Monday, May 11, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 11, 2015

Guatemala's VP resigns amid corruption accusations and political upheaval

Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned Friday, amid a growing scandal related to a customs fraud scheme. While Baldetti has not been charged, last week the Supreme Court cleared Congress to strip her of immunity, saying audio tapings hinted at her possible involvement in the case. (See last Thursday's post.) Now that Baldetti is out of office, prosecutors will be able to investigate her potential involvement in "La Línea," as the corruption scandal has been dubbed.

Baldetti's private secretary Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas, has been accused by prosecutors of running the bribery ring. A total of 27 people, including the director of Guatemalan tax authority (SAT) and his predecesor in the post, have been arrested in the case which was brought forward by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

But the evolving "La Línea" scandal is far from over. Last week three supposed leaders in the scheme were re-detained, along with their lawyers. They are accused by prosecutors of bribing a judge to obtain bail. Judge Sierra González de Stalling was accused of accepting bribes, reports Plaza Pública.
CICIG alarm bells rang when the judge allowed bail for some of the alleged corruption scheme leaders -- and all but one came up with the funds immediately, according to Plaza Pública. Family of one of the accused made cash withdrawals of nearly $250,000 for bail before the judge announced her decision.

The CICIG commissioner, Iván Velásquez noted that investigators were helped in this latest chapter by the fact that two of the accused leaders continued to use their phones -- which were tapped -- after the scheme broke.

The story just keeps getting more convoluted. The AP reports that the phone taps link Guatemalan Supreme Court Judge Blanca Aída Stalling Dávila -- González de Stalling's sister-in-law -- to the supposed bribery as well. Stalling denies involvement.

Baldetti's resignation leaves the administration dead in the water, according to the AFP. Guatemalan's are feeling negative about politics at the moment, according to the piece.

The next question facing the political establishment is who will replace Baldetti. President Otto Pérez Molina must propose three candidates to Congress, which will then make the final selection. The new VP must ensure governability in the midst of increasing citizen rejection of the government. Amid rumors that Pérez Molina himself might be involved in La Línea, Nómada says the new VP must also have the "will to be president."

In the midst of the political upheaval, the upcoming presidential race for September elections is uncertain. Pérez Molina is barred from running again, and the likely candidate for his party jumped ship in the midst of the scandal, complaining that Baldetti was blocking him. Manuel Baldizón, a wealthy populist who lost to Pérez Molina in the last elections, is the front-runner, reports the New York Times.

The CICIG investigation into "La Línea," conducted with the help of a special investigation unity in the Public Prosecutor's Office shows the "increasing sophistication and professionalization of Guatemalan investigators," according to the International Crisis Group's Guatemala analyst, Arturo Matute. The investigation's documentary evidence includes financial records, 66,000 intercepted telephone conversations and over 6,000 electronic messages, which means prosecutors won't be relying on witness testimony or confessions to obtain convictions.

News Briefs

  • The former chief of police in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, Julián Leyzaola Pérez, was shot and seriously wounded on Friday. The attack, in Juárez, appeared to be carried out by hitmen, reports the New York Times. The two men who shot him appear to be gang members, though authorities did not specify which organization they were working for. The two border cities ranked among the most violent in Mexico, but violence statistics improved drastically under Leyzaola's watch. However he has been accused of heavy-handed tactics by human rights groups.
  • Peru's government has sent over a thousand troops to the Islay region, where ongoing protests led to a policeman's death on Saturday. It's the third death (the other two were civilians) in nearly two months of protests against a the proposed Tía María copper mining project. Locals say the contamination generated by the mine will affect agriculture, a charge denied by the mining company. The BBC reports that the government still has not ruled out declaring a state of emergency in the region. But there's already a de-facto state of emergency, and sending in troops untrained in social conflict might lead to more civilian deaths according Here's's roundup on Tía María.
  • Colombia should stop use of glyphosate aerial sprayings to combat illicit coca cultivation, announced President Juan Manuel Santos, ending a debate among his cabinet members. The Minister of Health had recommended immediate suspension of the spraying, following the WHO's categorization of the herbicide as "probably" carcinogenic. But several others, including the Minister of Defense, argued the sprayings, financed by the U.S., were a valuable tool in combating the cocaine production industry. The National Narcotics Council, which will likely follow the president's recommendation this week, must now define a new policy against illicit cultivation, announced the president. U.S. officials have defended the policy, and opposition politicians criticized Santos' decision. However, experts say the aerial sprayings are less effective than manual eradication and carry important health risks, including miscarriages and skin and respiratory affectations, reports AFP. U.S. officials released data last week showing that illicit coca cultivation had increased this year, fueling a debate whether it was due to a decrease in aerial spraying or manual eradication. Cutbacks in eradication efforts have come in the wake of peace negotiations with FARC rebels, reports the Wall Street Journal. France 24 has a feature on "Colombia's toxic war on drugs."
  • The very vocal dissatisfaction of the former Guantanamo prisoners accepted as refugees in Uruguay has put a damper on other countries in the region potentially accepting transfers from the U.S. military prison, reports the Wall Street Journal. One country has reportedly already backed out of a deal, according to the piece which focuses on U.S. lawmakers criticism of the transfer of Guantanamo detainees.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is expected to announce a new cabinet today, after asking ministers to resign last week. Her popularity ratings have tanked in the wake of two corruption investigations that involve political allies and her son. This is viewed as an attempt to revitalize her government and ensure passage of proposed reforms, including a new constitution to replace the current one, passed under the Pinochet dictatorship, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Hotly contested elections today in Guyana have authorities concerned that racial tensions -- on the wane in recent years -- might flare up again. Three parties are front-runners: the governing People's Progressive Party Civic, which has been in power for 23 years, and an opposition coalition that includes the multiracial Alliance For Change, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Dozens of people were injured in clashes between protesting farmworkers and police in Baja California on Saturday. The rioting came after a meeting between Mexican authorities and farmworker leaders was cancelled. Negotiations have been ongoing for eight weeks, workers are demanding at least $13 a day and government benefits, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • A man accused of murdering a Venezuelan legislator will be deported from Colombia to Venezuela to face charges. Though President Nicolás Maduro accuses him of heading a paramilitary gang and committing the crime in order to destabilize his government, Leiver Padilla Mendoza maintains he is innocent and was set up, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Venezuela's parliamentary elections will be held this year (as legally mandated). They will take place in the last quarter of the year and the exact date will be announced soon, election authorities announced Sunday.
  • Vice News has a feature on pregnancy termination in Argentina -- where legal abortions are limited to mentally ill women who have been raped and risks to mother's health. Human Rights Watch has estimated that half a million illegal abortions take place in Argentina every year, comprising 40 percent of all pregnancies.
  • Forty-four prisoners escaped from a Brazilian prison through a tunnel beneath a security wall. Authorities had discovered the tunnel three weeks ago and closed it off, but the prisoners -- who escaped in two groups over 24 hours -- reopened it. AFP reports that Brazil houses the world's fourth largest penal population, following the U.S., China and Russia.
  • Cuba and China are teaming up to make an 18-hole golf course and resort on the island. The project is seen as an effort to diversify Cuba's tourism offerings, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Raúl Castro is so impressed by Pope Francis that he might return to the Catholic fold reports the Wall Street Journal. “When the pope goes to Cuba in September, I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction,” Castro said at a news conference in Rome.

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