Monday, April 20, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 20, 2015

Massacre in Apatzingán

Mexican journalist Laura Castellanos released an investigation this weekend, alleging that the federal police killed 16 unarmed people in two attacks in January. Her account, based on interviews with 39 witnesses -- including survivors of the attacks, families of the victims, and medical staff -- was released in Proceso, Aristegui Noticias and Univisión. The harrowing testimony contradicts the official version of events, which claimed that the dead were victims of friendly fire in Apatzingán.

But none of the victims were armed, according to the investigation. They were members of Fuerza Rural, which chased Servando Gómez, La Tuta, leader of the Templar Knights throughout the Michoacán sierra for 8 months, according to the Proceso piece. The men, lemon harvesters, were protesting the dissolution of their force without pay and new incursions of Templars into their lands. 

The video presenting the investigation shows graphic photos of the victims, piled on the road in pools of blood. One eye-witness to the January 6 massacre describes a kneeling unarmed man being shot execution style. A short video taken by an eyewitness shows police opening fire on civilians attempting to aid wounded people transported by police forces. Other witnesses describe wounded dying on the road for hours without medical assistance. The investigation includes official documents demonstrating that some corpses were transported to morgues over three hours away from their place of death.

The AP reports that President Enrique Pena Nieto has faced heavy criticism over abuses by security forces since 22 suspected gang members died in an army confrontation last June in Tlatlaya, in the central state of Mexico. Authorities have charged three soldiers with murder and four with dereliction of duty in that case.

The news site Aristegui Noticias reported two cyber attacks which downed the site for a total of 12 hours the day before the report's release. Articulo 19, a press freedom NGO, called on authorities to guarantee the free flow of information, noting the particular case of digital media which has been a target of attacks in recent years. According to the organization there have been 29 cases of cyber attacks between 2010 and 2014, 12 of them in 2014.

