Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Venezuelan election updates (Feb. 21, 2018)

Venezuela's government officially requested U.N. electoral accompaniment and observance, said the head of the country's electoral authority yesterday. The request aims to satisfy one of the demands of the failed negotiation with the political opposition, reports TeleSUR.

The CNE requested the delegation be led by former Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who has led international mediation efforts, reports El País. The U.N. said it had not received a formal request yet.

The move comes as the country's main opposition parties have announced they will sit out the vote due to lack of electoral guarantees, reports Bloomberg. Yesterday, Henrique Capriles' Primero Justicia party announced it would not participate, and last week Leopoldo López's Voluntad Popular party also said it wouldn't field a candidate. 

However, Avanzada Progresista candidate, former Lara state governor Henri Falcón might participate outside of the MUD opposition coalition, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Yesterday the party's secretary called for a united opposition to the government. The Juntos political movement, which includes critical chavistas, also called on civil society to participate and rejected opposition calls for a boycott, reports Efecto Cocuyo separately. Abstention is useless and only promotes violent confrontation said the group in a press release yesterday.

Government leader Diosdado Cabello, VP of the ruling Socialist Party, proposed holding early Congressional elections in April, along with the presidential vote. The move would cut short the tenure of the opposition-controlled National Assembly by two years, reports Reuters. Political experts consulted by Efecto Cocuyo said the plan wasn't viable and would run roughshod over political rights.

President Nicolas Maduro said Venezuela's new oil-backed cryptocurrency raised $735 million dollars on its launch day, at a a "startup-style" celebration, reports the Washington Post. But skeptics say the project is unlikely to thrive due to lack of confidence in its leadership.

The New York Times quotes Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who calls it "a desperate move by a regime that is increasingly isolated and has an economy that has spiraled out of its control."

Though its angled at mitigating the effects of U.S. sanctions limiting credit and business with the Venezuelan government, though U.S. officials have warned that investing in the petro could potentially be interpreted as an extension of credit.

Yesterday Maduro made a direct appeal via Twitter to U.S. President Donald Trump, reminding him of his campaign promise not to interfere in other countries and inviting him to dialogue, reports the Washington Post. The White House rejected the proposal, calling on Maduro to restore democracy in Venezuela first, reports EFE.

News Briefs
  • Making it harder for immigrants to legally stay in the U.S. and increasing deportations will only make the U.S. less safe, argues Oscar Martínez in a New York Times op-ed. Deportation, in and of itself, strengthens gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) by handing them recruits familiar with the U.S., who often return and bring the gang along with them, he writes. "But the biggest problem with the focus on deportation is that it distracts from the efforts that would really make a difference." Gangs do not win over these youths, he writes, because "the United States is not fighting for these boys." He criticizes lack of social policies in areas where immigrant youths live in the U.S., and lack of oversight of unaccompanied minors. "Last June, a teenager at Uniondale who was a “chequeo,” the lowest rung on the MS-13 ladder, told me why he joined the group. “You feel lost,” he said, when reflecting on his arrival at the school. He said that everyone had been after him: the police, because being young and Salvadoran made him a potential MS-13 member; the black gangs, because he looked like a Latino gang member; the Latino gangs — including MS-13 — because he wasn’t then a member. He did not join a cartel for money, or a gang because he was an “animal.” He joined MS-13 out of frustration, loneliness and the need for protection."
  • Immigration is also a major political issue in Chile now, writes Ariel Dorfman in a New York Times op-ed. He argues the country should look at its history of receiving Spanish republicans fleeing Franco, the result of a campaign by poet Pablo Neruda. "Almost 80 years later, those undesirables pose disturbing questions for us, both in Chile and elsewhere. Where are the presidents who welcome destitute refugees with open arms despite the most virulent slander against them? Where are the Nerudas of yesteryear, ready to launch ships like poems to defend the right to happiness?"
  • Looking at Latin America in 2018, an observer might well feel a sense of déjà vu, writes Carol Pires in a New York Times Español op-ed, comparing the current state of regional politics to 1989. She analyzes various political throwbacks throughout the region, and the rise of socially conservative agendas. "The left that is exiting the stage now, disinflated by its populist tendencies and accusations of corruption, needs a new programatic project that doesn't sound like a late-night Cold War conversation. But the right has reacted as if the solution to all problems is to enter a time machine that throws us back to the 80s. A good start to air out that smell of mothballs would be for the right to commit to liberal values, not only in its economic discourse, but also in the social arena. And to, for once and for all, break its ties to military regimes."
  • Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has consolidated broad control over the country's institutions and politics, helped along by a well-oiled network of friendly businesses fed with Venezuelan financing. U.S. sanctions -- such as the U.S. Nica Act, which if passed by Congress would seek to limit financing unless the government strengthens democratic and electoral institutions -- are a start, but will be insufficient to root out the corrupt system put in place by the former Sandinista guerrilla leader, argues Diego Fonseca in a New York Times Español op-ed. "The crisis has the dimension of a generational mortgage for Nicaragua because, even if Ortega were to leave power tomorrow, the state within a state constructed by the FSLN would remain encysted while the partners of the president maintain key posts in congress or the court of justice."
  • Brazilian authorities indicate a desire to institutionalize the militarization of security policy launched in Rio de Janeiro this week. (See yesterday's post.) But the approach "has shown little long-term promise — both in Brazil and throughout Latin America," warns InSight Crime.
  • A large-scale seizure of FARC assets in Colombia "is likely to reinforce the perception that the rebel group is not fully committed to the terms of the peace agreement, particularly when it comes to using its assets to provide reparations for victims," reports InSight Crime. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The U.N. warned that criminal gangs battling over drug trafficking routes in the wake of FARC demobilization have displaced more than 800 people in northern Colombia, reports Reuters.
  • The FARC political party is analyzing resuming its presidential campaign, suspended nearly two weeks ago due to lack of security guarantees, reports El Espectador.
  • Candidates for Mexico's main political parties formally launched their presidential campaigns on Sunday: Andrés Manuel López Obrador for Morena, Ricardo Anaya for a coalition between the the conservative National Action Party and leftist Democratic Revolution Party, and José Antonio Meade, the first non-member presidential candidate for the governing PRI, reports the Associated Press.
  • A Mexican bishop uses his religious status to negotiate with cartel bosses and attempt to reduce violence in Guerrero, reports the Guardian.
  • At least 500 children were illegally adopted by foreigners during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet according to an investigation by a Chilean judge. The practice was common during the authoritarian regime and affected mostly poor women, reports TeleSUR.
  • Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera, known for her politically charged art, will be the Tate Modern's next commission for the Turbine Hall, reports the Guardian.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Military intervention in Rio criticized (Feb. 20, 2018)

