied these claims saying that while it does support Honduran police, it does not support its director and gives no assistance to Bonilla or those directly under him. For more information, see a Just the Facts post published Friday.
The campaign ahead of Venezuela’s April 14 presidential election continues to be mired in personal and fiery insults between the two candidates, interim President Nicolas Maduro and Henrique Capriles. According to Reuters, over the weekend Maduro “called the country's opposition ‘heirs of Hitler,’ accusing them of persecuting Cuban doctors working in the South American country the way Jews were persecuted in Nazi Germany.” This comes after he accused Capriles of trying to “provoke” violence when plans were announced that he would be campaigning in the same western Venezuela state as Maduro this week. Capriles has since announced that he will start his campaign in the state of Monagas state on Tuesday, and move into Barinas on Wednesday.
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet returned to Chile and announced she will be running for president in the country’s November elections. The Pan-American Post has a good overview of her announcement and links to several articles outlining the challenges facing her despite being the favored candidate. The post highlights Bachelet’s speech in which she said, “the main goal of her administration would be addressing income inequality in Chile, which in 2011 had the most uneven distribution of wealth of any Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country.”
The day after the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the country’s defense minister, Adm. Diego Molero, twice called on Venezuelans to vote for Chávez’s handpicked successor, Acting President Nicolás Maduro. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles called Adm. Molero a “disgrace” for openly backing a candidate. A New York Times analysis notes that Maduro, who never served in the armed forces, must contend with “arguably the most powerful pro-Chávez group of all: senior military figures whose sway across Venezuela was significantly bolstered by the deceased leader.”
In December and January, the first two months of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, Mexico’s Army killed 161 “presumed criminals” as part of its role in fighting organized crime. Nine soldiers were killed. In an early February discussion with Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, legislators said “the spirit of the Army is not to be in the streets patrolling,” but that “until the problem of insecurity is resolved,” they would likely have to stay there.
Gen. Cienfuegos may not have been President Peña Nieto’s first choice for defense secretary, alleges a February 4 New York Times investigation, which claims that the United States expressed strong misgivings about the actual next-in-line for the job, Gen. Moisés García Ochoa. Nearly two weeks later, the State Department denied that it had sought to block Gen. García.
In one of the Peña Nieto government’s first security policy changes, 10,000 Mexican soldiers and marines will form a new mobile federal constabulary police force, a “National Gendarmerie,” before the end of the year.
Mexico’s human rights ombudsman (CNDH) “recommended” 109 cases of alleged human rights abuse to Mexico’s Defense Secretariat (SEDENA, which comprises the Army and Air Force) during the 2006-2012 government of President Felipe Calderón. Of these, SEDENA claims to have closed 63. Only two have resulted in soldiers being convicted. SEDENA led all government agencies in 2012 with 15 new CNDH “recommendations.”
Guatemalan prosecutors requested a copy of the Guatemalan Army’s “Table of Organization and Equipment” for 1982 outlining the institution’s lines of command in a year in which it committed massive numbers of human rights violations. Citing reasons of “sensitivity” for national security, Guatemala’s Defense Ministry refusedto hand over the document — which would be important in prosecutions of past abuses — saying it would be secret for seven more years. Correction as of 6:00PM EDT: The document was released to prosecutors only, but will remain unavailable to the public for seven years. (Source: the Guatemalan daily ElPeriódico, with a hat tip to Cascadia Solidaria blog.)
The abrupt transfer of judge Mariana Mota is likely to delay or derail many cases against former Uruguayan officers accused of human rights abuses during the country’s 1973-1985 military dictatorship. Shortly afterward Uruguay’s Supreme Court, which transferred Judge Mota, then struck down a legal change that sought to overturn a 1980s amnesty law.
A column of Chilean marines caused a small uproar in late January after its members were filmed chanting that they would “kill Argentines, shoot Bolivians and slit the throats of Peruvians.”
Two top Ecuadorian Army generals resigned their posts over an eight-day period in February, apparently due to discontent over the promotion of three colonels to the rank of general.
Ecuadorian Defense Minister María Fernanda Espinosa said that the government of President Rafael Correa tripled the country’s defense budget between 2007 and 2012.
