Thursday, May 14, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 14, 2015

Nisman accusations (though not his death) laid to rest

An Argentine federal appeals court closed down a criminal case against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on Tuesday. The court accepted a prosecutor's decision not to pursue the accusation that Kirchner and other government officials had conspired to shield Iranians accused of masterminding the 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish center.

The case has gripped Argentina since January, when prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused Kirchner, her Foreign Minister and a national lawmaker of trying to derail his lengthy investigation into the bombing of the AMIA Jewish center, which killed 85 people, reports the New York Times.

Nisman was found dead in his home a few days after making the accusation -- investigators still have not determined whether the cause of death was homicide or suicide. In the ensuing months, the case was a rallying point for the political opposition in the midst of an electoral year in which Kirchner is not up for reelection.

Two lower courts already threw out the case, declaring the accusations without merit on a criminal level. Nisman's accusations centered around a memorandum of understanding, signed between Iran and Argentina, which attempted to end an impasse that has paralyzed the AMIA legal case for years. Iranians accused of master-minding the plot have not presented themselves to the Argentine court and, by Argentine law, cannot be tried in absence. Iran refuses to extradite them. The memorandum would have brought Argentine court officials, including the judge in charge of the case to Iran in order to hear their testimony. It would have also created a Truth Commission, with legal experts proposed by both countries, which would accompany the process, although it could not influence the Argentine judicial case.

Nisman argued that Kirchner and her Foreign Minister, Héctor Timerman, had attempted to lift Interpol red notice (a request for the arrest and extradition of an individual) placed on the Iranian suspects. He said the cover-up was carried out in order for Argentina to exchange grains for oil with Teheran. However, before Nisman's death, Interpol's former secretary general, Ronald Noble, categorically denied those charges.

On Tuesday a judge said it was a "judicial absurdity" to suppose that a cover-up conspiracy could be carried out with a Memorandum with Iran, an agreement ratified by the national Congress.

Página 12 reviews the case's chronology, noting that Judge Daniel Rafecas, who originally threw out the case in February, found that none of the elements of the alleged cover-up had actually been enacted: the Truth Commission was never created, the red notices were never lifted, grains were never exchanged for oil, and false leads to pin blame on local fascists were never presented.
The AP has a day by day chronology of the case and the investigation of Nisman's death.

La Nación analyzes whether this court decision effectively shuts down the accusations for good -- as Argentina's legal system has a res-judicata clause (claim preclusion), wherein litigation cannot continue on the same case once the appeals options have been exhausted. While this would apparently be the case after Tuesday's decision, some legal experts say the court's decision was not technically a judgement, and that the case could be revisited in the future. A prosecutor who argued the case before a lower court said the case could be reopened by the next government. 

News Briefs

  • Guatemala's Congress failed to pick a replacement vice president for the second day running, after minority parties said they would not be responsible for a "hasty" decision that would give continuity to the current "corrupt" system. President Otto Pérez Molina also announced a second change to the trio of candidates under consideration, after one of the candidates resigned yesterday. Lawmakers are picking a replacement for Roxana Baldetti, who resigned last week amid accusations of involvement in a massive customs fraud scandal, allegedly led by her private secretary. Guatemalan minority parties say all of the candidates proposed by Pérez Molina are government insiders, reports EFE.
  • Colombia's drug policy must focus on combating big criminal structures, not the weaker links of the drug industry, concluded a commission of drug experts gathered by the government. Led by Daniel Mejia, the commission recommended focusing on the elements of the drug trade that provoke the most violence and collateral damage, reports AFP. Going after small-time dealers, for example, has no real effect on drug supply, notes one expert. According to Mejia, attacking initial links, like coca cultivation, is much costlier than attacking the final links of the supply chain, where authorities can both reduce violence and the profits of the illicit trade.
  • The AP has a feature on Colombian's who have potentially been affected by aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate as part of an coca-field eradication program. Stories of skin problems and miscarriages abound in areas where spraying has been carried out, though it's impossible to conclusively trace to glyphosate, according to the piece. But coca cultivation is also the only economic option for many of the families in these areas. President Juan Manuel Santos recommended the suspension of the aerial spraying program last week, after the World Health Organization found that the glyphosate was "probably" carcinogenic. Colombian anti-narcotics police are testing alternative substances, according to El Tiempo, as part of a search for alternative methods to combat cocaine production. Other options include stepping up manual eradication, and crop-substitution programs.
  • The Los Angeles Times has a piece on internal U.S. documents that voice concern over cartel violence in the Mexican Guerrero region, and the apparent level of government complicity. The internal document, written shortly after the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala last year, was made public by the National Security Archive this week. (The Insider covered the issue in-depth, see Tuesday's post.)
  • Ecuador and Mexico seek to create a DNA bank that would permit authorities to identify Ecuadorian migrants who went missing in Mexico while attempting to reach the U.S., according to TeleSur. Last year at least 128 Ecuadorians disappeared while trying to cross the border. In one case, an Ecuadorian migrant, Freddy Lala, was captured by members of the Zeta cartel. Seventy-two migrants were killed for refusing to work for them, Lala survived by playing dead, with a bullet lodged in his neck. Mexico is trying to identify the remains of 314 cadavers of presumed migrants found in mass graves.
  • Buenos Aires-based Arcos Dorados Inc -- the franchise that runs McDonald's in Latin America -- reported first quarter losses due to the impact of weaker currencies in the region, namely Argentina and Brazil. It also included a $7.8 million write-down of the company’s assets in Venezuela, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazil's lower chamber of Congress passed a bill that would toughen access to social security pensions, the second austerity measure in a week aimed at reducing a growing fiscal deficit. The measure, which must be approved by the Senate, could save up to $2.47 billion annually, mostly by curbing abuse in pension claims, reports Reuters.
  • Over 9,000 Cubans arrived on U.S. soil in the first three months of this year, an increase of 118 percent over the same period in 2014. Reuters reports that the surge is at least partially linked to the diplomatic thaw between the two countries, which is feeding concerns that special legal status currently accorded to Cuban migrants under U.S. law might soon change. Under the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act of 1966 Cubans who reach U.S. soil have the right to stay and seek residency, a status not offered to any other nationality. 
  • Peru's National Judiciary Council ordered the formal dismissal of the country's attorney general yesterday, after an investigation involving allegations of corruption linked with organized crime in Ancash province, which is Peru's richest mining region, according to the AP.
  • The dominance of Mexico's drug cartels can be traced back to U.S. declaration of the War on Drugs during the 60s and 70s, according to a Time Magazine piece. Insight Crime also covered the history of Mexico's drug trade more earlier last month.
  • Mexico should follow the U.S. example and start treating drug addiction like a disease, as well as increasingly allowing for medical and recreational marijuana use, argues León Krauze in El Universal. Regulation is the key, he says, saying that Mexico is "sinking in the mud."
  • Andrés Oppenheimer recommends that travelers to Latin America exercise caution, but notes that based on recent homicide statistics -- from Igarapé Institute's Homicide Monitor -- many cities in the region are as safe as U.S. urban areas. In his Miami Herald column he interviews Robert Muggah who notes violence varies greatly based on neighborhoods. You are at no more risk of dying of lethal violence in Mexico than you are in Detroit, Chicago or New Orleans,” Muggah said. “But when it comes to kidnappings, assaults and robberies, there remains a level of risk that may be higher than in most U.S. cities." Oppenheimer remains unfazed: "Just avoid crime hot spots, and try not to wear expensive jewelry. In other words, do the same thing you would do in your own country," he says.

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