News Briefs

  • Mexican officials captured the leader of the Juárez Cartel, Jesús Salas Aguayo, and the Gulf Cartel, José Tiburcio Hernández Fuentes, on Friday, reports the New York Times. Hernádez's arrest set off hours of street fighting Friday, as about 60 of his gunmen seized buses and set fire to them to block roads and shot at government buildings in a failed effort to prevent his transfer to Mexico City. Both cartels have lost much of the influence they once exercised over drug trafficking along the Texas border, under the combined pressure of arrests and battles against rival gangs, according to the piece.
  • Tamaulipas is a lawless state, according to a harsh State Department travel warning covered by El País. The warning advises would-be visitors to defer all non-essential travel to the state of Tamaulipas, and notes that "Violent conflicts between rival criminal elements and/or the Mexican military can occur in all parts of the region and at all times of the day."
  • The U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala's (CICIG) future is uncertain, reports the AP. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina says he will decide soon whether the country will continue cooperating with the commission or hand its responsibilities over to local law enforcement. The commission was set up in 2007 after Guatemala asked for help in investigating serious crimes, and its staff of police and prosecutors from 25 nations has helped bring 161 public officials to trial for corruption, according to the report. But Perez Molina told the AP its presence cannot be permanent: "Even if it remained for 10 more years, it is not the commission that will solve the justice situation," Perez Molina said. "It is us, the Guatemalans, who must see if we truly want to fix our institutions, strengthen them and move forward." Activists note the commission has already investigated one former president, and that Perez Molina's mandate will be up at the end of the year. The piece cites a WOLA study that traces traces the origin of criminal networks in Guatemala to the intelligence services, counterinsurgency movements and paramilitary groups that operated during the 1960-96 civil war and were never truly disbanded.
  • The New York Times has a piece on efforts to eliminate land mines in Colombia, a country with one of the highest numbers of land mine victims in the world. The programs received a boost last month when the FARC and the government agreed to work together to find and destroy mines laid by guerilla's in the country's fifty year conflict. The agreement was celebrated as an important advance in peace talks that have been ongoing for two years with few tangible results. Though the continuation of cooperation was thrown into question last week after a FARC attack on government troops led to an escalation in tensions (see Thursday's post), the piece quotes sources that say the land mine program will continue unaltered.
  • Peruvian president Ollanta Humala is pushing forward a stalled $1.4 billion copper mining project, reports the Wall Street Journal. The Tía María mine is opposed by farmers, anti-mining activists and local politicians who have marched and blocked roads in the Islay province for the past month, saying they want to protect their fields in a long river valley near where Southern Copper plans to dig out 120,000 metric tons of copper a year. Peru is one of the world’s largest producers of gold, copper, silver, zinc and other minerals, but mining is polemic because of its use of scarce water sources according to the piece. (See Friday's post on how a World Bank funded gold mine has affected local communities.)
  • São Paulo authorities will be sending out army troops to educate citizens on mosquito control, in an attempt to combat a deadly outbreak of dengue fever that has killed over 130 people and infected thousands in just the first three months of the year. The Wall Street Journal reports that the severe drought the region is going through has spurred residents to hoard water, often in makeshift containers that provide breeding grounds for mosquitos that spread the disease.
  • March was the deadliest month in over a decade for El Salvador, reports the Los Angeles Times. The piece examines the failure of a 2012 gang truce, and the violence plaguing El Salvador. "Rival gangs — descendants of the Mara Salvatrucha and others deported from the United States in the 1990s — control entire neighborhoods, able to exact protection money, hold ad hoc tribunals and decide where residents can live and businesses can operate. They act essentially, analysts say, as a parallel government. And the killings continue to mount, as they battle for pieces of a drug-trafficking business that has expanded with the arrival of Mexican cartels."
  • Mary Anastasia O'Grady interviewed former Brazilian presidential candidate Aécio Neves, who lost to Dilma Rousseff last year. He says he lost as a result of "organized crime," in reference to the alleged skimming operation at the government-owned oil company Petrobras. Funds redirected towards the governing Workers' Party allowed for lavish campaign spending that contributed to Neves' defeat, says O'Grady. "Law enforcement must hold individuals accountable, but the state’s oversize role in the economy is what led to this mess. Replacing the players with individuals who seem more honest will not eliminate the cause of corruption," she says.
  • The CAF-Development Bank of Latin America is exploring the possibility of incorporating Cuba as a member of the only multilateral bank owned by emerging nations. The Caracas based bank, whose members include 17 Latin American and Caribbean countries, Spain and Portugal and 14 private banks in the region, is planning a conference with the University of Havana to explore economic development in Latin America and Cuba, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Two dissident candidates in local Cuban elections conceded defeat on Sunday. Had either of them won, they would have been the first non-Communist Party elected officials in over 40 years. Yet the fact that they were nominated at all is politically significant, reports the AP
  • U.S. lawmakers have introduced a proposal to create a commission to study American drug policies in Latin America and the Caribbean. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) argue that a review of policies will help identify which work and which don't. South American countries like Colombia and Mexico remain the top originating countries of drugs such as cocaine and heroin consumed in the U.S., reports The Hill.
  • Vice News reports on the Peruvian government's attempts to contain the nation's booming cocaine industry. "But the government's campaign of crop eradication and efforts to destroy narco runways risk further igniting a larger social conflict, alienating the coca farmers whose livelihoods depend on growing the illicit crop.

  • Ecuador, on the other hand, is on the brink of decriminalizing the use of all drugs. The watershed legislation focuses on prevention rather than criminalization, and would include providing treatment and rehabilitation, and replacing jail with small fines, for drug users. It's part of a move away from the Washington led War on Drugs, reports the Global Post, and is more in line with regional initiatives such as Uruguay's legalization of marijuana. 
  • A Port-au-Prince restaurateur and accused kidnapper with close ties to the presidential family has been freed from a Haitian prison a month after he and 13 others were indicted on various crimes -- including murder, drug trafficking, money laundering and running a kidnapping ring, reports the Miami Herald. The trial lasted about two hours, according to a Haitian human rights leader. Lamarre Bélizaire, a controversial investigative judge who has been accused in the past of doing the government's bidding, threw out the indictment and freed Ethéart and Renel Nelfort.
  • Ford will spend $2.5 billion to expand its manufacturing operations at two sites in Mexico, the latest in a wave of auto investments flowing to the country, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Armed men killed eight people yesterday in a raid on a São Paulo soccer fan club that has close links to a notorious prison, reports the AP. 
  • Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, is winning intention to vote polls in Peru, according to Reuters. Fujimori lost the last presidential election to current president Ollanta Humala in 2011.
  • Rio de Janeiro's state government failed to pay phone and Internet bills, leading phone company Oi to cut off its lines. The state owes up to $55.7 million in unpaid bills, according to the company, reports Reuters. The cuts to the lines do not affect vital services like fire protection, schools or hospitals

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