Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Armed groups control daily lives along Colombia-Venezuela border -- HRW (Jan. 22, 2020)

Armed groups use brutal violence to control peoples’ daily lives in the eastern Colombian province of Arauca and the neighboring Venezuelan state of Apure, according to a new Human Rights Watch report out today. The report documented abuses including murder, kidnappings, disappearances, child recruitment and rape, carried out by the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Patriotic Forces of National Liberation (FPLN), and a group that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The abuses are part of "the groups' strategy to control the social, political, and economic life of Arauca and Apure. Impunity for such abuses is the rule," notes the report.

“Residents in Arauca and Apure live in fear, as armed groups recruit their children and impose their own rules, threaten residents, and punish those who disobey, even with murder or months of forced labor in the fields,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The groups operate with near-to-absolute impunity on both sides of the border, and especially in Venezuela they sometimes are in collusion with security forces and local authorities.”

“The Colombian-Venezuelan border is strategically important to armed groups due to the illegal economies that exist there, including contraband, drug trafficking, and human trafficking,” Juan Pappier, one of the authors of the report, told the Guardian. “Armed groups can also attack civilians in Colombia and then use Venezuela as a rearguard, something that happens often on the Arauca-Apure border.”

Colombian authorities have attempted to wrest power from these armed groups, with limited success. And HRW's investigation found that the groups operate with even more freedom in Venezuela, where, in some cases, they act in collusion with national security forces and local authorities. In Colombia the groups often act as a local government, imposing regulations on daily lives that are enforced with violence.


Greenwald accused of cybecrimes

Brazilian prosecutors accused journalist Glenn Greenwald of cybercrimes. They accuse him of forming part of a "criminal organization," and say he “helped, encouraged and guided” a group of hackers who obtained phone messages between key figures Brazil's landmark Lava Jato corruption investigation. A federal judge must affirm the charges before he is officially indicted. (Guardian, BBC)

Prosecutors cite intercepted messages between Greenwald and hackers, saying they show the journalist played a “clear role in facilitating the commission of a crime.” Prosecutors also say that Greenwald was communicating with the hackers while they were actively monitoring private chats on Telegram, a messaging app. The complaint charged six other individuals, including four who were detained last year in connection with the cellphone hacking.

Legal experts say the case against Greenwald is shaky at best, and that journalists have broad protections under Brazilian law. The Intercept calls the accusations further proof that Brazilian prosecutors are acting as "political police" for Moro, who is currently the country's Justice Minister. Press freedom advocates are concerned about the escalation of tensions with Brazil's government: President Jair Bolsonaro accused Greenwald of committing crimes last year and suggested he would do jail-time as a result. (Guardian)

The accusations against Greenwald sent shockwaves in Brazil, where many commentators said they were politically motivated, reports the Washington Post. More broadly, they raise concerns among journalists and advocates for a free press because journalists often rely on confidential or leaked information, sometimes obtained by whistle-blowers or hackers, reports the New York Times
Greenwald called the charges “an obvious attempt to attack a free press in retaliation for the revelations we reported about Minister Moro and the Bolsonaro government,” in a statement to the Daily Beast. The Committee to Protect Journalists said the criminal complaint was intended to scare investigative reporters in the country.

The Intercept Brasil, co-founded by Greenwald, published articles last year based on leaked cellphone messages that questioned the integrity Brazil's judiciary and showed apparent political maneuvering in relation to the landmark Lava Jato corruption investigation. The articles showed apparently politically motivated collusion by then-judge Sergio Moro with corruption prosecutors regarding accusations against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, among others. (See post for June 10, 2019, among others.)

