Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 19, 2015

U.S. investigates Venezuelan officials in drug trafficking probe

U.S. prosecutors are investigating several very high-ranking Venezuelan government officials, including National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, on the suspicion that they are involved in massive cocaine trafficking and money laundering.

Venezuelan officials and military officers lead drug-trafficking organizations that ship cocaine through Venezuela to the U.S. and Europe, say U.S. government sources involved in the investigation quoted by the Wall Street Journal in an extensive piece.

The list of Venezuelan's being investigated also includes the former Interior Minister and governor of Aragua state Tarek El Aissami; former director of military intelligence, Hugo Carvajal; Nestor Reverol, the head of the National Guard; Jose David Cabello, Mr. Cabello’s brother, who is the industry minister and heads the country’s tax collection agency; and Gen. Luis Motta Dominguez, a National Guard general in charge of central Venezuela, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The case against the Venezuelan officials is built using information gathered from criminal cases brought in the U.S. Officials have ramped up the investigation in recent years, making use of informants recruited from the ranks of people close to top Venezuelan officials. They are helped by the increasing turmoil in Venezuela, which has made defection to the U.S. more appealing, according to the piece.

"Former Venezuelan military officers and others living outside the country provide help by contacting their former comrades and urging them to defect ... If the defector can provide useful information, the recruiter said, he is flown to the U.S. and a new life."

One of the defectors mentioned in the piece is naval captain Leamsy Salazar, who says he headed Cabello's security detail and witnessed Cabello personally supervise the launch of a large shipment of cocaine from Venezuela’s Paraguaná peninsula.

Cabello is the Venezuelan "capo of capos," says Emili Blasco, the Washington DC correspondent for Spanish news agency ABC, in his new book on Chavez's legacy. InSight Crime's coverage of the book has extensive information on Salazar's accusations. 

Episodes in the book based on Blasco's interviews of Salazar include suitcases of money coming from Venezuela's tax agency (run by Cabello's brother) and an underground bunker filled with cash. InSight Crime emphasizes Blasco's credentials, but says "the stories of egregious corruption among Venezuelan officials included in his new book are almost beyond belief."


Cabello denies the accusations, and is suing news portals that reported on Salazar's allegations. 

Should the U.S. investigation, run by an elite DEA unit and prosecutors offices in Miami and New York, result in publicly disclosed indictments, the diplomatic fallout could be massive, according to a U.S. source quoted in the Wall Street Journal. It's worth noting the short-lived, but relevant, bump in popularity the Maduro administration received after the U.S. announced sanctions against Venezuelan officials in April. 

News Briefs

  • Rio has failed to meet clean-up targets for the Olympic events scheduled to take place in Guanabara bay next year. Though authorities were aiming to clean up 80 percent of the sewage that reaches the bay, in reality they'll hit about 50 percent, reports the Washington Post. The piece notes that 8,200 liters of sewage reaches the bay per second and 100 tons of garbage a day.
  • The AP says the so-called "pink tide" in Latin America has turned, though it fails to say what it will be replaced with. "Across the region, polling numbers are tanking and street protests are on the rise," according to the piece, which cites economic chaos in Venezuela and corruption scandals in Brazil and Chile. The political dissatisfaction with the left-wing governments that have dominated for the past decade accompanies declining economic fortunes, as China's economy -- and its demand for South American exports -- cools.
  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala's approval rating this month fell to its lowest point yet, 21 percent, as his administration struggles to control a violent conflict over the proposed Tía María copper mining project. Protests over the past two months have led to three deaths. Last week the Southern Copper Corp announced it would suspend the $1.4 billion project for 60 days, in order allow time for a deal with protestors. Locals say the mine will affect scarce water resources needed for agriculture, but the mining company says it will only use desalinated water and minimizes its environmental impact. An Ipsos poll shows 46% of Peruvians favor the Tia Maria project, while 40% believe that the government is responsible for the violence in the protests. The government has sent in thousands of troops and police forces to keep open roads and bridges blocked by protesters, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Peru's production of copper and gold was largely unaffected by a national strike on Monday as unionized workers declined to down tools for fear of losing their jobs, reports Reuters. Peru is the world's third biggest copper, silver, zinc and tin producer and the seventh-ranked gold producer.
  • The alleged ringleader of the multi-million dollar customs fraud scandal that is rocking Guatemala's government was in the country over the weekend, reports EFE. Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas, the former private secretary to the vice president (who has since resigned) has been on the lam since April, when a string of 19 arrests brought the case to light. Though government officials said they suspected he was in Honduras in April, he was supposedly in a hotel 60 km from the capitol. La Línea, as the scandal has been dubbed, has already led to 29 high profile arrests. Though there is increasing political unrest and protests demanding his head, President Otto Pérez Molina says he will not resign, reports AFP.
  • At least 500,000 young adults who grew up in the US have been deported or have decided to return to Mexico in the past decade. However, Mexico can be a foreign country for those who grew up in the U.S. "... A picture is now emerging of a well-educated, bilingual, bicultural group whose traumas and talents are being ignored," reports The Guardian in a feature piece on the "Other Dreamers." The name is a reference to those who would benefit from the proposed U.S. Dream Act, which would have paved the way to citizenship for those brought over the border as children.
  • Two former Iranian official accused of masterminding the 1994 bombing of the Jewish AMIA center in Buenos Aires reject the allegations and say they will not cooperate with the Argentine judicial case. Though former Iranian officials have been on the Interpol capture list for years, Iran denies any role in the terrorist bombing, Argentina's worst. Ali Akbar Velayati, who was foreign minister of Iran at the time said in an interview with Argentina's C5N TV channel broadcast yesterday that "Argentina is under the influence of Zionism and the United States." Velayati said there's no reason why an Iranian official should have to respond to another nation, when asked if he would appear before an Argentine court, reports the AP. A 2013 Memorandum of Understanding between Argentina and Iran would have permitted the interrogation of the Iranian suspects by an Argentine judge on Iranian soil. However, the agreement was never implemented and the case remains in a stalemate. 
  • Nicaraguan migrations authorities denied entry to two human rights lawyers last week. Luis Carlos Buob and Marta González of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) were coming to Nicaragua for the 25 anniversary celebration of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). Confidencial reports that authorities initially claimed Buob was involved in drug trafficking, but later said merely that Nicaragua can make sovereign decisions about who can enter the country. In March Buob accompanied Nicaraguan organizations to an Inter American Commission on Human Rights hearing on the proposed Nicaraguan Inter Oceanic Canal.
  • At least 52 people died in a mudslide trigged by heavy rains in the Colombian town of Salgar. The AP reports that houses and bridges were swept into the Libordiana ravine.
  • Elian González, the young Cuban at the center of the 1999 international custody battle, reappeared in the media in an interview with ABC's Jim Avila. He is now 21, and a university student in Cuba. But Miami's wounds related to the contentious case still have not healed, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Chile’s gross domestic product expanded by 2.4% in the first quarter, compared with the same period a year ago, showing signs of a recovery after several quarters of anemic growth, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Andres Oppenheimer questions the Obama administration's discourse of "engagement" on Latin America, saying there was little evidence of a really new focus. In his Miami Heraldcolumn he makes the case that Obama has paid more attention to Asia and the Middle East than to Latin America, where China has surpassed the U.S. as a trade partner in several of the countries in the region. "... We're still far from the 'new chapter' in U.S. - Latin American relations proclaimed by the Obama administration. If anything, there is a huge opportunity for the United States to recover lost ground in the region, which Obama may be recognizing now. To turn that opportunity into reality, however, he will need to pay much more attention to the region."



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