This post was compiled by WOLA Intern Michael Pelzer.
In Honduras, officers with the recently launched Military Public Order Police (PMOP), a new branch of the armed forces, have been deployed to the del Campo slums in southwest Tegucigalpa. The officers, donning ski-masks and assault rifles, were deployed to the region after numerous requests for assistance in dealing with violent criminal gangs. Numerous human rights organizations have voiced their apprehension, fearing that the military police are not equipped to deal with civilians and viewing abuses as likely.
The Congress of Honduras is debating legislation to enshrine the PMOP in the constitution. A number of legislators and presidential contenders have expressed concerns over this militarized police force that is to have 5,000 members. The measure to add the PMOP to the constitution would require approval of two thirds of the legislature.
The Inspector General of the Armed Forces of Nicaraguadismissed allegations of espionage against soldiers. Journalists and Catholic Church figures had filed a complaint that army officers had followed and spied on them while they were covering the military’s deployment to fight criminal bands operating in northern Nicaragua. The Inspector General said that the military does not engage in espionage of any sort, noting that its role is to “defend [the] national sovereignty, security, and integrity of the country.”
In order to curb what Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro has labeled “usury,” National Guard troops have occupied a number of Daka electronics stores throughout the country. Maduro claims that Venezuela’s biggest provider of electronic goods had been overcharging consumers as much as 1200 percent, and has issued a 90% discount. In order for consumers to take advantage of the government induced sales, they must first register with the National Guardsmen administering waiting lists at the five various stores.
Venezuela President Maduro has also called for the installation of artillery batteries in densely populated neighborhoods outside of Caracas. Maduro claims that such installations are integral to a strong national defense and dissuading “imperialist” foreign powers. Maduro has also justified the purchase of Russian Sukhoi fighter jets with the same logic.
President Maduro has announced plans to expand the ranks of the Bolivarian Militia to one million by 2019. Maduro claims that this armed citizen militia force, made up of those most sympathetic to late President Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution, acts as a centering force in the “economic war” being waged against the people of Venezuela. The militia is currently tasked with a number of civil roles including the monitoring of hospitals, the control of gasoline sales, the patrolling of public transport, and border protection.
Venezuela Agriculture Minister Yvan Gil announced that the military and militia groups will begin taking on an important role in agricultural policies in an effort to contend with shortages in basic foods and commodities. The armed forces are to produce much of their own food, and share surpluses with the population.
A collection of secret documents found in an Argentina air force basement provides unique insight into the culture of repression during the 1976–1983 dictatorship. Some of the files detailed “blacklists” of celebrities, politicians, and artists whom the government perceived as threatening their firm grasp on society.
Mexico military forces have seized one of the nation’s largest ports in response to complaints of wide-spread corruption and infiltration by drug cartels. The port of Lázaro Cárdenas in the western state of Michoacán had become a hub for precursor chemical shipments used by the Sinaloa and Knights Templar drug cartels to produce methamphetamine. The 156 port employees that manage customs enforcement and tax inspection are to be rotated out of their positions in an attempt to address corruption.
The secretary of national defense of Mexico, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, announced the Army’s plans to launch a new training program aimed at engaging society and the armed forces on human rights. The military intends to transform its education system in order to instill “responsibility, social consciousness, and institutional loyalty.”
On October 31st representatives from the armed forces of Central America met to discuss the creation of a multilateral quick reaction force that would be made available to the United Nations upon request. The reaction force would be under the purview of the eight-nation Latin American Association of Peacekeeping Operations Centers (ALCOPAZ), which is currently headed by Guatemala.
After nearly a decade of peacekeeping operations in Haiti, the United Nations is taking steps to reduce its footprint. With a reduced international presence comes the necessity for the Haitian government to fill the security void. In response, President Michel Martelly has taken steps to revive the country’s coup-prone military, which was abolished in 1995. Martelly claims that the new military will serve as infrastructure support, boosting its engineer corps through multilateral training agreements.
This post was compiled by WOLA Intern Michael Pelzer.
Forty years after the 1973 coup in Chile, the nation has yet to come to grips with what happened. Chile has made strides towards reconciliation through the publishing of reports on the human rights abuses of the dictatorship, prosecution of some who committed abuses, and the apology of government officials who let it happen. One institution, however, refuses to accept its role: those searching for answers continually lobby the army for information pertaining to the rampant abuses during the seventies and eighties, only to be stonewalled by claims that that there is no more information to be provided.
