Thursday, May 7, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 7, 2015

Guatemala's VP could lose immunity

Guatemala's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Congress can strip Vice President Roxana Baldetti of immunity, forcing her to face an investigation regarding a customs corruption racket allegedly led by her personal secretary. Intercepted phone calls link the VP to alleged bribery to avoid customs taxes, according to Reuters

The corruption scheme -- dubbed "La Línea" -- is being investigated by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and has led to 24 arrests in the past couple of weeks, including the director of Guatemalan tax authority (SAT) and his predecesor in the post. Authorities are looking for Baldetti's former top aide, Juan Carlos Monzón who disappeared during an official visit to South Korea, reports Univisión.

Phone taps of La Línea's integrants from the investigation make reference to "The R," "The Lady," and "Number 2," which the Supreme Court interprets as a reference to Baldetti. The investigation involves more than 66,000 tapped conversations, reports Reuters.

Baldetti's case will be evaluated by a congressional commission, which will determine whether there is enough evidence to strip the VP of her immunity. The selection of members of the commission will be done by lot, according to El Periódico.

The case comes in an electoral year, and finds Congress in disarray, notes Plaza Pública. There have been 26 attempts to convene the 158 diputados, without success. The governing Partido Patriota does not have a majority, though its ally, Libertad Democrática, does and could maintain itself separate from the moves against Baldetti. Several PP lawmakers -- as well as its leading presidential candidate -- have defected from the PP.

The CICIG was set up in 2007 after Guatemala asked for help in investigating serious crimes, and its staff of police and prosecutors from 25 nations has helped bring 161 public officials to trial for corruption. 

Protests against the government have been ongoing since the scandal broke last month, with huge impact on social media. A protest last month after the scandal broke had over 15,000 people. A manifestation slated for May 16, with the organizing hashtag "#RenuncieYa2." A couple hundred people gathered last night demanding the VP's resignation. And a group of people have spent the past week chained to a government building. Guatemalan business leaders joined in the clamor, yesterday, saying Baldetti's resignation would be good for the country.

A spokesperson for the VP said yesterday that she will not be resigning, reports El Periódico.

Plaza Pública notes that the court maintained President Otto Pérez Molina's protection, indicating lack of evidence regarding his involvement. Opposition lawmakers say the president covered up for Baldetti and say he was involved in the scheme. Heads must roll, Plaza Pública says in an editorial, but a presidential resignation -- just five months before an election -- would be an institutional disaster. Instead, he should renounce immunity as a gesture of transparency and good faith, suggests the piece.

News Briefs

  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet asked her entire cabinet to resign, saying she will decide within the next few days who will stay and who must go. Bachelet's government has been rocked by a recent corruption scandal involving her son, and her popularity ratings are at an all time low. The AP reports that the move is likely more related to the latter than theformer. Bachelet’s approval rating was at 31% in April, while her disapproval rating had increased three percentage points to a record high of 64%. She has announced several anticorruption measures, including an overhaul of political-financing rules and plans to change the constitution, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Violent and direct confrontations between Mexican authorities and drug cartels raise questions regarding the government's supposed success in combatting crime, says the Los Angeles Times. Violent attacks by a previously obscure gang in Jalisco state last week, which left 15 dead and downed a military helicopter, indicate that the tactic of going after the heads of larger drug organizations has not succeeded in restoring order to Mexico. The piece echoes other media coverage from earlier this week.
  • How did the Jalisco New Generation cartel get funds for the considerable power it showed last week? Animal Político points to five money-making strategies: stealing fuel, extortions, synthetic drugs, pirating and money laundering. 
  • Mexico's growing inmate population has more to do with prohibitionist drug policies than the government's assault on larger criminal groups like the Zetas or the Sinaloa cartel, according to anthropologist Elena Azaola, interviewed in Insight Crime. About 65 percent of Mexico's prisons are essentially controlled by gangs, she says.
  • Mexican police rescued nearly 100 kidnapped migrants, including 14 children, from a house near the capital. Authorities say the suspects threatened to hand the victims over to criminal gangs if they did not cooperate in obtaining ransom.
  • Brazil's lower chamber of Congress approved austerity measures cutting government spending for workers, yesterday. Though the legislation still has to pass the Senate, the Wall Street Journal reports that the move is considered a victory for embattled President Dilma Rousseff. Her government is advocating austerity measures in an attempt to avoid a potential sovereign debt downgrade. 
  • Raúl Castro is visiting Russia, where the two countries will work on furthering strategic commercial agreements. The visit reaffirms Cuban and Russian goodwill in the face of Cuba's diplomatic thaw with the U.S.. Russia is promoting closer ties with the region in general, including Brazil and Argentina reports EFE.
  • Mayors and leaders from the Peruvian province of Islay withdrew from meetings with government officials trying to defuse an ongoing protest in the region against a proposed copper mine, reports La Mula. One protestor died this week, the second in the past month and a half of protests.
  • The AP has a feature on Peru's low-level cocaine couriers. In remote areas of the country, which has recently overtaken Colombia as the world's primary cocaine producer, a cocaine backpacker can earn between $150-400 to carry cocaine out of the valley's where it's produced. Just about the only economic option for many young men, the practise has filled Peruvian jails with backpackers while their bosses elude authorities, according to the piece.
  • The former head of one of Central America's largest drug trafficking rings, the Guatemalan Marllory Chacon Rossell, the so-called "Queen of the South," was sentenced in secret in the U.S. For her safety, the judge agreed to keep the sentence secret for five years, in exchange for her cooperation, reports the BBC.

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