Monday, July 24, 2017

Venezuela's government insists on constituent assembly (July 24, 2017)

On Friday the opposition-led National Assembly swore in 13 magistrates as replacements for pro-government Supreme Court magistrates. Immediately after, the top judge in the constitutional chamber accused those named by lawmakers of treason, reports the Wall Street Journal. The court's constitutional chamber had previously declared that such a move would constitute a crime and usurpation of powers by congress. Lawmakers say they have the right to name and fire justices under the country's constitution, reports the BBC.

Opposition leaders said Angel Zerpa, one of the 13 alternative magistrates, was arrested on Saturday by the government’s intelligence service, reports the Guardian.

The court has a total of 32 judges. The court has played a key role in stripping down legislative power since the opposition won a National Assembly majority at the end of 2015. The judges lawmakers seek to replace were approved after that election, before the new congress was sworn in. (See post for Jan. 4, 2016.)

On Saturday several thousand protesters attempted to march to the Supreme Court building in support of the alternative magistrates, reports the Guardian. It was however a "disappointing turnout" for the opposition, according to the Associated Press.

Lawmakers last week also discussed a "national unity government," raising the specter of a parallel government, notes the BBC.

The opposition is upping pressure this week ahead of a government convened vote next Sunday for a Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the constitution. Opposition leaders called for a two day national strike against the government after violent clashes between security forces and protesters on Saturday, reports Reuters. Mass marches are planned for today and Friday.

Over the weekend, Maduro promised to push ahead with the controversial plan, despite local and international pressure to change course, reports Reuters. Critics say the assembly will pave the way to an authoritarian government, while the government says its necessary to escape the current political impasse.

The entire process of convening the constituent assembly, as well as how its going to be structured, already demonstrate the government's authoritarian tendencies, argue Laura Gamboa and Raúl Sánchez Urribarri in the Conversation

Venezuela's crisis is terminal, writes Alberto Barrera Tyska in a New York Times Español op-ed. The only option for the government to remain in power is to turn towards illegitimacy, while the opposition lacks the ability to set up a real, functioning parallel state, he warns. Both sides have no option other than the negotiating table. But the real deciding factor will be the military, he argues. The success or not of a negotiation will lie with them, and international efforts should turn towards pressuring the armed forces.

A U.S. oil embargo is effectively the "nuclear" option against the Maduro government, reports the Washington Post. The U.S. receives about a third of Venezuela’s production of about 2.1 million barrels a day, and is a critical source of hard cash for the country. But the effect of an embargo could be so devastating that even some Maduro opponents say it would be a step too far, notes Anthony Faiola. U.S. oil payments fund critically needed imports of food and medicine, and could give Maduro a convenient scapegoat for added misery. A senior member of an opposition party suggested U.S. officials employ more nuanced tools -- such as publishing information about corrupt officials' U.S. holdings, blocking the sale of Venezuelan debt, and tying future projects with Venezuelan oil to National Assembly approval.

At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde review the various international responses to last week's symbolic referendum against the constituent assembly plan and the potential effects of broad sanctions against the Venezuelan government. "There is no way to apply economic sanctions now in Venezuela without making the humanitarian situation much worse. People will starve to death," Smilde told the AFP last week.

Also last week, Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan trade minister now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Wall Street Journal that an oil embargo would be "political manna from heaven for Caracas," as it would allow Maduro to blame ensuing misery on U.S. imperialism.

Think it sounds like the Cuba embargo debate? Indeed, "the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade," notes the Miami Herald. In fact U.S. Senator Marco Rubio is among those proposing a hardline against the Venezuelan government, notes Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. (And so is OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro.)

Ahead of next Sunday's vote, government employees are denouncing that they are being coerced to participate -- at risk of losing their jobs, reports Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Local civil society group Provea has denounced that such pressure is a human rights violation. And while casting a null vote apparently isn't an option in the election, local groups are giving instructions on how to trick voting machines to permit them.

The New York Times has a photo essay from the Venezuelan "resistance" front lines. With nearly 100 deaths in over three months of protests, families of victims are carrying on the fight, reports the Miami Herald.

News Briefs
  • Hundreds of relatives of Rio de Janeiro police officers gathered in the Brazilian city yesterday, protesting a lack of resources for security forces combatting organized crime. The demonstration came hours after an officer was killed in an operative in the Vidigal favela. The Brazilian government announced last week it would send an extra 1,000 federal agents to support local police, reports the BBC. Over 90 officers have been killed so far this year, and police say their deaths are given less importance than human rights abuses committed by security operations. According to Amnesty International, more than 800 people were killed by the police in the state of Rio in 2016.
  • New limits on seasonal worker visas to the U.S. have hit businesses that depend on unskilled, nonagricultural workers -- such as carnivals, reports the New York Times. Critics say the system enables worker abuses, but Mexican seasonal migrants say the lack of income is hitting them hard.
  • U.S. plans to end temporary protected status for about 58,000 Haitian immigrants has many migrants living in fear of losing dreams of advancement and having to return to a country with fewer opportunities, reports the New York Times.
  • The Colombian government faces a conundrum in how to deal with small-time coca growers who also process the leaf into coca paste used to make cocaine. A temporary amnesty for small-time growers who agree to participate in a crop substitution program is necessary to convince farmers to participate and is part of the peace agreement with the FARC, explains La Silla Vacía. But 40 percent of these farmers also process the leaf, and including them in the temporary amnesty is politically tricky.
  • Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, has traveled to Cuba several times to explore the possibility of doing business on the island, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Tourism in the first half of the year made the Cuban economy grow, but other sectors have failed to meet government targets, reports the Miami Herald
  • The World Bank's arbitration tribunal has ordered Argentina to pay $320 million plus interest and legal fees to Spanish travel group Marsans for expropriating Aerolineas Argentinas in 2008, reports Reuters.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's mandate is ending, an apparent close to a cycle of female presidencies in the region -- a sign of the difficulties of reaching true political gender equality, reports the New York Times. The cases of Dilma Rousseff, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Bachelet also show some of the difficulties faced by women leaders. All three say their gender exposed them to "particularly virulent backlashes."
  • Code-switchers unite! Spanglish in its various local forms across Latin America needs to be embraced as a linguistic movement in its own right, argues Ilan Stavans in a New York Times op-ed -- in which he compares it to Yiddish.  "It is time we stop this condescending approach to Spanglish. Puerto Ricans are proof of the durability of the phenomenon. In fact, we must see Spanglish as a new language. While it’s still not standardized, millions of speakers use it every day, creating their own syntactic rules. Looking down at them as barbarous speaks tons. ... I will not be surprised if a Nobel is given in the next few decades to a Spanglish author whose oeuvre will need to be translated into Spanish and English to be fully understood by non-Spanglish speakers."