In preparation for the 2014 Soccer World Cup, Brazil is employing an aggressive approach to ensuring security. Employing tactics akin to that of counterinsurgency strategy, Special Forces enter a neighborhood, remove gang leaders, and search for drugs and weapons. After this initial shock and awe, a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) is established. The UPPs are essentially federal police stations, manned by officers educated in community policing, whose job it is to patrol around the clock. As of present, 34 UPPs have been established with another six to be built before the World Cup next July. Thus far the areas where UUPs have been established have seen a reduction in crime, though there are some concerns. The areas where UUPs have been built are disproportionately wealthy, leading some to conclude that the new security policy is meant only to benefit a certain sector of society.
Honduras’ recent creation of a new 5,000 person military police force tasked with combating organized crime was met with mixed reactions. The new force will be comprised of officers with experience in fighting organized crime who have gone through psychological testing and passed a polygraph. The first two units of this force, comprised of roughly 500 men each, were deployed to Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. Some fear that the increased militarization of police forces will only worsen the situation in Honduras.
A recent op-ed piece in Excelsior described the dual role that the armed forces play in the security policy of Mexico. Íñigo Guevara noted that in an ideal world, the military would exist to defend Mexico only against external threats, but argued that present insecurity requires the military to take on both national defense and internal security. The security void the Mexican military fills is one of a counterinsurgency force, says Guevara. The author describes the recent shift of public security operations from direct action by the military, to inter-institutional operations with the goal of diminishing competition between agencies and promoting cooperation through the use of Mixed Operations Bases that coordinate interagency action.
In Venezuela, the government of Nicolás Maduro has reasserted the military's internal role in public security, notes WOLA's Venezuela blog. Measures include the replacement of the head of civil security with a national guardsman. Under Plan Patria Segura, Maduro has expanded the role of military forces in performing roles normally delegated to law enforcement. This new role has led to a number of abuses; in 2012, the blog notes, "164 people lost their lives at the hands of the military."
In an effort to address prison overcrowding, the government of Colombia has put forth a plan that will make use of army engineers in the construction of medium security prisons in rural areas. The project seeks to increase prison capacity by ten thousand, with the creation of roughly one hundred new facilities built by soldiers. The government’s goal is to ameliorate overcrowding.
The following is a round-up of some of the top articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.
United States policy
The United States suspended all police assistance to St. Lucia over 12 unlawful killings by police in 2010 and 2011, the country's prime minister, Kenny Anthony, announced Wednesday. Anthony said he planned to introduce legislation to investigate extrajudicial police killings.
The United States is reportedly considering creating a three-tier security system with Mexico, along the country’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize, the Washington Free Beacon reported. The plan called for U.S. funding and technical support for sensors and intelligence gathering. The funding would come in part through the Mérida Initiative. Both the Obama and Peña Nieto administrations have been secretive about the proposal.
Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota told a Congressional committee on Thursday that the recently revealed NSA surveillance practices of the United States could create a “cloud of mistrust between countries.” This comes following remarks of a similar tone that Minister Patriota made during Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to the country.
Honduras announced plans to establish two new police forces this week:
The first a military police force of 5,000 members, was approved Thursday by the Honduran Congress. The military says the force will trained, vetted and ready to patrol by October, just one month before presidential elections. Congressman and presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez was the architect of the bill had told Congress, “We need to make use of the military, and they should be in the streets until the day we establish peace.”
As Honduras Culture and Politics blog noted, Liberal party congressman Jose Simon Azcona said the idea for the militarized force came from the U.S. Embassy and that “the government of the United States had offered assistance and were converting four battalions into military police under the previous administration.” The blog also provides a good historical overview of militarized police in the country. More from El Heraldo, Reuters and this week's Just the Facts podcast.
The other was a community police force of 4500 new civilian police scheduled to begin in September. Secretary of Defense and Security Arturo Corrales (in charge of both the military and police) created the initiative, which was pushed forward by decree instead of law. More from InSight Crime and El Nuevo Diario. Honduras Politics and Culture blog looks at the economics behind the decision.
FARC accept responsibility for victims
For the first time in history, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has acknowledged that its forces share blame for atrocities committed during the country's armed conflict. At a press conference on Tuesday in Havana, FARC spokesman Pablo Catatumbo read aloud a statement that admitted, “without a doubt, there has also been cruelty and pain provoked by our forces.” More from the Pan-American Post, El Tiempo, Reuters and La Silla Vacía.
Massive labor demonstrations involving over 30,000 workers broke out across Colombia starting Monday. The demonstrators include workers from various sectors that are making an assortment of demands from cheaper gas and fertilizer to greater government subsidies and investment in rural areas. President Santos has said he will not negotiate until the widespread road blockades are lifted. So far police have arrested at least 61 protestors.
