Thursday, January 7, 2016

Human rights arrests in Guatemala hit close to president-elect Jimmy Morales (Jan. 7, 2016)

Guatemalan authorities detained 18 former military officers yesterday in relation to massacres and disappearances in the 1980's, a particularly bloody period in the country's 36-year civil war, reports the New York Times.

The Associated Press reports 14 arrests, including Benedicto Lucas Garcia, a former army commander credited with founding paramilitary groups during the 1960-1996 conflict and brother of the late military ruler Fernando Romeo Lucas García. 

Guatemalan media broadcast images of the former officials in handcuffs, some of them crying and saying their work during the war only involved fighting guerrilla bands. 

Most of the arrests are in connection with a military detention center in Cobán where investigators found the remains of 558 people, including 90 children. The Public Ministry has over 350 witness accounts detailing how victims were kidnapped and taken to the center where they were executed, according to Plaza Pública.

The arrests hit close to home for president-elect Jimmy Morales -- who will take office next week -- and ran as the candidate of a party dominated by former military officers. The arrests are a message to him to distance himself from such figures, according to the NYTimes and El Periódico.

One of the accused is Edgar Justino Ovalle, the co-founder of the party that backed Morales, who is protected by immunity as an incoming legislator. Attorney General Thelma Aldana said that her office had asked the Supreme Court to lift his immunity, citing evidence that he held a post in a military detention center at the time the crimes took place. El Periódico notes that he is predicted to be chosen as the FCN block leader in Congress and calles him Morales' "mentor and main guru."

El Periódico has details on the detention center, Base Militar 21, the four pits excavated there with the remains of victims still blindfolded, gagged and chained three decades after their deaths. The piece also has more details on the officers accused and the specific human rights cases involved.

Morales, a political neophyte and television comedian, was elected on a wave of popular anger after revelations of widespread corruption in the government. (See Oct. 22nd's and Oct. 26th's posts.) The arrests could indicate that Guatemala's democratic spring did not end with the resignation of former President Otto Pérez Molina in the face of a corruption scandal (see Sept. 3rd's post). The Public Ministry, which played a key role, along with the UN-backed CICIG, in investigating and pursuing the corruption charges, seems to be sending a strong message.

Plaza Pública has an interesting interview with U.S. sociologist John Markoff, who said "sometimes false democracies generate opportunities to create more democracy." The interview is from August, before Pérez Molina's resignation.
He suggests that "one of the challenges that democracy will face in the future is the sensation of insufficiency that people have in various countries; that sensation that democracy in our country is not sufficient for us to feel we have some control over the conditions that affect our lives, the way people feel in Greece and in Spain. I think that, for a long time, Central Americans have faced a reality that has made them profoundly understand this problem with national democracy, this idea that national democracy is not sufficient. I am not making a prediction, but if tomorrow I read in the newspaper that somebody in Guatemala had an idea to carry out some new type of political process, I wouldn't be surprised. I am simply suggesting that Guatemala lacks nothing to think about some of the new problems that democracy will face in the twenty-first century."

