Colombia's FARC rebel guerrilla group announced a month-long unilateral cease-fire Wednesday, which will start on July 20, the national independence day. The move is an attempt to salvage foundering peace talks after the group suspended it's previous unilateral cease-fire in May (see Monday's post).
The move should bring relief to Colombians who have been suffering a spate of attacks on infrastructure that has caused massive oil spills and toppled energy pylons, leaving hundreds of thousands without clean water and electricity, reports The Guardian.
President Juan Manuel Santos said he valued the gesture from the Farc, but warned it was not enough. "If the ceasefire were accompanied by concrete commitments on the subject of justice and a definitive ceasefire, then we would be talking about progress."
According to the Conflict Analysis Resource Centre (Cerac), a Bogotá thinktank, June was the most violent month since the peace talks started in November 2012 with 24 attacks on police and military posts, 17 attacks on roads, pipelines and electric towers and four ambushes, reports The Guardian.
The announcement comes as popular support for the peace process in Havana is at a low point, and government negotiators are threatening to walk away or impose a unilateral deadline (see Monday's post). On Tuesday international supporters of the peace process called for a de-escalationof the armed conflict and for both sides to undertake confidence-building measures (see Wednesday's briefs).
But the FARC is hoping is that the government will react to the announcement by entering a bilateral agreement that will bring attacks against the rebels to a halt — a move which, incidentally, has been backed by the United Nations, reports Latin American News Dispatch.
The piece notes a few lessons that could be gleaned from the previous failed cease-fire. Firstly, it's unclear whether the FARC can actually control all of the rebel groups around the country in order to ensure the cease-fire, observes Leonardo Goi.
Additionally, even if FARC ceases operations against the armed forces, the group may not halt its extorting practices against civilians, or its attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure, he argues. Finally, a bilateral truce should be monitored by a neutral body coordinated by the international community. "An external actor with the political, military or moral weight to supervise a bilateral truce can raise the costs of its failure for both sides, and thus strengthen its chances of survival."
Silla Vacia notes that the replacement of the Colombian armed forces' leadership this week (seeTuesday's briefs) shows President Juan Manuel Santos' commitment to aligning the military with the peace process. The shuffle a two weeks after a Human Rights Watch report implicated Colombia's top brass in thousands of extrajudicial killings of civilians between 2002 and 2008 and removed generals implicated by the report.
In a separate piece Silla Vacia's Juanita Leon goes over the remaining sticking points in the negotiation and suggests possible solutions. They include coming to a shared narrative regarding the conflict, achieving a bilateral cease-fire, transitional justice and what will happen with the rebel groups' arms.
However, a bilateral ceasefire will probably only be possible once there is an agreement on the transitional justice framework for demobilised combatants. The Farc have said they will not accept jail terms in exchange for signing a peace deal but polls show a vast majority of Colombians – 82% according to Gallup – want to see demobilised rebels serve prison sentences before they are admitted back into civil society.
That is one of the stickier issues the two sides have been negotiating in Havana, after reaching agreements on three of the six points on the agenda. Santos has hinted that an announcement on reparations to victims could be made soon and could help restore some public faith in the negotiations, reports The Guardian.
Another threat to FARC disarmament is paramilitary forces. The left-wing rebels fear that once the FARC has demobilized, these right-wing illegal armed groups will target reintegrating rebel fighters like they did in the 1980s and 90s when thousands of leftist political activists and politicians were assassinated in what effectively ended the FARC’s first attempt to enter politics, reports Colombia Reports.
In a separate issue:
Colombian authorities arrested 15 alleged ELN collaborators in relation to two bombings in Bogotá last week, reports the AP. The arrests took place Wednesday in coordinated raids on residences throughout Bogota. Among those taken into custody were two individuals who worked as contractors for the city government while others have ties to student groups. However, the case is somewhat confusing. Though authorities say the ELN is responsible, the country's second largest rebel group hasn't claimed responsibility for the bombings, and says it doesn't know any of the detainees. On the other hand, human rights organization Congreso de los Pueblos says it does know many of them and that they are members of the NGO and legitimate human rights activists. Senator Alberto Castilla denounces that it's another case of "false positives" and rejects "arbitrary detentions," reports Radio Cadena Nacional.
Two of the reported detainees were released immediately after the arrest due to a lack of evidence. According to the attorney of 11 of the suspects, three of his clients were not even in Bogota on the day of the attacks, according to Colombia Reports. In a message on Twitter, the ELN added that "due to his incapacity to strike against the ELN again, @JuanManSantos resorts to the old trick of mass arrests and judicial false positives."