News Briefs

More Colombia
  •  Colombia is asking the United States, the European Union and other countries to include dissidents from the former FARC rebels on their lists of terrorist organizations, reports Reuters. (Colombia accepted the full U.S. and E.U. lists of terrorist organizations this week, including Hezbolla, see yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombian protesters returned to the streets yesterday, a continuation of last year's demonstrations. Though the reasons for the movement are varied and include opposition to tax reform and social demands, they have also become an avenue to protest violence against social activists, which has remained high in the beginning of this year, reports Infobae. Most of yesterday's marches were peaceful, but police clashed with some groups in Bogotá and there were reports of damage to public transportation infrastructure, reports Reuters. Organizers said there will be more protests in March.
More Brazil
  • Former Brazilian Culture Minister Roberto Alvim's ignominious exit from the government last week -- after evoking Goebbels in an official announcement -- doesn't mean that the country's cultural officials will be free of Nazi ideals, warns The Intercept. (See Friday's briefs.)
  • Brazilian prosecutors charged the former president of the Brazil-based mining giant Vale and 15 other people with homicide, yesterday, faulting them for negligence in the Brumadinho dam disaster that killed at least 259 people a year ago. Vale and the German safety-certification company TUV SUD will also face environmental charges. (New York Times, Washington Post)
  • About 40 Venezuelan intelligence officers raided opposition leader Juan Guaidó's office yesterday, in what fellow lawmakers called an illegal search. (Efecto Cocuyo) Footage showed hooded and armed officers from the Sebin service outside the building in Caracas, reports the BBC. Guaidó is currently traveling outside of the country. The move came just hours after opposition lawmakers called off an attempt to hold a National Assembly session in the congress building, saying they wanted to avoid clashes with security forces and armed government supporters blocking entry, reports the Associated Press.
  • Guaidó should harness "renewed international support to obtain electoral conditions that lead to an independent electoral council, legalizing opposition parties and removing political bans and thus allowing free and fair elections," argues Michael Penfold in a New York Times op-ed.
  • A well-known Mexican conservationist, Homero Gómez González, has been missing since Jan. 13, raising alarm bells among human rights activists, reports the Washington Post.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is engaging in a risky strategy to convince citizens of the need to raise taxes: he has cut back on critical government services, including health coverage and operational budgets, in order to demonstrate funding needs. But the human and institutional costs of the strategy are too high, argues Viri Ríos in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was set to meet with Caricom leaders yesterday in Jamaica. But the visit demonstrates a growing schism between Caribbean countries that are open to improved relations with the Trump administration, and those who have opposed talks on principle, reports the Guardian.  The prime ministers of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago chose not to participate, and have been critical of U.S. inaction on the climate crisis and its regional impact on migration. But Jamaica's Prime Minister was joined by leaders representing the Bahamas, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, St Kitts and Nevis and St Lucia. (Jamaica Observer)
  • A young man killed by members of a rugby team outside a nightclub is another victim of machismo, writes journalist Mariana Carbajal in Página 12.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...  

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Thousands of migrants blocked by Mexico (Jan 21, 2020)

Thousands of Central American migrants attempted to push through the Mexico-Guatemala border yesterday, but were repelled by Mexican National Guard forces. A few hundred that succeeded in slipping past the border were later detained by Mexican authorities, who are determined to stop the latest group of migrants -- estimated at 4,000 people -- trying to travel to the United States in what is dubbed a "caravan." (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, Animal Político, Animal Político again)

Thousands of migrants massed at the border yesterday waded through the Suchiate River in an attempt to continue their journey together, but the vast majority were stopped by security forces. Some migrants threw rocks and other items at Mexican National Guard troops, who blocked the group with tear gas and rocks.

The migrant group yesterday asked Mexican authorities for permission to travel peacefully towards the U.S., but Mexico instead offered the possibility to register and possibly file asylum claims and obtain work in Mexico. However, Mexican authorities said yesterday that most of the migrants in the caravan would eventually be deported to their home countries, if they cross the border. Migrants yesterday were skeptical about promises for work, which authorities suggested might be in migrants' home countries. Announcements from Mexican authorities also tried to convince migrants that reaching the U.S. border is a foolish goal, as they could be sent to Guatemala to apply for asylum.

The first caravan of 2020 is demonstrating the effects of changed immigration policies in the region. Mexico's government drastically altered its approach due to U.S. pressure, contrary to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's campaign promises for a more humane policy. The caravan has shown the new, more sophisticated approach to control, detention, and deportation of migrants, argues Alberto Pradilla in Post Opinión.

"This massive exodus will be, perhaps, the last. Or at least it will mark a very clear before and after: if before Central American walkers dreamed of crossing the U.S. Tijuana wall ... now they will dream of crossing the Mexican wall," writes Carlos Martínez in El Faro. "The Border, like that with capital letters, moved south ..."

