Friday, July 31, 2015

Slavery In Latin America (July 31, 2015)

Yesterday, July 30, was World Day Against Trafficking in Persons and in Latin America, about 1.8 million men and women work for little or no pay as forced laborers, according to 2012 estimates by the International Labor Organization. (Globally, 21 million people are trapped in some form of forced labor.) 

Brazil announced plans to use drones in its fight against slave labor in rural areas, reports Reuters, which was announced on the Ministry of Labors' blog"Six drones equipped with cameras [will] monitor suspicious activities starting next month in the state of Rio de Janeiro." Every six months the government has published a blacklist of companies using slave labor but recently, publication of the list "has been halted by an injunction brought by a body representing real estate developers." Last year, OAS SA, the company that built stadiums for Brazil's World Cup, and Odebrecht, Latin America’s largest construction company, had been on the list.  Separately: Vice and The Daily Beast place the drones story in a bit of a larger context. (Ten years ago, there was private/public effort called National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor in Brazil.)

The news last week from Peru about the rescue of 26 children, ten women and three men who were held as slaves for up to 30 years by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), is reviewed by The Economist. Several individuals were from the Ashaninka indigenous communities who were growing food for the guerrillas. Canal N reports that The operation was due to a separate hostage who had heard the cries of women and children and later escaped his imprisonment.  About 300 fighters still lead an active Sendero faction in the valleys of the Apurímac in southern Peru. "Some analysts argue that the guerrillas are now indistinguishable from drug traffickers," writes The Economist.

The ILO's most report on slavery in Brazil is from 2009.  Anti-Slavery's most recent document on contemporary forms of slavery in Brazil and Peru are from 2006. 

Buses in San Salvador have began circulating again on Thursday, according to AFP. Local papers like La Prensa Grafica and El Diario de Hoy suggest that the boycott is losing steam.  However, the Twitter feed of El Salvador's Armed Forces, @FuerzArmadaSV, leaves no doubt that this has come as a result of a significant militarization of the streets of the city. According to the BBC (with video) "the government in El Salvador has provided military and police escorts for bus drivers forced to go on strike by powerful criminal gangs." Most reports include the gangs demand to be included in a commission examining ways of stemming urban violence.

Last week there were violent attacks including a grenade thrown at the Sheraton Hotel. And the US Embassy issued a note to its' citizens warning of 'Increased Risk of Crime and Violence'. While President Sanchez Ceren has blamed the latest violence on a gang called Barrio 18, it seems clear that these recent events have larger systemic causes. Yesterday, Refugees International released their report, 'It’s a Suicide Act to Leave or Stay': Internal Displacement in El Salvador (16pp), which comes with recommendations for the Salvadoran government, for the USA government and for neighbors in Central America, according to a press release. Gangs have played a leading role in driving families from their homes to seek refuge in other countries, according to a review of the report by Reuters.
New media have connected this story to loud headlines: "El Salvador Is In Serious Trouble" blares Fusion; "The Street Gangs More Vicious Than ISIS", suggests the Daily Beast. This last story cites a column in El Pais with grisly details about what criminal gangs do to their victims.

  • Guatemalan presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón (LIDER) recently refused to give interviews to local media choosing to go with CNN. Independent news site NOMAD's summary of the interview, 'Baldizón: 14.5 Lies in 7.23 seconds on CNN' went viral.  Consequently, CNN invited NOMAD's editor to 'fact check' the Baldizón interview, point-by-point.
  • Five former Chilean army soldiers have been charged over the burning of two teenagers during a 1986 protest against the military government of Gen Augusto Pinochet, according to the BBCOne of the teens later died of his injuries in a Chilean hospital. "The attack is considered one of the most prominent cases of human rights abuse of the era." The story took a turn recently when one of the witnesses, a young conscript then, met with the mother of the deceased photographer and spoke of what he saw, according to a Chile Vision broadcast.  As a consequence, a call has been made not only to end the continued privileges, including immunity, by the military, but also to process charges against civilians who served in the Pinochet government, according to 24 Horas.

  • Venezuelans are having a tough time making international phone calls as telephone carriers fall behind on payments to international partners amid a currency crisis that is leaving the country increasingly cut off from the rest of the world, reports the Associated PressMovistar, the nation’s largest private operator, now allows calls to only 10 countries. "The changes have not been formally announced. Instead, Venezuelans are making the unhappy discovery when they dial an international number and bump into an ominous pre-recorded error message." Internet services like Skype is not a solution as "many people don’t have easy access to WiFi."  