Brazil's lower chamber of congress approved a presidential decree authorizing federal military intervention in Rio de Janeiro state's security. The senate is expected to pass the measure later today, reports Reuters. (See Friday's briefs.)

It is the first military intervention since the country's return to democracy three decades ago, and critics say it is a play to improve President Michel Temer's rock-bottom popularity ratings more than a policy solution, reports the New York TimesOpponents to the measure sought a Supreme Court stay before the vote, arguing the decree was politically motivated and that it was procedurally improper.

Temer signed the decree on Friday, after Carnival celebrations were marred by mass robberies and shootouts between gangs and security forces. It grants the military broad powers to restore order, and police forces, which have had shortages of personnel and equipment, under the command of a general. The measure could stay in place through the end of the year, when Temer's mandate ends.

Yesterday Defense Minister Raul Jungmann said the government is preparing a series of collective search and seizure warrants for entire Rio neighborhoods, reports El País. The collective warrants, would, for example, allow security forces to search any house in specific communities, even if residents themselves are not suspected of a crime. The measure has been used in the past, but was banned by Rio de Janeiro justices. Experts say it is likely there will be legal challenges.

While officials are touting intervention as a solution to rampant violence, rights groups, including Amnesty International, say it doubles down on violations committed by security forces. Rio is already the state with the most deaths during police operations, notes the Associated Press. Favela residents criticized the decree, saying previous interventions did not represent solutions, reports the Guardian.

And many military leaders themselves are opposed to being considered a public safety solution, notes the NYT. "Combating organized crime requires effective action by the government in economic and social spheres, in order to make drug trafficking less appealing in areas where a large segment of the population is grappling with unemployment," wrote the top military commander, General Eduardo Villas Bôas. "Even as the military has been called to act in different areas, sometimes for lengthy periods,” he added, “we don’t observe considerable changes due to lack of engagement by government agencies responsible for other areas."

Experts say there is no quick fix, and question the approach. Sociologist Julita Lemgruber is cited in AFP arguing that it may give short-term results, but won't allow for necessary police reorganization.

Rights and constitutional concerns notwithstanding, some Brazilian leaders argue the military intervention model could serve as a policy solution in other violent parts of the country, reports the Associated Press. While Rio is not Brazil's most violent state, according to data from the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, the piece notes the symbolic weight of its deteriorated security situation.

In an electoral year, many experts question the true motivation of the measure. A poll last month found 38 percent of Brazilians feel public security is a major concern in determining their vote.

And the intervention decree blocks any constitutional changes during its duration, effectively tabling an unpopular and oft-postponed pension reform bill vote in Congress. It is also probable, however, that the government would not be able to muster up votes for the measure, reports Reuters separately. The reform was a centerpiece of Temer's political agenda and is considered a key move by investors and economists, according to the Financial Times. Lawmakers are anxious to avoid the unpopular reform in an electoral year.

