Friday, May 29, 2015

Fifa fallout (May 29, 2015)

The U.S. led bribery investigation into alleged bribery in organized soccer -- and the indictments of a dozen high profile soccer officials and sports companies in Latin America  -- has led to local probes in Argentina, Brazil and Costa Rica. 

The U.S. Department of Justice indicted 14 people on charges ranging from racketeering to money-laundering and wire fraud. Seven FIFA executives were arrested in Zurich on Wednesday.

The investigation was welcomed by Brazilians who are unhappy with the quality of their national sport, according to Reuters. 

As Brazilian policy being an investigation into corruption in local soccer organizations, the national Senate, led by former national soccer star Romario, moved to open a formal inquiry into alleged bribes paid to obtain contracts with the Brazilian Soccer Federation (CBF), reports the Reuters piece. Police and prosecutors raided the offices of a sports-marketing firm owned by a prominent local businessman, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Costa Rica has opened an inquiry into the U.S. accusations against Eduardo Li, head of Costa Rica's soccer association, who was detained on Wednesday, according to TeleSur.

In Argentina the tax authorities filed criminal complaints against the Argentine businessmen accused of involvement in the corruption scheme. They are accusing the men of tax evasion, illicit fiscal association and money laundering, reports La Nación.

In the meantime, former FIFA VP, Jack Warner was released from prison citing exhaustion (he's 72 years old) but later appeared dancing in at a political rally in Trinidad, reports The Guardian.

La Nación gives a review of the conspiracy detailed in the U.S. investigation, which delves into the negotiations behind the TV rights for the Copa América. 

News Briefs

  • Former presidents of Bolivia and Colombia, José Quiroga and Andres Pastrana, arrived in Venezuela yesterday to visit jailed opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Daniel Ceballos. López and Ceballos have been carrying out a hunger strike since the weekend. The dignitaries visited Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, who is under house arrest after undergoing a hernia operation last month. Pastrana and Quiroga requested a meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, saying they are on a humanitarian mission, reports InfoBae.
  • At least six military troops were wounded in a FARC attack on a bus in  Colombia, reports El Tiempo. The attack was reportedly carried out in conjunction with the ELN.
  • Silla Vacía wonders whether the Colombian military is actively avoiding civilian participation in demining operations. While authorities reached an agreement with the FARC three months ago in Havana to begin joint efforts to remove the landmines scattered throughout the country, Silla Vacía reports that military troops have hastened to claim areas where civilians were slated to operate. At the heart of the matter may be the funding dedicated to the operations, speculates the piece.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto misrepresented to authorities how he obtained one of his properties, according to a Reuters investigation. Peña Nieto claimed in his asset declaration -- made public in 2013 as part of a transparency push -- to have received a 1,000 square meter piece of land in the town of Valle de Bravo as a gift from his father. However, Reuters found documents showing he had actually purchased it from a third party in 1988, for the equivalent of $5,000. The declaration also understates the value of the property. Reuters does not hazard a guess as to why the property is mischaracterized in the declaration. The declaration lists eight other real estate properties, five of which are also listed as donations. 
  • Bolivian police captured the escaped former advisor to the Peruvian president, after he disappeared this week before being extradited to Peru, where he is accused of corruption. Martín Belaunde was captured in an Amazon town about 100 kilometers from the Brazilian border, which he was apparently headed towards. He will be handed over to Peruvian authorities today, reports AFP. Belaunde managed President Ollanta Humala's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2006. He accused of associating with a corrupt network of political officials that embezzled public money and may have even ordered people killed, explainsInSight Crime. "Belaunde should be an opportunity for the Peruvian government to show that they can bring corruption probes to an efficient and just conclusion, regardless of a suspect's ties to the country's highest political elites," they argue.
  • About 100,000 Chilean students protested insufficient education reform yesterday in Santiago.AFP reports that they lifted flaming barricades in the city during the day, and clashed with the police at dusk. Though President Michelle Bachelet has an ambitious reform in action, which next year would provide free university education for 260,000 students, protestors say this is not enough to mitigate the effects of a segregated and unequal education system.
  • Eduardo Cunha is Brazil's Frank Underwood, according to the Washington Post. (International political reporters like to find local equivalents of the fictional Machiavellian operator.) Cunha is a member of the Democratic Movement Party, supposedly an ally of President Dilma Rousseff's Workers' Party. But since being elected speaker of the country’s lower house four months ago he has occupied the role of an opposition party member, green-lighting legislation that undermines Rousseff's initiatives.
  • A new oil discovery off the Falkland Islands is stirring diplomatic tensions between Britain and Argentina. La Nación reports that Argentine diplomats might lodge a formal complaint in the U.K., noting that the extraction activity goes against a U.N. resolution urging the parties to not embark on unilateral measures in the area under dispute between the two countries.
  • Cuba is economically bankrupt, and a complex place to invest in, argues José Cardenas in Foreign Policy. The U.S. administration is seeking to portray the diplomatic rapprochement with the island as a golden opportunity for American businesses, he says, but the island's reality is quite different. "Don’t look for or expect transparency, legal guarantees, and predictability — none of which the Cuban government is capable of providing. And don’t look for a local economy that rewards innovation, risk taking, or hard work," he writes in the harsh op-ed. "That’s the Cuban economic reality and no amount of irrational exuberance and ideological cheerleading changes those facts."
  • The decision by a U.S. federal appeals court to continue blocking President Barak Obama's executive order to stop deportation of more than 4 million undocumented migrants will benefit the Democratic party in next years elections, argues Andres Oppenheimer in his Miami Heraldcolumn. Republicans will need at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to get into the White House, but the party continues to lose votes in that area as it moves rightward on immigration policy, he says.
  • About a quarter of Central America's population suffers from malnutrition, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization Mesoamerica coordinator, quoted by the AFP. Though the region has had consistent advances, remaining malnutrition is a structural issue, said Ignacio Rivera. Central America went from having 12.6 million people suffering from malnutrition in 1990 to 11.4 million in 2015.
  • Two of the former Guantanamo prisoners now refuged in Uruguay will marry local women next month, reports El País. A third will be moving in with a Uruguayan girlfriend.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Increasing Venezuelan dollarization (May 28, 2015)

As the value of the Venezuelan bolivar continues to plummet on the black market, the country is effectively dollarizing its economy.

