Monday, April 27, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 27, 2015

"They've stolen so much from us that they've stolen our fear," Guatemalans demand presidential resignation

Thousands of Guatemalans, over 15,000 according to Nómada, gathered in the capital on Saturday, brought together via Facebook and demanding the resignation of President Otto Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti. An International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) investigation has uncovered a $130 million tax fraud scandal that involved high-ranking members of the government.

Baldetti's now-fugitive private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, has been accused of leading the corruption scheme. He fell off the authorities' radar while accompanying the vice president in South Korea last week, and is believed to be hiding in Honduras, according to the AFP.

The case which is known as “La Linea” (the line) also involved top officials from the Superintendence of Tax Administration of Guatemala (SAT). So far 20 people have been arrested on charges of taking bribes in exchange for reduced customs charges, reports TeleSur.

José Rubén Zamora details the nitty-gritty mechanics of the tax corruption scheme, which allegedly involved millions of dollars in commissions being paid to the vice president, under the leadership of Monzón. The Presidential squash court, among other unusual spaces, was used as a gathering place for the cash generated by various institutions' bribes, according to the piece in El Periódico, which is based on the testimony of three sources close to the case.

Nómada emphasizes the protesters' social and political plurality -- unified mostly by a weariness of political impunity regarding corruption. A phrase repeated on banners across the central plaza was: "They've stolen so much from us that they've stolen our fear." 

#RenunciaYa (#ResignNow) is flooding the twitter-sphere, echoing the success earlier this month of a social media campaign in support of the CICIG, reports Global Voices. The commission's continuity was questioned by the president, who wound up asking for the group's renewal for another two years.

Mobile network shutdowns on Saturday had protesters concerned that the government might be attempting to disrupt their ability to communicate. However difficulties in sharing photos and information might also be due to network saturation.

News Briefs

  • Brazilian congressional leaders, members of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party that forms part of the governing Workers' Party coalition, are taking advantage of the corruption scandal rocking President Dilma Rousseff's government to deflect attention from their own corruption accusations, according to a New York Times piece. As the executive branch reels from the Petrobras investigation into a conspiracy to funnel funds from the state oil giant into political coffers, the heads of the two Congressional branches and the vice president are thwarting the presidential agenda at every turn, forming a virtual coup, according to one source quoted in the piece.
  • The jailed opposition mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was transferred to a private hospital for a hernia operation this weekend, reports the New York Times. He will be under house arrest for his recuperation. It's unclear whether he will be returned to jail after his recovery. Ledezma was arrested in February and has been held in a military prison awaiting trial. He is one of several opposition politicians jailed by the Venezuelan government. Last week the Inter-American Human Rights Commission called on the government to protect the right to life, personal integrity and health of several jailed politicians, saying their rights were in jeopardy, though Ledezma was not mentioned.
  • Four former Guantanamo Bay prisoners in Uruguay are demanding financial and housing from the U.S. government. They have been protesting in front of the embassy since Friday, saying such assistance would be the "least they can do", after over a decade of what they call unjust incarceration. As a humanitarian gesture, Uruguay's government took in the four and two other men in December after U.S. authorities freed them from Guantanamo. They had spent 12 years at the U.S. military prison for suspected al-Qaida ties, but U.S. officials decided they were no longer a threat and let them go, reports the AP.
  • The Washington Post has a piece on Mexico's new anti-corruption legislation, an attempt to rebuild citizen trust in government. But watchers are skeptical over whether the changes will translate to real prosecutions. The reform, which would strengthen oversight bodies and permit more frequent audits of government spending, must be approved by state legislatures. The new rules could have a positive impact for investors, especially in the context the opening up of the state oil industry to foreign investors. Coverage in the Miami Herald last week was positive. 
  • Peru might resume a policy of shooting down small aircraft suspected of transporting cocaine, reports the Los Angeles Times. Authorities are concerned over an increase in illicit air transport of the drug to Bolivia, which has become an air hub for cocaine transportation in recent years. U.S. officials estimate that currently there are more than 500 illicit flights per year between the two countries. However, the policy of shooting down small planes was suspended in 2001, after a missionary and her baby were killed in a mistaken shoot-down. U.S. intelligence played a critical role in that case.
  • Mary O'Grady criticizes Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' willingness to continue peace talks with the FARC after an encounter with the guerrilla group left 11 soldiers dead earlier this month. In her Wall Street Journal column she lambasts the ongoing peace process and criticizes the attorney general's announcement last week to pursue an investigation against 22 generals suspected of involvement in the killing of civilians in order to boost army "kill counts." "There is a growing sense that the armed forces are being hung out to dry so Mr. Santos can close on his beloved “peace agreement,” she says.
  • Brazil's health ministry announced new rules making it easier to import medication with cannabis derivatives, used to treat diseases such as epilepsy. Importation of the drugs was allowed in January, but under very restrictive guidelines. There are three proposals for legalizing marijuana in Brazil's congress; one, a popular initiative backed by 20,000 signatures, would implement regulations akin to those used for tobacco and alcohol, according to El Espectador.
  • A group of nine drug crime convicts in Indonesia could be executed this week. The group includes nationals from Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, the Philippines and Australia. Though the Indonesian government's tough-on-drugs stance is popular at home, it has caused diplomatic problems. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Widodo on Saturday not to execute the prisoners and called on him to "urgently consider declaring a moratorium on capital punishment in Indonesia, with a view toward abolition," according to Reuters. In February Brazil and Indonesia recalled their ambassadors, after a Brazilian citizen was executed in January.
  • Last week two Mexican citizens were found guilty of production and trafficking of narcotics in Malasia, and also face the the death penalty, according to CNN México. The Mexican Foreign Secretariat said it disagrees with the death penalty in this case and will fight the sentence.
  • The AP has a feature on previously deported migrants who return to the U.S. and are hoping to one day receive legal recognition. About 43 percent of the 368,644 people deported in the 2013 fiscal year were kicked out because they had illegally returned to the U.S. after being deported.
  • At least five companies have applied for licenses to re-launch ferry service between Florida and Cuba, according to the Wall Street Journal. Though tourism is still not permitted for American citizens, operators are betting restrictions will be further relaxed. The route was popular in the 1940s and 50s, but was suspended after the U.S. imposed travel restrictions after 1963.
  • The Los Angeles Times has a piece on how Brazil's army has been called in to help fight an outbreak of deadly dengue fever in São Paulo. The disease is transmitted through mosquitos. Though the government warns citizens against creating breeding grounds by leaving still, exposed water outside, the situation has been complicated by a severe drought in the region which has led many citizens to hoard water in any way they can.
  • Vice News has a piece on accusations that Mexican authorities are behind the killing of 16 civilians in January. A journalistic investigation published in Proceso, Aristegui Noticias and Univisión last week made the case that federal police massacred unarmed civilians, in what would be Mexico's third extra-judicial massacre in a year. (See last Monday's post.)
  • The ongoing Petrobras corruption investigation could affect investments and delay works at the state oil giant, company president told O Globo this weekend. 
  • Chile's Calbuco volcano was quiet this weekend, after unexpectedly erupting last week, reports Reuters. Authorities say it could erupt again, raising concerns over potential impacts to health from volcanic ash. Ash from last week's eruption caused airlines to cancel some flights to Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

  • Fifty-four percent of Chileans believe the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will find in Bolivia's favor in a case brought before the court regarding negotiations for Bolivia's sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.

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