News Briefs

More Migration
  • A U.S. federal judge denied a request to halt the deportation of an Honduran woman and her two sick children. They are expected to be sent to Guatemala today to seek asylum there. (CBS)
Regional Relations
  • Colombia, Honduras officially declared Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and Guatemala's president has promised to do likewise. They join Argentina and Paraguay who already view Hezbollah as terrorists. Colombia accepted the full U.S. and E.U. lists of terrorist organizations, which also includes the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. (Reuters, Jerusalem Post, see yesterday's briefs)
  • The U.S. Trump administration is urging Latin American allies to cancel health cooperation agreements with Cuba. Four countries in the region have already shut-down Cuba's signature medical brigades, which are a key source of income and influence for the communist island, reports the Washington Post.
  • Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei created a presidential commission against corruption, an entity that will depend on the executive and aims to detect anomalies within the government. (Prensa Libre)
  • Haitian journalists are working in increasingly dangerous circumstances in the midst of political crisis: " Public perception of journalism has deteriorated; protestors accuse media outlets of supporting the government, and attacks on the press have escalated. Journalists are also harassed by counter-protesters and police from the opposing side. They report physical attacks, death threats, and defamation campaigns on social media." -- Colombia Journalism Review
  • "The need to offer concrete results could make the next 12 months the most important of López Obrador’s presidency," argues Martín Vivanco Lira in Americas Quarterly.
  • Last year was officially the bloodiest on record for Mexico, beating out the 2018 homicide record. Official statistics count 35,588 homicide and femicide victims, an average of 97.5 per day and a ratio of 28.3 per 100,000 inhabitants, reports Animal Político. (See Jan. 7's post.)
El Salvador
  • El Salvador ended 2019 with its lowest murder rate in years. The government says the dramatic decline, which began shortly after President Nayib Bukele took office last June, is due to its new Territorial Control security plan. But analysts say the drop has more to do with internal gang policies -- which might be aimed at cooling confrontation with Central American governments. Others suggest there might be an undercover deal between El Salvador's government and gangs to reduce homicides, reports InSight Crime.
  • Bukele is celebrated internationally as El Salvador's "social media president," but at home his brief tenure has already sparked controversy and shown that governing is harder than garnering likes, reports Harvard Political Review.
  • Peru's Solidaridad Nacional political party has captured attention on social media with controversial messages about gender and race ahead of Peru's extraordinary legislative elections, which will take place this Sunday. A video purporting to link leftist and opponent politicians, including President Martín Vizcarra, to terrorist groups allowed Solidaridad Nacional, a low polling party, to obtain a level of online notoriety, according to an Ojo Público analysis. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • Thousands of Peruvian citizens with disabilities who had previously been under legal guardianship by courts have not been included on the national voting registry in time to vote Sunday, the Society and Disability (SODIS), Peruvian Down Syndrome Society, and Human Rights Watch said yesterday.
  • Peru's constitutional court ruled, last week, that Vizcarra had not exceeded his powers when he dissolved the country's congress in September. (BBC)
Costa Rica
  • The U.S. downgraded its travel recommendations for Costa Rica, citing an increase in crime, including armed robbery and homicide -- Financial Times.

Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Monday, January 20, 2020

JOH ends MACCIH (Jan. 20, 2020)

Honduras' government abruptly announced the end of MACCIH, the OAS-backed international anti-graft mission in the country on Friday. It ceased operations yesterday. 

The foreign ministry said Honduras did not agree to the MACCIH's renewal, and cited concern in certain sectors of society that the mission had overreached its remit. In response, the OAS said the move was a "negative step," and that Honduran government had not matched the MACCIH's commitment to tackling corruption. (Reuters, AFP)

Negotiations to extend the MACCIH's original four-year mandate had been ongoing since late December. Univisión reports that the main issue was the investigative role of the mission and its coordination with a special prosecutorial unit, which the Honduran government wanted to strip from any new agreement. The anti-corruption prosecutorial unit is "highly effective," and without it the mission would join a long history of "meaningless advising projects," American University professor Chuck Call told Univisión.

About 800 protesters demanded Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández's ouster yesterday in Tegucigalpa. A coalition of social, business, union and student groups, that include the Platform for the Defense of Health and Education, seek to pressure the government and could call a strike. (Criterio) Business leader Pedro Barquero said MACCIH's closure would have negative impact on investment, and demonstrated the government's goal to defang anti-corruption efforts.

The episode shows that the fight against corruption is political, and that advances won't be made until corruption networks are pushed aside through organization and social pressure, said Gustavo Irias, director of the Centro de Estudio para la Democracia (CESPAD), on Twitter.

A group of bipartisan U.S. House of Representatives leaders condemned the decision: “With the stroke of a pen, President Juan Orlando Hernández had the opportunity to extend MACCIH – the mechanism put in place to strengthen Honduras’s capacity to address systemic corruption. Unfortunately, President Hernández chose not to exercise his authority and allowed MACCIH to expire."

Hernández, known by the acronym JOH, said he is as committed as ever to fight against corruption -- at a time when he is under increasing scrutiny after he was implicated in a U.S. drug trafficking trial against his brother. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy referred to JOH as "an unindicted co-conspirator in the U.S. prosecution of his brother for drug trafficking" and said the move "to end the MACCIH, is the latest evidence that he is not serious about stopping the corruption that permeates his government from top to bottom."

Former MACCIH spokesperson Juan Jiménez Mayor said the failure to renew the anti-corruption mission responds to maneuvering related to the OAS leadership election in March. Mayor denounced an impunity pact between JOH and OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro a year ago, when he left his post. This weekend he said Honduras' termination of MACCIH is part of a negotiation between JOH and Almagro, who seeks reelection. (Criterio)

Other critics linked U.S. silence on the subject to JOH's cooperation with the Trump administration's immigration agenda. The U.S. State Department, which provided funding to the mission, or MACCIH as it’s known for its Spanish initials, remained silent throughout the crucial final weeks of negotiations between Honduras and the OAS.