Despite reports of shortages and monumental lines for basic goods in Venezuela, it's still possible to buy new cars, rent expensive apartments and get airline flights out of the country, according to the AP. However these goods must be paid for in dollars. The Wall Street Journal notes that obtaining airline tickets, many medications and even sea food also increasingly means paying in dollars.

A series of complex currency controls in Venezuela, put in place to prevent capital flight, restricts access to dollars, and is exacerbating class divisions, explains the Wall Street Journal.

In real estate in particular many vendors are demanding dollars, or the black market bolivar equivalent, which is several times the official rate. This despite the fact that Venezuelan law prohibits these transactions in foreign currency. The AP reports that Caracas real-estate agencies have created a password protected website to list properties at dollar prices.

Ford's production fell 90 percent due to difficulties in obtaining dollars to import parts. Currently clients must transfer dollars in advance to pay for the importation of necessary parts to assemble the cars in Venezuela, according to the AP.

But a recently announced agreement between the government and Ford, which would allow the company to sell new SUVs and all terrain vehicles in dollars is leading some to question how far the government will go in permitting this parallel dollar economy.

Though President Nicolás Maduro's discourse continues to go against the greenback, he and other officials sometimes make reference to the dollar's value, reports the Wall Street Journal. For example Maduro recently told a poor family receiving a state-constructed house that “while I’m giving you an apartment, I’m also giving you a check for $50,000, the dollars that belong to your children.”

But economic (and political) woes have not led to a united opposition front. Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López is calling for protest marches against the government this Saturday (and backing his demand with a hunger strike). But  but the main opposition coalition is not endorsing the protest, reports the AP, showing cracks in the opposition to President Nicolás Maduro's socialist government.

International pressure to set a date for parliamentary elections has been mounting. Brazil should be doing more, argue Flavia Piovesan and Marino Alvarado Betancourt in O Globo. They note that discussion regarding Venezuela is difficult, due to the sharp polarization of visions regarding the long-standing socialist government: "for some, Venezuela is enduring a dictatorial regime, for others it's a paradise for the poor."

Though there have been valuable social gains since 1997, including land reform and increased university attendance, these are being eclipsed by homicides, shortages of basic goods and medicines, which are making life increasingly difficult for the poor.

Brazil -- and indeed Mercosur and UNASUR -- should be taking a stronger stance and acting as mediators in this situation they say. "The Venezuelan crisis challenges the role of regional and international organizations as democratizing actors to safeguard the democratic conquests and advance in human rights."

News Briefs

  • Fourteen people, including FIFA officials, former officials and sports-television executives, were charged with racketeering, wire fraud and money-laundering conspiracies by the U.S. Justice Department yesterday. Twelve are from Latin America and the Caribbean says the New York Times, pointing to corruption in the hemisphere's soccer organizations' management. Of course, it also points to the popularity of soccer in the region, which is akin to a religion, says the Wall Street Journal. The indictment covers alleged crimes that took place over 24 years, and said soccer officials received more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks from sports-marketing executives in exchange for broadcast and marketing rights, explains the Wall Street Journal. However some experts caution against underestimating soccer corruption in other parts of the world: Chuck Blazer, the former head of the federation that oversees soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, played a key role in kickback investigation. 
  • Illegal immigration into the United States has fallen to the lowest levels in the past two decades, reports the Washington Post. Undocumented migrants tripled between 1990 and 2007, reaching 12.2 million, but have since dropped by about a million people. Demographic data show that a typical undocumented migrant is now somebody over 35 who has lived in the country for over a decade. The drop is likely due to major investments in border security over the past couple of administrations, according to the piece.
  • The suspension of aerial fumigation of illicit coca crops in Colombia is a game-changing step, but it must be followed with an innovative reform agenda, argue Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch and Diego Garcia Devis in the Huffington Post. "Colombia's government needs to implement policies that: Are developed in consultation with peasant communities; avoid forced eradication and allow a realistic amount of time for voluntary substitution; clearly define communities that have a historical relationship to coca, regulate their coca production, and provide them with models for coca industrialization; strengthen citizen security for these communities; protect and promote human rights; and make a special effort to address the socio-economic needs of peasant women, including those who were affected by sexual violence as result of the armed conflict."
  • Argentina's stock index is one of the best performing in the world, reports the Wall Street Journal, saying hedge fund interest is "the latest sign of how investors are searching the world for opportunities amid super low interest rates and uneven growth in developed markets." But the boom is also politically motivated, investors are banking that October's national elections will bring a market friendlier successor to current President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. 
  • Life for Latin America's nearly 20 million domestic workers might be tough, but wages and working conditions are better than those endured by  their counterparts in the Middle East and Asia, reports Reuters. The past decade has seen important gains in legal protections for domestic workers -- such as minimum wage, paid holidays, social security benefits, maternity leave and limits on working hours -- particularly in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina. One in every four women earning a wage in Latin America is a domestic worker, according to the piece.
  • Reducing pension payments to widows is the latest budget saving measure passed by the Brazilian Senate, reports the Wall Street Journal. The measure, approved yesterday, together with another bill reducing unemployment benefits, will save the country some $4.8 billion.
  • Chile's lower chamber of Congress will be voting on a medical marijuana bill next week. The project would authorize private citizens to grow up to six plants per household, and create permission to carry up to 10 grams for therapeutic purposes, but only under medical supervision, reports La Tercera.
  • Eight isolated indigenous villages in central Colombia have had a functioning peace pact with the guerrilla FARC since 1996, reports the Miami Herald. Locals say it has saved perhaps hundreds of lives, and it's a pertinent example as the national government strives to reach a deal with the guerrilla group after five decades of conflict. The eight villages agreed not to harass FARC patrols or assist the military in exchange for a guarantee that the FARC wouldn't kill, recruit or lay landmines in the area. But one expert cited in the piece cautions that piecemeal pacts can't be applied on a national level, as they are difficult to monitor and lack international support.
  • The FARC announced yesterday that one of its negotiators in the Havana peace process, known as Jairo Martinez, was among the 27 rebels killed last week in a government bombing raid. He had been on an "educational mission" according to a FARC leader.
  • A turf war between two relatively obscure gangs in Guerrero state is behind thedisappearances earlier this month of up to 30 people in Chilapa. Los Rojos and Los Ardillos  are fighting to control the town because of its strategic importance to the regional drug trade, explains InSight Crime, which interviewed Guerrero expert and University of Alabama anthropologist Chris Kyle. The municipality has one of the only gas stations in the surrounding area, which means that whoever controls Chilapa controls the surrounding heroin production zones. "The violence in Chilapa is indicative of a broader trend in Mexico: the splintering of the country's traditional criminal organizations. After the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) began fragmenting in 2010, Guerrero's criminal underworld was left with a power vacuum, according to a January 2015 report Kyle prepared for the Wilson Center (pdf). New groups emerged, like Los Rojos and Los Ardillos, and began fighting over former BLO territory."
  • El Confidencial says that relations are tense between the Nicaraguan government and the Chinese company slated to build the Grand Canal across the country. The Chinese concessionaire HKND, backed by tycoon Wang Jing, reportedly isn't coughing up the funds to indemnify owners of properties to be expropriated along the proposed 172 mile canal path. The environmental impact study is slated to come out soon, according to El Confidencial. In February the Scientific American published environmental concerns regarding the $50 billion project, including potential impact to unique wetlands and Lake Nicaragua.
  • Rumors that women with dyed blond hair in Comayaguela's marketplaces would become MS13 targets have caused panic in Honduras. However, InSight Crime casts doubt on the veracity of the rumor, saying it seems an unlikely gang measure. However, the impact of the misinformation points to the trauma of a local population that is plagued with fear of gang violence, says the piece, as well as the intense gang rivalry that they are forced to coexist with.
  • AirBnB has more than doubled its Cuba listings since launching on the island last month: more than 2,000 casas privadas are now offered on the site. It has become the most searched for location in Latin America, reports the Miami Herald. The success is due to a long-standing tradition of renting out private rooms in homes to tourists. There are more than 8,000 rooms for rent across the island, according to government statistics.
  • Former Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro took the office of the OAS Secretary General on Tuesday, replacing Chilean José Miguel Insulza. Almagro said that he would work towards making Cuba a full member of the organization again. In his speech, he emphasized that he is "... more concerned with seeking practical solutions to the enduring problems of our region than with rhetoric and stridency in statements guided by one ideology or another."