News Briefs

  • On that note, it's worth revisiting the Alerta Democrática project that examines possible paths for democracy in Latin America over the next fifteen years. Though democracy predominates in the region, the project notes that it's far from irreversible, and explores four possible scenarios for its evolution, ranging from the optimistic to pessimistic. (See Sept. 25th's post.)
  • An interesting piece on the Brookings Institution blog, Order from Chaos, predicts that "2016 will be the year when the political consequences of the change in the region’s economic fortunes play out. The region's middle class, which has doubled in size since 2002, faces diminished opportunities, and many of its members lack the accumulated wealth and education to easily weather the present downturn. The region's vulnerable classes, no longer in critical poverty but not part of the middle class either, face an even more difficult situation." (See Oct. 9th's post for a similar view by Moises Naím.)
  • Unemployment in Latin America and the Caribbean increased in 2015 for the first time in five years (from 6.2 percent to 6.7), a fact which points to a more difficult situation for younger people, especially in the context of the region's increasing violence and the war on drugs, reports the Guardian. (See briefs below on violence in Central America). The piece focuses on Rebeca Grynspan, secretary general of the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB) who looks at education to counter the situation.
  • Tensions in Venezuela rising fast: yesterday lawmakers swore in three legislators who had been blocked from taking their seats by the Supreme Court. The three, whose election was challenged after last month's election and admitted by judges named at the last minute by the lame-duck National Assembly, are critical if the opposition majority in the National Assembly is to have a two-thirds majority which would allow for greater powers such as removing judges and changing the Constitution, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's post.) The government said the National Assembly's actions were in violation of the constitution. Socialist lawmakers say that such defiance of the high court will make any laws passed by the National Assembly illegitimate, reports the Associated Press. The opposition counters that the court itself is invalid, as 13 government loyalists were appointed at the last minute before the new National Assembly was sworn in. (See Dec. 23rd's post.) Writing before this happened, David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights warned that the "ruling needs to be contested in court rather causing a constitutional crisis by ignoring it." The Wall Street Journal says it's a sign of "institutional gridlock" now faced in Venezuela.
  • And in the midst of intense political polarization, President Nicolás Maduro is doubling down on his view that the country's economic woes are part of an "economic war" waged by right-wing foes and wealthy businessmen against the government. Yesterday he named hardline sociologist  Luis Salas to the country's top economic position of vice president for the economy and a new Ministry for Productive Economy, reports Reuters. In a major cabinet reshuffle, Maduro split the former Economy, Finance and Bank Ministry into two, and named another university academic, Rodolfo Medina, as the finance and banks minister.
  • U.S. State Department officials are meeting with key politicians in Haiti ahead of the rescheduled presidential run-off later this month. (See yesterday's briefs.) Among other things, they are trying to convince second-place candidate Jude Célestin to participate in the run-off, after he denounced the election results as fraudulent and demanded an independent inquiry into the balloting, reports the Miami Herald. (See Nov. 19th's post.)
  • The first flight for Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica on their way towards the United States will leave next Tuesday, Costa Rica's foreign minister announced yesterday. About 180 people will to leave on a flight to El Salvador, where they will have ground transportation to the Guatemala-Mexico border, reports Reuters.
  • In a Guardian op-ed Roberto Lovato contrasts the favorable treatment received by Cuban migrants to the longstanding systematic discrimination against Central American migrants seeking to escape violence in their home countries -- state-sponsored terrorism in the 1980s and gang violence now. An ongoing crackdown on Central American families whose asylum claims were denied (see Tuesday's briefs) is continuing the cycle of trauma they fled, he wrote. The operation is causing fear and panic in the immigrant community -- pro-migrant groups said panicked calls from immigrants to hotlines and attorneys surged, reports the Guardian in a separate piece. Immigrant advocates said the roundups are a misguided effort to deter others from making the perilous journey from Central America through Mexico.
  • Immigration advocates argue that the law U.S. officials seek to uphold is contrary to international humanitarian law which dictates such desperate families be granted asylum from persecution and violence in their home countries, reports The Nation. They are "seeking refuge from drug-war violence, political instability, epidemic poverty, and the utter failure on the part of the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to protect vulnerable communities—a slow-burning social unraveling in which Washington's policies have played a considerable part."
  • On a smaller scale, Dominican authorities have dispatched hundreds of soldiers to prevent migrants without legal residency from reentering the country from Haiti, after returning home for the holidays, reports the Associated Press.
  • As if getting to the U.S. and staying there wasn't hard enough, many Guatemalan migrants wind up highly indebted in the process -- a ticking time-bomb that explodes when they are deported back and cannot pay off their debts, reports El Periódico.
  • Gang violence in El Salvador, which has the world's highest homicide rate, was made worst by aggressive police crackdowns and government unwillingness to negotiate with gangs, reports the Washington Post.
  • Salvadoran authorities said they will cooperate in the arrest of 17 former soldiers accused of killing six Jesuit priests in one of the most notorious atrocities of the country's bloody civil war, reports Reuters. a Spanish judge sent a new petition to international police agency Interpol on Monday, ordering the soldiers’ capture for the 1989 murders of the priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Five of the priests were Spanish and one was Salvadoran.
  • Honduran NGO Casa Alianza said Honduran soldiers assigned to help police combat rampant crime have killed at least six civilians -- children and youths -- in the past few months, reports AFP.
  • The Colombian government will support six new projects seeking to shift peasants away from cultivation of drug crops, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. Crop substitution is one of five pillars of the peace agreement that representatives of the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas have been negotiating in Havana since November 2012.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' Congressional coalition is threatened by a surprise announcement that the government will sell the state's majority share in Isagen, one of the country’s largest energy producers, according to Colombia Reports.
  • Texan native Edgar Valdez Villarreal, pleaded guilty in federal court in Atlanta on Wednesday to charges of conspiring to import and distribute cocaine and conspiring to launder money. Known as "La Barbie," prosecutors said he was responsible for sending thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Mexico for distribution in the eastern US and shipping millions of dollars in cash back to Mexico. Mexican authorities said he was chased over five states for a year before being caught near Mexico City in 2010. He was extradited to the U.S. in Sept, reports the Associated Press. The seemingly odd move is likely part of a plea bargain, according to Alejandro Hope at El Daily Post. He hypothesizes that "La Barbie" could have insider knowledge of the ties between the drug gangs and Mexican security forces.
  • Cartel targeting of Mexican municipal authorities -- like the mayor who was killed last weekend -- shows local importance of drugs and people smuggling, explains the Christian Science Monitor. "Whether it's growing marijuana, cultivating poppies, shipping illegal goods, or in some cases selling locally, the first obstacle faced by traffickers is often a mayor. And they're largely isolated and unprotected, working with poorly trained and underpaid police forces."
  • A study suggests that Mexico's drug violence between 2005 and 2010 has actually lowered male life expectancy rates by several months, reversing decades of steady gains. The study found that in five of Mexico's violence-plagued states — Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, Guerrero, and Nayarit — men lost an average of one year of life expectancy between 2005 and 2010, while in the border state of Chihuahua alone, the loss added up to a startling three years, reports the Associated Press. Two authors of the study told the Guardian that the decline in life expectancy was directly related to the rise in the homicide rate after the drug war began and not merely a coincidence. 

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