Colombia Reports provided a clear rundown of who is striking and why, while the Economist noted that the protests have garnered support from two extreme sides of the political spectrum: far-right politicians loyal to former President Alvaro Uribe and the leftist FARC rebels.
Referendum on peace agreement
President Santos announced plans to submit a bill to Congress that would allow for a popular vote on the terms of an eventual peace agreement with the FARC. The referendum would be tied to the upcoming legislative elections in March or presidential elections in May. The bill is likely to pass, as the National Unity coalition, of which President Santo’s party is a member, supported the bill.
Over the weekend the Mexican armed forces reported the capture of Mario Ramirez Trevino, alias "X20," head of the Gulf Cartel. This is the second major drug capo the security forces have caught in just over a month. While the Associated Press,New York Times and other analysts claimed the arrest amount to a continuation of the former President Felipe Calderón’s much-criticized U.S.-backed “kingpin strategy,” InSight Crime's Steven Dudley arugued the high-profile arrests of the country’s most violence actors are aligned with President Peña Nieto’s security strategy to prioritize violence reduction.
As El Comercio noted, it is likely that the northeastern region where both leaders were captured and the principal corridor for trafficking drugs into the United States, will see an increase in violence as members within gangs vie for power and rival organizations fight for territorial control. The United States has reportedly named three new possible leaders for the Gulf Cartel.
The Venezuelan government announced plans to install about 30,000 surveillance cameras across the country in an effort to target the high levels of crime and violence, the AFP reported.
Venezuelan human rights group Provea released a report this week on abuses by the country’s armed forces. The assessment painted a bleak picture. More from Provea and El Universal in English.
Paraguay’s Congress approved President Horacio Cartes’ request to unilaterally send the military to carry out police duties and internal security operations in cases of terrorism threats. President Cartes, who was sworn in just last week, made the request to target the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), a small leftist guerrilla group that allegedly killed five private security guards at a cattle ranch over the weekend. More from InSight Crime, Associated Press, Paraguayan newspaperABC Color and this week's Just the Facts podcast.
The Pan American Post highlighted remarks from the top drug official in new President Horacio Cartes’ government. In an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, Paraguay’s new drug czar, Luis Rojas, said he does not think legislation to regulate marijuana will have much of an effect on the illicit trade of the drug between the two countries. As the post notes, Paraguay is the biggest producer of cannabis in South America and produces as much as 80 percent of the marijuana that reaches the Uruguayan market.
Brazil’s congress approved a new law this week that will reserve 100 percent of the country’s oil royalties: 75 percent will be invested in education, while 25 percent will go towards healthcare. The country expects next year’s royalties to reach about $800 million. More from the AFP and O Globo.
Brazil’s Army blocked the country’s Truth Commission’s access to a facility used as a torture center during the country’s dictatorship from 1964- 1985. The commission is trying to raze the building and construct a historical center of memory.
Militaries are getting involved in policing throughout Latin America. Adam talks to Sarah Kinosian of the Center for International Policy, who wrote a series of posts to the Just the Facts blog documenting this trend in Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela.
Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.
Since Enrique Peña Nieto assumed Mexico’s presidency last December, the average number of Mexican soldiers involved in combating organized crime and drug-trafficking on any given day has dropped from 50,000 to just over 32,000. But along with this drop has come an increase in the number of soldiers injured or killed on the job. During ex-President Felipe Calderón’s 2006–2012 administration, an average of 3.1 soldiers died per month. This statistic has now risen to 4.5 per month.
Mexico has at least 14 state governments where military personnel, either active or retired, are in charge of public security.
In its 2013–18 National Development Plan, Mexico has included language indicating that the armed forces will remain in the fight against organized crime.
In his first major military deployment to target drug traffickers, Mexico President Peña Nieto sent army troops to the state of Michoacán state, charging them with taking “back control of a region long besieged by a deadly drug cartel.”
Mexico’s Senate Judiciary Committee presented a first draft of a proposal to reform military justice. It would increase civilian courts’ jurisdiction over military personnel accused of violating civilians’ human rights.
Citing insufficient evidence against them, prosecutors in Mexicoreleased five army generals who had been jailed during the Calderón administration. The five were accused of ties to drug traffickers, and were awaiting trial. All have been reinstated.
Peru is attempting to formulate new incentives to encourage more citizens to join the armed forces, rather than a proposed system of compulsory military service to fill perceived personnel gaps.
Venezuelainaugurated a new high command in July, along with the country’s first female defense minister, Adm. Carmen Meléndez.
In late April, Venezuela’s government announced that its electrical system was to become completely “militarized” in order to avoid any acts of sabotage. Officials have cited such sabotage as a reason for frequent power blackouts; the government’s critics blame poor maintenance of the electrical grid.
Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela, has announced a plan, “Plan Patria Segura,” to deploy troops into the streets to help combat criminal violence.
President Maduro affirmed that deceased ex-President Hugo Chávez had succeeded in reunifying Venezuela’s armed forces before his death, and that there were no divisions among the troops.
In May, Guatemala’s national government declared a state of emergency in four regions of the country experiencing protests against mining projects. Military-run vehicle checkpoints were set up in these areas.
In Ecuador, members of the police and military have begun to patrol certain areas of the capital together in armored vehicles.
Honduras’ Congress decided to increase the size of the armed forces by 1,000 in order to carry out internal security missions.
As ordered by President Danilo Medina, Dominican Republic troops have begun patrolling the streets of the country in conjunction with police.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentinaannounced a new plan for the country’s military, including a budget increase of 24% and a far larger role in response to natural disasters. She also said that the state armaments company will dedicate itself to engineering projects like improving roadways and building railway cars.
A very contentious debate is nearly over. Last Wednesday, Colombia’s Senate approved legislation that will allow the country’s military to try its own personnel in many more cases of human rights abuse. On Monday, Colombia’s House of Representatives is expected to do the same.
This is a triumph for Colombia’s 280,000-strong armed forces, which have been ever more vocally demanding that the civilian justice system have less jurisdiction over them. But it is a setback for human rights.
Since about 1997, Colombia’s civilian courts had steadily been gaining authority to investigate and judge military personnel believed to have committed crimes against the population. While Colombia’s civilian prosecutors and judges are no models of speed and efficiency, they proved far more likely to hold abusive soldiers accountable than the military’s own justice system, which proved exceedingly lenient in such cases. By the 2000s, civilian courts were handing down historic verdicts, especially in cases of paramilitary killings that benefited from military acquiescence or support. In the past few years, as soldiers stood accused of killing as many as 4,716 citizens – many of them so-called “false positives,” innocent people falsely presented as armed-group members killed in combat – civilian courts convicted a few hundred more, mostly low ranking, military personnel.
That momentum has now stalled. Military demands for “judicial security,” championed by a government that needed military support for its peace talks with guerrillas, have led to legislation that is likely to send many more abuse cases to military courts.
The new law “runs counter to the standards of international human rights law, and many of its provisions run openly contrary to that body of law that regulates, among other issues, the use of force and the administration of justice in any state,” notes a stern seven-page statement [PDF] issued last week by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office in Colombia.
“This bill’s provisions seriously disagree with the state’s other international commitments, especially those regarding the duty to respect international humanitarian law,” contends the Colombian Commission of Jurists [PDF]. “So many such obligations will be transgressed if this bill is approved, that it is no exaggeration to say that since the 1991 Constitution went into effect, this is one of the legislative initiatives that has most threatened the applicability of fundamental rights in Colombia.”
The bill about to receive final passage is “implementing” legislation. It follows a constitutional amendment that Colombia’s Congress passed late last year. The earlier provision gave the military justice system “exclusive jurisdiction” over all military abuses “related to the conflict,” with the exception of a list of seven crimes: crimes against humanity, genocide, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, torture, and forced displacement. These crimes will continue to go directly to the civilian court system. Others, like assault, illegal surveillance, or homicide that does not meet the definition of “extrajudicial execution,” will go to military justice.
The current bill adds further guidelines explaining how the military courts will deal with violations of international humanitarian law (rules of war); defining the crime of “extrajudicial execution,” which doesn’t exist in Colombia’s penal code; and explaining how disputes between civilian and military jurisdiction will be resolved.
In response to outcry from Colombian and international human rights advocates, Colombia’s Congress has made important improvements to the bill’s language. But serious problems remain.
Why does Colombia need to create the charge of “extrajudicial execution”? Why shouldn’t “homicides” go to the civilian court system?
The hundreds of military personnel accused of committing “false positive” murders are currently facing charges of “homicide,” “aggravated homicide,” or “homicide of a protected person.” All of these crimes, the UN High Commissioner’s Office notes [PDF], “are under the exclusive competence of the [civilian] judicial branch. These must be investigated by the [civilian] Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía] and judged by autonomous and independent judges.”
But Article 43 of the legislation codifies a new type of crime, “extrajudicial execution,” in line with the constitutional amendment. It’s not clear why this is needed.
The reason, many experts fear, is that making “extrajudicial execution” a brand-new crime is a gambit to move the ongoing “false positives” cases out of the civilian courts, putting justice out of reach for thousands of victims and their families.