“It is necessary that we have the highest participation of women [in the armed forces], above all when the commander-in-chief is a woman,” said Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “Perhaps we’ll have a female general soon. I hope before my term is over.” An overview by Spain’s EFE news service notes that Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua Paraguay, and Uruguay all allow some degree of women’s participation in the armed forces, though usually not combat. Colombia’s army just graduated the first five female officers to have command over male soldiers.
Defense officials from Peru’s last government are under a cloud of corruption suspicions surrounding a contract with an Israeli company hired to provide military training.
Retired Gen. Hugo Pow Sang was named to head Peru’s military justice system, although he currently faces two civilian judicial proceedings for alleged corruption.
A December 2012 poll by M&R Consultores found 85.67 percent of Nicaraguans “trusting” the country’s army, with 91.4 percent supporting the Nicaraguan Army playing a role in “the fight against international narcotrafficking” and “organized crime.”
When Nicaraguan Education Minister José Antonio Alvarado was moved to head the Defense Ministry, asksEl Nuevo Diario columnist León Núñez, was it a promotion or a demotion? “Political analysts who view it as a demotion say that in the Defense Ministry there is nothing to do, except read newspapers, sleep, drink coffee, put up with giving the occasional obligatory talk, and be on hand for occasional events.”
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 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.
Amid the political crisis surrounding ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s absence, a few analysts have sought to measure the mood within the country’s armed forces. Ewald Scharfenberg at Spain’s El Paíssees three principal factions, which he calls “ideologues,” “pragmatists,” and “institutionalists.” Alfonso Ussia of Spain’s La Razóncalls them “officialists,” “unionists” and “institutionalists.” Rocío San Miguel of Caracas’s Control Ciudadano think-tank warns that Vice President Fernando Maduro is not in the chain of command, and that with Chávez out of contact the armed forces are currently “orphaned.”
The Mexican Army’s and Air Force’s involvement in fighting organized crime is an “atypical situation” that “cannot, and should not, in any way, be prolonged.” The author of that phrase is surprising: Gen. Guillermo Galván, who served as Mexico’s secretary of defense until last December. Gen. Galván wrote the preface to a book on the fight against organized crime published by Mexico’s Secretariat [Department/Ministry] of Defense.
19 officers who graduated Peru’s military academy in the same year (1984) as President Ollanta Humala, a former officer, are now generals holding key army posts. This is a record.
Former soldiers of El Salvador’s army, veterans of the country’s 1980s civil war, blocked main roads — including border crossings with Honduras and Guatemala — to demand pension payments. Last year the Salvadoran government approved a US$50 monthly stipend to former members of the FMLN guerrillas over 70 years of age.
A “serious setback in human rights” and “incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights” is how the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, in a January 4 statement, characterized Colombia’s December 28 approval of a constitutional amendment that will send many more human rights cases to the military justice system, which has a strong tradition of lenience toward accused soldiers.
The infosurhoy.com website points to a regional poll by the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty (FLACSO) showing strong Latin American support for involving the military in internal missions. Of 9,057 people surveyed in 28 cities of 18 countries, 84% supported giving armed forces a role in fighting narcotrafficking, and 83.2% (86% in Mexico) favored a role in fighting organized crime. 85% — 91% in Brazil and Ecuador, 73% in Paraguay — oppose abolishing the armed forces. 77% see no risk of a military coup in their country.
Argentina’s vice-president, Amado Boudou, rang in the new year in Gonaïves, Haiti, accompanying Argentine infantry troops stationed there as UN peacekeepers.
The Nicaraguan Army’s “Ecological Battalion” has set up five posts in Nicaragua’s northern Caribbean coastal region, a sparsely populated zone susceptible to narcotrafficking activity. The posts, which will operate for three months, are a response to a request from 200 local farmers concerned about worsening security.
In a cross-post with the new WOLA podcast, Adam looks at Peru's upcoming, and up-for-grabs elections; Washington's discussion of the Homeland Security and Pentagon role in Mexico border security; political violence in Colombia; and much else.
Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.
UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, was formally launched today at a meeting of Foreign Affairs ministers in Quito, Ecuador. Before the group could become effective, the charter requested that nine members subscribe to the treaty. Of UNASUR's members, Brazil and Paraguay still have to comply with the approval of treaty.
Next on the agenda for UNASUR is to agree on a new Secretary General, a post which has been vacant since the death of Nestor Kirchner. Currently, the two main candidates are Venezuela's Electricity minister Ari Rodriguez, an energy expert, and Maria Emma Mejia, a former Colombian Deputy Foreign Affairs minister. UNASUR will convene again at a presidential summit in Venezuela in April, where some speculate the next Secretary General will be chosen.
On Tuesday, the International Court of Justice ordered Costa Rica and Nicaragua to withdraw all troops, police and security personnel from the 1.2 square-mile contested border region. This ruling allowed both sides to claim victory for the moment. Costa Rica's President Laura Chinchilla called the decision an "overwhelming victory" for her country in using law to repel aggressors, while Nicaragua's representative before The Hague was satisfied with the ruling since it blocks Costa Rica's "offensive" against Nicaraguan sovereignty. The decision does not bring the two countries any closer to a solution for their tense standoff, however, and the legal process could take another four years to reach a final verdict.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' (ATF) "Operation Fast and Furious" made it into multiple news stories this week, as more details about the operation are exposed. The Operation was meant to investigate gunrunning by cartels, and allowed 1,765 guns purchased in the United States to be smuggled into Mexico over a 15-month period--of which only 797 were recovered. According to a ranking Mexican legislator, at least 150 Mexicans have been killed or wounded by guns trafficked by smugglers being tracked by U.S. ATF agents. Investigators are now trying to determine if the gun that killed ICE agent Jaime Zapata in February was one of those missing guns. Yesterday, the Mexican Senate called a hearing on Operation Fast and Furious and voted to summon U.S. Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan to discuss the issue, though a date has not been set.
Last week, the New York Times reported that Marisol Valles García, the 21 year old police chief of Praxedis G. Guerrero, a small town 60 miles southeast of Ciudad Juárez, had not been to work for three days. She had been granted a leave of absence to take her baby son, who was ill, to the United States, but failed to return as agreed. By Monday, Valles had been fired by the town's mayor for abandoning her post. It turns out, as the El Paso Times reported, that Valles fled to the United States last week to seek asylum after receiving death threats. According to the Chihuahua Human Rights Commission, Valles is staying in the United States, and keeping a low profile, until her case is heard by an immigration judge.
Other news from Mexico this week included the appointment of Julian Leyzaola, former Tijuana police chief and lieutenant colonel, to the post of public safety secretary of Ciudad Juárez, more arrests of suspected gang members linked to the death of ICE agent Jaime Zapata, and an in-depth piece in the Washington Post on the effects of drug violence on Monterrey. CIP Intern Erin Shea's blog on recent violence in Mexico provides more details about these news stories and more. Read it here.
Haiti is starting to prepare for its March 20th presidential and legislative runoff election. On Wednesday, the two presidential candidates, Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigat, faced off in a televised debate, trying to distinguish their policies from the other, despite their similar platforms: education, national production and the reestablishment of a Haitian military.
According to the Los Angeles Times, personality, not politics, is the true divide between the two candidates: "With not much in the way of politics dividing the two right-of-center candidates, voters may be left to weigh backgrounds and styles, which are as different as those of a lampshade-wearing uncle and tsk-tsking grandmother."
The Miami Herald lists several fixes that are being made to prevent the fraud and disorganization that "marred November's first round of balloting." These changes include increased education requirements for poll workers and supervisors, cleaning up the list of voters, and using color tally sheets to help deter fraud.
The Guardian's Rory Carroll wrote a long piece on gang violence in Caracas, Venezuela. In the article, "Drugs, murder and redemption: the gangs of Caracas" Carroll notes that gang violence played a large role in the fact that in 2010 14,000 people were murdered in Venezuela, three times more than in Iraq.