News Briefs
  • Riot police freed 18 hostages held in a Rio prison riot this weekend, reports the BBC. Officials at the Milton Dias Moreira prison said the riot could have been in response to the new security measures.
  • Brazilian officials are seeking to crack down on fake news, and argue that freedom of expression cannot come at the expense of illegitimate elections, reports the New York Times. Judicial and police authorities recently created a task force of law enforcement and intelligence personnel, which is developing strategies to prevent fake news from being produced and to limit its reach once misleading content starts spreading online. (See Jan. 11's post.) However, their efforts are bumping up against a 2014 law that gives internet users in Brazil strong privacy and freedom of expression protections, notes the NYT. A bill in Congress would penalize intentionally spreading false information with two years of jail, though it is unlikely to pass before this year's election. (See Feb. 12's briefs.)
  • False internet rumors about the dangers of yellow fever vaccines are circulating in Brazil, undermining a public health push to inoculate residents in the midst of an outbreak of the of the potentially deadly mosquito borne disease, reports the Washington Post. (See Feb. 12's briefs on the issue of fake news in this year's election campaign.)
  • A Peruvian court ordered former autocratic leader Alberto Fujimori to stand trial in the case of six victims of an alleged death squad killing in 1992. Fujimori received a controversial Christmas Eve, presidential pardon for crimes against humanity at the end of last year, but the court said that does not apply in this case, reports the BBC. Prosecutors charged 23 other people along with Fujimori in the case, including former paramilitary and military officers, reports El País.
  • The U.S. government has rebuffed Mexican authorities' request to help investigate the use of government surveillance technology against critics. The U.S. is concerned about being used as a cover in a sham inquiry, reports the New York Times. A serious inquiry would likely implicate top government officials. And more than six months after the case came to light, the Mexican investigation has yet to make any headway. The group of forensic analysts that discovered the improper use of the Israeli developed technology countered government assertions that authorities were in contact with them regarding the case.
  • Venezuela's MUD opposition coalition is still debating whether to participate in upcoming snap elections called by the government, in a context of unresolved electoral irregularities and lack of guarantees. A majority of the coalition's parties are inclined against participating, but the slow decision making process is indicative of the opposition's broader problems, reports El País.
  • The international community has an important role to play in restoring democratic rights in Venezuela, argues David Smilde, who outlines positive and counterproductive measures in a Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights post. "As I have said before, at WOLA we do not have a principled opposition to sanctions, but we do have a principled suspicion of them. That is because most research is clear that sanctions do not “work,” in other words, do not achieve their stated objective, most of the time." He notes that effective sanctions tend to be multilateral, and the importance of an effective communication campaign to accompany them. "Let there be no doubt that the Maduro government is currently winning the communications battle around sanctions. It mentions the debt sanctions at every opportunity and blames them for all of Venezuela’s scarcities and shortages. In December, polls showed that 55,6% of Venezuelans rejected economic sanctions. Even people identifying themselves as opposition supporters are more likely to reject these debt sanctions than support them. This rejection has likely increased since December since the economic situation has dramatically deteriorated since then." He also urges for more international mediation, and potentially a system of transitional justice.
  • Venezuela is launching a petroleum backed crypto-currency today, a move aimed at sidestepping international sanctions, reports CNBC. It's estimated the government could raise about $6 billion with the move, reports Al Jazeera. Though it has been compared to the bitcoin, critics say it lacks the transparency and trust a stable digital currency needs, and that it will likely become a "shitcoin," reports the Guardian.
  • The New York Times reports on refugees fleeing Venezuela's crisis into neighboring countries.
  • Oxfam released a 2011 investigation into misconduct of its employees in Haiti, documenting accusations that three employees investigated for sexual misconduct also physically threatened a witness, reports the New York Times. The names of staff members were redacted.
  • Oxfam has lost 7,000 regular donors since it was revealed staff sexually exploited victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, reports the Guardian. The British charity offered its “humblest apologies” to the Haitian government, reports the Guardian separately.
  • Colombian authorities confiscated goods from businesses covering for the old FARC guerrilla, worth about $230 million, reports El País. A chain of supermarkets was key in supplying the guerrillas and whitewashing illicit funds. Marketed as a low-cost alternative, the stores offered some basic goods at below wholesale price. And testimony against the supposed owners indicates they may have also collaborated in identifying potential kidnapping victims.
  • The Los Angeles Times reports on the difficulties former FARC guerrillas are facing in reintegrating into society. Of the 7,400 fighters who reported to the camps starting in January 2017, about half remain. Given trouble many former fighters face, it is better if they stick together, Maria Victoria Llorente, director of the Ideas for Peace Foundation think tank in Bogota, said in the piece.
  • A 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Mexico’s Oaxaca state Friday morning, but did not cause any deaths, reports the New York Times.
  • A government helicopter carrying officials surveying earthquake damage killed at least 13 people and wounded dozens sleeping outside after the tremors, reports the Washington Post.
  • "The Trade,” a Showtime series about heroin shows how opium poppy is cultivated in Mexico's Guerrero state and how heroin is manufactured, packaged and shipped north to the United States. The Washington Post interviewed producer Myles Estey.
  • In the wake of a Chilean sexual abuse scandal, and accusations of lack of compassion by alleged victims, Pope Francis reactivated an abuse commission that had lapsed into dormancy, reports the New York Times. A Vatican statement said the panel would include some victims of clerical sexual abuse.
  • A perennial campaign to legalize abortion within the first trimester in Argentina, has gained traction and visibility recently, and activists are pushing lawmakers to approve a reintroduced bill, reports InfoBAE. Argentina passed socially progressive laws under the previous Kirchner administrations, but activists were hindered by the personal religious beliefs against abortion of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, according to El País. Though current President Mauricio Macri is also opposed, a few prominent members of his government have indicated support, as have opposition lawmakers.