Friday, July 21, 2017

Two die in Venezuelan national strike clashes (July 21, 2017)

Large parts of Venezuela were paralyzed yesterday by a national strike in opposition to a government plan to rewrite the country's constitution. The opposition claimed 85 percent of the country joined the strike. Millions of people participated, and many private transportation groups shut down, reports Reuters. Most Caracas residents stayed home and businesses were closed, reports the Wall Street Journal. Reuters notes that in some poorer Caracas neighborhoods business went on as usual.

There were several reports of confrontations between protesters and security forces in different parts of Caracas, reports the Washington Post. Two people were reported dead in clashes, reports Reuters.

Alfredo Romero, co-director of Foro Penal, a human rights group that defends political prisoners, tweeted that at least 261 protesters were arrested as of 9:30 p.m. yesterday.

President Nicolás Maduro downplayed the effects of the strike, saying major businesses were "100 percent" working. He sang and danced at a youth rally in Caracas yesterday. He also promised to push ahead with an election to choose a constituent assembly that would revise the Venezuelan constitution, reports the Associated Press.

Yesterday a senior member of Venezuela's U.N. delegation Isaias Arturo Medina Mejías, abruptly resigned, citing “irreconcilable differences” with the Maduro government, reports the WP. In a video circulating on Thursday, Medina said he was leaving the U.N. mission to "fight impunity" at home, reports Reuters. He is one of the few members of the government to have broken ranks, according to the AP.

The shut-down effect of the strike was far more widespread than the last one, held in October of last year, according to the WP. (That one had spotty support, see post for Oct. 28, 2016.)  Strikes have traditionally been risky for the opposition, notes the WSJ, referring to one that lasted several months in 2003 against Chávez, but which ultimately polarized the country and led to more government intervention in the economy.

The opposition has called for a national march tomorrow.

News Briefs
  • The belief that an immigration crackdown in the U.S. will keep residents safe from Central American gangs' increasing presence in the United States is misguided, argues Daniel Denvir in a Washington Post opinion piece in which he points to the gangs' origins in U.S. prisons and deportation policies.
  • Guatemalan police arrested a former government minister last week, adding to a corruption scheme that involved top officials in the Otto Pérez Molina presidency. (See Monday's briefs.) Former Infrastructure, Housing and Communications Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi Aparicio. According to International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) investigators, he received $10 million in bribes from private construction companies throughout his tenure in exchange for preferential treatment in areas like project contracting and debt forgiveness. The accusations flesh out a network of corruption so vast that it supports InSight Crime's argument that Guatemala is in fact a mafia state. "Sinibaldi was a figure close to Pérez Molina and his case fits within the structure of the mafia state, above all because according to the formal accusations, he laundered money illicitly obtained from private companies to finance the ex-president's campaigns."
  • A law that would have permitted abortion in limited cases in Chile was rejected by one vote in the country's lower chamber of congress, reports the Associated Press. The bill, which was strongly supported by President Michelle Bachelet was widely expected to pass.
  • There's been much written about China's potential to displace the U.S. sphere of influence in Latin America. Now with efforts to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the U.S., other Asian countries -- especially South Korea -- are also looking to cooperate more with the region, writes Christopher Sabatini at Latin America Goes Global.
  • Judge Serio Moro ordered the seizure of more than $2.8 million in pension funds from former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in connection with his recent corruption conviction, reports the Associated Press. Earlier this week Brazil's central bank froze four of Silva's bank accounts amounting to more than $190,000. Yesterday Lula assured supporters that he is being politically persecuted, reports Reuters.
  • Brazil will double some taxes on fuels, part of an ongoing (and unpopular) attempt to reduce the country's fiscal deficit, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Peruvian government declared a state of emergency in areas affected by a teachers' strike that has lasted over a month. The measure effectively suspends constitutional rights of individual liberty, security, free travel and assembly for a duration of 30 days, according to TeleSUR.
  • Bolivian polices seized a cocaine shipment worth about $10 million, destined for shipment to Brazil, reports AFP.
  • Eight people were killed by police in a shoot out with suspected gang members in Mexico City, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexico is testing a new way to protect the environment: insurance. An innovative scheme to protect a coral reef off the coast of Cancún calls for hotels and local government to pay the premiums on insurance to restore the reef from storm damage, reports the Guardian.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

U.N. experts call for independent investigation in Mexican spy scandal (July 20, 2017)