News Briefs

  • Nearly 1,000 migrants clashed with Mexico's National Guard at the Guatemala-Mexico border on Saturday. Mexican police used pepper spray and closed the Suchiate River bridge when the group -- the vanguard of a new migrant caravan that set out from Honduras last week -- tried to rush across the border. After order was restored, small groups of migrants were allowed to cross and register with Mexican authorities, reports the New York Times. Guatemalan authorities say that more than 4,000 migrants, part of this scattered caravan, have entered Guatemala from Honduras since Wednesday. 
  • On Friday Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had announced jobs would be offered to migrants. (See Friday's briefs.) A senior Mexican official said migrants would be required to stay in southern Mexico while their cases are adjudicated, reports the Wall Street Journal. Migrants can request asylum in Mexico, a process that lasts months, or receive visas allowing them to stay in four southern Mexican states. Those who travel north of the four states would be arrested, the official said.
  • The arrival of this new caravan shows the sea-change in Mexico's policies towards immigration since AMLO assumed office, reports Animal Político.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said it's now time for direct negotiations with the United States to end the political stalemate that has crippled the country. He spoke to the Washington Post, his first interview with a foreign media outlet in nearly a year. Maduro did not say he would be open to new presidential elections, a key demand of the political opposition and the international community. In the interview Maduro gives his version of last year's failed uprising against him.
  • Venezuela's embattled opposition leader Juan Guaidó defied a travel ban and crossed into Colombia yesterday. He is expected to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who is in Bogotá. It's the start of a push to shore up international support for Guaidó as his push to oust Maduro has lost steam locally. (New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post, Wall Street JournalBBC)
Regional Relations
  • Newly sworn in Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei broke-off diplomatic relations with Venezuela, on Friday. (AFP)
  • JOH announced on Twitter that Honduras will officially designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization today. (Jerusalem Post)
  • Chilean protesters demonstrated on Friday, marking three months of intense social unrest. Among other things, they demanded the resignation of President Sebastián Piñera, whose popularity rating is at 6 percent. (France 24)
  • The U.S. State Department detected a pattern of Russian-linked Twitter accounts that supported protests across South America last year. "State Department analysts concluded that an influence campaign was underway, the latest evidence of a global disinformation war that is more insidious and efficient than traditional propaganda of years past," reports the New York Times. Diplomats say the efforts appear aimed at fomenting dissent in countries that oppose Venezuela's Maduro government. But it's not clear what impact the efforts had on protesters in each country. State Department officials said the vast majority of protest-related posts on Twitter and other social media appeared to be legitimate.
  • At least 75 members of the Brazilian First Capital Command Cartel escaped from a Paraguayan prison through a tunnel, yesterday. Paraguayan authorities said the breach was unprecedented, and analysts say it shows the extent to which the Brazilian organized crime group has penetrated Paraguayan security agencies. The Pedro Juan Caballero prison, near the Brazilian border, is considered one of the country's most corrupt. (New York Times)
  • A new IMF study finds that increasing economic output can reduce crime -- an important finding for Central America.

Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Friday, January 17, 2020

Brazilian culture minister resigns, Nazi reference scandal (Jan. 17, 2020)