“The Office remains deeply concerned about a series of issues related to the bill and reminds Colombians that if this law is adopted, it could lead to cases of ‘false positives’ that are currently being investigated under the [civilian] criminal system being transferred for investigation and judgment by Defense Ministry authorities, instead of being investigated by an independent judicial authority, as they should. Colombian authorities have assured that the bill does not permit such transfers. In this sense, they have argued that the definitions of the crimes of extrajudicial execution and crimes against humanity are applicable to the ‘false positives’ cases and, as a result, these cases can only be considered by civilian justice. However, what is certain is that constitutional principles covering criminal law, like the principle of non-retroactivity, imply that provisions in the bill are inapplicable in practice and that, in the end, they will not impede ‘false positives’ cases from being tried by military authorities.”
In other words, because “extrajudicial executions” will only become a crime in 2013, military personnel accused of “false positives” might not be tried in civilian courts for committing this crime in previous years. Their defense lawyers will argue that they are being unjustly tried in civilian courts for a crime that did not exist when they committed it. If this argument prospers, “false positives” may go to the military courts, where guilty verdicts are far less likely, as cases of homicide. “Homicide” is not one of the seven categories of crime that the new law would send to the civilian justice system.
Investigative journalist Juanita León, director of the La Silla Vacía website, doubts that this will happen. She reports that “false positive” cases may actually remain in the civilian system – though time will tell. “Senators of different parties,” she writes, “told La Silla that it is very improbable that these crimes might leave civilian justice and pass to the military system.”
“To avoid having this happen in the constitutional reform, senators inserted a paragraph that explicitly says that false positives currently in civilian justice cannot be transferred to the military. So far, no human rights organization has denounced specific cases of false positives that, due to last year’s constitutional reform, have been transferred to the military system. In a couple of years it will be known whether human rights’ defenders’ fear was valid.”
Who is a “legitimate target”?
As the bill is currently drafted, it explains:
“It will be understood that, whenever he or she abstains from all hostile acts and does not try to escape, any person is outside of combat who:
a) Is in the power of an agent of the state;
b) Is unconscious, has collapsed or is wounded or sick, or as a result cannot defend himself or herself;
c) Has surrendered and is unarmed.”
Anyone who has not met these conditions, according to the bill, is a “legitimate target” if he or she “continues carrying out violent acts or threats.” This, to critics of the legislation, is too ambiguous, and fuzzier than the definition that already exists in international humanitarian law.
Parmenio Cuéllar, a senator and former justice minister from the leftist Polo Democrático party, argued in the congressional debate that “if a person is already in a defenseless state, but issues verbal threats, he or she might still be considered a legitimate target by the security forces.” Civilian homes and workplaces “can be attacked when a military commander presumes that a criminal action is being planned there,” contends Polo Democratico congressman Iván Cepeda.
The bill defines who is a member of an armed group, and thus a “legitimate target” for the military. The definition given (that the violence reach a certain level, that the group has a clear command structure) applies to guerrillas but also to the so-called “Criminal Bands” or BACRIM, the organized crime-linked militias whose roots go back to the pro-government paramilitaries of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Combating these groups has been primarily a police mission, with the armed forces playing only an occasional supporting role. The new bill may compel the armed forces to play a greater role in the fight against BACRIM.
Is military justice outside the chain of command?
One reason for the military justice system’s history of leniency is the status of military judges and prosecutors: they have not been independent of the armed forces’ chain of command. Military judges and prosecutors who rule against the institution risk retribution, especially when under consideration for promotions and pay raises.
The new bill takes steps to address this. Article 52 declares that the military justice system “will be administrated with autonomy with respect to institutional command through a special administrative unit.” This unit will have a “Directive Council” made up of five members, the majority of them civilians.
Our colleague at Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, told Colombia’s El Tiempo earlier this week that this was not enough, because the bill put the commander of the armed forces and the director of the National Police on the Directive Council. “This does not de-link it from the chain of command,” he said.
As if in response, in its final debate Colombia’s Senate appears to have removed the requirement that the security forces’ top leadership be members of the Directive Council. That is encouraging. Still, with a slim civilian majority, it only takes one very pro-military civilian – a likely outcome – to ensure that the military justice system is managed by a body that prioritizes the interest of the armed forces’ high command over the interest of achieving justice in human rights cases.
A strangely uninformed debate
Today, as the debate nears its end, it is remarkable how little of it was guided by good information. The military’s claims of spurious prosecutions at civilians’ hands were upheld with very little evidence. In the end, though, that didn’t seem to matter. In a recent column, former Chief Prosecutor Alfonso Gómez Méndez noted this puzzling situation.