News Briefs
  • Four U.N. human rights experts called for the Mexican government to establish an independent investigation into allegations of monitoring and illegal surveillance against human rights defenders, social activists, and journalists. "We urge the Government to commit to cease the surveillance immediately," they emphasized. "Such commitment must include effective controls over the security and intelligence services in order to prevent unlawful use of the State's monitoring tools." The Mexican government has limited the investigation of allegations of spying using government owned software to the attorney general's office, which essentially means the government is investigating itself with no oversight. The government blocked a proposal for the country’s new anticorruption board to investigate the case, which would have added transparency to the investigation, reports the New York Times. (Among the targets was the then-16-year-old son of journalist Carmen Aristegui. "By targeting her family with tools designed to fight terror and crime, Aristegui told The Intercept, the Mexican government is treating its critics like “enemies of the state.” And she is demanding answers not only as a journalist, but as a parent as well.")
  • The entire scandal gives organized crime in Mexico a window into how the government works against it, and "represents a massive self-inflicted wound" for the government's efforts to combat illicit groups, reports InSight Crime
  • Large portions of Caracas appeared to be shutdown this morning, heeding opposition calls for a massive national strike against the government plan to rewrite the constitution, reports the Associated PressEl País has live updates. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • Earlier this week the U.S. threatened economic sanctions if Venezuela's government moves forward with a plan to rewrite the constitution. But unilateral sanctions are not the way to go, argues Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. "..Well-placed Venezuelan opposition sources tell me that cutting oil imports or suspending U.S. exports of light oils to Venezuela — which the country uses to mix with its own heavy crudes — would have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan people, who are already suffering from widespread food and medicine shortages." Instead he advocates incremental diplomatic measures, more sanctions for individual Venezuelan officials, and releasing information on extensive U.S. holdings by Venezuelan officials. "Most importantly, the Trump administration should condition future U.S. oil contracts with Venezuela on the approval of the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition after a landslide victory in the 2015 elections." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel called on the government to suspend elections for a constituent assembly, in a New York Times Español op-ed. (See July 12's briefs for more on "El Sistema," and the country's classical musicians' relationship to the protests.) 
  • Two reports by Colombian civil society groups -- Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) and Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (Pares) -- detail how the FARC demobilization is permitting the expansion of other illegal groups, and how the current peace transition phase is characterized by a continuity of organized crime, reports the BBC. Pares also emphasizes the murder of five FARC leaders, allegedly by new criminal structures operating in their territories, reports CNN Español.
  • A report by a Commission of Guarantors of the Referendum in Venezuela emphasizes the massive participation and calm environment it took place in -- "an indication of the organizational capacity of civil society—those who took on the cost of some of the activities and materials–and the democratic conviction of the citizens that understand elections to be a privileged of democracy." However, "despite these achievements, it should be stated that while the preliminary data does corroborate the qualitative impression of a large mobilization, the absence of an electoral registry reduced the technical precision of the popular consultation in establishing the level of participation. In addition, there was no guarantee of the secrecy of the vote. It was common for the citizens to vote in front of those in charge of the table. While this did not appear to cause discomfort–and reflected that the event was fundamentally an occurrence of citizens aligned with the opposition–it distanced the Referendum from one of the fundamental characteristics of an electoral event. The Referendum amounted to a relevant, political event."
  • Fighting the U.S. opioid epidemic means declaring war on Mexican cartels -- like actual, real war -- argues Matt Meyer in U.S. News and World Report. "By "go to war," I mean a formal declaration of war by Congress against Mexico in which we use the full force of our military might to destroy the cartels, the poppy fields and all elements of the drug trade. Ideally, as our fight is not with the Mexican government, its military or its people, which try to weaken the cartels, we would try to partner with those entities against the cartels, much as we partnered with the South Vietnamese government and military against the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. It sounds crazy, I know – unless you acknowledge we are already fighting a war with Mexico."
  • Cubans caught off guard by the sudden termination of a favorable U.S. immigration policy in January are gathering in Mexico to seek alternatives, reports the Guardian. The piece contrasts the difference between Cuban migrants who legally travel through Mexico, and their Central American counterparts who are increasingly detained by Mexican authorities or face grave dangers traveling illegally through the country.
  • Two years after the U.S. and Cuba officially reestablished diplomatic relations, the Trump administration has somewhat changed the narrative, though extensive rollback of rapprochement policies has not taken place, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori openly sided with his son Kenji over his daughter Keiko, exposing a deep divide within the right-wing party he founded 30 years ago, reports Reuters. In a series of tweets, Fujimori backed his son for "building bridges" with the government of centrist President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Earlier this week, the Popular Force suspended Kenji from its activities for 60 days after he openly criticized the party and voiced support for Kuczynski's 1-year-old government. Fujimori's support for cooperation comes as Kuczynski is evaluating whether to whether to pardon and grant Fujimori early release from prison, where he has been serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations and graft.
  • Haiti's government is taking advantage of reduced political polarization to initial steps aimed at overcoming longstanding problems of governance, rule of law and social and economic development, the U.N. envoy to Haiti Sandra Honore told the Security Council. But while she applauded an improved relationship between the executive and legislative branches, she said the judiciary still is not fully functioning, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazil's central bank has frozen four bank accounts belonging to ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva due to his recent conviction on corruption charges, reports the Associated Press.
  • Colombia is at risk of a credit rating downgrade. The country is struggling to meet fiscal targets and investors are tiring of overly optimistic government forecasts, reports Reuters.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Cannabis finally on sale in Uruguayan pharmacies (July 19, 2017)

Uruguay's "C" day has finally arrived: Packets of cannabis are on sale in pharmacies for registered users. It's the long-anticipated final phase of a landmark 2013 law that fully legalized marijuana for recreational use.

The move comes as governments in the region are increasingly leaning away from prohibition, notes the New York Times.

"It’s hard to overstate just how important this moment is to the ongoing shift in the global drug policy paradigm: more than 50 years since the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs banned cannabis for all but medical or scientific purposes, adult residents of Uruguay will be able to purchase cannabis in pharmacies for non-medical use across the country," write Geoff Ramsey and John Walsh for WOLA. They also emphasize the importance of the law's focus on public health, state sales are accompanied by public information campaigns aimed at educating citizens about the general risks of cannabis use.

Don't expect the Amsterdam of South America though -- the law limits access to Uruguayan residents and controls the amount they can purchase. Other aspects of the law -- permitting self-cultivation and cannabis clubs have already been implemented. 

And rollout in local pharmacies will be slow, for now it's just 16, selling two varieties of pot at prices intended to undercut the illicit market. Residents will be able to purchase five-gram (0.18oz) sealed packets of marijuana for $6.50 each. A potential downside: low THC content, reports the Guardian.

As of earlier this week, there were 4,959 Uruguayans signed up to begin purchasing cannabis from the state in pharmacies. Meanwhile, 6,948 Uruguayans have registered to grow up to six flowering cannabis plants in their homes (with the understanding that their annual yield should not exceed 480 grams), and 63 “cannabis clubs” have begun operating across the country. Each of these clubs, according to the law, can have between 15 and 45 members that can grow up to 99 plants in the same space, but cannot dispense more than 480 gram annual limit to each member, notes WOLA.