Friday, February 16, 2018

MACCIH head quits, accuses OAS of lack of support (Feb. 16, 2018)

The head of the OAS anti-corruption mission in Honduras resigned last night, citing lack of support from the organization and the Honduran government. Peruvian Juan Jiménez Mayor published a letter on Twitter saying he was not received by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in Washington last month, and defending the MACCIH's work.

Jiménez's resignation came a day after Almagro sent a letter to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández expressing disappointment in the MACCIH's work in the two years since it started, reports the Associated Press.

MACCIH prosecutor Julio Arbizú and judge Daniel Urrutia also presented their resignations, reports La Prensa.

Jiménez said the anti-corruption mission is not receiving the necessary support from the OAS, pointing to lack of staffing and security concerns. He has also pointed to obstacles from the Honduran government. Last month lawmakers passed a law effectively shielding themselves from corruption investigations. A judge immediately suspended a case against five lawmakers based on a MACCIH investigation showing how public funds were stolen using non-profit organizations. (See Jan. 24's post on the "impunity pact," and Jan. 31's on the American University Center for Latin American & Latino Studies' MACCIH monitor.)

MACCIH has denounced the procedure with which this legal change was introduced, and is investigating the case, notes El Faro.

Jiménez also noted that anti-corruption legislation suggested by the mission has not prospered, and that reforms to the penal code actually diminished sentences for corruption, against the mission's recommendations, reports El Heraldo.

Jiménez's letter criticizes lack of OAS support, and also staffing choices. On television, he accused Almagro of not giving Honduras the same level of importance accorded to the Venezuelan crisis, reports El Faro.

On Twitter Arbizú also criticized lack of OAS support and seems to hint at corruption in use of the organization's funds, reports La Prensa.

Jiménez called "on the Honduran people to demand the continuation of the mission and the selection of a new chief of mission that guarantees the seriousness and firmness in the fight against corruption and impunity in Honduras."

The mission was created in 2016, following massive protests denouncing corruption in relation to the management of the country's social security system. (See post for Jan. 20, 2016.)