A group of about a 100 people gathered to demand the release of the remaining 13 suspects, reportsEl Espectador.
And in other Colombia news, Colombia's Ombudsman says the government is failing to support child soldiers who escape from illegal armed groups, according to Colombia Reports. Social and economic reintegration for these victims is not offered under current legislature which ignores the victims of neo-paramilitary groups, who are responsible for the majority of child soldier recruitment cases, said Jorge Armando Otalora. Otalora claimed the law discriminates children who are victims of illegal recruitment by the latest generation of criminal groups such as "Los Rastrojos" and "Los Urabeños" that were created after the demobilization of respectably the Norte del Valle cartel and the AUC.
- Guatemalan police arrested a former close aide to President Otto Perez Molina -- who also happens to be his daughter's fiancee -- on suspicions of corruption. Gustavo Martinez stood down from his job at the presidency early last month following reports in the Guatemalan media accusing him of illicit enrichment. A former energy minister, accused by Guatemalan prosecutors of illegal influence-trafficking was also detained, reports Reuters. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-backed group working with prosecutors to root out corruption, said Martinez, the ex-minister and two others had taken advantage of their posts to sell favors.
- The fact that Honduras' and Guatemala's social security agencies are at the center of investigations and public scrutiny is in part due to at least five key attributes of these institutions, argues Michael Lohmuller in InSight Crime. Together, these attributes -- including the organizations' size, amount of contracts, and conflicts of interest -- have resulted in susceptibility to corruption and exploitation by government officials, who have repeatedly used these agencies as vehicles for personal enrichment.
- Leaders of Honduras' four opposition parties say they support the creation of an international commission to help the country's judicial system root out corruption, reports the AP. (Seeyesterday's briefs.)
- Colombia is the next battleground in the regional fight for marriage equality, reports The Guardian. Gay activists in Bogotá and around Latin America are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court decision makes waves in their countries. On the heels of the US decision, the Colombian government has come out publicly in favor of marriage equality. "Equality is unstoppable and equality will also come to Colombia," the interior minister, Juan Fernando Cristo, said.
- An ongoing offensive by Colombia's security forces against the Urabeños has resulted in a series of large drug seizures, allegedly crippling the group’s finances and creating internal tensions that raises a strong possibility of future violence, reports InSight Crime. This may lead to future violence in areas where the group has maintained a strong presence, explains the piece which goes into issues of the drug war's "success" and human rights violations by Colombia's army.
- U.S. should reexamine the worth of paying Colombian security forces to train their Central American counterparts, argue Sarah Kinosian, John Lindsay-Poland and Lisa Haugaard inInSight Crime. "It's time for authorities to start asking hard questions about what lessons Colombia's military is exporting abroad."
- Haiti's presidential campaign has officially begun -- six months after the country's parliament dissolved, leaving President Michel Martelly to rule without checks and balances, reports theMiami Herald. The first round of voting is set to take place August 9 and the actual elections will be October 25. There is still a $26 million funding gap for October's polls and a potential December run-off though.
- Pope Francis will visit a penitentiary in Bolivia, and inmates of the Santa Cruz-Palmasola Rehabilitation Center say they hope it draws attention to their harrowing reality and that of jails across the region where extortion, drug abuse, gang violence and sexual assault are commonplace, reports the Wall Street Journal. Palmasola, built to for 800 people but housing 5,000, is really run by its most hardened inmates — convicted rapists and murderers, reports the AP. Inmates are forced to pay for everything from food to a place to sleep. Inmates pay $1,000 for the right to a cell and $300 a month for individual cells, reports one inmate. Cellphones can be bought, and food and drugs are routinely smuggled in. Corrections officers only guard the tall brick wall, topped with barbed wire, that surrounds a compound several city blocks in size. Bolivia has a prison population of about 13,000 living in installations fit for less than 5,000, according to the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. There are also as many as 2,000 young children. Government figures show more than 80% of inmates here are under pre-trial detention. Many wait years to see a judge because of judicial backlogs and, prisoners say, the inability to pay bribes to speed up proceedings. In August 2013, during a struggle for control of the cellblock holding Palmasola's most violent inmates, one group attacked its rival with machetes and home-made flamethrowers. The 36 fatalities included a 1-year-old.