"The public debate has gone ahead without enough relative information, for example, about how many cases exist against members of the security forces and for what crimes. The Congress should know them. For example: are there cases against soldiers for killing guerrillas in combat? Or for fighting militarily against armed subversives? Or for typical acts of service? If so, the injustice should be undone immediately.
"Or are those acts referring to events that took place outside of combat, like torture, disappearances, or human rights violations? In such situations, no constitutional reform should assign competence to military justice, as Prosecutor-General Eduardo Montealegre has said.
"It is said that soldiers are victims of a justice system that is politicized or biased by leftist ideologies. But, which are those cases? What prosecutors or judges have deviated from their mission to commit these abuses? If the charge is true, these public servants should be in jail and not administrating justice.
“Does the Congress that discusses this reform know about these cases and does it have them documented?”
We still do not know the true extent of the civilian justice system’s alleged unfair treatment of suspected military human rights abusers. We have seen few statistics or concrete examples from Colombia’s armed forces, Defense Ministry, or from the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos. Without knowing the extent of the problem, it is hard not to conclude that the real problem is that Colombia’s powerful military is angry about recent verdicts and trials, nearly all of them having to do with abuses that took place out of combat.
It is also hard not to conclude that the change in jurisdiction over human rights cases is the military’s price for its support of the Santos government’s peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. “With this, Santos gains more military support for the peace process with the FARC,” Juanita León wrote last week.
Many Colombian experts whom we’ve consulted have little doubt that there is some sort of tacit quid pro quo at work with the armed forces: less judicial pressure in exchange for a green light for the peace talks. If this is true, it would indicate that Colombia’s elected leaders’ room for maneuver is more circumscribed, and the country’s civil-military relations are in poorer condition, than is generally recognized.
This post is cross-posted with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's LAWGBlog. It was written by LAWG-EF Program Assistant Ruth Isabel Robles.
As President Obama prepares to sit down for meetings with President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico and other fellow elected leaders from the Americas at the Summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA) in Costa Rica, over 145 civil society organizations from 10 countries throughout the Americas, including the Latin America Working Group, sent a letter to their respective presidents urging them to address their concerns regarding the dire human rights crisis in the region.
Citing an increase in violence and human rights violations, the letter calls for a shift away from the failed militarized security policies which have exacerbated violence and human rights concerns in the region towards policies that address the root causes of violence...
A common practice throughout Latin America has been the use of the armed forces for citizen security tasks, a practice justified as necessary to combat organized crime and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). However, the undersigned organizations call for a shift away from such policies that promote an inappropriate role for the military in the region, including those supported by the U.S., noting that these policies have played a harmful role and contributed to an increase in human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces.
In Mexico, this militarized response and lack of accountability for security forces has led to the deaths of over 80,000 people in the past six years with more than 26,000 disappeared. While in Guatemala, rates of violence are similar to those seen during the internal armed conflict, which, according to the letter, jeopardizes the peace process and fragile democracy built on the 1996 Peace Accords. But, "the starkest example of a breakdown of democratic institutions" can be found in Honduras where "the rule of law has disintegrated while violence and impunity have soared."
The imposition of large-scale extractive projects on marginalized communities is also a point of concern discussed in the letter. Free Trade Agreements have exacerbated poverty and inequality throughout the region resulting "in forced displacement, especially of indigenous, peasant, and Afro-descendant communities."
These civil society groups urge leaders to come together and generate policies to address the root causes of migration. Flawed regional security policies and the imposition of mega development projects have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, leaving countless in the Americas with few options other than to migrate. As the debate for immigration reform gets underway in the U.S. Congress, civil society groups from across the Americas call for humane and sensible immigration reform to address the policies that force individuals to migrate in the first place.
To address the human rights situation discussed above, the organizations urge their respective officials to make concrete progress on the following measures:
An executive action taken on behalf of the United States to stop the flow of assault weapons and other firearms across the U.S.-Mexico Border
Recognize and protect human rights defenders
Propose a new model for security cooperation that provides alternatives to the ongoing war on drugs, such as regulation rather than prohibition, strong regional anti-money laundering efforts, and withdrawal of the armed forces from domestic law enforcement. They call on the U.S. government to end military aid and instead direct resources towards strengthening the institutionalization of the rule of law in these countries.
Promote development through democratic dialogue with respect for human and environmental rights
Address the root causes of migration and stop the criminalization and deportation of migrants; investigate and prosecute crimes against migrants as they travel through Mexico, as well as human rights violations at the border and within the United States
Although media reports and early statements indicate that many of the discussions will focus on economic cooperation, this letter is a clear statement from civil society that human rights priorities must be squarely on the table as well.
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.”
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.