The largest cocaine processing lab ever, capable of producing about a ton of cocaine a month, was found in Honduras. Some say it is another sign Mexican drug trafficking organizations are spreading into Honduran territory. Steven Dudley, of InSight, called this discovery a "game changer." Dudley writes, "the presence of an HCl lab means the calculus region wide may be changing. The assumption is that so much pressure is on the traffickers in Colombia and neighboring states that they are moving their raw material north." Boz also wrote about this discovery today, and closes his blog by asking: "How many more labs are there? If this lab was found, and it's a significant lab, it's probably not the only one."
InSight also provides an overview of the evolution of the drug submarine.
Guatemala's first lady Sandra Torres announced her candidacy for president to succeed her husband, Alvaro Colom, in the presidential elections in September. Her announcement came despite a constitutional ban prohibiting close relatives of a president from standing to replace him or her. Guatemala's constitutional court will have the final decision on whether or not Torres will be able to run.
The Christian Science Monitor published an interview with Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, in which Correa told interviewer Abraham Lowenthal that "I have personal respect for President Obama and for the positive changes he seeks to introduce, but the U.S. system and the power of vested interests have prevented significant changes." In the interview, Correa and Lowenthal also talk about political and social change in Ecuador and the possibilities for Peru under a new leadership.
Government-sponsored forum to denounce "media terrorism," Caracas, 2009.
The Press Emblem Campaign, a Swiss-based NGO, declared Latin America to have been the most dangerous region in the world for journalists in 2010. Last year, the NGO counted 37 journalists killed in Latin America, a third of the world’s total (14 in Mexico, 10 in Honduras, 4 in Colombia and Brazil, 2 in Venezuela, and one each in 3 other countries).
Throughout the region, though, reporters’ work is also complicated by states pursuing non-violent, legal means. A recent trend has been the proposal or passage of laws that prohibit or punish certain types of reporting. Nearly all of these laws have a noble stated purpose, but suffer from a vagueness of language that can open the door to abuse. In particular, these laws appear to enable leaders to silence critical or investigative journalism.
The most recent example is in Ecuador, where citizens will vote this year on a referendum to change the Constitution and introduction of new laws. One question on the ballot asks whether voters would favor “a Communications Law that would create a Regulation Council to regulate broadcast and print media that contains violent, sexually explicit or discriminatory messages, and establishes criteria to hold the broadcasters or media outlets responsible.”
The ballot measure could pass, since most citizens naturally oppose messages of violence, discrimination or other offensive content. However, critics of the proposed law note that it may empower the Ecuadorian government to review and approve all news reporting before its publication or broadcast. “Its objective,” said Vicente Ordoñez of Ecuador’s National Journalists’ Union, “is to establish prior censorship of journalists’ work.” This would be a large step backward for freedom of expression in Ecuador.
The Ecuadorian proposal follows a measure sent to Nicaragua’s pro-government-majority National Assembly in February that, as part of a law to punish violence against women, would have created the crime of “media violence” (violencia mediática). This provision was later withdrawn.
In January, Panama’s National Assembly considered a law, encouraged by President Ricardo Martinelli, that would have made it a crime of up to four years’ imprisonment to “offend, insult, publicly vilify” the president or other public officials. This bill was also withdrawn.
In December, the National Assembly of Venezuela approved changes to the country’s Organic Telecommunications Law and Social Responsibility on Radio and Television Law. “The social responsibility law,” CNN explained at the time, “explicitly states that no broadcaster or internet provider can broadcast things that incite hatred, cause ‘anxiety or unrest among the public order’ or promote the assassination of leaders.” With such vague terms as “anxiety or unrest,” “alteration of public order,” “motivating intolerance” or “ignoring authority,” the law is written in such a sweeping way that it could conceivably be applied to all opposition media.
In November, Boliviaapproved legislation with another laudable goal – combating racism – that included another troubling provision. The country’s new Law Against Racism would impose fines on, or even suspend the licenses of, media that are publishing or broadcasting racist or discriminatory messages. The trouble is that the government gets to decide whether an article or broadcast meets the standard that would trigger a fine or clusure – and the criteria it uses could be politicized. Much depends on the regulations that the government will develop to implement the law. During a November visit to Bolivia, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay warned, “Prohibiting the dissemination of racist ideas, if not adequately regulated, could affect the right to freedom of expression. … [I]nternational law requires that limitations be stipulated by law, that they be defined in a clear and precise manner, and that they be implemented by an independent body.”