News Briefs
  • The Honduran government will cooperate with the U.S. to crack down on gangs in the Central American country, reports El Heraldo. A cabinet member revealed that the plan includes the revision of Honduras' criminal legislation, with harsher sentences for gang members.
  • Earlier this week JOH called on the U.N. to investigate whether MS-13 tried to influence November's much questioned election which resulted in his second term. Political opposition leaders have denied the accusations, reports the Associated Press
  • El Salvador's Supreme Court commuted the 30 year prison sentence of a woman convicted of homicide after what she characterized as a stillbirth. Teodora del Carmen Vásquez served over a decade in prison, but judges determined there was insufficient evidence against her. Nonetheless, the judges did not find her innocent, emphasizes El Faro. Abortion is illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador. Two bills that would permit it under limited circumstances, including to save the life of the pregnant woman have not yet been considered by a congressional committee, reports the New York Times.
  • Costa Rican presidential candidates Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz and  Carlos Alvarado Quesada are tied in the latest poll. The two will face off in a second round in April, after a February election that was dominated by a debate over same sex marriage, reports the AFP. (See Feb. 5's post.)
  • The Costa Rican Ombudswoman’s Office reported an increase in violence against members of Costa Rica’s LGBTI community following the first round of presidential elections, reports the AFP separately.
  • The election "results did not definitively clarify whether Costa Ricans want a significant change, or whether, instead, they prefer to see the party in power continue," writes Daniel Zovatto for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. He analyzes a series of trends in the Costa Rican election that are also relevant for the rest of the region, including a high level of uncertainty and volatility, discrediting of traditional parties, fragmentation, and the growing importance of run-off votes.
  • Brazil’s military is expected to take over public security duties in Rio de Janeiro amid soaring rates of violent crime, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Over 10 percent of Brazilian high-ranking politicians, including President Michel Temer, received campaign donations from companies linked to modern-day slavery, according to an investigation by Repórter Brazil. Though receiving the donations is not itself forbidden, "the report provides an insight into how closely connected lawmakers can be with companies and individuals linked to illegal practices," explains the Guardian.
  • Colombia's government said it has discovered that several ELN guerrilla attacks have planned from Venezuela, reports EFE. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Mexico's foreign minister will travel to the Caribbean next month, in a diplomatic effort to woo Venezuelan allies there, reports Reuters. Luis Videgaray is scheduled to visit Jamaica, Grenada and Saint Lucia. Reuters also reports that Cuban diplomats are also scheduled to meet with the Mexican counterparts.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced the reopening of the country's Miami consulate, closed since 2012, in time for exiles living there to vote in April's presidential elections, reports Reuters. It seems to be a sop at pluralism in an election that is internationally repudiated.
  • He also said he would attend April's Summit of the Americas in Peru, despite the host country having withdrawn Venezuela's invite, reports AFP. (See Wednesday's briefs.) "Are they are afraid of me? They don't want to see me in Lima? They're going to see me, come rain, thunder or lightning!" said Maduro. Peruvian Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz hit back, saying "A head of state cannot come to a country without an invitation, so he cannot get to step on Peruvian soil without an invitation."
  • Wall Street investors are stuck in limbo with Venezuela bonds, reports Bloomberg.
  • Haiti has promised an investigation into the sexual misconduct accusations against British charity Oxfam, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexico's first indigenous presidential candidate Marichuy Patricio is in stable condition after being involved in a traffic accident earlier this week, reports EFE.
  • Lidar mapping is rewriting archeology textbooks about the region. The latest discovery is a Purépecha city in western Mexico, Angamuco, where 100,000 people are believed to have lived around 1000 AD, reports the Guardian. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Corruption, violence Carnival themes (Feb. 15, 2018)

