Thursday, September 3, 2015

Guatemala's OPM resigned - what next? (Sept. 3, 2015)

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina resigned last night, a day after Congress stripped him of immunity from prosecution and on the same day that a judge issued an order to detain him in relation to a customs fraud case.

Prosecutors said the charges to be brought against Pérez Molina were illicit association, taking bribes and customs fraud. He is also being investigated for money laundering, which could lead to the freezing of his assets, reports Reuters.

Pérez Molina, who has been deemed a flight risk, is scheduled to present himself at court this morning.

At the same time Congress will be meeting to formally accept the resignation and designate VP Alejandro Maldonado (selected recently to replace Baldetti) as president. Maldonado would likely remain in office until the winner of upcoming elections is inaugurated in January of next year, reports the Associated Press.

The Guatemala Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR-Guatemala) announced that it will be on the watch for potentially violent demonstrations today around the country, reports El Periódico.

It's the culmination of five months of tumult in Guatemala -- ever since the customs fraud scheme, known as La Línea, was first revealed in April. Since then his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, was forced to resign and is now detained on charges related to the case. More than 30 people have been arrested. Weekly protests have filled Guatemala's squares and led many to start discussing a Guatemalan or Central American spring focused on anti-corruption. 

But events started moving rapidly two weeks ago, when the U.N. backed International Commission Against Immunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Guatemalan Public Ministry filed charges against Pérez Molina in the country's Supreme Court saying he led "La Linea." (See August 24th's post.)

Plaza Pública makes the events of the past two weeks sound like the denouement of a Greek tragedy: Since then eight of his ministers have resigned, Baldetti has been incarcerated, his right to immunity has been stripped, his political party has been weakened and he has lost the support of Líder and, finally, a judge ordered his detention. 

The New York Times emphasizes the role of outraged citizens in the entire process, especially "Guatemala City0s middle class, long reluctant to speak out after a brutal civil war demonstrated the costs of opposition, joined forces with peasant and indigenous groups."

If you want the full recap of the past few months, check out Plaza Pública's helpful timeline.

Guatemala ranks 115 out of 175 countries in perceptions of corruption, according to Transparency International, reports the Wall Street Journal.

All of this happens with four days to go before Guatemalans pick the next president. Elections are scheduled for Sunday -- though none of the candidates is expected to obtain more than 50 percent of the vote, meaning there would be a second round of voting on Oct. 25.

Nómada has a useful round-up of the four leading candidates for the presidential elections. The piece notes good points and defects of Manuel Baldizón (conservative front-runner), Jimmy Morales (a comedian running as a political outsider), Sandra Torres (former First Lady) and Zury Ríos (daughter of former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt). Martín Rodríguez Pellecer includes some interesting positive details: Ríos is a feminist who has campaigned for sex-ed, Baldizón's party uncovered a fraudulent port contract plan in 2012, Torres has worked extensively with the CICIG and prosecutors, under her husband's administration over a dozen narco capos were captures, and Morales ... well, he has no corruption accusations, but that's largely because he's never done anything political up until now. 

Sadly, the candidates' defects are more worrisome -- including Baldizón's history of lies and buying legislators' votes and dirty campaigns against his critics, Río's corrupt cohort and inept team, and, Morales' place in a military political party with a history of corruption schemes and human rights violations, as well as, of course, his total lack of political history.

News Briefs:

  • "The last year has been a difficult one for Mexico," said President Enrique Peña Nieto in yesterday's "State of the Union" speech. "Our country has been deeply wounded by a series of regrettable cases," reports the Associated Press. The difficulties include serious human rights violations like the missing 43 students in Iguala, the escape of drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, and corruption allegations against his wife. The past year has not been easy for the Peña Nieto administration. The Los Angeles Times reports that he said "All of those [incidents] have damaged the mood of Mexicans, and well as their confidence in government institutions." But the speech insisted that the dissatisfaction and the battery of challenges could only be overcome if the government stays committed to the policies it started with when he took office in December 2012, reports The Guardian. Peña Nieto based his case for continuity on promised future benefits of energy and education reforms approved in the first two years of his administration. Peña Nieto has decided to rely on new financial tools to boost investment in such key sectors as education, infrastructure and energy, according to the Wall Street Journal. The government will be issuing education infrastructure bonds to obtain from investors around $3 billion in the next three years to help improve public schools. The president also announced plans to step up the use of public-private partnerships. But the negative moment at Peña Nieto's half-way mark of his six-year-term signals the end of the Mexican Moment according to the LATimes, which cites experts who point to poor economic growth and plummeting oil prices. The Washington Post notes that Peña Nieto’s approval rating has tumbled to 35 percent, according to a recent poll. A poll released this week by the Buendía and Laredo firm found that 63 percent of Mexicans think their country is heading in the wrong direction, about double the number who felt that way in the first months after Peña Nieto took over. 
  • Animal Político has some fun fact checking on the speech, including "dubious" education numbers and impossible to corroborate kidnapping stats.
  • Alejandro Hope at El Daily Post analyzes Mexico’s drug eradication and seizure numbers, based on the same speech. Marijuana numbers seem to be declining while opium poppy production is on the rise -- "everything points that heroin production in Mexico has been increasing at a very first clip, with deleterious social consequences," writes Hope. Also based on the speech he notes that homicides declined between 2012 and 2014, but have gone up over the past year. And he notes that reported crime was relatively low last year, but that it's a meaningless number"reported crime and total crime do not move in sync."
  • A counterpoint to a TeleSur opinion piece quoted in yesterday's briefs -- alleging collusion between HRW and coup mongers in Ecuador: Martín Pallares has an op-ed in the New York Times, detailing the difficulties faced by the press in Ecuador. "Journalists in Ecuador are warned on a daily basis about possible legal actions that may be taken against us if we criticize the government, and the companies we work for constantly warn us of the risks we take by raising issues the government is particularly sensitive about. Newspapers are being forced to publish corrections, on the front page, with texts, headers and layouts sent directly from the Presidency’s Secretariat of Communication. In newsrooms, lawyers are now as important as editors," writes Pallares, a former columnist for El Comercio who says he was fired last month for opinions posted to his personal Twitter account.
  • Five Honduran journalists were assaulted by security forces during anti-corruption protests in the north of the country, reports TeleSur. They were attacked with tear gas and firearms to disperse them on Tuesday, according to the Committee for Free Expression (C-Libre). One journalist was hospitalized with a broken arm after a beating from security forces.
  • El Salvador's National Forensics Institute said yesterday that there were 911 homicides in August, making it the deadliest month since the end of the country's civil war in 1992, reportsReuters. So far this year, homicides are up 67 percent over the same eight-month period in 2014. The police estimate that 80 percent of the homicides are related to gang purges and the settling of scores.
  • An apparent rise in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon over the last year -- an area equivalent to the state of Delaware -- could be due to an increase in cattle ranching aimed at the U.S. market, reports the Los Angeles Times. It's the the largest loss of forest authorities have recorded over the past six years. 
  • The Brazilian justice minister has condemned the killing of an indigenous leader who was shot during a land protest in the state of Matto Grosso do Sul, reports the BBC. Tensions over land ownership are soaring between Brazil's indigenous Guarani people and ranchers since the shooting, reports the AFP.
  • Garlic is like white gold in Cuba, according to a piece in the Miami Herald on a new style of cooperative started on the island, focused on dehydrated packets of the spice.
  • Now that diplomats can finally travel to Cuba, it's time to similarly liberate average Americans, argues Engage Cuba's president James Williams in the Huffington Post. "If we're serious about strengthening civil society and helping Cuba's budding private small business sector continue to grow, it's time for the White House to stop forcing "people-to-people" travel to be hindered by third-party brokers, and time for Congress to allow a vote on ending the travel ban once and for all," he writes. 
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's disapproval rating jumped to 72 percent in August from 70 percent in the previous month, reports Reuters. She's affected by a sluggish economy that's complicating proposed reforms and allegations that her son inappropriately used political connections to get his wife a real-estate loan.
  • About 100 marijuana farmers in Paraguay protested the recent burning of their crops by anti-drug agents. Paraguay is among the region's top producers of marijuana, which is illegal in the country, reports the Associated Press.
  • Colombia Reports picks up on Ojo Público's report on illegal gold mining in Colombia (see June 18th's post). Colombia’s gold is almost exclusively exported to the United States and Switzerland. This gold is mined both legally and illegally, then sold to exporters in Medellin before being sent to North America and Europe, according to the investigation.

  • El Salvador's Armed Forces have deployed armed troops throughout the mass transportation system in San Salvador to protect civilians from possible attacks by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18) gangs, reports Diálogo.
  • Colombia has issued arrest warrants for 22 active and retired army officers and two civilians for their alleged involvement in an extrajudicial execution of 18 people, reports the AFP.

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