Friday, July 29, 2016

El Salvador cracks down on gang financial network (July 29, 2016)

Salvadoran authorities announced a series of major raids on the powerful Mara Salvatrucha street gang yesterday. Five gang leaders, previously unknown to authorities, were arrested, and police said they seized weapons, cash and vehicles during raids at homes, restaurants, bars, motels, garages and a car lot, reports the Associated Press.

These businesses generated millions of dollars of profit, according to police chief Howard Cotto. The so-called "Operation Check" has been in the works for a year, and targets MS-13's financial network for the first time, explains El Faro. But authorities emphasized that the money does not belong to the gang, rather it's the profit that certain leaders have skimmed off of the group's criminal activities, without most of the members knowing.

"Most gang members live in deplorable places, very depressed. The ringleaders have been profiting from their own structure ... They have jealously guarded their secret lifestyle ... Some have even decided to pay extortions before allowing members of their structure to realize that these are their businesses. There are businesses that belong to [gang] leaders and pay extortion [fees to gangs], said Cotto.

Attorney general Douglas Meléndez made the same point reiteratedly, part of an official message from authorities to gang members that they are being used by their leaders, according to El Faro. "The issue is potentially a depth charge inside Mara Salvatrucha ... Within the criminal structure, the value of horizontality is much appreciated." Leaders prefer to be called "spokespeople" and while the gangs do in fact have a fairly vertical chain of command, the hierarchy is based on ability to work for the common good. "The dominant discourse inside Mara Salvatrucha is that its criminal activity is for subsistence, as the resources obtained from extortion must benefit all the members of the structure, calculated at close to 40 thousand. The internal gang rules severely condemn those who obtain personal gains using the structure."

One of those detained is the alleged MS-13 treasurer, Marvin Adaly Ramos Quintanilla, an evangelical pastor who used his work as a front to enter prisons and talk with gang leaders, according to the AP.

The BBC reports a total of 120 arrests.

The MS-13 reorganized after a government crackdown on gangs this year, developing a parallel leadership when authorities isolated known leaders in jails.

Yet a new poll found that 53 percent of respondents feel the government's new "extraordinary measures," which have limited communication between incarcerated gang members and the outside world, have had "little" or "no" effect on reducing gang crimes, reports InSight Crime. A majority of respondents (97 percent) also said they would like to have an international commission to investigate organized crime and corruption in the country.

El Salvador's security policy suffers from an extreme case of polarization, going from an organized truce with the gangs to the current crackdown. (See March 31's post.) But the country would be better served by "a greater balance between the social and law-enforcement aspects of public security," argues InSight Crime's David Gagne. "To think of it in Salvadoran terms, such an approach would include communication with the gangs and other violence prevention strategies, but would not reach the level of open negotiations. It would require effective application of the law, but would not condone Mano Dura-style policing tactics."

Aside: Gang threats are causing thousands of children to leave school in El Salvador. Dropouts last year added up to 39,000 last year, triple the 2014 amount, reports InSight Crime.

News Briefs
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has filed complaints with the United Nations human rights committee outlining alleged abuses of power in a corruption case investigators have linked him to, reports AFP. His lawyers  alleged violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and alleged abuses of power by judge Sergio Moro in the "Operation Car Wash" investigation. 
  • Amnesty International launched a campaign against police violence during the upcoming Olympics. The organization mounted a demonstration outside the Rio Committee offices, with body bags representing those killed by police and presented Olympics authorities with a petition signed by 120,000 people in 15 countries, asking for prevention of rights abuses by security forces during the games. Amnesty cited data from the Instituto de Segurança Pública (ISP) showing that 40 people have been killed in this month alone by Rio police, an increase of 135 percent over the same period last year, reports O Globo. Amnesty's Brazil director, Átila Roque, denounced "war operations" this year in favelas and the city's periphery, targeting especially young black people, reports AFP. Police are criticized for their "shoot first, ask questions later" policy, which translates in to a sort of "license to kill" in years of big international events like the Olympics, reports  Agência Brasil. According to the organization 2,600 people were killed by police since 2009, reports Noticias Ao Minuto.
  • Brazilian security forces are emphasizing anti-terrorism efforts ahead of the games, but critics question their readiness for an event of this scale and say the emphasis on terrorism might be distracting from more prosaic issues like street crime, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • In the years leading up to the Rio Olympics, stories about Guanabara Bay pollution have cropped up in the media periodically, with complaints from training athletes about the conditions of waters in which the sailing, kayaking and and marathon swimming events will take place. But a New York Times magazine looks at the causes of the contamination -- the approximately 4.5 million people living in the bay's watershed who are not hooked up to sanitation systems. The feature follows one tributary, the Rio Sarapuí and documents how it collects trash and untreated sewage on its path towards Rio de Janeiro's coast.
  • Nearly a dozen construction workers have died thanks to Olympics organizers prioritizing ofdeadlines over lives, says Rio de Janeiro’s chief inspector of labor conditions, according to the Guardian.
  • A decade after handing over the reins of power to his brother, Fidel Castro has surged back into the public eye as a symbol for Cubans who want the government to maintain orthodox Communist policy. And the island is filling with his image and tributes ahead of his Aug. 13 ninetieth birthday, reports the Associated Press.
  • Veracruz governor Javier Duarte, who critics say ignores the Mexican state's massive crime problem, pushed through a draconian anti-abortion law that effectively outlaws the procedure in all circumstances, reports the Guardian. Veracruz has has so many disappeared people that citizens brigades are combing the area for clandestine graves, and the Committee to Protect Journalists has called Veracruz “the most lethal place for the press in the western hemisphere”. Duarte's mandate ends in December, and the national prosecutor's office is investigating him and associates for corruption, reports Animal Político. (See yesterday's briefs on human rights accusations against him and the investigation into corruption in his circle.)
  • Almost half of Mexico's municipal and state jails are overpopulated, and 10 are operating at 300 to 600 percent capacity, reports Animal Político. Many house both local and federal inmates. Yet the country's 17 federal penitentiaries are not filled to capacity.
  • Pedro Pablo Kuczynski assumed office as Peru’s president yesterday. He promised to focus on increasing investments in order to reduce poverty, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Some local officials in Colombia's northern region say the FARC is already pulling out of certain areas, leaving municipalities at the mercy of criminal bands. InSight Crime says the alarm may be premature, but that it's indicative of the challenges ahead for the Colombian government in re-establishing state presence in guerrilla dominated regions.
  • Celebrations for a Medellín soccer team's victory in the Copa Libertadores final were marred by over 600 street fights, that led to four fans deaths and 23 people getting injured, reports the Associated Press.
  • Eighty percent of homicides in Honduras are carried out with guns, an issue fueled by ease in obtaining firearms, reports InSight Crime.
  • Emergency measures against a wave of femicides enacted last year in Mexico state  have not borne much fruit, reports Vice News. There were 59 femicides recorded last year, and 39 more in the first five months of this year.
  • Bolivia has one of the highest rates of gender violence in the world, according to Al Jazeera. Ninety percent of women are victims of violence at some point in their lives.
  • Former Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina faces another corruption investigation, this time focused on allegations he received $37.9 million in return for construction contracts, reports the BBC.
  • A much delayed Mercosur meeting has been cancelled, after Brazil and Paraguay said they would boycott over the scheduled passing of the trade bloc's presidency to Venezuela, reports TeleSUR.
  • The Guardian, the "Somos Brasil" art project by Artist Marcus Lyon shows Brazil's genetic diversity through a set of portraits accompanied by ancestral genetic mapping.

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