  • Polar, Venezuela's largest food distributor, denounced the government occupation of a warehouses while the Maduro government accused the company of hoarding goods and intentionally creating shortages, according to the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and Reuters. The complex is also used by PepsiCo, CocaCola. and Nestle. Reuters adds that Polar is the country's largest private employer - 2000 people are employed in this plant alone - and reminds that "Hugo Chavez expropriated several warehouses from Polar." The Guardian focuses more on the looming beer shortage rather than on the expropriation. "The head of Venezuela’s liquor store federation warned the nation was about to run out of beer because producers had reached 'zero hour' amid widespread shortages in raw materials. ... Days later he was detained for reasons that remain unclear." However, there are no signs of shortages on shelves so far of beer.
  • Venezuela's government has decided not to allow the OAS to monitor the December elections, reports El Pais.

  • Poverty in Mexico has increased on the beginning of the presidential term of Enrique Pena Nieto with two million Mexicans joining this situation between 2012 and 2014, according to CONEVAL, the government agency that evaluates social policies, and reported on by the Financial TimesMexico’s overall poverty rate in 2014 "rose to 46.2% of the population from 45.5% - an increase of 2 million people."  

  • Colombia's Semana magazine wonders what the impact of videos on smart phones may have on the upcoming elections.

  • While a Mexican judge has issued an order to extradite fugitive drug lord Joaquin ]El Chapo[ Guzman to the United States if he is recaptured, according to the AFP and Reutersthe Daily Post gives 5 reasons why 'El Chapo' probably won't be recaptured anytime soon. 

  • The Inter-American Dialogue has published an education-related reportLearning for All: An Urgent Challenge in Latin America which acknowledges the region's advancement in terms of educational coverage and access, and has "increasingly incorporated the most marginalized sectors into the education system" but argues that students "are simply not learning at acceptable levels," according to a press release.

  • While the United States now has an embassy in Cuba, the trade embargo paradoxically remains, according to the Washington PostSecretary of State Kerry will travel to Havana for the Aug 14 ceremony to raise the U.S. flag over the embassy, which is already "the largest diplomatic mission in the country."  The Miami Herald reports that at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy there is a consensus that success for this new policy "depends on the Cuban government’s response and the pace and breadth of its ongoing economic reforms." Still, the conference has "generated more questions than answers." Some things change slower than others. The Miami Herald's editorial continues to oppose he 50-plus-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba because "Cuba hasn’t earned the embargo’s end." 

  • The Economist reviews the presidential race in Argentina between likely candidates Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, and Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires province. Political parties hold primaries to select their presidential candidates on August 9. (A third candidate, Sergio Massa, from the Justicialist Party, is now far behind in the polls.) President Fernández has "thrown her support behind Mr Scioli, who was Argentina’s vice-president when her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, was president."

  • Brazilian military considered invading Uruguay to prevent the left from coming to power in 1971. This information, gathered by U.S. intelligence decades ago, was shared by the United States to President Rousseff during her recent visit to Washington, according to Carta Capital.

  • Mexico drinks more alcohol than India, despite having only 10% of India's population, according to The Economist.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Anticipating Venezuela's December Elections (July 30, 2015)

Is Venezuela’s Opposition Finally Unifying?, asks Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde on their Venezuela blog. In anticipation of parliamentary elections set to convene on December 6, the main opposition coalition, 'Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD)', recently announced they would join a unified ticket with MUD’s candidates "shown on the ballot under a single ticket with the same colors and symbols." Leopoldo Lopez’s Voluntad Popular party was one of the last holdouts as they "expressed doubts" about this move. Highlighting this reticence is a profile in Foreign Policy which takes a look "at the democratic bona fides of the rock star of Venezuela’s opposition."

Crisis Group just published Venezuela: Unnatural Disaster (20pp) which argues that Venezuela's crisis results from poor policy choices, incompetence and corruption. However, the Maduro government can still avoid the gravest consequences and seven specific policy options to do just that are outlined in the reports' press release. Separately, Frederick Mills (Bowie State University) recently wrote on the likely strategy by Maduro to maintain a Chavista majority in the National Assembly this December, in Open Democracy. And ever the provocateur, Andres Oppenheimer writes about "What Donald Trump has in common with Hugo Chávez," in the Miami Herald. According to Oppenheimer, they share three characteristics as populists: they need to create an enemy; they constantly play the victimization game; and they are are ego-maniacs.