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ciudad Juárez - history and lessons of a notorious case study (May 27, 2015)

El Daily Post has a two-part in-depth feature (Part 1Part 2) on Ciudad Juárez -- the former murder capital of México. 

The myth of the miracle is well-known, they say.

"Between 2008 and 2012, a battle between the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels and the co-option of police forces as fighters for their criminal causes, turned this city’s streets red with blood. In 2010, when the death rate reached 300 a month, a coalition of city and civic leaders, an effective but controversial police chief imported from Tijuana, 5 billion pesos ($300 million dollars)  in Mexican federal government funds and Drug Enforcement Administration informants, quashed the violence and cleaned up the two police forces in Juárez — the municipal police and the state ministerial police."

But the authors note that while Juárez is a case study in Mexico, it cannot be considered a victory. The recent resurgence of La Línea, the Juárez Cartel's enforcement unit, might mean that the well known drop in violence was "merely a hiatus and the recent killings a return to business as usual."

The two pieces are based on a six-month investigation by Carlos Huerta, Herika Martínez and Beatriz Corral. 

The problem, according to experts they cite, is that the city's public policies have targeted violence, but not drug trafficking organizations.

Long-time observers of the Juárez case say part of the problem is that the city focused on targeting violence and not drug trafficking organizations. The enormous reduction in homicides could be passing because the judicial system has been lax with criminals, they say.

El Daily Post's investigation goes into the history of the gang wars between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels -- and the violent characters -- that made Juárez such a bloody place.

They follow the case of José Antonio Acosta Hernández, alias “El Diego,” a former police commander who became the head of operations for the Juárez Cartel.

A mistaken Juárez Cartel operation to massacre a group aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel ended in the deaths of 15 youths in 2010, an outrage that drew attention to the Juárez bloodbath.

Later that year, the mayor brought in Ret. Lt. Colonel Julián Leyzaola Pérez, who was ending his term as chief of police of Tijuana, another troubled border city. Leyzaola came down hard on on officers, ridding the force of anybody suspected of narco connections.

However, accusations of human rights violations -- already a problem during his Tijuana tenure -- caused problems. A paramilitary unit he strengthened was found responsible for the forced disappearance of four youths in 2011. Another 100 municipal agents are serving jail terms for human rights violations under Leyzaola’s leadership.

His efforts were aided by Raúl Ávila Ibarra, who headed the Chihuahua state police. Experts say the two commissioners kept each other clean, avoiding narco infiltration of their forces.

But a DEA informant was key in providing data that ultimately brought down "El Diego," and left the cartel in tatters. “EQ,” was the engineer who created the encrypted radio network La Linea and Barrio Azteca used to coordinate their bloody assaults. He became a DEA informant in 2010, taping murder orders, drug trafficking messages and more. 