News Briefs

  • Brazilian culture minister Roberto Alvim was forced to resign today amid heavy backlash due to apparent Nazi references -- a similarity to a speech by Joseph Goebbels and Wagner playing in the background -- in an announcement about a new initiative, reports the Guardian. Alvim is one of the government's most militant cultural warriors, an extremely relevant category for President Jair Bolsonaro's political movement, reports the Washington Post. (See last Friday's post.) He had previously criticized for suggesting rock music encourages abortion and Satanism. It's the latest flashpoint in a broader debate over freedom of speech and culture in the Bolsonaro era, reports the New York Times.
  • Brazil's government is pushing abstinence-based sex education to counter teen pregnancies, and  is also censoring sex education sections of a health booklet for teenage girls following criticisms Bolsonaro, reports the Guardian. Multiple studies have shown that these approaches are not effective.
  • Guatemalan police accompanied by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents bused hundreds of migrants traveling through the country in a group back to Honduran border to comply with registration requirements, reports the Guardian. The move, reportedly paid for by the U.S., aimed to break up a migrant caravan that set out this week from Honduras towards the United States. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the caravan of approximately 3,000 migrants would not be turned back at Mexico's southern border (when they eventually make it there) but will instead be offered jobs, reports Bloomberg.
  • AMLO announced a broad judicial reform proposal, this week. The most relevant changes include being named and overseen by the Senate, and the possibility of criminal trials in specialized tribunals for judges accused of corruption, reports El País.
  • AMLO uses communication as a tool to distract Mexicans from the crushing policy problems his government is not addressing, argues Carlos Loret de Mola A. in the Post Opinión.
  • AMLO is increasingly desperate to offload the presidential private jet, which has been on sale for a year without success. Today he suggested raffling it off by selling six million raffle tickets at $25 apiece. (Guardian)
  • Aiming for "republican austerity," AMLO has slashed public spending, but makes an exception for baseball, repots the Economist.
Regional Relations
  • The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, yesterday. (Washington Post)
  • Government attacks against Venezuelan opposition lawmakers attempting to reach the National Assembly building this week suggest Nicolás Maduro will not pull back from his attempt to control congress, write David Smilde and Dimitris Pantoulas in the Venezuela Weekly. Instead there is "multi-faceted push" aimed at consolidating government control. (See yesterday's post.)
  • The Venezuelan National Assembly has had an opposition party majority since 2015, but the configuration has changed in ensuing years due to judiciary harassment or coercion from the Maduro government, reports the Caracas Chronicles. The opposition majority has been further eaten away at the recruitment of deputies who arrived at the AN as opposition, and now favor the interests of chavismo. 
  • It was unacceptable for Bolivian President Evo Morales to resign in November due to pressure from the country's military, said Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco in an interview with Carmen Aristegui. (CNN
  • A legislative election originally scheduled for last October in Haiti was never held. As a result there is no functioning legislature and President Jovenel Moïse will rule by decree -- an "ominous" prospect, according to the Economist.
  • The bodies of six children and a pregnant women were found in a new grave in Panama, and authorities believe they could be sacrificial victims of a religious sect's ritual, reports the New York Times.
  • Accountability advocates are concerned that, under Guatemala's new government, new forms of criminal activity, cooptation of the state, and attacks against human rights defenders will supplant hard-won gains in the battle against corruption and impunity, write Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada at the International Justice Monitor. Issues they look at include alleged ties to clandestine security groups and military veterans who opposed the CICIG and the peace process. (See Wednesday's post.)
  • "In Honduras, doing independent journalism means constantly running into a wall," writes Jennifer Ávila in El Faro. "This wall is built by mafia-run institutions that have silenced and terrorized whole communities ... Fear and distrust are the strongest enemies of Honduran journalism right now."
  • Revelations that Colombia's military has spied on opposition politicians, reporters and judges bolster arguments that its time to strengthen the country's still-immature democracy, argues Sinar Alvarado in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • The Caribbean is heading to an electoral super-year: voters are set to head to the polls in Belize, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, reports Global Americans. The economy is a central concern for most of these countries, according to the piece, though the focus is on how to manage a relatively positive economic outlook -- particularly positive in the cases of Guyana and Suriname. 
  • Guyana's oil windfall, and how to manage an expected economic expansion of over 80 percent this year, will dominate the country's March 2 election between current President David Granger’s A Partnership for National Unity-Alliance for Change (APNU-AFC) and the opposition candidate Irfaan Ali, running under the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), according to the same Global Americans piece.
  • Environmental conservation is a key part of Guyana's future, and a critical policy question for the next government, argues Anna Correia De Sá in Fair Observer.
More Migration
  • Trinidadian authorities said Venezuelan migrants who were given registration cards will receive “an automatic six-month extension” at the end of the expiry period. (Stabroek News)
  • A light-skinned Peruvian legislative candidate ended a debate with his darker-skinned opponent by handing him two bars of soap -- one for his clothes and one for his face. The racist gesture, inspired in school bullying tactics, is part of a deep-seated prejudice about skin color Latin America, writes Marco Áviles in Post Opinión.
  • The Guaraní indigenous tribe in Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil are losing their habitat and, therefore, the source of their nutrition and subsistence. This has resulted in physical and mental health problems and a sharp increase in suicides, reports Eichhorn-Weiss.
  • Cuba leads Latin America in diabetes control, reports Cuba Debate.

Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Thursday, January 16, 2020

New migrant caravan sets out from Honduras (Jan. 16, 2020)

Hundreds of Hondurans set off from San Pedro Sula yesterday towards the Guatemalan border, forming a new migrant caravan aiming, ultimately, to reach the United States. The caravan format has been used for years, as traveling in large groups protects migrants from violence and extortion on the way. However in recent years the groups have attracted the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has pressured countries in the region to stop migrant flows towards the U.S. (New York Times)

The vanguard of the newest caravan -- about 400 people of an estimated 1,000 -- clashed with Honduran police at the Guatemalan border yesterday after they refused to register with the migration services and forced their way through a line of border police to the Guatemalan side. Honduran police fired tear gas, and Guatemalan police later detained and sent back 15 people. (Reuters)

Guatemala's new president, Alejandro Giammattei said his government would honor Central American migration agreements that permitted Hondurans to enter Guatemala as long as they had proper identification. Mexican authorities will not let the caravan pass, however, he said. (AFP, Guardian) In response to U.S. pressure, Mexico has increasingly worked to stop migrants traveling north through the country. (See yesterday's briefs, for example.)

