Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Comedian wins Guatemalan elections; experts lambast Mexican Ayotzinapa investigation (Sept 8, 2015)

A political rookie, television comedian Jimmy Morales, seems to have won the first round of Guatemala's presidential elections this Sunday. He got  just under 24 percent of the vote with more than 98 percent of ballots counted Monday, reports the Associated Press.

Ironically, Morales once played a blundering cowboy turned accidental president, reports the Wall Street Journal. Morales campaigned as a political outsider, free from the taint of the corruption endemic to the traditional political parties in Guatemala. His slogan: "Neither corrupt nor a thief."

The WSJ has a separate feature on Morales -- whose salient feature seems to be a mystery over whether he will sweep out the standard corruption that plagues Guatemalan politics or simply be inept.

The former front-runner, Manuel Baldizón -- who lost the last elections in 2011 and has been campaigning ever since -- was coming in third, very narrowly behind former first-lady Sandra Torres. Torres had 19.7 percent of votes yesterday versus Baldizón's 19.6, a difference of more than 5,000 votes out of 5 million cast, reports the AP. The runoff election will be held on Oct 25.
Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal told a packed news conference in Guatemala City that it would do a district-by-district vote count before determining who would face Morales. Final results could be delayed until Friday, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Baldizón's defeat is already a victory for the citizen movement, says Nómada. The country's urban population opted for Morales, while the rural sector chose Torres.

The WSJ portrays Morales as a David vs the political establishment Goliaths, but, over at Nómada, Martín Rodriguéz Pellecer notes that he's supported by the military establishment, with a questionable human rights and corruption past. In addition there is the not-irrelevant question of who is financing his campaign. Plaza Pública notes that Morales is busy denying allegations of impropriety in financing and use of a helicopter for campaigning -- though he says he's willing to make his personal wealth declaration public in the name of transparency. 

The overwhelming message was a rejection of politics as usual, according to the the New York Times. Voter turnout was 70.38 percent, a record according to the electoral tribunal. Small parties were favorites, and will dominate in the upcoming Congress. And despite predictions of potentially widespread protest voting, the number of null or blank votes Sunday was minimal, according to the official count, reports the AP.

Guatemalans going to the polls on Sunday were choosing among 14 parties. Many were looking for the "least bad" option, reports the New York Times
Baldizón had been the favorite in the polls, but seems to have been hurt by allegations of corruption. His running mate is accused by prosecutors of influence trafficking, but as a candidate enjoys immunity from prosecution.
What now? The mainstay of Guatemala's protest movement was the resignation of then President Otto Pérez Molina. But achieving that first goal, four days before the election, didn't address many of the deeper concerns that began coming to the fore over the past few months, such as calls for electoral reform, for anticorruption measures, for independent judges. The protesters' challenge now is to keep up agitation for these more complex issues," reports the New York Times in a separate piece.

The piece quotes Martín Rodriguéz Pellecer, the editor of Nómada, who argued that the protest movement did not need to be out on the streets every weekend to push forward a new agenda. But he did predict (before the elections) that Baldizón's continued presence in the run-off campaign would trigger ongoing demonstrations.

The piece also quotes Manfredo Marroquín, the director of Citizen Action, the Guatemalan branch of Transparency International, who hypothesized that the movement could turn into a political party in its own right, like the Spanish anti-austerity protesters who founded Podemos. 

And activists hope to use the lame-duck Congress to push through some reforms before the new president and Congress swear in on January 14.
The Washington Post has a feature on the protest movement in Guatemala that led to #ReununcieYa, noting that there is no national culture of protest in the country with a history of a brutal civil war that ended in 1996 with over 200,000 deaths.

Plaza Pública has an interesting piece on small parties in Guatemala, which cease to exist if they don't obtain a minimum of 5 percent of the presidential vote or obtain at least one seat in Congress.