The Maduro government is now "closely monitoring" and beginning to "clamp down on" political satirists, four months before the elections, according to the Wall Street Journal"Some humorists have been blacklisted by state-run theaters and hotels ... Comedy programs that poke fun at the government have disappeared from Venezuelan TV." Still, some humor does remain. Maduro’s eccentricities are featured in a South Park-like animated series called Presidential Island which "depicts Latin American heads of state shipwrecked on an island and forced to cooperate to survive." Though it can't be seen on tv, you can watch the series on YouTube (here are some recent episodes). The first episode from 2010 has over 5 million hits.

New BookBarrio Rising is the new book by NYU prof Alejandro Velasco, published by University of California Press. "Based on years of archival and ethnographic research in Venezuela’s largest public housing community, Barrio Rising delivers the first in-depth history of urban popular politics before the Bolivarian Revolution, providing crucial context for understanding the democracy that emerged during the presidency of Hugo Chávez." You can read Chapter One and a summary by the author online.

Older Book: Ramón Piñango and Moisés Naím revisit the book they published 30 years ago, "El Caso Venezuela: Una Ilusión de Armonía," according to Pro DavinciThe 90-minute conversation with the authors can be watched on Venezuela's IESA School of Management YouTube channel.

  • Brazil's nuclear chief, an admiral, was arrested this week but instead of going to jail, he is being held in army barracks, reflecting special privileges for ex-military officials, according to Folha do Sao Paulo
  • ECLAC reports that Latin America and the Caribbean Will Grow Just 0.5% in 2015, according to the press release for their Economic Survey (192pp). "On labor matters, the Economic Survey signals that the lower growth will have a negative impact on employment. On average, the unemployment rate is forecast to rise in 2015 to around 6.5% of the population, from the 6.0% registered last year."  
  • Gang killings of bus workers which is bringing San Salvador's transportation system to a halt, according to an update in the LA Times (you can also listen to yesterday's report on NPR). 
  • The Peruvian government is still stalling on creating a national park along the Brazilian border, according to The Guardian. "In 2006 Peru’s government established a 1.4 million hectare temporary 'protected natural area' in the border region alongside Brazil called the Sierra del Divisor Reserved Zone. Six years later a government commission agreed it would be converted into a national park, and, all that remains now, after a painful administrative process is for Peru’s Cabinet to approve it and the president to sign off on it. That is how it has stood since early May - and still nothing."
  • Mexican protestors are futilely trying to stop a highway from slicing through a nature reserve, even with judicial orders in their favor, according to the NY Times. The 20-mile highway will lead traffic to the new airport in the D.F. but will "demolish swaths of an indigenous community in its wake. ... After years of demonstrations and court battles, President Enrique Peña Nieto signed an executive order this month expropriating 91 acres of what many here consider sacred land."
  • A sharply worded editorial in Bloomberg says that "as Congress considers the plight of the thousands of people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who still head north every month, it should keep this fact in mind:  the best -- and most cost-effective -- policy for the U.S. is to help address the poverty and crime that still plague the so-called Northern Triangle." 
  • A survey of Mexican policy by Causa en Común (titled ¿Tenemos la policía que merecemos?) finds that Veracruz has the least trustworthy police while Chiapas pays their police force the least, according to Animal Politico.
  • Uruguay has not lost its' prohibitionist tendencies, despite recently legalizing marijuana, abortion and gay marriage. The government is now considering lengthening its daily dry laws, with a legislative bill which would extend the ban on selling alcohol from 10pm daily until 8am the following day," according to the BBCThere are also strong measures on the use of salt. "The bars and restaurants have banned placing Montevideo salt shakers on the tables without customers asking for them." 
  • Uruguay continues to welcome more Syrian refugees as part of a plan to accept displaced persons from the war-torn region, according to a COHA review of news.
  • How the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico digs its tunnels is explained by The New Yorker in an in-depth review that features "tunnel managers" and reports that since 1989, "Sinaloa has refined the art of underground construction and has used tunnels more effectively than any criminal group in history." In a related note, El Chapo is seen as a Judas by some while very much a Jesus figure by others, according to a COHA reviewThe DEA is very much in the former camp as they have just posted El Chapo on their most wanted list, describing him as 'armed and dangerous'. Separately: a high-ranking drug kingpin was just released from a jail in Altiplano, despite connections with 'El Chapo', according to Proceso magazine. (Or perhaps it is because of his connections that he was released?)
  • The Canada Revenue Agency has told Oxfam Canada that it can no longer try to prevent poverty around the world, it can only alleviate poverty — because preventing poverty might benefit people who are not already poor, according to Toronto's Globe and Mail.  "The bizarre bureaucratic brawl over a mission statement is yet more evidence of deteriorating relations between the Harper government and some parts of Canada’s charitable sector."
  • Authorities in Peru say security forces have rescued a record number of women and children from the Shining Path, drawing attention to the insurgent group's alleged recruitment practices, according to a review of press clippings by Insight Crime. "Some of the women were kidnapped 25 years ago from a convent and were forced to have sex with rebel militants ... Many of the children who were born [in the camp] were the result of Shining Path members raping the women."
  • Many women in Colombia's Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) undergo forced abortions, according to an investigation in Revista Semana.
  • Conflicts have reignited along the Venezuela-Guyana border. President Maduro is in US seeking help from the UN, according to the Associated PressLast week, Guyana's newly elected president, David Granger, was in Washington and met with top U.S. diplomats looking for support, according to the Washington Post. The Wash Post spices up their story by recalling the 1970s messianic American preacher, the Rev. Jim Jones. "Jonestown was actually a buffer in the Guyana-Venezuela border dispute."
  • Athletes in next year's Summer Olympics in Brazil "will be swimming and boating in waters so contaminated with human feces that they risk becoming violently ill," according to an Associated Press investigation. This has "dismayed" some athletes already training in Rio, "some of whom have already fallen ill with fevers, vomiting and diarrhea." 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Almost 700 years of prison for femicide in Chihuahua (July 29, 2015)