News Briefs
  • Brazil heads into an electoral year marked by voter anger at corruption. The samba school Beija-Flor de Nilópolis won the parade title on Wednesday in Rio’s Sambadrome, with a float showing the country in charge of a rat and politicians as wolves in sheeps clothing holding briefcases lined in gold, reports the BBC. The winning school also represented the wave of violence affecting Rio de Janeiro, showing school-children affected by a shoot-out, reports Reuters.
  • With former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva apparently out of the race, Brazil's presidential candidates must battle voter rejection of politics and the political class, reports El País. A new poll shows that if Lula can't run, a third of voters would prefer to cast blank votes than to support another candidate. Marina Silva (former senator), Geraldo Alckmin (governor of São Paulo), and Ciro Gomes (former Ceará governor) are all following firebrand Jair Bolsonaro in the polls. And television presenter Luciano Huck could become the outsider alternative.
  • Carnival celebrations in Rio were marred by increased violence, reports the New York Times.
  • Brazil’s government will declare an emergency in its northern border state of Roraima to boost funding and troops to help control an influx of Venezuelan refugees into the country, reports Reuters.
  • The strange "sonic attacks" that affected over a dozen U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba have defied FBI investigators, but nonetheless have propelled U.S. policy towards the island, notably a rollback of the Obama administration's rapprochement. ProPublica reports in-depth on the little that is known of the "attacks," which seem to have focused on undercover CIA agents initially, and the lack of credible candidates for carrying them out -- from the Cuban state, to a rouge faction, to the Russians. In the meantime, the withdrawal of most of the U.S. embassy staff from Havana has complicated carrying out policies and diplomacy, notes the piece.
  • Former Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom and 10 members of his cabinet were detained on Tuesday in a case regarding $35 million stolen in public funds ostensibly to be used to modernize the capital's bus system. (See yesterday's post.) Nómada has more details on the Public Ministry and CICIG investigation into shell companies used to obtain the funds, which were allegedly disbursed without following proper procedure. The case hits at the UNE government, a response to critics of the CICIG and MP who say it only targeted other parties' leaders, according to Nómada. Also, stay tuned, in January attorney general Thelma Aldana promised 10 major cases before leaving her post in May -- so far this is the third. More to come ... 
  • After 18 years of democracy in Peru, the Fujimori family continues to wield a strong political presence. The legacy of former autocratic leader Alberto Fujimori is now disputed by his two feuding offspring, Keiko and Kenji. In turn, ahead of the next presidential election in three years, they must figure out how to combat the country's other major political force, anti-fujimorismo, which has prevented the family from regaining power in the second round of recent elections, explains Diego Salazar in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • The International Criminal Court's preliminary examination of alleged human rights abuses committed by security forces in Venezuela is an important mechanism for international pressure on the Maduro government, and could help raise the cost of repression in line with Robert Dahl's theory of democratization of authoritarian regimes, argues José Ignacio Hernández in a New York Times Español op-ed
  • There's been a lot on the deterioration of the U.S. - LatAm relationship recently. But Americas Quarterly editor-in-chief Brian Winter argues that the region is actually quietly "trumpista" in many ways. "Indeed, if you really look around the region, what you see are an increasing number of fellow travelers."
  • U.S. President Donald Trump will meet soon with his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto, in upcoming weeks, ending a year of cool relations after a war of words over the U.S. leader's insistence on a border wall to be paid for by Mexico, reports El País. The announcement comes as Mexico's foreign minister Luis Videgaray is in Washington where he is meeting with several cabinet members. 
  • An analysis of pro-Kremlin media in Latin America by the AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab found that the largest players -- Sputnik and RT -- have expanded their reach in the region. But they do not appear to be backing specific candidates in Mexico and Colombia's upcoming presidential elections, though they do espose an anti-U.S. bias and support Nicolás Maduro's run for reelection in Venezuela. The report indicates a slight bias in favor of Mexican front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in less known portals.
  • AMLO remains in the lead according to the latest poll, by Mitofsky and published in El Economista. He has 27.1 percent voter intention, while Ricardo Anaya of a left-right coalition comes in second behind him with 22.3 percent, reports Reuters.
  • Mexico's first indigenous presidential candidate, Marichuy Patricio, was hurt in a car accident that killed a member of her staff and wounded eight others, reports El País.
  • An amendment under consideration in Brazil's Congress would completely outlaw abortion, in all cases, reports PRI. Currently it is only legal in cases of rape, threat to mother's life or a fatal brain defect in the fetus.
  • Residents of the Caribbean and certain parts of the U.S. share a vulnerability to increasing hurricanes due to climate change -- but the two hold very different views on the relevance of the problem, write Elizabeth Zechmeister, director of Vanderbuilt University's Latin American Public Opinion Project, and Claire Evans in the Conversation. The latest AmericasBarometer survey found that between 56 percent and 79 percent of respondents in the Caribbean believe that climate change is a very serious problem for their country. In contrast, in the U.S. the issue is divided along partisan lines.
  • The newly created Yaguas National Park in Peru will protect millions of acres of roadless wilderness and the indigenous tribes that inhabit it, reports the New York Times.
  • In the wake of the U.S. abandonment of global free markets, Chile has "stepped up as a surprisingly effective global player in advancing free trade," write Anders Beal and Benjamin Gedan in Global Americans. The piece analyzes how Chilean diplomacy was critical in salvaging that Trans-Pacific Partnership after the U.S. pulled out of the agreement, and argues that "moving forward, it is likely Chile will continue to wield outsized influence on trade issues in the Western Hemisphere."
  • A devastating fire earlier this week in Port-au-Prince's "Iron Market" destroyed one of the city's principal tourist attractions and the livelihoods of many merchants, reports the BBC.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Guatemalan former president detained in corruption case (Feb. 14, 2018)

Former Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom was arrested yesterday, along with nine members of his cabinet, the latest in anti-graft investigations led by the public ministry and the U.N. anti-corruption commission, the CICIG. The former politicians were arrested in an early morning police raid in connection with an investigation into a new Guatemala City bus-system, reports the New York Times.

Prosecutors said that $35 million in government money had been paid to a consortium of private bus companies in charge of the system, known as the Transurbano. Almost a third of the money was spent on equipment that was never used, they said. "These 10 people were arrested for alleged crimes of embezzlement and fraud," said Matias Ponce, a CICIG spokesperson.

The government auctioned off 25-year concessions for Guatemala City bus routes and the private companies that won the contracts were later exempted from taxes, explains the Associated Press.

Speaking after a court appearance yesterday, Colom said the concession was handled correctly to the best of his knowledge.

Nómada has more details on the system, also here, reportedly coordinated by former First Lady Sandra Torres. The arrested cabinet members all signed a 2009 decree giving government funding to a private union of companies without competition or the possibility of a public administration for the system. Former vice president Rafael Espada said yesterday that he refused to sign due to doubts about the legality of publicly funding private companies.

Torres has not yet been implicated, though it is a possibility that it could happen in a subsequent phase of the investigation, reports El Periódico which also has more details on the investigation and the fraud allegations.

Former finance minister Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, current chairman of Oxfam International, was among the detainees, who will await a hearing next week. The charges against Fuentes come as Oxfam is facing a separate scandal over allegations that the organization covered up for former employees accused of hiring prostitutes in Haiti while on an aid mission there. 

