Monday, August 8, 2016

Colombia's peace referendum losing in polls; outcry over detention of ex-gang member Salvadoran activist; Censure of protests at Olympics (Aug. 8, 2016)

Polls in Colombia are showing rapid disenchantment with the peace process, even as it draws to a close, a moment when more excitement would be expected, reports Semana. Nearly half of those polled said they'd vote against the agreement hammered out with the FARC in a plebiscite needed to ratify a final accord. In just six weeks, the people favoring a "Yes" vote dropped to 39 percent from 56.

Semana points to three hypothesis for the abrupt drop in support: the relation between support for the peace process and President Juan Manuel Santos' administration, which is facing a record disapproval rating of 76 percent; the "No" campaign led by former President Álvaro Uribe; and the head start the "No" campaign has had. Uribismo has been campaigning against the peace accord for three months, while the "Yes" proponents have been holding off for the courts to definitively announce the plebiscite's viability, according to Semana. In fact, two weeks after the Constitutional Court found in favor of the plebiscite (see July 20's post), the final decision still hasn't been signed and made public, reports La Silla Vacía.

Many analysts agree with Semana's first hypothesis, regarding the negative impact of Santos' (un)popularity, reports La Silla Vacía. Santos may have been the guy needed to hammer out a peace accord, but he's the wrong character to win a plebiscite, according to this line of argument. Successful plebiscites make emotional appeals to voters, who in turn, tend to use them as opportunities to express dissatisfaction with the current administration, explains the piece.

Separately La Silla Vacía has a "lie detector" piece on Uribe's campaign so far, a modality it promises to apply to both campaigns.


Salvadoran authorities arrested an activist documenting extrajudicial killings

There's increasing outcry over a former Salvadoran gang-member turned registrar of alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces who was arrested in a government operation cracking down on Mara Salvatrucha's financial network. (See July 29's post.)

Dany Balmore Romero García was captured by police a few weeks ago, accused of using foreign-financed NGO's to attack the state, reports Revista Factum. Romero is accused of using NGO, Opera, to destabilize the government and delegitimize security forces, following gang-leader orders. As part of the massive and unprecedented Operation Jaque against MS-13's financial network, officials arrested Romero and took documentation he had gathered with information on 140 alleged extrajudicial killings of gang members, as well as cases of torture and abuse at the hands of police.

"A list of cases Romero shared with a U.S. colleague in the weeks before his arrest is a litany of ... alleged offenses: names, dates, locations, number of victims. For instance, on November 23, 2015, in a town in the department of Usulután: 'At 7:30pm, during a kindergarten graduation party, a Civilian National Police patrol car, headlights off, drove up and parked, and officers walked to where the families were. They came in violently, laid everyone facedown and started shooting, leaving five people dead … and various people wounded, including a 70 year old woman and three children,' reports The Intercept

Last week he was formally charged with being a leader of a terrorist organization, conspiring to commit terrorist acts, and conspiring to commit homicide against someone with the code name “Meme,” who will serve as a key witness in the trial, reports The Intercept. The investigation will take at least six months, according to the judge.

Though he was netted in what seems to be part of a wider crackdown on gang activity -- a new zero tolerance approach -- Romero's detention sends an unequivocal message to those investigating human rights violations in the country.

Policia Nacional Civil (PNC) statistics show a triplication of gang member deaths in confrontation with armed clashes with police in 2014 -- a trend in which increasing amounts of gang members were found with gunshot wounds to the head, calling into question the official version of their deaths, notes Factum.

Last year El Faro and La Prensa Gráfica reported on two separate incidents of confrontation in which security forces apparently massacred 13 alleged gang members in what they reported as "shoot-outs," cases the country's human rights prosecutor promised to pursue. (See April 26's briefs on the announcement and July 18's post on why prosecution's case doesn't go far enough.)

Factum notes that Romero's case generated an official statement of concern from the British ambassador Bernhard Garside, who marked his collaboration with UK NGO Statecraft Institute.

But the case is further muddied by a February inclusion of Romero's name on a U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions list. The OFAC accused Romero of “leading local operations to orchestrating assassination campaigns for MS-13,” and seeking "to disrupt Salvadoran government efforts to combat MS-13 activity,” notes The Intercept. The designation froze his U.S. assets and prohibited U.S. citizens from engaging in transactions with him.

Romero has contested the allegations, and was lobbying to have his name removed from the list. (A fruitless task, reported the Wall Street Journal in June.)

Romero's collaboration with Opera dates to his time in jail in the late 90s, when he came into contact with the group that works on inmate rehabilitation and violence prevention.


Political protest banned in Olympics venues

People carrying signs and wearing t-shirts protesting Brazil's government and acting-President Michel Temer were escorted out of Olympics venues this weekend, reports the Wall Street Journal. Videos of spectators being removed from their seats or expelled from stadiums circulated social media and received widespread condemnation, according to the Washington Post

In one incident on Saturday, nine activists unveiled t-shirts spelling out "Fora Temer" (Temer Out) at the U.S.-France women's soccer team match. The activists began a chant of "Fora Temer," before being escorted out and told by police that they had been filmed to prove their participation in the protest.