Five men in northern Mexico were sentenced to an unprecedented 697 years in prison for the gender-driven killing of 11 women, a landmark precedent in the state of Chihuahua, where hundreds of women have been killed since 1990, reports Reuters.

The sentence was the longest-ever given for a femicide, the killing of a woman due to her gender and was based on scientific evidence, according to the Chihuahua attorney general's office.

It is an unprecedented move in a country where the systematic killing of women often goes unpunished, reports TeleSur.

The National Citizen Femicide Observatory, a coalition of human rights groups, believes that some 3,892 women were murdered in Mexico between 2012 and 2013, but only 16 percent of cases were investigated as femicides. 

"For the Mexican state drug trafficking is the most important threat to the country, which obscures other serious crimes like the assassinations of women and girls who die from gender-based discrimination and hate, most of which remain unpunished," a report on femicide from the observatory reads.

According to official statistics, over the past 28 years in Mexico more than 44,000 women have been murdered, though few perpetrators have been brought to justice, reports TeleSur in a different piece. Notimex puts the number at 2,764 for 2012, a 155 percent increase since 2007.

In this particular case the men lured the women in question into prostitution and drug distribution, killing them and flinging the bodies into the Navajo Arroyo, in the Valley of Juarez, said the Chihuahua attorney general's office.

In March Mexico's Supreme Court ordered that a case be probed as a femicide for the first time, after prosecutors in the State of Mexico initially labeled it a suicide, based on an investigation seen as plagued by anomalies.

The court declared it is the "duty of investigative bodies to investigate every violent death of a woman, to determine whether or not this is a case of femicide," reports VICE.

Justice Olga Sanchez Cordero, the only female on the five-justice panel, warned her peers that the vote should be considered monumental, for addressing the "culture of violence against women in our country."

Despite the judicial gains, the issue remains of grave relevance in Mexico. VICE reports that femicides are a silent epidemic in Mexico, particularly in Mexico State which "is home to an undetermined number of extremely violent killings of women that usually involve rape or mutilation, and are usually never solved."

The National Databank on Violence Against Women marks a total of 12,950 cases of aggression against women in the State of Mexico since its started collecting data in 2012, according to the piece.

Women's groups in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, where 43 students were forcible disappeared 10 months ago, have called for a gender alert to be issued following a recent spike in fatal violence against women in the coastal city of Acapulco, where at least 11 women have been killed since July 13 reports TeleSur.

And in Sinaloa, a state legislator announced last week that the rate of femicide has increased by 110 percent in the last two decades, with 358 cases of femicide reported since 2011.

News Briefs
  • Brazilian police arrested the mastermind of the military’s secret nuclear program during the 1970s and ’80s, the latest casualty in the sweeping corruption scandal shaking Brazil’s establishment, reports the New York Times. Prosecutors said Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva the chief executive of the nuclear power unit of state-controlled electric utility Eletrobras took more than $1.3 million in bribes. In addition they carried out nearly two dozen search warrants on related businesses, widening a sweeping investigation into corruption at some of Brazil’s biggest government firms, reports the Wall Street Journal. Eletrobras, is Latin America’s biggest electric company by revenue and controls power generation, transmission and distribution companies throughout Brazil.

  • Analysts expect Brazil's economy to contract by 1.76 percent this year, marking its worst performance since 1990, with the inflation rate hitting 9.23 percent, said the Central Bank, according to MercoPress.
  • Tens of thousands of people marched in Potosí yesterday ratifying a strike that has been going for three weeks demanding development programs for the region, reports EFE. (Seeyesterday's and Friday's briefs.)