News Briefs

  • Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has opened an investigation into the deaths of 42 alleged gang members in a shootout with police last week, reports the New York Times. (Seeyesterday's post.) Family members and local witnesses have cast doubt on the official version of the battle: only one police officer died in the three-hour shootout, there were no wounded survivors and only three arrests. In an incident last year, Army troops killed 22 alleged members of a kidnapping ring near Tlatlaya, but later were forced to admit that some were killed after surrendering.
  • A hunger strike by two jailed political opposition leaders in Venezuela has stirred calls for the revival of protests like those which shook the country last year (and landed the pols in jail in the first place). Leopoldo López announced the hunger strike in a video smuggled out of the military prison where he's been held on charges of inciting violences for over a year. He also called for a nationwide protest on Saturday, reports the Wall Street Journal. The piece notes that López's popularity has increased as a result of his detention. After the announcement of the hunger strike, authorities moved Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of San Cristobal who is detained on similar charges to a common prison, a move that was criticized by the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch.
  • New York Times editorial notes a sea-change in U.S. relations with Latin American governments, specifically in attitudes towards drug policy. The 80s and 90s were characterized by Washington-led punitive drug policies that largely failed to stem the flow of narcotics in the region (to put it lightly). The editorial notes that now many Latin American governments are taking the lead in new policies that focus on health and harm reduction. Examples include Uruguay's legalization of marijuana and Bolivia's embrace of small-scale coca cultivation for traditional uses. Other countries in the region are emphasizing alternatives to incarceration and decriminalization of consumption in the lead up to a special U.N. General Assembly dedicated to drugs next year. And, Washington is actually listening as well as lecturing ...

  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sealed a deal expand bilateral trade and foment investment with a toast of tequila and caipirinha, according to AFP. Rousseff is visiting Mexico in official capacity for the first time, as both countries are facing economic difficulties that have led to budget cuts.

  • Bolivian President Evo Morales fired his interior minister and chief of police yesterday after a former advisor to the Peruvian president escaped house arrest following an extradition order by Bolivia's Supreme Court, reports the Wall Street Journal. Martín Belaunde fled to Bolivia last year after a Peruvian court ordered preventive custody on charges of embezzlement, money laundering and conspiracy to commit crime. Bolivia however refused to grant him refugee status. Morales accuses the police of letting Belaunde slip through their hands. However, Belaunde called the press this morning from an undisclosed location, saying he did not escape, but rather was kidnapped. Reuters reports that he said he was kidnapped on Sunday, but managed to escape. He told a Peruvian television station that he is now in hiding.
  • The U.S. increased its military presence in Central America yesterday, sending the first group of a total contingent of 280 Marines to Honduras. They will carry out operations to combat drug trafficking in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize.
  • The governing National Democratic Party in Suriname seems to have won a slim majority in Monday's parliamentary elections, which would give President Desi Bouterse a second term. Bouterse was convicted in 1999 in the Netherlands on charges of drug trafficking, but remained free as Suriname does not have an extradition treaty with its former colonial power, reportsReuters.
  • The Miami Herald has an interview with the State Department's outgoing Haiti special coordinator. Thomas Adams highlights Haiti's progress since the devastating 2010 earthquake, noting that "the tent camps that used to fill every available space are gone."
  • Brazilian state oil giant Petrobras’ former director of international operations, was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to five years in prison and fined 543,000 reais, the most severe punishment yet in a widespread corruption investigation that has implicated high-ranking politicians and businesspeople, reports the Wall Street Journal. In a separate piece thenewspaper says the government is advancing leniency deals for several of the private firms implicated in the graft scandal. The deals are viewed as a way to invigorate the national oil and gas industry. Suppliers to Petrobras are accused of inflating contracts and paying kickbacks to politicians and the Workers' Party.
  • The Brazilian Senate approved an austerity bill yesterday that makes it tougher for workers to qualify for unemployment benefits, a move that is expected to save several billion reais, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • An Italian mob boss, convicted of killing more than 20 people in the 1980s was arrested in Recife, in an operation that involved Brazilian police and Interpol. Pasquale Scotti has been on the run for 30 years, since being arrested in 1983 in a shootout in Naples, where he was a boss with the Camorra, according to Reuters. Scotti married a local woman 18 years ago, with whom he had two children, and started several businesses, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Forty-two dead in gun battle in Western Mexico - families say it was a police massacre (May 26, 2015)

Mexican security forces killed at least 42 suspected gang members in a three-hour gun battle on Friday, the deadliest incident in a series of recent clashes in Western Mexico.  One policeman died in the confrontation. Though authorities did not identify the gang in question, most media reports say it's the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation, which has gained notoriety after downing a military helicopter earlier this month.

Friday's encounter began when federal police, looking into the reported takover of a ranch large ranch near the town of Tanhuato, exchanged fire with occupants of a vehicle, who then retreated into the property. The police called in reinforcements, including a helicopter, and started a battle that took place in three distinct locations on the 300-acre property, reports the Wall Street Journal. Pictures posted on social media showed numerous vehicles and some buildings on fire, reports the New York Times.

But relatives of the men who were killed say it was not a gunfight at all, but rather a massacre. Many of the dead were photographed as if they fell facedown, suggesting they were running when they were shot, reports the Wall Street Journal in a separate piece. In addition, many of the men were in their underwear, without shirts and shoes, suggesting they'd been in bed. Family members were also made suspicious by wounds sustained by their loved ones, several of whom were beat up which suggest a different type of encounter, according to Animal Político.

An eyewitness account from a neighboring town says the helicopter came in directly bringing the police, catching the ranch's inhabitants unawares reports Animal Político. The Wall Street Journal piece quotes a local farmer who said it sounded as if the shots were coming from only one group, and skeptics question the low mortality on the police side of the fight. 

Mexican National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido replied that forensic examinations show all of the alleged gang members had fired shots, reports Animal Político.

About 25 of the dead were from Ocotlán, in Jalisco, according to Animal Político. A family member reports that they left Octlán about a week ago, saying they had found work at a ranch in Michoacán. 

More than 100,000 people have been killed in eight years of naco gang violence in Mexico, reports the Wall Street Journal. And at least 22,000 people have been disappeared.

