Thursday, March 31, 2016

El Salvador cracks down on gangs, as leaders order homicide stop (March 31, 2016)

Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén announced new measures to combat gang violence, yesterday, including reinforcing troops deployed on the streets to combat rampant violence.

Officials plan contract a thousand reserve soldiers to reinforce existing troops in controlling chunks of territory taken over by gangs, known as maras, reports Reuters.

The government will also ask Congress to approve 14 measures to increase prison controls, as incarcerated leaders are still able to order killings and extortions.

Homicides in the first two months of this year have already increased by 118 percent compared to the same months in 2015, reports TeleSUR. Already last year homicides had increased by 70 percent, after the unravelling of a gang truce the previous year, reports Deutsche Welle. (See posts for April 22, 2015June 22, 2015, and Jan. 28.)

"Faced with this irrational violence, we are forced to take urgent measures, of an extraordinary character, in order to guarantee security (and) peace for all Salvadorans," Sanchez Ceren said in a national broadcast.
Earlier this week, El Salvador's government declared a state of emergency at seven prisons -- instituting a lockdown and suspending family visits for 15 days. (See yesterday's briefs.) 

Some 299 high-ranking gang members were transferred to special jail unit aimed at keeping them in total isolation, part of a an attempt to definitively cut-off communication between gang leaders and "clicas" operating on the ground, reports El Faro. The incarcerated leaders are in wings separated by gang, in small cells without any wiring to permit them to charge cell-phones or other communication devices.

Telecommunications access will be cut in areas where the seven prisons under emergency administration are located, notes Deutsche Welle.

And it's just the beginning, promise authorities.

El Faro notes that the prison emergency measures include new supervision of security issues by the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC).

But the move comes as leaders of the three main gangs -- MS-13 and two factions of Barrio 18 -- promised a 72 hour cease-fire. (See yesterday's briefs.) During those three days, the average daily murders dropped 9.3, significantly below the 22.8 averaged in rest of March, reports El Faro. That's nearly a 60 percent decrease. This speaks to a real capacity to control the gangs by their leadership, according to El Faro.

Gang leaders held a far smaller press conference, in which they assured journalists from El Faro that the homicide freeze will continue indefinitely, pending lack of police interference. But it's also possible that the government moves to isolate imprisoned gang leaders could lead to a loss of control over gang members on the ground.

An earlier statement from the gang leaders had conditioned the cease-murder to the government backing off on emergency measures, setting the stage for a standoff between the two, reports InSight Crime. The two sides are testing each other's limits and resolve.

According to the government, the decline in killings is an attempt to hold the government hostage, reports InSight Crime.

"What [the gangs] are doing is putting a gun to the population's head and saying: either negotiate with us or we'll keep killing...that is why the only solution is full combat," presidential spokesman Eugenio Chicas said.

In the midst of a crackdown, it's worth looking at an interview by El Faro's Roberto Valencia with an unidentified gang leader who discusses how a 2003 bout of "manodurismo" strengthened gangs. He also says the country's political parties have offered gang leaders special benefits in exchange for votes.

"... When we were organized, we became politicians. [The government] made us politicians, do you understand me?" the gang leader told Valencia. (From InSight Crime's translation of the piece has the piece.) "They secretly went into prisons before each election and found our leaders and told them: when we win, we will change certain things; we won't give you everything, but we will loosen up some of the tough stuff, and this and that. I'm telling you that certain officials have something to do with the growth of gangs."

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End of Colombia's guerrillas?

Colombia's second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and government leaders confirmed yesterday that they will begin negotiations for peace, another step towards finally ending the country's fifty-year armed conflict, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's briefs.)
The two sides spoke in a Caracas press conference yesterday, and said talks will start in Ecuador. They could then continue Venezuela, Brazil and Chile and Cuba, which along with Norway, will be sponsoring the process. Negotiations will be formalized around a six-point agenda, including justice for victims, disarmament, and reintegration into society, reports the Associated Press
The ELN is estimated to have as few as 1,500 fighters left (compared to about 7,000 for the FARC).
The announcement is likely to give the FARC peace negotiations new momentum, and, in turn, those could give a preview of how the ELN talks could go. (See last Thursday's and Tuesday's posts for more on the FARC talks.)