But the chances that caravan migrants will actually manage to enter the U.S. are low, reports the Guardian. The Trump administration has made it increasingly difficult to apply for asylum. The U.S. has signed asylum agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, permitting it to send asylum seekers there from the U.S. border. The Guatemala agreement is the only one that has been implemented so far. Those who can still apply for asylum in the U.S. are made to wait months in dangerous Mexican border cities. (See yesterday's post and briefs.)

More Migration
  • A gay man who said he was turned away by Guatemala after being sent there by the U.S. to seek asylum is challenging the Trump administration's agreement with Guatemala in U.S. court, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Thousands of asylum seekers, the vast majority entering the U.S. along border with Mexico, have been turned away under the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy, reports the Guardian.


Opposition lawmakers attacked en route to National Assembly building

The latest battle to control Venezuela's National Assembly was again physical: government security forces and Maduro-loyal militias blocked access to the parliamentary building, preventing opposition lawmakers from holding a session, yesterday. Two SUVs carrying an advance guard of lawmakers were attacked by people on the street dressed in civilian clothes and gunshots were heard. They struck the rear window of one, shattering it. Several journalists covering the episode were also attacked by armed civilians: bottles, eggs, tomatoes and feces and urine were thrown at them. (Video)

However, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó led an end run around the blockade, and instead held a session with 92 lawmakers in an amphitheater in the El Hatillo suburb of Caracas. He said the blockade of the National Assembly building was an ambush. Nicolás Maduro's government has targeted the opposition-led National Assembly since the beginning of the year -- physically blocking opposition lawmakers from entering and attempting to instal friendly authorities in their stead, a move that has been broadly condemned internationally. 

National Constituent Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello said, yesterday, that the pro-Maduro supra-congressional body would start to hold commission meetings in the National Assembly building. The government wants to force Guaidó to hold parallel operations outside the national assembly building as a way of undermining his leadership legitimacy, Luis Vicente León told the Washington Post.

Yesterday, Colombia's government condemned the attacks against lawmakers trying to get to the National Assembly building and that security forces permitted armed civilians to fight with impunity.

More Venezuela
  • During yesterday's session, lawmakers formed a commission to reorganize the multi-state Telesur news agency, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
News Briefs

  • Rio de Janeiro residents are complaining about murky and foul smelling public water supplies. In the midst of summer, many say they have felt ill after consuming the water, which the city’s publicly-owned water company insists is safe to drink. (Guardian)
  • Argentine economy minister Martín Guzmán will meet with International Monetary Fund head Kristalina Georgieva at a Vatican organized seminar on Feb. 5 that will serve as a sort of neutral meeting ground for the two to discuss Argentina's massive (many argue unpayable) debt to the international lender. (La Nación)
  • The Netflix documentary series on Alberto Nisman's death, five years ago this week, puts together a complicated jigsaw puzzle that also encompasses the still unsolved AMIA Jewish center bombing that killed 85 people in 1994. More broadly, it paints an "unflattering portrait of Argentina's judiciary: inefficient, with the sombre influence of intelligence services inherited from the dictatorship and profoundly contaminated by the political interests of the president of the day, who have changed their versions according to convenience," writes Sylvia Colombo in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • The main factor behind Mexico City's perennially broken subway escalators? Urine. (Associated Press)
Note: in a headline yesterday I said Colombian activists were being systematically killed, but the U.N. report I cited didn't use the term "systematically," but rather refers to the "staggering number" of human rights defenders assassinated in 2019. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Giammattei swears in, Morales keeps immunity (Jan 15, 2020)

Guatemala's new president, Alejandro Giammattei swore in yesterday -- five hours late, apparently due to unrest in Congress where lawmakers swore in earlier. Several international delegations wound up leaving before the actual ceremony as a result of the delays. (Reuters, El País)

Jimmy Morales, and former VP Jafeth Cabrera found a refuge from prosecution in the Central American Parliament, a regional body that grants immunity to deputies. Morales has been investigated for campaign finance violations, which he denies. Morales and Cabrera had to battle past protesters in order to swear in yesterday. After they were initially blocked from entering the building, National Civilian Police (PNC) dispersed protesters with pepper spray and beatings, reports Nómada. Six demonstrators were detained, reports Soy 502.