Accusations of human rights violations by security forces are widespread. In an incident last year, Army troops killed 22 alleged members of a kidnapping ring near Tlatlaya, but later were forced to admit that some were killed after surrendering.

InSight Crime reports some of the difficulties faced by the Mexican government in combating the New Generation cartel. Federal authorities, with their superior resources, are not acting in coordination with Jalisco state authorities, who have better local knowledge of the gang. However, InSight reports that more than 1,000 Jalisco officials are considered "high risk" for potential links to organized crime. President Enrique Peña Nieto's forces possibly act alone in order to avoid leaks regarding operations. 

There are also accusations linking government officials charged with combating organized crime with human rights abuses.

News Briefs

  • Despite the hype U.S. and Cuban negotiators failed to reach an agreement at high-level talks last week to reestablish diplomatic ties after a fifty year break. However, Roberta Jacobson, the top State Department official for Latin America, said the remaining differences between the two countries could likely be resolved through diplomatic missions, without the need for another high-level meeting, reports the New York Times.
  • Colombia's FARC suspended its unilateral cease-fire after an attack by government forces killed 26 guerrilla fighters. Tensions are running high after a FARC attack last month killed 10 soldiers and one rebel fighter. After that, President Juan Manuel Santos renewed previously suspended aerial bombing of FARC encampments. Both sides say they will continue discussions at the ongoing peace negotiations in Havana -- which have been going since 2012 and aim to bring an end to fifty years of war in Colombia, reports the New York Times. But it will be difficult to continue peace talks in Cuba while conflict is flaring in Colombia, argues Héctor Riveros in Silla Vacía. Though most Colombians favor the peace process, support is waning as the negotiations flounder and deaths continue, he says. The Wall Street Journal reports that the April FARC attack led to reduced optimism regarding the peace talks and made Santos' approval rating drop drastically. But Silla Vacía's Juanita León finds a ray of hope in the end of the unilateral cease-fire. It isn't convenient for either side to stop the peace process, she says, so this outbreak of hostilities provides an opportunity for a well done cease-fire (be it unilateral or bilateral).
  • Venezuelan authorities transferred jailed political opponent Daniel Ceballos to a notoriously violent prison, reports the Wall Street Journal. The former mayor of San Cristobal had been housed in a military prison -- along with opposition leader Leopoldo López -- since being detained last year, when he was accused of defying an order to dismantle protesters' barricades. It is not clear what occasioned the move to a new jail. A video message released Lopez's supporters says the two politicians were embarking on a hunger strike, presumably before the transfer. López also called for a march against the government this weekend. While the government did not comment on the hunger strike, but did say López had been disciplined for possessing a mobile phone in prison, reports The Guardian.
  • Peruvian president Ollanta Humala started a two month state of emergency in Arequipa state, where residents have been protesting a $1.4 billion copper mining project. Demonstrations have been ongoing for two months, and have resulted in several deaths already. Under martial law authorities will be able to enter homes without search warrants and break up meetings and marches, reports the Wall Street Journal
  • In a separate region of southern Peru, a man supporting a week-long strike at Shougang Group Co Ltd's iron deposit was killed in clashes with police on Monday, reports Reuters.
  • Police in Argentina's Santa Fe province detained the leader of Los Monos, Rosario's most important drug gang. Máximo Ariel Cantero was caught disguised as a cartonero, the people who comb through trash in search of recyclable material. He had been in hiding for two years, since his son -- the former leader of Los Monos -- was killed in a turf war and his death was avenged with three other deaths, reports Spain's El País. Last year 36 members of the gang were detained, half of them cops, reports La Nación, which goes into detail regarding some of their more bizarre property holdings, including a Mickey Mouse shaped pool and a family obsession with imported porcelain tile.
  • Brazil's government announced $22.64 billion worth of budget cuts to the 2015 budget, aimed at meeting fiscal austerity goals, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A prison riot in Brazil left 8 dead, including one prisoner who was decapitated, reports EFE. A group of inmates was holding about 70 people hostage -- family members of prisoners who were visiting. The jail was designed to hold 644 inmates, but currently houses 1,467. Overcrowding in Brazilian jails is a factor in the frequent riots which occur, according to the piece.
  • Christopher Sabatini, on the newly launched Latin America Goes Global, has an interesting piece on the mainstream media's coverage of Latin America. Specifically its "bipolar" coverage of Mexico and Brazil, which are portrayed as alternately booming and mired in economic recession and violence. 
  • Activists hope a legal challenge to Belize's anti-sodomy laws will create a domino effect in the Caribbean, where most former British colonies still have such laws on the books. A New York Times Magazine feature profiles the activist Caleb Orozco, who is fighting for gay rights in Belize, where the gay community operates largely on a "don't ask don't tell" basis.
  • The gentrification of the Casco Viejo in Panama City has been carried out with a policy of inclusion of former gang members that has been successful in slashing the crime rate in a formerly dangerous neighborhood, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • The son of former Honduran president Porfirio Lobo has been charged with conspiring to import cocaine to the U.S. Fabio Porfirio Lobo was arrested in Haiti and pled "not guilty," reports the New York Times.
  • Rosario Murillo, the first lady of Nicaragua, wields considerable political power and is a potential replacement to President Daniel Ortega, according to a Los Angeles Times piece. The article portrays Murillo as a kooky, mystic character, with important impact on the administration's management.
  • A tornado that hit the northern Mexico border town of Ciudad Acuna killed at least 13 people and injured another 150, reports the BBC. Hundreds of of homes and cars were damaged, while flooding in the U.S. has left three dead and 10 missing.
  • Venezuela's Globovisión basically achieved its goal of providing unbiased coverage of the most critically important social and political events in the country, but there were differences between the periods and issues covered as well as across particular measurements of bias, found a study by the American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS). Opposition voices received more total coverage than pro-government voices during the periods surrounding the municipal elections and the street demonstrations, and this coverage tended to be unfavorable to the government, according to the study. However, pro-government perspectives received slightly more coverage when the international dimensions of the crisis or the shortages of basic goods were the topics of discussion. The study also shows that news stories that appeared earlier in a broadcast tended to be relatively more pro-government, whereas those appearing toward the end of a broadcast were more favorable to the opposition.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 22, 2015

It's complicated: Romero's beatification highlights long-standing cleavages in Church and El Salvador

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to turn out tomorrow in San Salvador to celebrate the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, 35 years after he was shot in the heart saying Mass.