News Briefs

  • An independent group of experts reviewing the case of the missing 43 college students in Mexico determined that there was no evidence to support the government’s conclusion that the students were executed by a drug gang that then burned the bodies to ashes in a garbage dump, reports the New York Times. The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (IGIE) -- a five member international committee appointed by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to review the case -- presented their findings on Sunday. The experts demand a reconsideration and reinvestigation of the Ayotzinapa case in hopes of truthfully explaining what happened to the disappeared students, reports El Daily Post. Full report here.
  • Physical evidence contradicts the official version of what happened to the students in Iguala, and the review showed that federal police and soldiers knew that the students were being attacked by the municipal police and failed to intervene. The 400 page report calls into question nearly all the claims by Mexican authorities about how the crime unfolded in the troubled hills of Guerrero state, particularly the assertion that the students were burned to death at the base of a rural trash dump, reports the Washington Post. "The brutal actions shows the extent of impunity in which the state security forces acted along with organized crime," said Carlos Beristain one of the group's members. Human Rights Watch said the "report provides an utterly damning indictment of Mexico’s handling of the worst human rights atrocity in recent memory."
  • The report suggested a possible motive, something that hasn't been established up until now. The report explains that the region around Iguala is a key source of heroin for the American Midwest, and evidence in a Chicago drug case showed that traffickers use long-distance buses similar to the ones taken that night to smuggle the drug, reports the Times. The students may have inadvertently taken a bus packed with drugs, which might explain the aggressive hunt by police to find the buses and stop them from leaving the city, reports the Washington Post. El Daily Post covers the case in more detail, going into the report's reconstruction of the students' movements that night. "The official version says the four buses were pursued by local (municipal) police and only municipal police agents. However, witnesses and survivors have insisted from the beginning that state and federal policemen were involved in the pursuit. So, the omission of the fifth bus suggests there might be evidence of involvement beyond the municipal officers. And that is exactly what the IGIE declares."
  • The Mexican government has agreed to extend the experts' term so they can conclude their investigation, reports the Associated Press. Yet, one day after the report's findings were announced, Mexico's attorney general's office remained convinced that many of the 43 students who disappeared in 2014 were killed and incinerated at a garbage dump, reports the Associated Press. Attorney General Arely Gomez said she would order a new examination of what happened at the dump and discussions are reportedly underway to select a group of pre-eminent investigators to make a third examination of the dump. 
  • Open Society Foundations is cohosting the first Regional Conference on Homicide Data Quality in Latin America and the Caribbean in Bogotá, Colombia (Sept 7-9), ogether with the Colombian Attorney General’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce, and the Laboratory for the Analyses of Violence at Rio de Janeiro University. The conference will bring together relevant public institutions and civil society representatives from 12 countries in the region to address existing challenges in homicide data comparability. A key goal for the conference is to facilitate the adoption of a protocol for organizations and governmental entities to improve the quality of lethal violence data and the comparability of homicide information between countries, writes Pedro Abramovay, director of the Latin America Program. "Latin American countries may have some of the highest homicide rates in the world, but they also have significant, relevant experience with reducing homicide. They are well-positioned to become leaders in developing, implementing, and monitoring efforts to reduce violent deaths," he writes.
  • The Venezuela-Colombia border dispute continues. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has expanded an anti-smuggling offensive along the country's frontier with Colombia and ordered the closure of the main border crossing in Zulia, the country's biggest state, reports theAssociated Press. He has sent sent another 3,000 troops to the area, reports Reuters. The government says it's fighting smugglers on the border who foment violence and drain Venezuela's already scarce resourcesby trafficking subsidized goods to Colombia. Critics say it's a diversionary tactic before December's parliamentary election. In an example of the activity in the area, the Venezuelan government announced that the police seized two trucks loaded with $1.5 million in oil equipment that was to be smuggled into Colombia, reports Reuters. In expanding the anti-smuggling efforts, Maduro is encroaching on a more vital economic hub around the thriving oil metropolis of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city. Colombia is struggling to absorb the 16,000 nationals returning from Venezuela where they had been living, and the government is stepping up a diplomatic campaign denouncing Maduro's actions. Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin met with the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and will meet with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon tomorrow. The Pope expressed faith that a meeting between Colombian and Venezuelan bishops was a clear sign of hope in a border dispute, reports Reuters.
  • Under Maduro's latest security campaign, the controversial "Operation to Free the People" or OPL, authorities have arrested thousands of citizens, raided homes, and destroyed private property without legally-mandated court orders, according to rights groups and residents, reports Reuters.
  • The final phase of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez's trial began on Friday, reports AFP. Charged with inciting violence during protests that shook the country last year, López who has been in jail since February of last year, faces up to 12 years in jail if convicted. Human rights groups have called for his release and his lawyer says there have been serious irregularities in his trial.
  • As all this is going on, Maduro announced that Venezuela is prepared to give asylum to 20,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria, reports Reuters. Critics will say it's a diplomatic move to distract from the border crisis, but it's still an interesting comment on the politics of international human rights outrage.
  • Over in Uruguay, 42 Syrian refugees who have been living there since October of last year protested yesterday demanding the government help them move to other countries, saying the nation that gave them sanctuary is too expensive and they have scant economic opportunity, reports the Associated Press.
  • Argentina would be willing to welcome more Syrian refugees fleeing their country's civil war, reports the Associated Press.
  • Sometimes it seems like the only thing happening in Venezuela is chronic shortages of basic goods and bureaucratic persecution of the political opposition. An Associated Press feature on Caracas' Mayor Jorge Rodriguez's bicycle policies is an interesting piece that breaks the bad news monotony.
  • The opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) party led by 65-year old geologist, Keith Rowley, won Monday's general elections in Trinidad and Tobago, reports Reuters.
  • Colombian authorities seized over one metric ton of cocaine disguised as printer ink and bound for Mexico, thanks to the efforts of drug-sniffing Labrador named Mona, reports the Associated Press
  • More ultra-processed food in the region is leading to increasing obesity rates, according to NBC News, based on a report by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO). 

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