Giammattei dedicated his inaugural speech to tough-on-crime promises and corruption, which he said had kept Guatemala poor. “Today, we are putting a full stop on corrupt practices so they disappear from the face of this country,” Giammattei said. He encouraged police to use their guns against criminals when needed, saying the government would defend them if they protected citizens. And he promised a law that would make it easier to prosecute gang members, who will be classified as "terrorists," per a campaign promise. His platform also included reintroducing the death penalty. (Deutsche Welle)

Earlier in the day, Giammattei met with visiting U.S. officials earlier in the day to discuss immigration. One of his immediate challenges will be the implementation of an immigration agreement that allows the U.S. to send asylum seekers from other countries to Guatemala. (See yesterday's briefs.) There has been considerable national and international opposition to the agreement, under which the U.S. has already sent 120 Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers to Guatemala. U.S. officials have said the agreement could also include Mexican asylum seekers. Giammattei still hasn't taken an official stance on the agreement. (Associated Press, Al Jazeera)

The U.S. embassy promised a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. International Development Finance Corp and  Guatemala to spur $1 billion in private-sector investment and create jobs. And Giammattei told U.S. officials he will keep his country’s embassy in Israel in Jerusalem and plans to designate Iran-backed Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Experts note that other challenges include pulling together a work team and a government plan, reports El País. Though he pledged to combat crime, his bid for the presidency "was backed by a battered elite that had seen its political influence decline, largely in response to criminal investigations," reports InSight Crime. Without a large political party of his own, Giammattei will continue to count on the support of those same elite groups.

"In his first one hundred days in office, it will be crucial for Guatemala to tackle its institutional and security challenges in tandem with any new economic plans," recommends the Atlantic Center, which also notes the difficulties of tackling corruption in a country where the last president dismantled the well-regarded international commission aimed at fighting impunity. In CICIG's stead, Giammattei has promised to create a special commission linked to the executive branch.

Giammattei served as the country's prisons director in the mid 2000's, during his tenure there were two notorious cases of prison killings, though Giammattei denies responsibility. (InSight Crime)

More from Guatemala
  • Among the new lawmakers sworn in yesterday was Aldo Dávila, Guatemala's first openly gay congressman, report Nómada.
  • Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele was a rock-star figure at the swearing in ceremony, according to Soy 502.

Colombian activists systematically killed

A new United Nations report said 107 human rights defenders were killed in 2019 -- a number that could rise to 120 as investigations are completed. Challenges in implementing the 2016 peace deal with the FARC, the presence of illegal armed groups in territory once controlled by the leftist rebels, and the government’s military-focused response are all partly to blame. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed alarm at the “staggering number” of social activists killed in the country, reports the Associated Press.

Last week the U.N. said 2019 was the deadliest year for ex-FARC combatants since the peace deal, with 77 former rebels killed over the past 12 months. Eighty percent of the attacks were related to criminal groups and organizations linked to drug trafficking and illegal mining. (See last Friday's briefs.)

Colombia was the most violent place in the world last year for community leaders, according to the new Front Line Defenders, which counts 106 assassinations for last year. Two thirds of the total killings of human rights defenders in 2019 took place in Latin America -- Honduras, Brazil and Mexico are the other leaders in the region of violence against activists. (Guardian)

News Briefs

  • Former Bolivian Government Minister Carlos Romero was detained today in a La Paz clinic where he was being treated for severe hypertension. Interim-government authorities accused him of corruption in relation to a drug trafficking program. Former president Evo Morales denounced the detention as illegal. (Página 12)
  • A decade after an earthquake caused massive destruction in Haiti -- more than 300,000 dead, 1.5 million people injured and another 1.5 million homeless -- the country is still dealing with extensive fallout. "For some Haitians, in addition to navigating the country’s current and chronic problems, the anniversary might make them feel as though they’re still being attacked, both literally and figuratively, by the soil," writes Edwidge Danticat in the New Yorker.
  • A Haitian Times video talks to citizens about how billions of dollars of aid failed to improve the country's prospects.
  • In the wake of the disaster, Americans made big promises they failed to deliver on, writes Jacob Kushner in a New York Times piece that looks at media responsibility as well as that of individual donors.
  • Reuters reports on Haitian farmers awaiting compensation for their land which was used to build an industrial park financed by international donors.
  • In response to U.S. pressure, Mexican authorities are stopping many migrants from passing through their country, stranding them in the city of Tapachula, reports PBS News Hour.
  • Mexican efforts increased deportations of would-be Salvadoran migrants by 67 percent in 2019, reports El Faro. It's part of a general increase of deportations to El Salvador from both the U.S. and Mexico, estimated to be about 41 percent last year.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's publicity ploy to sell off the country's presidential jet backfired: after a year on sale in the U.S. nobody bought it, and it piled up $1.5 million in maintenance fees, reports the Associated Press.
  • Argentine President Alberto Fernández is angling to defer payments on $100 billion debt he inherited from his predecessor, but his plan B is a swift default if creditors don't agree, according to the Latin America Risk Report.
  • Peruvian authorities accused six tourists, from Chile, Brazil, France and Argentina, of damaging Incan ruins at Machu Picchu. Five will be deported and the Argentine, the self admitted ringleader, will remain in the country to face charges of "destroying Peru’s cultural heritage." (Reuters)

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Morales calls on communities to defend themselves (Jan. 14, 2020)

A recording of former Bolivian president Evo Morales calling on citizens to form armed groups was broadcast on public radio and later confirmed by the exiled leader. "Before long, if I return to Bolivia, we will have to organize popular armed militias, as Venezuela has done," he told a community radio in belonging to the coca growing union. (AFP)

People have a right to defend themselves against the interim-government's attacks, he told Reuters. "In Bolivia, if the armed forces are shooting the people, killing the people, the people have the right to organize their security," he said. Nonetheless, he clarified that he didn't mean armed with guns, but rather a form of communal guard or citizen defense group. He later tweeted that indigenous peasant movements had defended themselves in the past.