President Hugo Chávez said that if he can't govern, he wants Vice-President Nicolás Maduro (left) to succeed him. But National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello (right), a former army officer, may have more support from the military. (Photo source: Associated Press)
On January 10, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is supposed to be in Caracas, being sworn in for a new term in office. But Chávez continues to convalesce in Havana, his condition “delicate,” in the words of Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, following another cancer operation.
With the country’s political leadership uncertain, and concerns about possible instability growing, eyes are turning to Venezuela’s armed forces. But the military’s current and potential political role is difficult to understand, especially after 14 years of rule by President Chávez.
Some of the most thoughtful analysis of the Venezuelan armed forces in the current crisis is coming from Ewald Scharfenberg, the Caracas correspondent for Spain’s El País newspaper.
Here are some excerpts from Scharfenberg’s recent writing, which I’ve found helpful in trying to understand what is happening. The first two paragraphs are from a January 3 article published in English; the rest are translated excerpts of Spanish pieces published on December 30 and January 2.
Venezuela’s military is constitutionally neutral but Chávez has packed its leadership with loyalists. The military plays an important role in running the country, particularly its oil industry. There are three members of the armed forces in the cabinet, while 11 of the 23 provinces are run by army men. Retired military officers say there are deep divisions within the armed forces. But they believe many of the roughly 8,500 rank-and-file officers who form the core of the 125,000-strong military would accept the voters’ choice.
In the run-up to October’s elections, the chairman of Venezuela’s joint chiefs, General Wilmer Barrientos, said on national television that the military would “heed the constitution and respect the will of the people.”
The military’s advantage: not arms, but manpower
In any scenario, the military’s sign-off appears to be indispensable. Not so much because of its firepower, but because of the logistical and administrative control that the armed forces maintain over vital state functions. … Chavismo, as it learned during 14 years of governing, was able to give shape to an institutionality that functions: the misiones [economic assistance projects], the food distribution networks [both of which relied on military participation]. …
If the military sector wants to influence Venezuela’s political drift, it won’t have to do it in a high-profile way, through a classic pronouncement. It would be enough to put that [logistical and administrative] apparatus at the disposal of one of the succession candidates, while denying it to the other. This is the trophy that, along with the mythology of comandante Chávez, [Vice President Nicolás] Maduro and [National Assembly President Diosdado] Cabello are disputing. If at the moment Maduro has an advantage because Chávez specifically named him as his successor, the long term could favor Cabello [a former army officer]. The majority of army officers currently commanding the troops are part of the military academy class of 1987, the same as Cabello.
A possible “Egyptian Scenario”
All that is known of the military sector is that it is an archipelago of groups united by criteria of loyalty to specific leaders, of economic convenience, and of professional and ideological principles.
There is a consensus that all those groups will be united in the event that the transition starting January 10, when Hugo Chávez is expected to be unable to present himself for his 2013-2019 swearing-in, overflows institutional capacities, and that the need to establish public order through dissuasion or force thus demands esprit de corps.
But that would be the nightmare scenario. In general, the officer corps prefers to avoid open interventions. Since February 27, 1989 [a day of violent protests and rioting in Caracas], on the occasions in which it has been obligated to carry out repressive functions, the cost for the institution has been high, in terms of cracks in internal discipline and of judicial cases opened against soldiers who then feel abandoned by the civilian politicians who ordered them. In addition, such exposure would place the military under the scrutiny of the international community, which has enough cases of illicit activities and human rights violations at its disposal to pressure some key officers.
So the role that the armed forces would be expected to play would be a type of “Egyptian scenario,” in which the officers, behind the scenes, would define the “red lines” up to which indefinition and disorder can be tolerated. The armed forces’ watchful tutelage, amid a constitutional transition of power, would require it to reorder itself internally to figure out who among them would be the leading voice for its supervisory role.
Factions within the officer corps
Who are the contenders? It is certain that the factions most likely to represent military opinion during the crisis maintain their loyalty to the Bolivarian [pro-Chávez] process, whether because of political conviction or because of a more abstract loyalty to the letter of the constitution. Nonetheless, nuances can be discerned that set apart three groups, which in a very schematic way can be called “ideologues,” “pragmatists,” and “institutionalists.”
Of the first, the current representative is the minister of defense, Adm. Diego Molero. It is meaningful that Chávez, knowing the health situation he was facing, named him to the post last October. Why trust in Molero at such a delicate moment? Maybe because of his declared socialist convictions. According to some sources, Molero’s appointment met with resistance in the barracks. He is an officer with few professional credentials — he ranked 53rd of 56 students in his military academy graduating class — and without support among the troops. … Chávez’s illness leaves him in a position of weakness. In fact, the President only swore him in on December 10, two months after his designation, and minutes before Chávez left for Havana to be operated. Which left the leader without an opportunity to legitimize himself among his peers, above all in the Army, which resents having a naval officer commanding such a key portfolio.