News Briefs
  • U.S. officials are considering moving beyond sanctions against individual Venezuelans, in favor of more broad economic sanctions. These could include a potential prohibition on crude and other petroleum product trade with the country, reports the Wall Street Journal. Venezuela could face a "catastrophic" meltdown if the U.S. blocks crude exports, warned opposition lawmakers yesterday. The U.S. is considering economic sanctions if the Venezuelan government moves forward with a plan to rewrite the country's constitution, reports the Miami Herald. Broader penalties are important if the goal is to push President Nicolás Maduro to step down, but it could also significantly worsen the country's current humanitarian crisis, notes the Washington Post. The Trump administration is also considering imposing sanctions on more Venezuelan officials, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Mexico's government has systematically undermined a much-heralded anti-corruption system implemented last year, say sector activists. Instead, government critics have been spied on illegally using government-owned software, civic organizations have been the target of investigations, and congress has failed to name an anti-corruption prosecutor and judges, reports the Guardian. "The delays and harassment have prompted uncomfortable questions over the government’s commitment to stopping graft. And the failure to implement the SNA as it was designed has led to accusations that Mexican politicians are more keen to cover up for each other than to crack down on kickbacks." This week lawmakers missed a critical deadline to appoint an anti-corruption prosecutor, and he Senate also hasn’t appointed 18 judges to hear corruption cases, and almost half of Mexico’s 32 states haven’t passed legislation required at the local level, reports the Wall Street Journal. Earlier this week U.S. officials said they would seek to include anti-corruption measures in the NAFTA renegotiation discussions.
  • Mexico is a paradox: mass graves alongside economic growth and international tourism. "How can we understand this paradox and classify this bloodshed? Is it simply a horrendous crime problem, or is it an actual war," asks Ioan Grillo in a New York Times op-ed. "The truth is that the conflict is neither just crime nor civil war, but a new hybrid type of organized violence." He looks at the mass grave phenomenon, and the many "civilian" victims of cartel violence. "Yet at the same time, for many Mexicans, life goes on in apparent normality — with no tank battles or aerial bombardments. This is what separates the conflict from a civil war, even though the death toll is comparable. The pattern of killing is perhaps most similar to that of the death squads of a dictatorship."
  • After 13 years the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti is finally packing up in a few months. But the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, leaves behind a significant legacy of abuse that will make it hard for its successor mission, aimed at improving rule of law institutions, to carry out its work, argues Jake Johnston in World Politics Review. "Whatever the Haitian people or their government may think about the U.N.'s presence in Haiti, the future of the mission is not up to them. Like MINUSTAH before it, the next mission in Haiti will operate under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, which allows the Security Council to use military force to maintain peace, and does not require the host country's consent. It also means that if the Security Council so determines, foreign troops could be sent back to Haiti at a moment's notice. ... The legacy of cholera and sexual violence, combined with Haiti's enduring economic insecurity and violence, make it hard to consider MINUSTAH a success. The fact that the Security Council has mandated a follow-up Chapter VII mission to monitor human rights and strengthen the rule of law, despite the absence of an armed conflict, may well be a silent admission of failure."
  • Poverty rates are climbing in Brazil, and threaten to put the country back on the U.N.'s hunger map, reports the Guardian. A new progress report on the country's 2030 sustainable development agenda warns that austerity measures will increase poverty in Brazil and said the country should reduce other costs and adopt a fairer tax system.
  • Brazilian prosecutor general Rodrigo Janot is in no rush to file new charges of corruption against President Michel Temer, reports Folha de S. Paulo.
  • Rural communities in Colombia affected by decades of civil war will be assigned land titles within the next six years promised the high commissioner for post-conflict affairs.The title registration process will be implemented this year in 200 municipalities, reports EFE.
  • With the peace process well underway, Colombian farmers are being pushed by the government and former FARC fighters to replace their coca crops with legal -- but less lucrative -- products, reports the New York Times. As part of its reconstruction plan for Colombia’s war-ravaged countryside, the government is promising money to the first 50,000 coca-growing families that take the offer: a monthly payment of about $325 for the first year that farmers give up coca, followed by subsidies to plant new crops and education on how to grow them. And forced manual eradication will be applied to farmers who do not wish to abandon illicit crops. And already prices for coca have dropped, in the wake of increased land under cultivation and fewer growers with the rebels out of the picture.
  • In the meantime, new data this week shows that Colombia is producing more cocaine than ever. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says production grew more than 34 percent last year. And hectares under cultivation grew by over 50 percent. InSight Crime analyzes the numbers in detail, and looks at the changing face of Colombia's criminal groups. "The first thing is to forget about traditional drug cartels along the lines of the Medellín and Cali Cartels. They are long gone as organized crime structures. Forget also the heavily-armed paramilitary army of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). While the generation of criminal groups born out of the AUC demobilization, the BACRIM (so named after the Spanish for criminal bands, "bandas criminales") has its roots in the AUC, it does not have the same military capacity nor territorial control of its paramilitary predecessors. Today it is all about networks, and the most powerful one is group under what we call the "Urabeños" franchise, although this group prefers to call itself the Gaitanista Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC). This franchise has reach across Colombia and is responsible for moving the lion's share of cocaine across the Colombian border. The Urabeños used to work closely with the FARC. The guerrillas would sell them coca base and protect shipments going through their territory. However the departure of the FARC from the criminal scene has changed the drug trafficking landscape, just as the demobilization of the AUC in 2006 did. The new chapter in Colombia's criminal history is now unfolding as the cocaine industry adapts to the FARC withdrawal and seeks to fill the vacuum left by the rebel army. Charting this new criminal chapter is one of InSight Crime's primary aims for the remainder of 2017."
  • Chile's senators approved a bill that would allow abortion in limited cases -- rape, risks to mothers health and fetal inviability. The bill, which would end the country's total ban, goes back to the chamber of deputies now. It has the backing of President Michelle Bachelet, reports the BBC. The bill passed narrowly after a long and fractious debate, reports Reuters.
  • Two Peruvians living in Chile were doused in gas and set on fire by a mob of local fisherman, amid a national debate over increased migration and heightened racial tensions, reports the Guardian. (See June 29's briefs.) The two brothers, who have collected seaweed in the Antofagasta region for the past five years, were left with second- and third-degree burns to over half their bodies after the attack. 
  • Peru's unionized miners started an indefinite, nationwide strike today to protest government-proposed labor reform, reports Reuters.
  • Paraguayan farmers are asking the government to forgive $34 million in debt owed by rural smallholders to both public and private institutions, reports EFE.
  • The Bolivian government plans to massively invest in the country's lithium production sector, reports Deutsche Welle.
  • Ecuador will not comply with OPEC's production curbs, saying it needs more oil to cover its fiscal deficit, reports the Guardian. The decision is not numerically relevant, but its the first crack in unity regarding the cartels recent agreement to cut 1.8 million barrels per day until next year.
  • Bloomberg takes a look at how the very wealthy keep partying in Caracas after a day in the protest barricades. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Venezuela's "Zero Hour" (July 18, 2017)

Venezuela's opposition leaders have called on supporters to escalate street protests -- which have already been occurring daily for over three months -- and to hold a national strike on Thursday. A coalition of about 20 parties gathered yesterday and called for a “zero hour” campaign of civil disobedience, reports the Guardian.