He stressed that such organization is within the constitutional framework and in accordance with local customs, reports Prensa Latina. He also denounced on Twitter, yesterday, how the interim-government that succeeded Morales after his November ouster is using the Armed Forces to massacre and persecute defenseless Bolivians.

Bolivia's military didn't take it very well. "Bolivia's people are hurt and our armed forces outraged," said Defense Minister Luis Fernando Lopez in a press conference yesterday.

Morales has been accused of terrorism and sedition by the interim government and an arrest warrant has been issued against him. Nonetheless, Morales said he plans to return to his country when campaigning for May presidential elections starts, according to AFP.

He said he would prefer to be incarcerated in Bolivia than generating collateral damage to third countries, like Argentina and Mexico, which have granted him refuge since his ouster. (La Razón) His presence has raised diplomatic hackles, and opposition criticisms in both countries, see yesterday's briefs.

(More at Nodal.)

News Briefs

  • The U.S. is shipping out asylum seekers to Guatemala -- but human rights groups say dozens of migrants were misled by U.S. officials into boarding flights, and who were not informed of their asylum rights upon arrival. Those who don’t immediately apply for asylum are told to leave the country in 72 hours. But, of the 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala since the program began last month, only five have applied for asylum, reports the Washington Post. And though the U.S. initially suggested that the "safe third country"-style program would only be applied to single men, less than a month after it began, families with young children are arriving on the charter flights.
  • Guatemala will swear in Alejandro Giammattei, a conservative physician opposed to gay marriage and abortion, as its new president today. The Asylum Cooperation Agreement with the U.S. will be one of his first challenges in office. (Reuters, Nodal)
  • The Cuban government is holding thousands of inmates on dubious charges and has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to a former high-level judge and an antigovernment activist. The revelations by Edel González Jiménez are believed to be the first public challenge to the Cuban government by a top member of the judiciary, reports the New York Times.
  • The Cuban government prohibits critics -- opposition leaders, activists, religious leaders, and independent journalists -- by refusing them permission to leave the island. In part this strategy is aimed at limiting the international recognition of critical voices, writes Abraham Jiménez Enoa, director of El Estornudo in the Post Opinión. (He was among the activists recently prevented from leaving their house by police on Human Rights Day, see post for Dec. 11, 2019)
  • Illegal gold miners, garimpeiros, are destroying Brazil's Yanomami indigenous reserve. The problem has worsened since President Jair Bolsonaro took office a year ago, his ministers have met with garimpeiro leaders, and he has said the reserve is too big for its indigenous population. He introduced a bill in Congress that would legalize wildcat mining, reports the Guardian.
  • Venezuela's crisis is increasingly geographically unequal: Caracas, the capital, is thriving -- by executive fiat -- while the rest of the country is bled even more dry, reports the New York Times. "Across much of the country, basic government functions like policing, road maintenance, health care and public utilities have been abandoned.
  • The U.S. blacklisted seven Venezuelan officials involved in President Nicolás Maduro's attempt to wrest control from the opposition in the National Assembly, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See also Foreign Policy.)
  • The messy fight over the National Assembly is motivated by oil, say analysts in the Wall Street Journal. The Maduro government seeks long-term survival by bringing in Russian, Chinese and other investors to revive the country’s collapsing crude production. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • U.S. sanctions waivers to U.S. oil companies operating in Venezuela are scheduled to expire on Jan. 22, reports Fox News.
  • Venezuela is experimenting with a new loophole to oil sanctions: allocating cargoes to joint-venture partners including Chevron Corp, which in turn market the oil to customers in Asia and Africa, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Upcoming extraordinary legislative elections in Peru -- to be held Jan 24 -- could be "a big opportunity for Peru’s anti-corruption fight, and could set the stage for presidential elections next year," explains Simon Tegel in Americas Quarterly.
  • The Chilean national institute of human rights is asking for a probe into chemicals allegedly used by police against protesters last Friday, reports Telesur. (See yesterday's post.)
  • The fight against corruption in Latin America has been tainted by indications of over-reach in various countries -- Brazil and Peru, particularly. In Argentina, the plea bargain system implemented in 2016, "ley de arrepentido," has been used in ways that violate the rights of the accused, argues Graciana Peñafort in Cohete a la Luna.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...