Washington Post reporter Mary Beth Sheridan published a piece with new information about the Defense Department’s rapidly expanding role in Mexico. Sheridan points out that even as U.S. aid to Mexico through the “regular” foreign aid budget becomes less military in nature, the amount of aid to Mexico’s security forces through the Defense budget has tripled. “The Obama administration is now considering what more it can do for Mexico’s security forces,” possibly including a US$50 million Defense-budget program to help Mexico fortify its border with Guatemala. “Mexico is our number-one priority,” Sheridan quotes the commander of Northern Command, Gen. James Winnefeld, as having said. Gen. Winnefeld declined to be interviewed for the article.
Meanwhile in Mexico, the Mexican military’s November 5 killing of Gulf cartel leader Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas, alias “Tony Tormenta,” has left citizens terrified in the eastern segment of the U.S.-Mexico border region. They fear a period of vicious competition, with the murderous Zetas – the Gulf cartel’s former security force – likely poised to swoop in to contest control of the Gulf cartel’s drug trafficking routes into the United States.
Meanwhile another Mexican cartel, the cultish, ruthless, Michoacán-based La Familia, distributed letters and hung banners this week announcing their intention to disband “if federal police promise to act honestly and fight to the death to defend the state.” The statements’ authenticity couldn’t be verified.
Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, the Venezuelan officer who told reporters Monday that the armed forces would not accept an opposition-ruled government, was rebuked Wednesday by OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, who called the general’s comments “unacceptable and “very serious.” Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez responded in a nationally televised address on Thursday night: he promoted Gen. Rangel Silva to “general in chief.”
Venezuela and the United States are both seeking the extradition of a Venezuelan citizen currently imprisoned in Colombia on narcotrafficking charges. Walid Makled has told television interviewers that he has evidence of Venezuelan narco-corruption at the highest levels. The Obama administration is demanding his extradition, but President Chávez says that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is seeking to improve relations with Venezuela, has promised to send Makled to Venezuela. Writing in the Huffington Post, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Joel Hirst argues that would be unwise.
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia James McKinley gave one of his first interviews since taking over in August, with the Colombian daily El Espectador. He didn’t stray far from talking points.
El Tiempois reporting that four Awá indigenous people were massacred last weekend in the highly conflictive Pacific coast municipality of Barbacoas, Nariño. Ten members of the Awá nation have been murdered so far this year.
The Ecuadorian daily La Horareported Thursday that U.S.-funded Colombian police fumigation planes had been spraying coca fields with herbicides within ten kilometers of the Colombia-Ecuador border, in contravention of a 2005 agreement between the two countries. A 2006 spray campaign in the same Colombian department – Putumayo – caused an ugly diplomatic spat between the two countries. On the day that the La Hora piece came out, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry issued a denial that any spraying had taken place in the area.
An indigenous shaman from Putumayo known as “Taita Juan” was arrested in the Houston airport, and is now imprisoned as a suspected narcotrafficker. He was on his way to a gathering of indigenous leaders, and had in his baggage some ayahuasca, a ceremonial drug made from the yagé plant that, though legal in Colombia, has hallucinogenic properties. Taita Juan faces twenty years in U.S. prison unless prosecutors realize that he probably isn’t, in fact, a drug dealer. A group of U.S. activists has set up a website (www.freetaitajuan.org) in his defense.
Brazil is hosting a multinational Air Force exercise, CRUZEX, with the participation of planes and airmen from the United States, France, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Both the United States and France are in the running for a potentially huge sale of fighter aircraft to Brazil. While CRUZEX would give both countries a chance to woo Brazilian purchasers by showing off their planes, a Twitter exchange with @bloggingsbyboz shows that “US is flying F-16s and trying to sell F-18s to Brazil. France flying their Rafale, pushing hard not to lose the deal.”
There are small signs of a possible thaw in U.S. relations with Bolivia; the two countries have not had ambassadors in each others’ capitals since Evo Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008 over his contacts with the political opposition. On a visit to Paraguay, Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela voiced his hope that relations might be restored soon; Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca responded receptively.