    • A Peruvian military operation has secured the release of more than a dozen people who were kidnapped by the Shining Path rebel group up to 25 years ago and used as slaves in remote mountain communities, reports The Guardian. The 13 adults and 26 children were evacuated by helicopters, though some had grown so accustomed to their lives with the Marxist group that they were initially reluctant to be rescued. The government said the operation was a victory against the Shining Path, which was largely defeated in the 1990s after waging a bloody insurgency that left almost 70,000 people dead or missing. 

      • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called for fellow citizens to end their silence regarding human rights violations during the 1973-1990 military dictatorship and share information, praising a former soldier whose testimony helped the investigation into an incident in which two activists were burned alive in 1986. Seven former members of the military were charged last week over the case, in which one activist died. (See last Wednesday's briefs.) In all 40,018 people were killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, according to official figures. Chile’s government estimates 3,095 were killed, reports The Guardian.
      • As part of its monetary policy, the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) has been combining liquidity-absorbing operations with the issuance of an investment instrument called "Directo BCV" in order to cut excess liquidity that could put counterproductive pressures on the economy, explains El Universal. The policy is aimed at reducing the pressure of excess liquidity on overall prices. 
      • Chelsea Clinton encouraged women to educate themselves and learn how to be more independent during a trip to Haiti to oversee projects financed by the Clinton Foundation, reports the Associated Press.
      • The Brazilian government will start using drones to monitor and investigate slave labor in difficult to reach rural areas, reports TeleSur. This comes in a time when the government is trying to fight off attempts by companies to undermine its crackdown on slave labor. 
      • Argentine prosecutors are concerned about the country's increasing drug trade and the growing complexity of criminal gangs, reports La Nación.
      • Military police officers in Brazil are critical of their training regimen, in which physical, psychological, and disciplinary abuses committed by their superiors are commonplace, reportsAgencia PúblicaInSight Crime has the English version this week. Bullying is the rule rather than the exception when training military police officers. Courses are concerned with imprinting the military culture on the future soldiers, with little theoretical teaching on topics such as criminal law or human rights. These are the conclusions of a recent study"Opinion of Brazilian Police on Reforms and Modernization of Public Security," published in 2014 by the Center of Applied Judicial Research (CPJA), reports the piece.

      NOTE: I will be off starting tomorrow (June 30) through next Friday (August 7), but Eduardo Romero will be covering the daily briefs in my absence.

      Tuesday, July 28, 2015

      U.S. ruling could require release of undocumented immigrant children (July 28, 2015)

      A California judge ruled that the U.S. government is violating a 1997 settlement by detaining unauthorized immigrant children, and an order may be forthcoming to require the release of the minors and parents detained with them, reports Reuters.

      Last week's ruling on detentions represents a defeat for U.S. immigration authorities, who in court filings argued releasing undocumented immigrant children with their parents encourages families in Central America to undertake the dangerous journey north.

      More than 55,000 family units were caught crossing the southern border last fiscal year, and nearly 25,000 so far this fiscal year, reports the Los Angeles Times, citing U.S. Customs and Border Protection stats. Earlier this month, there were 2,172 immigrant mothers and children detained at the three family detention centers, most of them – 1,979 – at Dilley in Texas.

      U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee's 25-page ruling would provide for keeping a parent in custody if the person is a "significant flight risk," and in some cases the decision envisions releasing a child to another family member in the United States.

      But a sudden release of hundreds of detainees is probably not going to happen, explains the LATimes. The judge gave the administration until Aug. 3 to file a response to her intended order, and the administration can still appeal.

      The pro bono lawyers who work with families in detention said they were encouraged by the ruling, but did not expect mass releases this week. "This could change how the kids are treated but there is some language in there that is concerning that may allow ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to keep these families detained, either together or separately," Jonathan Ryan, an immigration lawyer and executive director of RAICES, an immigrant legal advocacy group based in San Antonio that works with families in detention centers told the LATimes.

      Ryan said it appears that under the conditions the judge suggested in her order, the government could still detain mothers if their children were placed with relatives or other sponsors. "Things could move forward for the children and backward for the moms," he said, adding, "The only thing I can think of that’s scarier than being locked up as a child is being locked up and then sent away and your mom is still there. This is going to continue to be an exercise in cruelty."

      The LATimes has a feature on the family detention centers, which over a 130 members of Congress have said should be shut down. And also see this February NYTimes Magazine piece on shameful conditions of family detention camps in the U.S.