Though the arrest is unrelated to Fuentes' tenure at Oxfam, it will likely draw attention to issues of due diligence in senior appointments, reports the Guardian.

Colom is the latest in a series of Guatemalan leaders investigated for corruption. He was named as OAS envoy to Honduras recently in a bid to sort out the country's post-electoral crisis, reports the Associated Press.

News Briefs
  • A leaked document shows the Guatemalan government is maintaining its push against the CICIG, reports Plaza Pública. The Guatemalan foreign ministry reportedly argued in a U.N. meeting that CICIG head Iván Velásquez has overstepped his mandate. (See Aug. 28's post.)
  • Haitian President Jovenel Moïse condemned Oxfam in light of the allegations that aid workers had used prostitutes while working in the country. The BBC reports that an investigation will now be launched into foreign aid agencies operating there.
  • Left-right Mexican coalition candidate Ricardo Anaya accused the country's intelligence service of spying on him. Front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made similar accusations and has promised to shut down the intelligence service if he wins, reports the Guardian.
  • Peru has withdrawn an invitation for Venezuela to participate in April's Summit of the Americas meeting, due to the Venezuelan government's unilateral decision to hold presidential elections in April, reports the Associated Press. The move has the backing of the Lima Group, the informal alliance of 14 countries in the region that aims to "restore democracy" in Venezuela.
  • Earlier this week Venezuela's government accused Colombia of planning a bombing campaign or military invasion, further heightening tensions in the region, reports the Miami Herald.
  • U.S. prosecutors believe that Venezuela's former oil czar and ambassador to the United Nations, Rafael Ramírez, received bribes as part of an alleged multibillion-dollar graft scheme, reports the Associated Press.
  • Peruvian finance minister Claudia Cooper said the country's economy risks a systemic crisis within its construction sector as corruption investigations force companies to halt work, reports Reuters. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • If and how Colombia's transitional justice system manages to try war crimes will be a key test for the country's controversial peace treaty with the FARC guerrillas, according to Reuters. How the the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) prioritizes cases will prove key. Colombia’s high court is currently considering whether thousands of cases of sexual violence, including rape, which all factions committed, will be tried by the JEP or be dealt with by the criminal justice system.
  • "Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms," write Stephen Dudley and Héctor Silva at the AULA blog. "Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community." (See yesterday's post on their investigation for InSight Crime and the American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies into MS-13.)
  • Peruvian authorities captured a prisoner who had escaped from jail by drugging his visiting twin brother and swapping places, reports the Guardian.
  • A Brazilian Supreme Court justice asked the country's police chief to clarify comments made to the media regarding an ongoing corruption investigation into President Michel Temer, reports Reuters. Federal Police Director General Fernando Segovia said said police found no proof that a decree signed last year by Temer favored logistics firm Rodrimar S.A. Justice Luis Barroso said the comments on an ongoing investigation put pressure and threatens the autonomy of the federal police deputy in charge of the case.
  • Brazilian law student Rebeca Mendes writes in the Los Angeles Times about how she petitioned to have a legal abortion in Brazil for personal reasons -- and was denied. She eventually was able to obtain the procedure legally in Colombia, but decries "the lack of safe and legal options makes the possibility of grave injury and even death a constant reality for women seeking abortion services in Brazil."
  • Another Los Angles Times piece profiles a new LGBT shelter for youth in São Paulo.
  • A striking Samba school display in Rio de Janeiro highlighted the bitter realities of violence in the country, featuring performers as victims of stray bullets, armed favela gangs, corrupt politicians and executives, murdered police officers, and terrified schoolchildren cowering during a shootout, reports the Guardian.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

MS-13 is an international criminal gang, new report (Feb. 13, 2018)

InSight Crime and American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies released an in-depth study on Salvadoran street gang MS-13.

As the gang increasingly makes U.S. headlines as a focal point for the Trump administration's migration policy, the study "attempts to explain what makes the MS13 such a difficult problem for authorities to tackle. It focuses on assisting law enforcement’s understanding of the gang’s criminal activities, but it includes deep discussion on the social and political issues around the MS13."

The study outlines an organization that is now operative throughout Central America and also in parts of the U.S. and even in Europe. But the phenomenon is more complex than it might seem -- it is primarily a social organization, that works without a single leadership. The report warns that it is a transnational gang, not a transnational criminal organization, with only an adjunct role in international criminal schemes.

"The diffuse nature of the organization has widespread implications for how it operates. The gang has guidelines more than rules. These guidelines are subject to haphazard interpretations and application. In other words, this internal justice is not necessarily a strict system and often depends more on who the leader is and who is being judged, rather the actual transgression or the circumstances surrounding it. This inconsistent application of the rules leads to constant internal and external conflicts and is the cause of widespread violence wherever the gang operates."