- The Pope's visit to Bolivia underscores the need for drug reform argue Kathryn Ledebur and Coletta Youngers at WOLA. Though Morales' administration is working to address the prison crisis through criminal justice and penitentiary reforms and has releasing over 2,000 Bolivians from prison through pardons, "without drug law reform, Bolivia’s prisons simply fill back up. ... The Bolivian government's announced reforms should follow the spirit the Pope’s jubilee year of mercy, by ensuring that those in the lowest rungs of the drug trade receive penalties that are commensurate with the gravity of the crimes committed and offering alternatives to incarceration. The government should also continue its social integration and employment programs that keep poor people from resorting to producing, selling, or transporting small amounts of drugs in the first place. It is time to follow the Pope’s lead and declare a "drug law reform jubilee.""
- Speaking yesterday in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a bastion of the antiglobalization movement, the pontiff called for a "globalization of hope" that would guarantee the needs of every person. He urged those who are excluded themselves to rise up to realize that hope, reports the Wall Street Journal. Francis offered a direct apology on yesterday for the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the oppression of Latin America during the colonial era, and "humbly" begged forgiveness at a gathering of indigenous leaders in Bolivia in the presence of Bolivia's first-ever indigenous president, Evo Morales, the climactic high of Francis' weeklong South American tour, reports the AP. He called for a global social movement to shatter a “new colonialism” that has fostered inequality, materialism and the exploitation of the poor, notes the New York Times.
- Anti-government protesters in Ecuador ended an informal papal moratorium and returned to the streets in a rally against recent tax hikes and alleged corruption and autocracy, reportsReuters. Thousands of Ecuadoreans have demonstrated against socialist President Rafael Correa, who accuses them of plotting a coup, but took a break during Francis' four-day visit this week as a show of respect to the pontiff. The Ecuadorean president affirmed his beliefs in the "social doctrine of the Church" and highlighted his support and hope for dialogue to resolve tensions in his country, reports TeleSur. "The Pope spoke very clearly, he said that no one can be excluded. Some interpret that at political level. No, we are talking about social exclusion. And the excluded have been the poor...the invisibilized, the indigenous, ethnic minorities," Correa said.
- Bolivia's gift to Pope Francis of a crucifix carved into a hammer and sickle was not intended as an offense and was not taken as one, reports the AP, though the "Catholic blogosphere" was buzzing yesterday regarding the pontiff's surprised reaction upon receiving the "Communist Crucifix."
- The case of the young Paraguayan girl who was denied an abortion of the pregnancy which allegedly resulted from being raped by her step-father is forcing the overwhelmingly Catholic nation to struggle with issues of violence against women and abortion. Every day, two girls aged between 10 and 14 give birth in Paraguay, a landlocked South American country where one in five people live in poverty. Often there is a direct link to sexual violence. Abortion rights campaigners complained of perverted justice and lack of state and church compassion for the girl, reports Reuters.
- Bolivian President Evo Morales said on yesterday he wanted to restore full diplomatic relations with the United States but doubted this would happen soon, despite recent thaw between Washington and former Cold War enemy Cuba. Morales told Reuters in an interview he had sought a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama but had not received a response. In an interview with TeleSUR, Morales said he spoke with Pope Francis about Bolivia's sea access and that the two leaders "share principles, we share social struggle and we also share values."
- Venezuela's unofficial bolivar value tumbled to a rate of more than 600 per U.S. dollar on Thursday, less than a week after it broke 500, according to according to DolarToday, a fervently anti-government website that said the figure is based on currency trades along the Colombian border, reports Reuters. The unofficial rate is now 98 times the strongest official level of 6.3 bolivars. The unofficial bolivar has slid 72 percent this year.
- The Mexican government’s recent decision to impose anti-dumping duties on some key steel imports from China has sparked a rift between the country’s steel and automotive industries, reigniting a debate over whether Mexico should adopt a more protectionist stance over trade policy, reports the Wall Street Journal.
- Chile's Senate this week approved a measure that would make cigarette manufacturers use generic labeling limited to 30% of the total package, to put health warnings on two sides of the packages and to ban flavorings, such as menthol. The bill would seriously affect business in Chile, argues the local unit of British American Tobacco. The company said it would cut at least 20% of its jobs in Chile as a result of Congress’s measures, which it said will lead to increased use of illegal cigarettes and a decline of $400 million in tax revenue. The company says it has about 1,000 employees, reports the Wall Street Journal.
- Cruise tourism to Cuba has increased exponentially over recent years, reports the Miami Herald, and ship port calls in the first half of this year have already surpassed all of last year's.
- Good weekend reads: The Los Angeles Times has a piece on how special forces in Brazil hunt for the ranchers and farmers who illegally destroy almost 2,000 square miles of Brazilian rain forest a year. And the New York Times Magazine has a feature on a pair of Colombian identical twins who were raised as two pairs of fraternal twins.