They are specifically working before an election for members of a constituent assembly on July 30. The government backed plan to rewrite the constitution was rejected by more than 7 million voters in an informal plebiscite held by the opposition on Sunday. (See yesterday's post.) Opposition leaders say its the last opportunity to save the country's democracy from a naked power grab and authoritarian government, reports the Washington Post.

In a statement last night U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to impose economic sanctions on Venezuela if the government follows through with its plan for a constituent assembly, reports the Associated Press. Though he did not specify what measures would be taken, his warning that President Nicolás Maduro is ""a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator," and a promise that the "United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles," dramatically raises the stakes, according to the AFP. Canada, Mexico, Brazil, ColombiaPeru and the European Union have also come out against the effort.

Yesterday Maduro ratified his intention to continue with the constituent assembly plan, however, and rejected calls from international leaders as imperialist meddling, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Opposition leaders said they were working on a government of national unity that could include dissident chavistas, reports the Wall Street Journal. It would theoretically be set up tomorrow and raises the specter of a parallel government, according to the BBC and the WSJ. On Friday lawmakers in the opposition controlled National Assembly will nominate magistrates to replace Maduro loyalists on the Supreme Court. 

Potential defections from the ruling Socialist party could force Maduro to rethink the constituent assembly plan -- though continued army loyalty could be a more relevant factor, according to the Miami Herald.

Some criticisms of the opposition's handling of the informal referendum over the weekend at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. While congratulating the millions brave enough to face possible consequences of visibly opposing the government, David Smilde notes that the opposition leadership could have crafted the questions asked of the population better to potentially include dissident Chavistas. And the involvement of the armed forces in the second question is polemic.

On the international front, reports yesterday that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos travelled to Cuba to discuss a united diplomatic strategy with regards to Venezuela were downplayed by the Colombian government, reports the Herald. (See yesterday's post.) 

News Briefs
  • Over the weekend former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva again insisted on his innocence -- after being sentenced to nearly a decade of jail on corruption charges. In a press conference on Saturday, his second since the conviction, he assured supporters he will still seek the presidency next year, reports the AFP. (See Friday's post.)
  • Brazilian voters point to corruption as a key concern for their country. But despite allegations (and now conviction) against Lula, he continues to lead in opinion polls. "This is because, in the face of the recession, the unemployment and the unpopular labor and pension reforms, there is nostalgia for the years of economic growth and political stability of his eight years of government, when 40 million Brazilians left poverty," writes Mauricio Santoro in a New York Times Español op-ed. "Among his voters, there are many who believe he is innocent. Others believe he might be guilty, but that corruption is disseminated between Brazilian politicians and at least Lula did good things for the country. There are also those who consider that justice is much more rigorous against the former worker than with members of traditional elites accuse of similar or graver crimes ... That is to say: the environment of generalized mistrust in parties and institutions and the ideological polarization in Brazil make the personal positions of voters on corruption more complicated than what is suggested by the discourse that everybody is united against crime." (See Friday's post.)
  • Homicides in Rio de Janeiro are high, as is police violence. "It is now impossible not to notice that the city’s Police Pacification Units (UPP), once a much-vaunted anti-violence force, have all but collapsed," writes Silvia Ramos in the Conversation. She presents data on their failure, and how the military police's disregard for intelligence now leaves officers at the mercy of "encroaching gangs" in the city's favelas. "People know what needs to happen first: the police must stop shooting. Then, to dismantle not just the gangs but also the gang mentality burgeoning among Rio’s police, the city must invest in intelligence. The answer is not new, but it is globally tried and true: to reduce violence, reform the police."
  • U.S. President Donald Trump notified Congress that will again suspend a section of the Helms Burton act that would permit former owners of commercial property expropriated by Cuba to sue foreign companies and the Cuban government for using or “trafficking” in those confiscated holdings, reports the Miami Herald. In suspending the lawsuit provision for another six months, Trump follows the lead of his predecessors dating back to the 1996 law. It was the first action on Cuba since Trump announced his new direction on U.S.-Cuba relations during a June 16 speech in Miami, notes the Herald. (See June 19's post.)
  • Recruitment for Haiti's new army opened up yesterday and attracted a long line of youths interested in joining up, reports the Miami Herald
  • The New York Times profiles an activist undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles, Lizbeth Mateo, who is also an immigration lawyer. "Allowing undocumented immigrants to work as lawyers is a sign of just how far the acceptance of such immigrants has come in places like California."
  • Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could potentially allow outsiders to compete for the party presidential candidate nomination, in a bid to escape corruption scandals, reports Reuters. The change could potentially benefit Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade. (See June 30's briefs.)
  • Indeed the country's political and social elite are desperate for a "Mexican Macron," a mythic figure to "unite the country, fend off populism and impose pragmatic, centrist rule," according to the Washington Post.
  • Ecuador suspended work on a wall along the border with Peru that was causing a diplomatic ruckus, reports Reuters. (See last Thursday's briefs.)
  • Climate change in Chile "has now become an issue of profound concern on numerous fronts, from melting glaciers to conflicts over water rights between big agricultural businesses and small farmers," reports NPR.
  • Marijuana goes on sale in Uruguayan pharmacies this week, the culmination of a landmark cannabis legalization law. Though former president José Mujica is generally credited with pushing through the bill, it also owes its passage to a long progressive national history, argues Sylvia Colombo in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • A 116-year-old Salvadoran man may be the oldest person in the world, reports the BBC. Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in 1901 and had 39 children over the course of his life -- he's survived 14 of them.