Two Peruvian coca eradicators were shot to death in two days last weekend in the remote Tocache region, where remnants of the Shining Path guerrillas continue to operate.
An investigation by a Dominican newspaper contends that 5,000 members of the Dominican Republic’s security forces went on trial, came under investigation, or were fired or punished for drug-related corruption during the past three years. A police major was caught this week attempting to ship 400 kilograms of cocaine to the United States.
The OAS is considering a worsening border dispute over territory along the San Juan River between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The problems began a few weeks ago, when Nicaragua began dredging a section of the river and stationed soldiers in disputed territory. The Economistlays responsibility for the episode on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who is seeking reelection in 2011 despite flagging approval ratings. The Nicaraguan daily El Nuevo Diario has a chronology of the dispute. Bloggings by Bozdiscusses the role that Google Maps may or may not have played.
In Uruguay, two referendum votes over the past several years failed to overturn an amnesty granted for human rights crimes committed during the country’s 1973-85 military dictatorship. The country’s Supreme Court, however, overturned the amnesty with a single ruling in October. Now Miguel Dalmao is the first active-duty general to be arrested and to face trial for a human rights violation.
Amid a barrage of grim security news, Mexican President Felipe Calderón delivers his annual state of the union address.
The State Department certified on Friday that Mexico’s human rights performance is improving, freeing up $36 million in assistance to the Mexican armed forces that had, by law, been put on hold. Citing continued human rights concerns, however, State froze another $26 million in assistance that had been appropriated through separate, supplemental budget appropriations. Meanwhile the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that the Obama administration is considering “a substantial spending increase on the Mexican drug war” as a successor to the $1.6 billion “Mérida Initiative.”
Amid a week marked by the arrest of top Beltrán Leyva cartel figure “La Barbie” and an Army firefight that reportedly killed 27 “Zetas,” Mexican President Felipe Calderón gave his annual state of the union speech. The President acknowledged that drug-related violence is worsening, citing cartels as “the central threat” to Mexico, but calling on Mexicans to stay the course and “battle on.” On the BBC website, analyst Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez asserts that drug-related violence has gone through two distinct “waves” since early 2008, each one following the takedown of a key narco figure. The Guardian, meanwhile, has a 3-part series by Rory Carroll about people affected by, or involved in, the violence in the U.S. border zone.
A “legislative decree” issued by Peruvian President Alán García, which went into effect last Wednesday, would close cases against human rights violators (a) whose offenses occurred before 2003, and (b) whose cases have gone on for over 3 years. Human rights groups warn that the decree could result in freedom for jailed abusers like ex-President Alberto Fujimori; his former intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos; and members of the “La Colina” death squad.
Ángela María Buitrago, a star prosecutor in Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), was abruptly fired last week. She was managing several high-profile cases:
that of three generals accused of sanctioning the killing a Supreme Court justice during the 1985 Palace of Justice tragedy;
that of Jorge Noguera, Álvaro Uribe’s first chief of presidential intelligence (DAS), accused of conspiring with paramilitaries and narcotraffickers to kill human rights defenders and political opponents;
that of Guillermo Valencia Cossio, the chief prosecutor of Medellín (and brother of recently departed Interior Minister Fabio Valencia Cossio), accused of working with paramilitary narcotrafficker “Don Mario”;
that of Senator Ciro Ramírez, accused of working with narcotraffickers and paramilitaries; and
slander charges against former Vice President Francisco Santos and former presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria, who accused labor union leaders of working with the FARC.
With prosecutor Buitrago suddenly gone from these cases – many of which had advanced significantly – their future is in doubt. The firing should make it very difficult for the U.S. State Department to certify that Colombia is improving its ability to try human rights cases – as it is expected to do this month to free up military aid currently “on hold.”
A cover story in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana discusses the Santos government’s surprisingly ambitious land-reform plans. Legislation to be introduced in Congress is likely to include the return of 2 million hectares of land – an area nearly the size of El Salvador – to victims; the seizure and distribution of up to 800,000 hectares of land from narcotraffickers; the titling of 1.2 million small landholdings; an effort to collect property taxes for the first time; and a reduction, by half, of the amount of land dedicated to cattle ranching. This proposal, while absolutely crucial to peace, will be likely to face some stiff resistance – political and perhaps violent – from sectors of Colombia that, in fact, have supported President Santos and his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.