Molero was an authentic surprise. Those who seemed destined to occupy the ministry were Army Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, the current chief of the Strategic Operational Command (CEO), and Gen. Carlos Alcalá Cordones, the commander of the Army. The two belong to the class of 1983 and were tied at the time to the Revolutionary Bolívarian Movement-200 (MBR-200), the internal clique that surfaced in 1992 with the coup attempt led by Chávez and three other officers. But while Alcalá Cordones is seen as an institutionalist officer, firmly attached to the parameters of military professionalism, Barrientos may be a pragmatist, of the faction more willing to wait to know which way the wind is blowing before taking a side. …
It is also expected that the eleven retired officers recently [in December] elected as state governors will play some role. In addition to the personal influence that each one may have over the rank and file, especially the generals (like ex-Ministers of Defense García Carneiro and Rangel Silva, or the Governor of Bolívar State, Rangel Gómez), they are considered connoisseurs of the ins and outs of politics, a bit of baggage that may be crucial in a scenario where bridges must be built between civilians and officers.
Another possibility that can’t be discarded is that, in the darkness of the military “black box,” another unknown leadership may be germinating, as Chávez himself was until the early hours of February 4, 1992 [when he launched his failed coup attempt].
January 10 and after
The first test of fire for the military has a date. On January 10, the new president must be sworn in. Despite the official secrecy about the president-elect’s health, it is expected that Chávez won’t be there. In political gossip some expect an agreement to declare the president’s temporary absence, which would open a space of 90 days, renewable once, so that Chávez can assume the post or, if he is ultimately absent, so that new elections can be convened.
Some doubts about this procedure remain. … But all must transpire in peace: if uncertainty gives way to disorder in the streets, the military may see itself as obligated to intervene.
This possibility, feared by all, could cause fractures within the military rank and file, as happened in April 2002 during the brief coup that removed Chávez from power for 47 hours. “Among the officers are different groups who aren’t necessarily in contact with each other, or share the same interests,” warns the expert Rocío San Miguel [of the NGO Control Ciudadano.]
The other great unknown is the Bolivarian Militia. With 120,000 members, light weaponry and poor organization, it is not a rival to any professional security force. But it was constituted by mandate of President Chávez, and it sees itself as a praetorian guard of the [Bolivarian] process. Tied to the most extreme Chavistas, it may be able to prevail in a conflict. But these are questions that nobody wants to see answered: the constitutional order is preferred by both civilians and soldiers.
Shifts in Cultivation, Usage Put Bolivia's Coca Policy at the Crossroads Coletta A. Youngers, World Politics Review
Caribbean Regional -
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns To Deliver Remarks at the Fourth Annual Caribbean-United States Security Cooperation Dialogue
Office Of The Spokesperson, U.S. State Department
Libre, segunda fuerza parlamentaria de Honduras, Confidencial
Deteriorating democracy, The Economist
Venezuela Municipal Elections Cheat Sheet Hugo Perez Hernaiz, Washington Office On Latin America
Que hay detras de la posible complicacion en la compra por Argentina de los F-1 del ejercito del aire espanol? Francia entra en escena y ofreta sus F-1 co,pitiendo con los espanoles, Defensa.com
Brazil, Cuba -
Cuban doctors tend to Brazil's poor, giving Rousseff a boost Anthony Boadle, The Chicago Tribune
Ingeniero Leon Andres Montes Ceballos fue liberado por el Eln, El Colombiano
Tables Turned Virginia Bouvier, Foreign Policy Magazine
As Colombia's presidential race heats up, peace talks take center stage Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald
La mala herencia que nos dejo el capo Alejandro Baena, El Tiempo
El homicidio se redujo un nueve por ciento en el pais, El Tiempo (Colombia)
Las claves de la cita Barack Obama y Juan Manuel Santos Sergio Gomez Maseri, El Tiempo (Colombia)
Colombia espera que Obama ratifique apoyo al proceso de paz Sergio Gomez Maseri, El Tiempo (Colombia)
Honduras Election Results Challenged Nicholas Phillips, The New York Times
Pena Nieto cambia Mexico sobre el papel en su primer ano de mandato, El Pais
The Mexico Govt's Coordination Obsession Alejandro Hope, In Sight Crime
Mexican bishop takes on cultish cartel in drug war battleground state Joshua Partlow, The Washington Post
Despues de la guerra Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez, Nexos En Linea
¿Que puede pasar el domingo? Luis Vincente Leon, El Universal
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)