Monday, July 17, 2017

7 million Venezuelans reject constitutional rewrite plan (July 17, 2017)

Over 7 million Venezuelans symbolically rejected a government plan to rewrite the country's constitution yesterday, reports the Associated Press. Though voting was mostly peaceful, a 61-year-old woman was killed and four people wounded by gunfire in western Caracas. (See Friday's briefs.)

The final tally was 6.492.381 voters in Venezuela and 693.789 in voting stations set in other countries for expatriates, reports Efecto Cocuyo. The numbers represent about a third of the country's eligible voters, according to the Wall Street Journal. The vote was unofficial, but over 98 percent of participants rejected the plan to elect a constituent assembly, reports the Los Angeles Times. The government dismissed the exercise as unconstitutional, reports Reuters.

Efecto Cocuyo characterizes it as Venezuela's most massive act of pacific civil disobedience. It wasn't a formal electoral act, rather "an act of rebellion whose repercussions have yet to be seen."

Organizers are hoping the large turnout and nearly unanimous result could widen rifts within the government and increase pressure on the international community to isolate the Maduro administration, reports the New York Times. The government is expected to ignore the results.

The government has convened a July 30 election to elect members of a constituent assembly, which it calls a necessary reform to exit the current political polarization and stalemate. But the opposition has called for a boycott of the plan and argues its a power play to maintain the government in power indefinitely. The assembly's 545 members would have the power to dissolve state institutions, including the opposition dominated National Assembly, notes the BBC.

There was a high potential for violence yesterday, as the government held a dry run of the July 30 election. In some cases in Caracas voters from the two camps lined up on different sides of the same street to enter different polling booths, notes the Financial Times.

At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde emphasizes the importance that the electoral commission did not declare the plebiscite illegal, and that Maduro called for both events to be held in peace. "This has clearly generated a sense among voters that it is safe to go and wait in line in public space."

Organizers burnt voter tallies yesterday, to keep participants from potential government retaliation. Though the government said it was to disguise fraud. Maduro recognized the exercise yesterday, but framed it as an internal consultation of the opposition.

Opposition leaders say turnout would have been higher if they had been able to set up more polling places. There were less than a third of the number of electoral tables as in a normal election, notes Smilde. Though an impressive statement of support for the opposition agenda, the votes fall short of the opposition’s 7.7 million-vote showing in 2015 legislative elections and the 7.5 million votes that brought President Nicolás Maduro to power in 2013, notes the AP.

"Whatever the actual numbers say, the optics of a large turnout, especially in longtime Chavista areas in the Western part of Caracas will perhaps be more important," wrote Smilde.

Though the results do not indicate an immediate change in government, nor a solution to the current political stalemate, they could reinvigorate the opposition movement after three months of ongoing protests, according to Reuters. 

Now opposition leaders are debating how to leverage the show of popular support. They are promising "Zero Hour" in Venezuela to demand a general election and stop Constituent Assembly election, reports Reuters. Tactics could include massive marches, sit-ins and a general strike.

And the vote could embolden the international community to reject the government plan to elect a constituent assembly later this month, Smilde told the AP. 

A group of former Latin American presidents travelled to Venezuela this weekend in support of the referendum. The group, including former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla, called on regional leaders to recognize the informal plebiscite's results as legitimate, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Yesterday Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada said on Twitter that he was declaring former Mexican President Vicente Fox -- who also travelled to Venezuela --  persona non grata and banning him from the country for conspiring to promote violence and foreign intervention.

Restoring peace in Venezuela will require a diplomatic hardline with Cuba, which "is the author of the barbarism," according to Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O'Grady. "The referendum was an act of national bravery. Yet like the rest of the opposition’s strategy—which aims at dislodging the dictatorship with peaceful acts of civil disobedience—it’s not likely to work. That’s because Cubans, not Venezuelans, control the levers of power."

In fact, regional leaders are courting Cuba to support a diplomatic push to resolve the Venezuelan crisis. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos travelled to Havana this weekend, reports the Financial Times."The initiative, which Argentina and Mexico are understood to support, is controversial but potentially effective as socialist Cuba is Venezuela’s strongest ally and its intelligence services are understood to work as close advisers to" Maduro.

Participants in Sunday’s informal plebiscite were asked three yes-no questions: Do they reject Maduro’s planned constitutional assembly? Do they want the armed forces to support the existing constitution and the decisions of the opposition-controlled congress? And do they want a national unity government to be formed and fresh elections held?

At the end of the day, the opposition said that more than 98 percent of respondents rejected the planned constitutional assembly; more than 95 percent said they wanted the military to support the current constitution and congressional decisions, and more than 98 percent backed the idea of new elections.

Smilde drew attention to the potential for more variation in the response to the three questions, as some dissident Chavistas called for a yes vote on the first question and not the other two. For example, attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz's husband, a lawmaker from Maduro's United Socialist Party, cast a ballot responding only to the first question, according to the NYT.

An estimated 12 percent of the Venezuelan population now lives abroad, and residents in more than 75 countries were thought to have cast votes, reports the Miami Herald.

Thousands of Venezuelans are opting to leave in anyway they can. The UNHCR estimates that about 300,000 are living in Colombia, which recently sent a delegation to Turkey to study that country’s experience with Syrian refugees, reports the Guardian. Other parts of the region, including the Caribbean, Brazil and Peru are also feeling migratory impact.

The inflation rate in Venezuela could reach 720 percent this year, according to IMF estimates, and the cost of basic groceries is now about five times the minimum wage, reports the New York Times. The piece explores the causes of the current food crisis, including tightly controlled currency exchange, seizure of private property and regulated production.

And as protests continue, human rights groups denounce the rise of political prisoners, held in greater numbers than at any other time in the past 18 years of Bolivarian government, reports the Wall Street Journal. Foro Penal counts about 440 political prisoners, up from 117 before the protests started on April 1. In all, 3,500 people have been detained since the protests, most for short periods of time.

Violent raids by security forces are also becoming more common, reports Reuters. They "typically include arbitrary destruction and sometimes theft of private property, as well as the participation of unidentified masked men, according to witnesses."