      News Briefs
      • United Nations experts today called on the Government of the Dominican Republic to take steps to prevent arbitrary deportations and to adopt measures to address allegations of racial profiling during deportations of people of Haitian descent. "No one should be deported when there are legal and valid reasons to stay," said human rights expert Mireille Fanon Mendes-France, who currently heads the United Nations Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent. Some 19,000 people have reportedly left Dominican Republic for Haiti since 21 June due to fear and amidst concerns that there will be violations when deportations officially start in August, according to the U.N. In an op-ed in The Guardian Dan-el Padilla Peralta argues that the worst aspects of U.S. immigration policy are reflected in the Dominican Republic. "The predicament of hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Haitian descendants in my home country resonates with me because I know what it is like to be black and undocumented: to be rendered doubly marginal. In my forthcoming memoir, I've tried to show how America’s inflexible and punitive immigration policies result in absurd and unjust outcomes. It has been dismaying to see the Dominican government adopt a similar approach to immigration while making use of American border-policing expertise."
      • Peru's government on Monday ordered telecommunications companies to grant police warrantless access to cellphone users' locations and other call data in real time and store that data for three years, a decree that civil libertarians called an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, reports the Associated Press. The legislative decree was not debated in Congress and it was enacted under special powers that lawmakers recently granted to President Ollanta Humala's government. Activist Katitza Rodriguez of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said she had not seen "any legal provision anywhere that stripped geolocation data of constitutional communications privacy protections as explicitly" as the Peruvian decree.
      • Guatemalan opposition leader and presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón has travelled to Washington to denounce a plot to discredit his Libertad Democrática Renovada (Lider) party. He alleges that the he United Nations' International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is politically persecuting his party, reports El Periodico. He met with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro yesterday, reports Siglo 21. Earlier this month the CICIGannounced that it will seek a preliminary hearing to strip Baldizón's VP candidate Edgar Barquin of his immunity over allegations of illicit association and influence trafficking. Two other LIDER lawmakers are also accused of participating. 
      • Alejandro Hope at El Daily Post has a feature on why the escaped leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is unlikely to be recaptured anytime soon. The reasons include a changed network of close acolytes and potential moles in Mexican intelligence reporting back to the drug kingpin. Yet, "over the long run, the conditions that favor El Chapo will not hold. At some point, he will lower his guard and make mistakes. Security agencies will once again accumulate large amounts of intelligence on the kingpin and his network. Ways will be found to share information safely. U.S. and Mexican agencies will relearn to trust each other. But all that will take months, if not years," explains Hope. Too long for President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is betting on a quick recapture to repair the damage wrought by the escape. 
      • The Bolivian government and leaders of the Andean province of Potosi formally agreed to begin talks on Saturday in order to resolve the general strike that has paralyzed and isolated that region for the past 20 days, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. The announcement came after government officials met with the head of the Potosi Civic Committee, or Comcipo, Jhonny Llally, and with leaders of the miners unions of the state and of mining cooperatives, which back Potosi in its demand for development projects.
      • Bills wending their way through Congress, which would boost agricultural trade between the U.S. and Cuba and loosen travel restrictions to the island face long odds, according to theMiami Herald. The proposed legislation forms part of lawmakers' strategy to boost trade with Cuba, but an expert quoted in the piece says it will be difficult to get the bills through the House of Representatives.
      • Customs and law enforcement personnel in Mexico say they found an undetermined amount of cocaine dissolved in fruit pulp imported from Colombia, reports the Associated Press. Mexico's customs and tax authority said Monday that it was a "sophisticated" and "unprecedented" smuggling attempt.
      • A Foreign Policy piece looks at the rock-star power of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López. Though he is lauded internationally as a freedom hero who is unfairly imprisoned by President Nicolás Maduro's administration, the true story is more complicated, explains Roberto Lovato. He says that "news reports, parliamentary records, U.S. government documents, video recordings, and interviews show that López was not quite as remote from the [2002] coup attempt and its plotters as he and his representatives claim," a fact which would significantly affect his standing as a symbol of defiance in the face of an authoritarian government. Another interesting note in the piece is the deep rift between the established opposition, led by a coalition called the MUD, or Democratic Unity Roundtable, and López. The piece quotes a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable, titled "The López Problem," which says that Mary Ponte, a leading member of the center-right Primero Justicia opposition party, once said that "for the opposition parties, Lopez draws ire second only to Chavez. The only difference between the two is that López is a lot better looking." U.S. State Department officials described López as a "divisive figure within the opposition" who is "often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry — but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organizer."
      • Maduro's government denied a Venezuelan military incursion across the border with Colombia, reports AFP. Colombian authorities asked for clarification after locals said Venezuelan soldiers dressed in camouflage searched a woman's home and stole money from the local board in San Luis Beltrán (Tibú).
      • Protests against Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa are set to continue. A collection of different groups have announced a national strike set for August 13, reports the Latin Correspondent.The strike has been called by unions, social movements and indigenous groups, each with separate agendas and grievances against Correa's government. Leaders of the national strike, however, have attempted to distance themselves from recent demonstrations that were initially against proposed increase to inheritance tax brackets but soon turned into an anti-government movement openly calling for Correa's removal. Despite this, Correa, in similar reaction to earlier protests, has been quick to denounce the national strike as part of "soft coup" against his administration. Speaking in his weekly address, he said what opposition groups "could not achieve at the ballot box they want to achieve through force."
      • The Haitian gourde is weakening against the dollar, creating rising prices locally and complications for Haitians. The gourde has depreciated over the past couple of years due to a large government deficit and has accelerated as imports have gotten more expensive, interest rates increased and banks reduced credit, reports the Miami Herald.
      • Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez announced a plan for infrastructure investments for about 12 billion dollars, most with government funding, over the next five years of his mandate. The move comes amid tension in several sectors of the economy, reports AFP.
      • In Rio de Janeiro, new regulations aim to curb physical and sexual abuse of transvestites and transgender people within the state's 52 penitentiaries. Advocates have hailed the rules that ban discrimination against Rio state's approximately 600 transgender prisoners and protect their gender identities while behind bars. The rules adopted in late May allow transvestite and transgender inmates to be known by their common, rather than only their legal, names. They guarantee access to conjugal visits and let transgender people who identify as female to decide whether to serve their sentences in a women's facility, reports the Associated Press.