The presidents of Ecuador and Panama will be in attendance, along with the VPs of Costa Rica, Cuba and Belice, reports the AP.

When Romero was named Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, he was supported by conservative factions who considered him apolitical. But the military regime which repressed popular rural movements, and persecuted liberation theology priests who worked with the poor and organized peasant movements earned his enmity.

Romero dedicated his office to serving social justice. He involved himself in labor disputes, human rights claims and gave refuge to rural populations fleeing persecution.

The entire nation tuned into his radio sermons in the late 70s writes Carlos Dada in the New Yorker. There he demanded social justice and denounced human rights crimes perpetrated by the Army. The day before his death he called on soldiers to disobey orders and stop abusing civilians, reports the Washington Post.

Romero's beatification represents a sea-change in Vatican policy towards Latin America and, specifically, in the definition of martyrdom.

Similar martyrdom beatification processes are underway for other priests killed in Latin America, such as Argentine Bishop Enrique Angelelli, killed in 1976 at the beginning of Argentina's Dirty War. 

The AP explains that while martyrdom traditionally people who were killed for refusing to renounce their faith by people who hated the person's belief in Christ. But Romero was killed in a Roman Catholic country. The papal decree that he was killed out of hatred for the faith implies a new interpretation: that that martyrs can be killed, even by church-going Catholics, out of hatred for their Gospel-inspired work in favor of the poor and disenfranchised according to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the main proponent of Romero's cause.
While Pope John Paul II came from a history of resistance to communism, Pope Francis understands the parallel struggle with the Cold War's other major power, the U.S. The Washington Post's coverage notes that Romero's beatification is both a sign of Francis' Latin American sensibilities as well as a gradual healing of Cold War cleavages. The AP also emphasizes the moves potential for unification and healing.

"In terms of the church itself, (Romero's beatification) signifies something of an end to an unpleasant, controversial time when Oscar Romero and people like him on the left were vilified and downgraded and distrusted because they were seen as being too close to the real enemy, which was international communism," said the former Latin America policy adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Tom Quigley in the AP.

(As an aside, Mary Anastasia O'Grady doesn't buy this touchy-feely healing perspective: in her Wall Street Journal column is this week she claims the Pope's warmth towards Cuba's Raúl Castro is the result of Francis' "Argentine sense of cultural superiority over the money-grubbing capitalists to the north and faith in the state to protect it.")

For years Romero's canonization process had been blocked by papal hierarchies and actively opposed by Salvadoran Vatican representatives. Pope Benedict XVI surprisingly pushed the case forward noteThe Guardian and the AP, while Francis made began the formal process.

Salvadoran conservative groups say that Romero is a divisive figure, and that his sainthood will be manipulated by leftist factions. On the other hand, proponents of his beatification have tried to strip his legacy of politics, saying that he acted strictly according to the Gospels. 

But Romero's legacy is intensely political, explains Dada. He was killed because he went against the military regime and the established powers that backed it. And because they knew they could get away with it. "There is an institutionalized violence expressed in a political and economic system that believes progress is only possible through the use of the majority as a productive force conducted by a privileged minority," wrote Romero a few months before his death. 

Romero's death 35 years ago was a critical moment in the beginning of a civil war that claimed over a 100,000 lives in El Salvador. The army opened fire at the more than 100,000 mourners at his funereal, killing dozens.

Battle lines between different factions in El Salvador were drawn. The AP profiles the particularly strong example of brother and sister Roberto d'Aubuisson and Maria Luisa de Martinez. He is the mastermind behind Romero's assassination, according to the U.N. Truth Commission report, while she sits on the board of the foundation that bears his name and has lobbied for his sainthood for years.

And the cleavages surrounding his assasination continue to impact El Salvador today. After peace accords were signed in 1992, the Arena party, founded by D’Aubuisson, governed until 2009, when it was replaced by the FMLN, the political party that replaced the leftist guerrilla movement of the same name.

El Salvador is wracked with poverty and gang violence, legacies of that time. The most optimistic analysis says the beatification can be a ray of light in the dark. The AP quotes a priest organizing the weekend's celebration, saying he hopes it "will be a point of hope ... Afterward, we can love and break the prejudices that may exist at an ideological and party level."