Yesterday President Juan Manuel Santos said that though the talks between the two groups will remain separate, there will be some "coordination mechanisms" between the two, notes InSight Crime. He emphasized that some points already agreed on in Havana, such as the establishment of a post-conflict infrastructure to judge war crimes, will not be open for renegotiation with the ELN. He also said the dialogue would be contingent on the ELN giving up all of its kidnapping activities.
Should the government succeed in finishing both peace negotiations, it would mean the end of Latin America's Cuba inspired guerrilla movements, reports the Miami Herald.
The opposition, though, criticized the move, saying it was inopportune begin negotiations with the ELN while still in discussions in Havana with the FARC, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The three year process with the FARC should caution observers against expecting a rapid resolution with the ELN, according to InSight Crime. Already preliminary talks to reach this point have taken two years. 

News Briefs
  • A new Human Rights Watch report denounces that Mexico is not complying with its own laws of how to treat unaccompanied child migrants. "By law, Mexico offers protection to those who face risks to their lives or safety if returned to their countries of origin. But less than 1 percent of children who are apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities are recognized as refugees, according to Mexican government data." The report notes that the amount of children apprehended by Mexican authorities is on the rise: more than 35,000 children were detained in 2015, nearly 55 percent more than in 2014, and 270 percent more than in 2013. Less than 1 percent of children detained in Mexico are accepted as refugees, notes the Guardian in its coverage of the report, even though about half are running away from criminal gangs in Central America's violent northern triangle.
  • The family of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, who died of a heart attack days after he was shocked with a Taser and hit by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents has asked Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the human rights record of U.S. officers, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • There's been plenty written about the political ramifications of the Operation Lava Jato corruption investigation in Brazil. But an in-depth report by IDL-Reporteros, Caretas, and La Prensa, looks at how bribe money was actually laundered by corrupt Odebrecht SA officials. InSight Crime has the English translation: "To be effective, bribery should seek to be undetectable and, above all, unprovable. As Brazilian federal investigators discovered, those involved in the Odebrecht case did this via a multi-layered system of international money laundering," write Gustavo Gorriti and Romina Mella.
  • Brazil's Vice President Michel Temer is inching closer to the presidency, reports the Wall Street Journal, in a piece focused on the PMDB leader who has been compared to the "butler in a horror movie." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • As a change of government seems increasingly likely in Brazil (see yesterday's briefs), many are now questioning the role of the judiciary in the fatal weakening of President Dilma Rousseff's administration, according to the Guardian. Should she be replaced this year, "the role of the judges – who have played such an influential role over the past year – will come under scrutiny. The test will be whether they continue their corruption investigations with as much alacrity into the new administration as they did into the old."
  • Zika grabs international headlines, but Dengue, an older, deadlier mosquito-borne virus is setting record infection levels in Brazil, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Argentina's Senate put the final seal of approval on a deal with hold-out debt creditors, ending a decade long dispute that has kept the country out of international financial markets and complicated foreign investment, reports the Associated Press. It's President Mauricio Macri's first big win in an opposition dominated Congress, notes the Wall Street Journal. A settlement would bring almost immediate relief to cash-strapped provincial governments and companies that for years were effectively cut off from international credit markets. 
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro promised to block a an amnesty law passed by opposition lawmakers earlier this week. The bill, which he must sign in 10 days or defer to the loyalist Supreme Court, aims to liberate 77 politicians, students and military officers jailed by Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez, and who the opposition considers to be political prisoners, reports the Wall Street Journal.(See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Peru is a hotbed of counterfeit dollar production, reports the Guardian, which takes an in-depth look at the sophisticated processes that mass produce fake $100 bills using labor intensive artisanal methods.
  • Mexico city is stepping up it's car control in an attempt to reduce smog in the midst of an air-quality crisis, ordering all cars in the city to spend one idle day a week, reports the Guardian.
  • Expression that promotes violence: The Mexican government is urging broadcasters, websites and social media users to avoid distributing a music video by singer Gerardo Ortíz that it says promotes violence against women, reports the Associated Press.

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