Friday, January 20, 2017

Brazilian judge investigating corrupt politicians dies in plane crash (Jan. 20, 2017)

Brazilian Supreme Court judge Teori Zavaski died yesterday in an airplane crash. He presided over the landmark Operation Car Wash investigation into corruption at state-owned oil company Petrobras, which has implicated a broad swath of the country's politicians and put dozens behind bars already, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Zavaski was headed on vacation when the small plane he was traveling in crashed into the Atlantic near Paraty. He was in the process of ratifying plea testimony from construction giant Odebrecht, which accuses dozens of prominent politicians of accepting bribes. The testimony is expected to implicate members of President Michel Temer’s administration.

Zavascki was expected to decide which of the Odebrecht plea bargains to validate -- which would make them public -- by February, according to the Associated Press. The death could postpone the case for months, reports El País. A Temer named substitute could also present conflict of interest issues, notes the Financial Times.

Supreme Court justices were maneuvering yesterday already to nominate a successor to oversee the case, saying delays could permit legislators to evade jail, reports the New York Times.

Though the causes of the accident are unknown, Zavaski's vital role in the investigation into corruption led many to voice suspicion of foul play yesterday, reports the AP. Zavaski handled all the Carwash cases involving federal politicians, which by law pass through the Supreme Court.

News Briefs
  • Specially equipped Brazilian police forces entered a jail where drug gangs were fighting battles inside of Alcaçuz jail, where unrest broke out last weekend when 26 inmates were slaughtered by a rival gang, reports the New York Times. Police fired rubber bullets and teargas canisters at inmates battling with wooden clubs and stones, reports Reuters. The neighboring city of Natal has been effectively put under curfew by the violence and buses have stopped running. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The wave of prison-gang warfare afflicting the country "may prove only the opening skirmishes of a prolonged, devastating conflict. Brazilian prison gangs’ capacity to orchestrate terrorist attacks could transform the country’s cities and borders into war zones, while their dominance of the penitentiary system means that state crackdowns and prison expansions may only make them stronger," writes Benjamin Lessing for the Washington Post's Monkey Cage.
  • The death count in prisons this year is already up to 136, and the crisis shows "why authorities ignore -- or militarize -- prisons at their own peril," according to InSight Crime.
  • A well timed report on Latin America's prison systems by InSight Crime, based on a year-long investigation, finds they have become prime incubators for organized crime. Hardline policies have led to massive overcrowding and deplorable conditions, creating fertile ground for "ever-more sophisticated" criminal gangs. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • Analysts say the gang war is about controlling lucrative cocaine smuggling trade routes through the country's northern Amazon. Reuters reports on the difficulties of patrolling the "porous border that stretches for nearly 10,000 kms, three times the U.S.-Mexico frontier."
  • Notorious Mexican drug lord, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, was extradited to the U.S. yesterday night. The U.S. Justice Department plans to put the former boss of the notorious Sinaloa cartel on trial in Brooklyn federal court, one of the most secure in the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. El Chapo has achieved folk hero status, in part due to his Houdini-like powers of escape, and it is popularly believed that it will be impossible to replicate his two high security jailbreaks from the U.S., reports the New York Times. However, the extradition could lead to a spike in cartel violence in Mexico. 
  • Mexican authorities say the timing was related to judicial processes. But an official speaking to the Washington Post said it was intended as a farewell gesture to outgoing President Barack Obama. And analysts cited in the Guardian think it indicates a gesture of goodwill to incoming President Donald Trump. And others think the extradition, carried out on Obama's last full day as president, is meant to avoid tributing Trump, reports the Associated PressReuters says it was both a parting gift to Obama and an olive branch for Trump. Financial Times has the most ironic take: "Trump has railed against Mexico, saying it does not send its best people to the US. ...  Mexico, at the US’s behest, has now sent its most notorious."
  • Mexico's government announced high-level bilateral meetings in Washington next week, and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said he expected the two country's presidents to talk directly afterwards, reports Reuters. The ultimate tone of the meetings depends on whether Trump follows through on his bullying comments, according to the Financial Times.
  • The Odebrecht corruption revelations seem likely to have long-term impact in countries around the region. Colombia's government says it's seeking to oust the Brazilian giant from the country, reports the Wall Street Journal. Odebrecht said it paid $11 million to secure projects in Colombia.
  • Marijuana seizures in Uruguay have increased, which might mean criminal groups are seeking to take advantage of the slow implementation of a 2013 law creating a legal recreational use market, according to InSight Crime.
  • Peru is seeking free trade agreements from Britain to India, reports Reuters.
  • In Latin America Goes Global, Evan Ellis analyzes Argentine President Mauricio Macri's first year of government -- calling his success vitally important to U.S. and regional interests. His economic program, targeted at weaning the country off of subsidies and social spending, are in a race against time to show tangible benefits before October's midterm elections. Ellis emphasizes the increasing problem of drug trafficking in the country, and praises efforts to militarily respond, though they potentially run afoul of legislation prohibiting military involvement in internal affairs. (See this criticism of the militarized approach from InSight Crime from last year, for an example of the counter view.)
  • A piece in Americas Quarterly analyzes reports of HIV medication shortages in Argentina -- apparently due to bureaucratic issues. Argentina provides universal HIV treatment, but delays can be problematic for those battling the disease.
  • Ecuador will permit WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to camp out in its London embassy indefinitely, though in November his internet access was cut off due to concerns that he might be interfering with the U.S. election, reports the Huffington Post.

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