      Monday, July 27, 2015

      Searching for bodies in a Medellín landfill (July 27, 2015)

      Today, a team of forensic experts will begin removing 31,000 cubic yards of rubble from La Escombrera, a debris landfill on Medellín's outskirts where the remains of as many as 300 people are believed to have been dumped about a decade ago, reports the Associated Press.

      Human rights activists say it could be the biggest mass grave ever in Colombia and the dig represents a glimmer of hope that justice will be realized. But the search will be complicated. Despite the long-standing demands by victims' families that the landfill be closed and excavated, construction waste has been dumped there daily.

      The process will take about five months, and will required digging up to eight meters down in the landfill that is located in Comuna 13, a slum neighborhood that has hosted all of the factions of the lengthy conflict Colombia has been through: guerrillas, paramilitaries and security forces, reportsAFP.

      The case dates back to 2002, when then President Alvaro Uribe launched Operation Orion to repel leftist rebels from a densely populated hillside slum in the poor and violent Comuna 13 district. The void was filled by far-right militia fighters in ski masks and wielding heavy weapons, explains the AP piece. Allegations of killings of civilians and disappearances multiplied. Many of the paramilitary crimes were carried out in an alliance with U.S.-trained security forces. Former militia fighters, including Diego Fernando Murillo, the jailed warlord known by the alias Don Berna who once terrorized much of Medellin, have testified they dumped their victims in La Escombrera.

      A municipal authority told AFP that as many as 90 people might be buried in the landfill, though they are uncertain as to exact numbers.

      Investigators say it is unclear how many, if any, bodies can be recovered. But they say their biggest obstacle is providing for the safety of the forensic experts carrying out the painstaking work, as the five-month excavation is taking place in an area where criminal gangs still lurk, many of whose members are implicated in the very crimes being investigated. Mistrust of the police, who are providing around-the-clock protection, still runs high.

      About 15,000 people are estimated to have disappeared in Colombia due to the armed conflict, which has left about 220,000 dead over the past fifty years and more than six million displaced persons.