News Briefs
  • Police reform in Latin America is highly vulnerable to political reversals. New policies can be quickly rolled back before they can take hold and demonstrate results, according to research by Yanilda González of the University of Chicago. She writes about how ambitious reform efforts in Colombia and Argentina's Buenos Aires province in the 90s were quickly rolled back by mano dura politicians promising mano dura. "My research also demonstrates that police forces that are resistant to reforms have considerable power to undermine them," she writes in the Conversation.
  • Violence is soaring in Mexico's Sinaloa State, as rival cartel factions battle over the empire of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, reports the Wall Street Journal. Close to 900 people have been murdered in Sinaloa over the first six months of 2017, almost twice the number of homicides over the same period last year, according to the Sinaloa Attorney General’s Office. Most of the increase is due to drug killings. (See July 6's post.)
  • Family and friends of slain Mexican journalist Javier Valdez blocked the Sinaloa state Attorney General’s Office on Saturday to protest the lack of progress in the murder investigation, reports EFE. (See May 16's post.)
  • Guatemalan police arrested 17 people on suspicion of involvement in a web of money laundering and illegal election financing on Friday, reports Reuters. The U.N. backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala says the scheme was run by former communications minister Alejandro Sinibaldi, who has been a fugitive from justice since last year. The investigation has also implicated a local unit of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim's America Movil. A former ambassador to the United States was among those whose arrest was ordered last week, reports the Associated Press.
  • After Hurricane Matthew in October of last year, many Haitian victims feel abandoned, reports the Miami Herald. Aid has trickled to a stop and food staples once grown in affected areas now have to be trucked in at very high prices.
  • The United Nations says there was a 50 percent increase last year in the area of land being used to cultivate coca leaf in Colombia, reports the BBC.
  • The town of Lares in Puerto Rico has earned the dubious distinction of losing a quarter of its population since 2000. Its indicative of a wider malaise in the U.S. territory, where about 400,000 people have moved away since the 2000 census, reports the New York Times.
  • About once a year torrential downpours bring down fish from the skies, according to local legend in La Unión, Honduras. The phenomenon has occurred for years, but its still not clear how the small silvery fish wind up in a field 45 miles from the Atlantic Ocean after torrential rains, reports the New York Times.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Congressional committee votes against suspending Temer (July 14, 2017)

A congressional committee in Brazil voted against recommending President Michel Temer face a Supreme Court trial on corruption charges, reports the BBC. The panel voted 40 to 25 yesterday to reject a colleague's report that recommended the president be suspended and tried on a corruption charge, reports the Associated Press.

The decision is non-binding -- the full lower chamber of deputies must vote on the issue, which would suspend Temer for six months of trial. That vote is expected August 2, according to the Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, yesterday's recommendation is a reprieve for the government which is confident it has the votes to avoid trial. (See yesterday's post.) 

Corruption cases against Temer and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva this week highlight the extent of the political turmoil in Brazil, notes the Associated Press in a separate piece.

Lula said yesterday he was the victim of politically motivated judicial attacks and promised to run for president next year despite a 10-year jail sentence for corruption, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.) He characterized the verdict against him as part of Brazilian elites’ backlash against his legacy. "If they think that with this sentence they will take me out of the game, let them know that I’m in the game," he told supporters.

Lula's fiery rhetoric aside, "the muted response to Lula's arrest from his supporters shows just how far the once-beloved politician has fallen," according to the Washington Post.

Both supporters and critics of the charismatic former president gathered on Brazilian streets in reaction to the ruling, reports the Wall Street Journal. And leftist politicians in Brazil and the region jumped to Lula's defense as well.
Suddenly, political adversaries, all accused of corruption, find themselves relying on the same strategy: discrediting the judiciary, reports the New York Times. The allegations against leading politicians from several parties has given rivals common ground, though prosecutors and judges reject claims that they are acting as kingmakers.

Brazilian journalist Lucia Guimarães analyzes how "for vast swaths of Brazilians, the choice seems to be between corrupt right-wing demagoguery and corrupt but generous leftist patronage. Faced with those options, millions of Brazilians still see Lula and his Workers' Party as their only choice; they are so ready to vote him back into office that he continues to lead polls of voter intentions for the 2018 presidential election," she writes in Americas Quarterly. "Lula’s ruin is not, as some couch revelers suggest, an invitation to an out-of-season carnival. He represented – and still represents, as the polls show us – the first opportunity of political representation and economic inclusion for millions of underprivileged Brazilians. His downfall is a sad tale of his party’s failure to live up to once-promising ideals, made more dispiriting by the fact that despite his flaws, Brazil is so devoid of other inspiring political voices that Lula remains the least-worst option for so many."

And also in Americas Quarterly, Brian Winter analyzes Judge Sergio Moro's deference in permitting Lula to remain free during the appeals process. And if its hard to see from the outside how a politician convicted of corruption could still be a frontrunner for president, "consider that this is Brazil in 2017 – a legal free-for-all in which the current president has been charged with corruption, most of Congress faces the prospect of criminal charges, the economy is trapped in its worst recession in a century, and the three branches of government are engaged in an open “war” for primacy and survival. Some of Brazil’s strictest constitutionalists are urging for the Constitution to be shoved aside so that early elections can be called to end the chaos. In this context, a little jeitinho – the classic Brazilian term for finding a way around the rules – to keep Lula free seems completely plausible." And for the moralists out there, Winter also notes that the scope of the accusations against Lula -- a beachfront apartment the former leader allegedly received in exchange for a Petrobras contract -- "is child’s play compared to the charges against numerous other Brazilian politicians, including the former right-hand man of President Michel Temer, who was caught on video carrying a suitcase of cash."

Having trouble understanding the sheer scope of Operation Car Wash, the multiple other corruption investigations and who is accused of what? The Council on Foreign Relations reports on how the probes "have led to prison sentences for top executives and politicians, mass layoffs, and billions of dollars paid in fines."