Critics say political speech is being censored -- an accusation that carries historical weight given the country's history of military rule, notes the Post piece. 

Protests will only be encouraged by the expulsions say some, and respond to Temer's low approval ratings, reports to the New York Times.

"... Many Brazilians are in no mood to be told where they can protest as the country fumes over colossal graft scandals involving political figures across the ideological spectrum," according to the NYTimes.

Organizers say the IOC rules prohibit demonstrations, political or racial propaganda at Olympic sites. A Brazilian law passed in May also prohibits political demonstration at the Games.
Temer was booed in Friday's opening ceremony, despite not being formally introduced, as is customary for the president of the host country. (Temer had already been prepared for that, reported the Los Angeles Times last week.)

Stories of street crime and near-misses in Rio in the midst of the Olympics are piling up -- including the chief of security for the opening ceremony getting mugged at knifepoint leaving the Olympic Stadium on Friday and a stray bullet that almost hit a New Zealand sports official in the equestrian arena’s media tent, reports the New York Times. (The bullet came from a favela and had been aimed a police blimp carrying security cameras, reports the Guardian.)

The issue of security at the Olympics is multi-faceted: authorities have deployed 85,000 troops to try to secure the streets during the event, yet there was an 81 percent increase in street robberies last month over the same period last year. The display of force, double the amount of security forces used in London's 2012 Olympics, worries human rights groups that point to abuses linked aggressive policing, especially in the city's low-income favelas, notes the NYTimes. Police say their salaries have gone unpaid or partially paid due to Rio de Janeiro state's financial crisis, a fact that has affected morale.

The Nation has a piece contrasting the Olympics' embrace of international refugees, while steadfastly ignoring the plight of the thousands of Rio inhabitants who have lost their homes to meet Olympic construction demands.

News Briefs

  • Last week Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro promoted Gen. Nestor Reverol as Minister of Interior and Justice (MIJ), just a day after U.S. prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging him with conspiracy to help cocaine shipments going from Colombia to the U.S. (See last Wednesday's briefs.) David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights questions the rapid response that the naming was just a sign of Chavista intransigence, arguing that Maduro is "building a core security team among officials that have in some way been blacklisted by the US. This makes sense since these officials have high “exit costs” in any transition scenario. Put differently, they will be loyal and fight to finish because their ability to avoid US justice depends on the survival of Chavismo in power." He also points to a similar logic behind putting the military in charge of food distribution -- the government's weakest flank -- as a way potentially making them the targets of eventual social unrest.
  • Mudslides caused by Tropical Storm Earl in Mexico's eastern mountains killed 40 people, according to Reuters. Record-breaking rains in Puebla state where 28 people were killed led to landslides that buried entire homes, reports the New York Times. A second cyclone, Tropical Storm Javier, formed yesterday, off the Pacific coast, notes the Wall Street Journal.
  • Honduran  Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-LIBRE) found that the government is responsible for the most censorship of freedom of speech in the country, where last year there were 219 alerts for violations of freedom of expression, reports Radio Progreso. The piece also notes that 10 journalists were killed in Honduras in 2015.
  • Bloggings by Boz analyzes how Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil are likely to demand that Venezuela be demoted from full Mercosur membership this week. The three countries have been arguing that Venezuela is not fulfilling the trade bloc's democracy clause, but this move will likely focus on Venezuela's incomplete implementation of Mercosur trade and economic regulations. The tactic sidesteps a likely Uruguay veto on the democracy issue, according to Boz. (See last Thursday's briefs.)
  • Widespread corruption allegations against members of former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's administration threaten to tarnish the Kirchners' legacy of social achievements, reports the New York Times. High profile investigations are creating widespread anger, even as supporters and Fernández say the judiciary is compromised and pursuing political aims. 
  • Nobel prize laureate, economist Joseph Stiglitz and Swiss anti-corruption expert Mark Pieth resigned from a commission charged with investigating Panama's opaque financial system in the wake of the so-called "Panama Papers," saying the government refused to guarantee the results of their investigation would be made public, reports Reuters.
  • More than 20 Brazilian land activists have been killed so far this year, according to a local watchdog, mostly related to logging and agribusiness conflicts, reports Reuters.
  • Mexican Veracruz state's public security secretary, Arturo Bermúdez Zurita, was forced to resign after Aristegui Noticias revealed that he and his wife had purchased five properties in suburban Houston with a combined value of $2.4m – even though he made a mere 59,500 pesos a month ($3,200), according to government transparency records, reports the Guardian.
  • A local Mexico City manager launched a one-man public shaming crusade, using the social media platform Periscope to broadcast bad civic behavior -- such as blocking wheelchair ramps or inappropriately disposing of trash on sidewalks -- to a population outraged by a nation-wide impunity malaise. Now city authorities have turned the tables, possibly in revenge, and closed a building belonging to Arne Aus den Ruthen's family for violating zoning rules. Aus den Ruthen is taking his campaign city-wide as he battles the Mexico City government, reports the Guardian.

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