"MS13 violence is brutal and purposeful. Violence is at the heart of the MS13 and is what has made it a target of law enforcement in the United States, Central America and beyond. It is central to the MS13’s ethos, its modus operandi, and its evaluation and discipline of its own members. Violence also builds cohesion and comradery within the gang’s cliques. This use of violence has enhanced the MS13’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach, but it has undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies. Potential partners see the gang as an unreliable, highly visible target, and the gang’s violent spasms only reinforce this notion."

The Guardian coverage of the report emphasizes how the Trump policy only strengthens MS-13's hand. InSight investigator Héctor Silva Ávalos told the Guardian that the U.S.'s politicized approach mirrors decades of failed Central American policies.

Deterioration of rights in Venezuela

A new report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights highlights serious concerns regarding Venezuela. The commission called on the government to take urgent measures to reestablish the country's constitutional order and guarantee separation of powers, reports Efecto Cocuyo. It also called on OAS member states to activate mechanisms of the Inter-American system in response to Venezuela's crisis.

The report reviews the country's weakened institutional structure, crackdowns on social protests last year, the impact of violence on citizen security, and poverty. It marks “serious obstacles” to political participation, increased repression and censorship, rising crime and insecurity and intensifying poverty, reports the AFP.

"For several years now, the Inter-American Commission has been observing the weakness of democratic institutions and the progressive deterioration of the human rights situation in Venezuela, both of which became more widespread and much more marked as of 2015 and, especially, in 2017."

The report emphasizes in particular the combined effect of the deteriorated democratic structures with the economic and social crisis that is making everyday life difficult for citizens.

The commission also emphasized the issue of migration, and requested a visit to the Venezuela-Colombia border to verify conditions, reports Efecto Cocuyo. (See Friday's post.)

News Briefs
  • "The international community must maintain a united, coordinated response to the situation [in Venzuela], and avoid unilateral actions that risk deepening the crisis even further," said WOLA, calling on relevant international actors to reject the upcoming presidential elections. However, the organization says U.S. sanctions on crude exports or imports of refined oil -- an option touted by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week -- would be  counter-productive and "would inevitably worsen the already tragic toll of the country’s ongoing economic collapse." (See last Wednesday's post.)
  • The situation in Venezuela is so bad that some parents are leaving their children in orphanages in order to ensure they get fed, reports the Washington Post.
  • There are reports that the ELN is distributing government food rations in some Venezuelan border states. It could be an attempt by the Colombian guerrilla group to consolidate a presence in Venezuela and links with the Maduro administration, reports InSight Crime. The report comes amid the collapse of the ELN's peace negotiations with the Colombian government. And a week after the Venezuelan government named a key official with links to illegal Colombian groups the "protector" of Táchira. (See last Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said it would be very difficult to imagine in the wake of attacks carried out by the guerrilla group after a cease-fire expired, reports EFE.
  • The Igarapé Institute's Forced Migration Observatory found that 8.8 million Brazilians – out of a population of 208 million – have been forced to flee their homes since 2000, writes Robert Muggah in the Conversation. Most migration is caused by natural disasters, though homicides and land disputes also play a critical role. Muggah notes that the country lacks a unified resettlement program to respond to the crisis.
  • Guardian editorial warns against letting the Oxfam prostitution scandal overshadow the valuable work carried out by aid agencies in Haiti. "What this crisis must not be allowed to do is undermine the case for generous aid spending as both a moral obligation and as pragmatic policy. The Oxfam case involves fewer men than can be counted on two hands. The courageous and dedicated efforts of thousands of its employees have saved millions of lives in the most gruelling and dangerous circumstances. They and their peers in other charities deserve the best defence. That means honesty and transparency, and a conspicuous determination to root out anyone who threatens their reputation for it."
  • A video released by a Mexican criminal group appears to show two kidnapped federal agents. One of the pair reads from an apparently prepared script in which he claims agents and military personnel committed rape, torture and theft, reports the Associated Press.
  • A book by Mexican journalist Guadalupe Lizárraga tells of the double disappearance of women in Mexico -- first when they are kidnapped and killed, and then a second time when their bodies are stolen from morgues, reports El País.
  • The U.S. may fall short of its promise to issue 20,000 visas to Cubans due to staffing shortfalls in Havana after a fall out between the two countries over alleged "sonic attacks" on U.S. diplomats, reports the Miami Herald
  • Narco novela: Colombian authorities arrested Sebastián Murillo Echeverry, son of a prominent member of the Medellín Cartel, and charged him with holding a leadership role in Escobar's successor organization, the the Oficina de Envigado crime group, reports InSight Crime. According to an account in Semana, the gravity of the situation did not deter Murillo from thinking of his reputation, and he apparently asked officials to "reshoot" his arrest scene.