Colombia’s VerdadAbierta (open truth) website has put together a very impressive multimedia presentation about the Montes de María, a region near Colombia’s Caribbean coast that has lived through three decades of land struggles, guerrilla activity, narcotrafficking and, ten years ago, an extremely brutal paramilitary takeover.
Following an ambush that killed 14 policemen in Caquetá department, Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera ruled out any possibility of peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. His sentiments were echoed in even stronger terms by armed forces chief Adm. Édgar Cely. The civil-society group Colombians for Peace, whose most visible member is Senator Piedad Córdoba, made clear its “absolute rejection” of the FARC attack, in which the guerrillas incinerated the bodies of the dead. President Juan Manuel Santos is reportedly seeking a legal change that would prohibit any future demilitarization of territory to hold peace talks, as took place in failed 1998-2002 talks with the FARC.
Santos paid his first foreign visit as president of Colombia: to Brazil, where he met with President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and both major candidates for Brazil’s October 3 presidential elections. Santos appeared determined to discourage any Brazilian initiatives to foster peace in Colombia. “Our problem with the FARC is an internal Colombian problem,” he said. “We have asked that the fact that it is an internal Colombian problem be respected. … Brazil can always collaborate when we think that they can and should.” Santos also called on Brazil to formally declare the FARC a terrorist group. Opposition candidate José Serra, who is trailing in the polls, pledged to do that.
An article in Peru’s La República gives a very hazy account of a marine patrol on the Amazon river that came under attack Saturday by a group of about 90 uniformed men on the Colombian side of the river. Five people may have died; local authorities blame the FARC while the police blame narco gangs.
The FARC made its presence felt on the Ecuador-Colombia border, distributing flyers in the Ecuadorian border town of Lago Agrio and, on the Colombian side, holding a press conference of sorts for Ecuadorian reporters. A 48th Front spokesman, who went by the name “Raúl Ruiz,” denied that the guerrilla group was responsible for the shooting death of an Ecuadorian soldier, just across the border from Colombia, in August.
A poll published by the Venezuelan daily El Nacional showed 77 percent of Venezuelans responding that they would vote in the September 26 elections for a new legislature. Of those, 34 percent would vote for members of the party supporting President Hugo Chávez, and 42 percent would vote for opposition parties. In public statements, Chávez called the opposition “the most rotten bunch that Venezuela’s political history has produced” and warned that if they get a majority of the Congress, they will “carry out a coup, like in Honduras.”
In Chile, about 35 imprisoned Mapuche Indians have been on a hunger strike for nearly 60 days. After vandalizing and destroying property during a land dispute, the indigenous prisoners were tried before a military court for “terrorism” under a Pinochet-era law. The government of Sebastián Piñera is promising to reform the law – though the right wing of its coalition wants to keep it in place – and wants the Catholic church to serve as a mediator.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega and another top security official criticized U.S. security assistance for being too stingy. Ortega referred to the roughly $2 million per year (not counting additional Defense Department aid) as “centavos.” Days later, at a speech commemorating the Nicaraguan Army’s 31st anniversary, Ortega called U.S. intelligence agencies “strategists of evil,” prompting U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan to get up and leave the room. On the security issue, incidentally: Nicaragua’s La Prensareports that the country today has 11,000 police and 13,000 private security guards.
Argentina’s defense minister, Nilda Garré, declared that Argentina would increase its defense budget by 50 percent “in coming years.”
The armed forces of Colombia, Honduras and the United States carried out a three-day counternarcotics exercise in the Caribbean, near the Colombian island of San Andrés.
A project of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund in cooperation with the Center for International Policy and the Washington Office on Latin America
Project Staff: Adam Isacson (Senior Associate WOLA aisacson[at]wola.org) / Abigail Poe (Deputy Director CIP abigail[at]ciponline.org) / Lisa Haugaard (LAWGEF Executive Director lisah[at]lawg.org) / Joy Olson (WOLA Executive Director jolson[at]wola.org)