News Briefs

  • At least three dismembered bodies were found wrapped in blankets in a cemetery near Chilapas, the Guerrero state town that was occupied by an armed gang for days earlier this month. The takeover by vigilantes -- apparently part of a turf war between gangs, Los Rojos and Los Ardillos --resulted in a reported 10 disappearances, added to six from previous months, reports the AP. But the exact chain of events of the take-over and the disappearances is somewhat muddled. The latest version published in the media says the Chilapas was invaded by 200 armed men on the weekend of May 9, apparently members of a community police force who said they were "bothered and tired of the situation of violence that prevails in the region (and) decided to up arms and take the municipality, demanding a change in the municipal secretary of public safety, and state intervention," explained the Guerrero state governor. While he says there were no reported missing during the five day occupation, townspeople say there were 30 disappearances, reports Animal Político. The supposed community police say Los Rojos are responsible for 30 disappearances in the same period. Some locals say Los Ardillos were behind the takeover. The Chilapas mayor says the vigilantes numerically overwhelmed the official forces in the area, and that they indiscriminately attacked and beat up locals, in addition to the disappearances. The AP notes that the state prosecutor added to the general confusion surrounding the episode, saying that the missing 15 people are being held by the vigilantes who will have to return them. The Los Angeles Times yesterday published a version of the story, saying the takeover was by members of Los Ardillos (see yesterday's post). (TheBBC has some impressive pictures.)
  • At least 18 guerrilla fighters were killed by the Colombian army yesterday, one of the deadliest confrontations since peace talks began between the FARC and the government in 2012, reportsReuters.
  • Andres Oppenheimer says the impact of the U.S. investigation into Venezuelan officials' alleged drug trafficking activity on the Maduro administration should not be over estimated. Though the story was reported with a lot of hype internationally, the allegations are old news in Venezuela, he notes in his Miami Herald column. Though it won't topple President Nicolás Maduro, it also won't help him. In the end hyperinflation, food shortages and a "remarkably strong" political opposition will have more to do with defeating the current government, he says.
  • On that note, Venezuela's currency tumbled this week: reaching a new low of 400 bolivares to the dollar, from 300 to the dollar just last week. This is a marked acceleration in the devaluation process, it took more than two months for the black market bolivar rate to go down to 300 to the dollar from 200 in February, reports the Wall Street Journal. Experts say inflation in Venezuela could reach 120 percent this year.
  • The New York Times reports on Brazil's extremely high rate of death at police hands. At least 2,212 people were killed by the police in Brazil in 2013, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum. This compares to 416 in the U.S., which has a larger population. Though the topic is hardly new, the piece notes that killings by the police surging in Rio as the authorities clamp down in preparation for the Olympic Games next year. Yet in Brazil proponents of harsh policing tactics are gaining strength, according to the piece.
  • As a counterpoint, decreased poverty has not reduced the Brazil's high homicide rates, reports the Los Angeles Times. The nation's death toll of more than 64,000 in 2012 (most recent data) is comparable to the number of people who have been killed annually in Syria's civil war. 
  • Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff is on extremely shaky ground, reports the Wall Street Journal. Lawmakers are debating impeaching her in relation to a $2.1 billion embezzlement scheme at Petrobras (though the investigation has not linked her personally), the currency has plunged and the economy is heading into a recession. In response Rousseff is attempting to reverse economic policies and change her personal style. But the political U turn risks leaving her isolated from her own Workers' Party.
  • Brazil's main opposition leaders plan to accuse Rousseff of crimes related to public finances, specifically accounting maneuvers that helped shore up the country´s fiscal results in recent years, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • In the midst of an ever widening corruption scandal affecting Guatemalan government officials, and with ongoing protests against the administration, President Otto Pérez Molina announced a cabinet shakeup yesterday. Interior Minister  Mauricio López, a close collaborator, resigned. The intelligence chief, the energy and environment ministers, and the deputy interior minister were also removed yesterday, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet ratified polemic legislative reform proposed by her administration. In her annual address to the nation she promised to take on social inequality and forge ahead with constitutional reform, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • An outsider candidate is leading the polls for governor in Mexico's Nuevo Leon state, a sign of voter dissatisfaction with the ruling PRI party. The candidacy of former mayor Jaime Rodríguez is part of a wider trend of independent candidates running against the traditional parties, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 21, 2015

Cuba and the U.S. continue negotiating

U.S. and Cuban representatives meet today for the fourth time since December's announcement of a diplomatic thaw between the two countries which suspended normal relations over fifty years ago.

The two countries are "closer than ever" to restoring full diplomatic relations, though the process  may have taken longer than initially expected, notes the New York Times.

But Cubans have approached the talks warily, according to the NY Times piece. U.S. President Barak Obama had reportedly wanted to open a Havana embassy before the historic Summit of the Americas last month, which included Cuba for the first time in decades. Officials from both sides agree that a milestone in the process will be the establishment of full embassies in their respective capitals and the exchange of ambassadors. It could happen as soon as this summer, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The LA Times goes over the status of some of the major sticking issues so far:

  • State sponsors of terrorism list: Cuba's inclusion on the State Department's list of sponsors of terrorism was considered an important obstacle to diplomacy by Cuba. Obama announced the removal from the list last month, and it will likely go into effect shortly. Castro has said that when it does ambassadors can be named.
  • Banking: Cuba's Interests Section in Washington has been forced to operate on a cash basis since 2013, as it cannot find a bank willing to deal with the blacklisted country. This hurdle was reportedly overcome this week. A small Florida bank, Stonegate, has agreed to take the account, according to the NY Times piece.
  • Embargo: Ending the long-standing embargo on Cuba is a key Havana demand. While the Obama administration has loosened restrictions on travel and trade, only Congress can fully end the loathed embargo.
  • Democracy Programs: The two countries have not come to an agreement regarding the U.S.'s "democracy programs." These include journalist training and the distribution of computer equipment.
  • Freedom of movement for diplomats: The U.S. is demanding that its diplomats be permitted to move freely around the island, instead of being restricted to Havana as they currently are. Cuban diplomats in the U.S. cannot travel beyond Washington and New York. "We have to have an embassy where diplomats can travel and see the country and talk to people," said Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson, who is leading the talks for the U.S. at a Senate hearing yesterday. But the embassy will probably operate with certain restrictions. Although in some embassies around the world, such as China and Vietnam, diplomats are required to inform their host country several days in advance of travel, reports Reuters.

Off the table completely are the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base and military prison, extradition of American fugitives to the island, and a demand that Cuba pay billions of dollars in claims over seized property, reports the LA Times piece.
In the meantime, Cuban exile groups in Miami are denouncing increased repression on the island, saying that Cuban authorities feel they have impunity as negotiations with the U.S. continue. The organizations received reports of a 100 arrests of dissidents just this weekend, reports AFP.