News Briefs
  • Former Peruvian president, Ollanta Humala, and his wife, Nadine Heredia, have turned themselves in, after a judge ordered pre-trial detention while money laundering charges are prepared, reports the BBC. The allegations stem from Brazil's Operation Car Wash investigation -- the couple is accused of accepting $3 million in funds from Odebrecht to fund Humala's 2011 election campaign, reports the Associated Press. Humala rejects the charges.
  • In Colombia prosecutors say President Juan Manuel Santos received Odebrecht campaign donations for his 2014 campaign, reports El Tiempo. The accusations may be explosive, but they are unlikely to be juridically relevant, explains Juanita León in la Silla Vacía.
  • A plebiscite this weekend will ask Venezuelans if they support the government’s plan to elect a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution. But while the political opposition hopes it will be a watershed moment marking popular resistance to the plan, the government insists its a legally meaningless exercise, reports the Miami Herald. Organizers hope that if millions of people participate, and voice opposition, the government could be persuaded to change course, reports the Wall Street Journal. The government, on the other hand, says the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) is the only solution to months of unrest that have led to over 90 deaths. Critics say the government has structured the assembly to favor its supporters and fear the rewrite will be used to tighten its hold on power. The ANC itself is illegal, according to attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz, a prominent government critic. The ANC would dissolve the country's existing (and opposition led) legislature, and remove legal immunity for lawmakers, notes the WSJ. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • "... The Zika virus outbreak in Brazil disproportionately impacted women and girls and aggravated longstanding human rights problems, including inadequate access to water and sanitation, racial and socioeconomic health disparities, and restrictions on sexual and reproductive rights," according to a new Human Rights Watch report. "These problems existed long before the government confirmed local transmission of the Zika virus. However, the outbreak, and the national and international response to it, brought renewed attention to ongoing, unaddressed challenges to public health and human rights in Brazil. Human Rights Watch analyzed these human rights problems through the lens of the Zika outbreak. Our research found gaps in the Brazilian authorities’ response that have particularly harmful impacts on women and girls, and leave the general population vulnerable to continued outbreaks of serious mosquito-borne illnesses in the future." The Brazilian government's response focused on controlling the mosquito population -- vector control. "However, Brazilian authorities at all levels have not addressed systemic problems with public water and sanitation systems that exacerbated the Zika crisis by contributing to ideal conditions for mosquito breeding. Years of dengue outbreaks should have made it abundantly clear that water and sanitation conditions are dangerous and require attention and investment, even among competing priorities." The report also looks at how the Zika outbreak has increased demand for illegal abortions, and notes the government's obligation to "eliminate excessive restrictions on access to safe and legal abortion."
  • São Paulo Mayor João Doria's recent raid on an area that was home to a group of homeless people, some of whom used drugs -- cracolândia (crackland) -- is a return to a failed "war on drugs" model, writes Open Society Foundations' Sarah Evans in Americas Quarterly. "And worse: his raid also destroyed one of Latin America’s most promising health and social initiatives focused on drug users, São Paulo’s De Braços Abertos (With Open Arms) program, which was showing evidence of stabilizing participants’ lives and even reducing their use of crack." (See briefs for May 23May 30, and June 19.)
  • A new InSight Crime investigation reveals the inner-workings of the BACRIM -- the paramilitary-mafia networks that are the latest evolution in Colombian organized crime. "Today, the Colombian underworld -- flooded with cocaine from booming coca production and rife with criminal opportunities created by the withdrawal of thousands of demobilizing leftist insurgents -- stands on the cusp of seismic change. The Urabeños and other BACRIM will play a decisive role in shaping this new order. This special multimedia report takes you deep inside an Urabeños' cell in the prized criminal territory of Bajo Cauca, a region in the northern part of the department of Antioquia. It offers a unique insight into how a BACRIM network operates and what their role in the underworld is. Based on three years of investigation and interviews with current and former BACRIM members with different ranks and responsibilities, this report presents the BACRIM in the words of its members, as well as their victims and the Colombian authorities."
  • The first census of demobilized FARC fighters shows significant challenges in terms of housing and education in order to integrate them into Colombian society, reports InSight Crime. "Even though 90 percent can read and write, leaving just 10 percent who are illiterate, 57 percent of those surveyed have only a primary education. Just three percent have obtained a university degree. Likewise, 77 percent stated that they do not have access to housing after the reintegration process ends."
  • At least 30,000 Haitian children live in orphanages -- many funded from philanthropic donations from abroad. A new study by NGO Lumos sheds light on how the money actually puts children at risk and creates incentives for their families to put them in institutions, reports the Guardian.
  • An Argentine customs fraud scheme that allegedly allowed a criminal network to steal millions from the government shows how "organized crime can profit from government monetary policy, as well as a good dose of corruption," reports InSight Crime.
  • Peruvian protesters, demanding the government cancel a planned new airport, stranded thousands of tourists on their way to Machu Picchu this week, reports the Associated Press.
  • MS-13's money laundering side is getting increasingly sophisticated, though the Salvadoran gang continues to rely on violence to obtain funding, reports InSight Crime.
  • Wrong kind of feminist gains: Women are taking on an increasingly prominent role in Honduran gangs as current leaders are transferred to a maximum security prison. Though InSight Crime questions the veracity of the reports, if true it could be devastating for families that depend on those women.
  • 30 Syrian refugees have benefited from a scholarship program allowing them to continue their interrupted university studies in Mexico. The Guardian talks to them about adapting and how they compare violence at home to their new host country.
  • What about Oscar Pérez? The mysterious former police intelligence officer who led a helicopter attack on Venezuelan public buildings reappeared at an opposition vigil for those killed in the ongoing protests, reports the BBC. (See June 29's post.)
  • The wall U.S. President Donald Trump envisions dividing the U.S. and Mexico need not cover ALL of the 3,200 km border, as existing natural barriers effectively block transit in some areas, he told journalists. The wall should also be transparent, and have solar panels he said. This will help border guards protect themselves from drug shipments tossed over the wall. "As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them. They hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over," said Trump. The BBC explains that while catapults have been used by drug smugglers in the past, there have been no reports of guards being hit on the head with shipments. Tunnels are also more frequent than over the wall methods. The comments, made to journalists aboard Air Force One are the most definitive description he has given yet on the oft-promised and diplomatically divisive structure, reports the Associated Press. It's worth noting that there are already 1,046 km of fencing -- all of it see through -- along the border.