News Briefs
  • Guatemala's central bank chief, Julio Suárez, was arrested yesterday along with the entire board of the country's social security institute, which he also sat on. An arrest warrant was also issued for Social Security Institute President and former presidential aide Juan de Dios Rodriguez for fraud yesterday, reports TeleSur. The attorney-general's office reported 15 arrests on corruption charges, in coordination with the U.N.  International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The arrests concern allegations over a $15 million contract awarded to a pharmaceutical company for dialysis services provided to the Social Security Institute. The detained allegedly took kickbacks worth 16 percent of the contract, reports the Financial Times. President Otto Pérez Molina is under considerable pressure, as his administration is rocked with waves of corruption scandals. His Vice President Roxana Baldetti was forced to resign earlier this month in relation to a separate corruption scandal, La Línea, also uncovered with the cooperation of the CICIG. Ongoing protests demand his resignation. Yesterday thousands of rural indigenous people and rural workers marched in the capital, also demanding the head of the new VP. Over the weekend 60,000 protestors came out under the slogan Renuncie Ya, reports TeleSur. Another nationwide protest is slated for May 30, according to FT.
  • Haiti's former prime minister Laurent Lamothe made waves yesterday registering his candidacy for the upcoming presidencial elections. As a former government official -- he also headed the ministries of planning and foreign affairs -- he is required to obtain a certificate from Parliament showing he did not misuse government funds. However, Haiti has not had a functioning parliament since January, meaning the "décharges" cannot legally be issued. TheMiami Heraldreports that an exception in this case could endanger what is already a fragile political process, and provoke a boycott of the elections from other candidates. The APhowever notes that Lamothe's lawyer says the "dysfunctionality of Parliament" cannot be held against him. President Michel Martelly is ruling by decree in the absence of a legislature. He replaced Lamothe after Parliament dissolved in early January amid a political stalemate. Martelly's replacement will be selected in October's elections. Martelly was supposed to call elections in 2011 for a majority of Senate seats, the entire Chamber of Deputies and local offices. Those elections are now scheduled for August.
  • The Los Angeles Times sheds more light on the events that led to at least 16 civilian disappearances in Chilapas, in Mexico's Guerrero state. (See yesterday's post.) According to the piece over 300 armed civilians, part of the criminal gang Los Ardillos, held the town in a state of siege for five days, as they faced off with their rivals, Los Rojos, the local gang that usually controls Chilapa. Mexican army, gendarmerie, state and municipal forces were present but did not intervene, according to witness accounts cited in the piece. The Chilapa gunfight ended when state authorities promised the occupying gang that Los Rojos' leader would be arrested. Los Ardillos have threatened to return this week if the arrest doesn't happen. Animal Político reports that of the 16 disappearances that are being investigated by the federal police, 10 occurred related to this event, while the others are previous to the shootout.
  • Violence in Mexico has filtered down to children's play. Experts are concerned after the death of a 6-year-old boy this weekend, allegedly at the hands of five children playing a game of "kidnap." He was captured outside of his house and bound by his hands and feet, strangled to the point of unconsciousness, stoned and knifed in the back, reports the Wall Street Journal. Chihuahua state, where the event occurred, spent most of the past decade as Mexico's murder capital. Since 2008, the state has registered more than 17,000 homicides. Experts say the case illustrates the normalization of extreme violence. Bullying has also risen drastically in Mexico:In 2013, around 40% of school students said to have been victim of bullying, compared to 30% in 2011. 
  • A knife assault bike theft that resulted in the victim's death is drawing attention to violent crime in Rio de Janeiro, according to a piece in the Wall Street Journal. The attack, which follows as many as four nonfatal stabbings in the same area, has led to a public outcry and the head of district police chief. Rio has seen a rebound in violent crime in recent years. Though the economic downturn has impacted the situation, experts also point to criminal impunity. Ignacio Cano, a researcher at the State University of Rio de Janeiro says only 8% of homicides resulting in prison sentences.
  • Nicaragua denied entry to French cartoonist Julien Berjeaut, who had been scheduled to participate on a panel called "Humor against barbarity, homage to Charlie Hebdo and freedom of expression," reports the AP. It is not clear why Nicaragua refused entry.
  • Faith-based addiction programs in Puerto Rico operate without licenses and violate patient's rights, according to a study by Débora Upegui-Hernández and Rafael Torruella. Patients are humiliated as part of their treatment, forced to quit cold turkey and obliged to sell items on street corners for no pay and wearing fluorescent t-shirts that identify them as rehab patients, says the report which was financed by the Open Society Foundations. The Centro de Periodismo Investigativo covers the report in depth.
  • Colombia added Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín and well-known businessman Gonzalo Restrepo to the team negotiating peace terms with the FARC in Havana. The move is intended to accelerate talks, which have been ongoing since 2012 and are politically costly for President Juan Manuel Santos, reports Reuters. "The patience of Colombians is not infinite," he said yesterday. "Time has become an enemy of trust in the process."
  •  The Colombian and Venezuelan governments are both taking credit for downing a drug trafficking plane with more than a ton of cocaine, yesterday. While the Colombian air force was pursuing the plane when it crashed into the Caribbean, Venezuelan authorities say they made the initial shots that hit the aircraft, alerting Colombian authorities when the plane crossed the border, reports the AP.
  • Several thousand Uruguayans participated in a silent march demanding justice for the approximately 200 people who were "disappeared" during the country's civil-military dictatorship in 1973-1985. "Some families have been searching for 40 years, Uruguay has had democracy for 30 years, we've had 20 silent marches and there's been a Frente Amplio government for ten years," said a member of the organizing group Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos. "Yet the big absentees continue to be truth and justice. That is why we march again today."
  • Brazilian Mauricio Lima was named the Photographer of the Year in the third Pictures of the Year Latin America contest. The centerpiece of his winning portafolio were pictures from his coverage of the Ukraine. 
Irina Dovgan, a pro-Ukrainian activist who was accused by separatists of assisting the Ukrainian Army as an artillery spotter, held a sign that read “She kills our children” as she was harassed by a passer-by on the outskirts of Donetsk. Aug. 25, 2014. - Mauricio Lima for The New York Times.