      News Briefs
      • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suspended bombing attacks agains the FARC guerrilla rebels this weekend, a positive step in the ongoing peace negotiations between the two, after several months of stepped up conflict, reports AFP
      • The search for 43 missing college students in the southern state of Guerrero has turned up at least 60 clandestine graves and 129 bodies over the last 10 months, Mexico's attorney general's office says, according to the Associated Press. None of the remains has been connected to the youths who disappeared after a clash with police in the city of Iguala on Sept. 26, and authorities do not believe any will be. The number of bodies and graves found from October to May could possibly be higher than in its report, the attorney general's office said, because its response to a freedom of information request from The Associated Press covers only those instances in which its mass grave specialists got involved. (See Friday's post for criticisms on the investigation.)
      • The Mexican maximum security prison drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán broke out of earlier this month is a virtual replica of the facility he broke out of in 2001, reports the New York Times. The authorities believe that for his first escape Guzmán had the help of a top prison security official who went on to become a trusted member of his Sinaloa cartel. Investigators think that he may have taken a copy of the blueprints for the other prison when he left his job around the time of El Chapo's earlier escape. And since the layout of the two prisons is virtually identical, those blueprints could have come in handy when planning this latest breakout. On Friday, Mexican prosecutors said three prison employees would face charges in connection with the escape.
      • Alejandro Hope at El Daily Post writes about the uncertain destination of El Chapo's drug money. He says it's likely most of the drug money was actually reinvested in the illegal economy. He concludes that "if the majority of the profits of crime are reinvested in crime, no amount of financial intelligence can help: the only way to seize the money is by physically finding it ..."
      • Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles said he will travel to Washington to ask the Organization of American States (OAS) to designate electoral observers for December's parliamentary elections, reports EFE.
      • Honduran journalist David Romero, who exposed a major government corruption case, took refuge last week in the national human rights office after filing an official complaint about plans to murder him, reports the AFP. Rioting broke out Thursday outside a courthouse in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, during sentencing in a case in which the Globo TV reporter was charged with crimes including defamation and dangerous slander against Sonia Galvez, the wife of Attorney General Rigoberto Cuellar. His supporters stormed the courtroom and were able to temporarily suspend the sentencing, as charges against him were raised from 16 to 41, which could result in a prison term, explains Telesur. The journalist said he will not return to the courtroom "until they change a dishonorable and contaminated tribunal," which he accused of following instructions from President Juan Orlando Hernández to send him to jail to be killed, according to AFP.
      • An October sentencing in Miami, for a man who pled guilty to heroin trafficking, may be related to a U.S.-Colombia initiative against the Úsuga Clan, reportedly one of Colombia's biggest criminal bands, reports the Miami Herald
      • Peruvian lawmakers elected an opposition legislator as head of Congress on Sunday in a new defeat for the ruling party and increasingly unpopular President Ollanta Humala who is in his last year in office, reports Reuters. Luis Iberico of the small Alliance for Progress party won with backing from lawmakers loyal to opposition presidential aspirant Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a jailed former president and whose party makes up the largest voting bloc in Congress. This will further complicate Humala's efforts to pass new laws in his final year in office, as the president of Congress sets the agenda for congressional votes.
      • Brazilian authorities will likely raise the country's benchmark Selic interest rate next week for the 16th time in just over two years in a bid to fight escalating inflation, reports the Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, Brazil's annual inflation rate recently hit 9.25 percent. That is more than double the official 4.5 percent target and up substantially from 6.5 percent in April 2013, when the bank started raising rates.
      • And The Intercept has picked up on a piece in Proceso that says the agents who arrested Guzmán last year weren't Mexican at all — they were Americans, members of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service, dressed as Mexican marines, working alongside one or more unidentified U.S. intelligence agencies. Government officials from Mexico and the U.S. have yet to dispute the accuracy of the story, published in the magazine’s July 18 issue, eight days after the world’s most powerful drug trafficker escaped from Mexico’s top maximum security prison, though former officials from both sides of the border expressed their doubts to The Intercept.
      • Federal authorities in Mexico say they arrested 22 Colombians and three Mexicans using greenhouses to grow genetically modified and cloned marijuana, reports the Associated Press. A Sunday statement issued by the federal police says the operation in the northern state of Jalisco consisted of three greenhouses each of 2,000 square meters (20,000 square feet). Officers found a total of 7,000 "mother plants" of marijuana that had been genetically modified and cloned.
      • Last week, amendments were passed in the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee that would lift the travel ban and ease agricultural exports and shipping to Cuba. The panel’s votes reflect growing sentiment, even among some GOP conservatives, to ease the five-decade-plus Cuba trade embargo and travel restrictions to the island, which have failed to move the Castro regime toward democracy, reports The Guardian
      • Santiago Ortíz Crespo argues that a presidential initiative to raise inheritance taxes in Ecuador -- which sparked widespread protests and calls for President Rafael Correa's resignation -- was inspired in a papal encyclical against capitalism. But Ecuador's middle class believed their property to be endangered by the new measure, though it would only affect 2 percent of the population, and opposed it, he explains in a Nueva Sociedad piece.
      • The Miami Herald has a piece on a new initiative where Haitian American's can send solar light kits to relatives in Haiti, providing a reliable source of energy in a country where more than 70 percent of the population doesn't have access to electricity on a daily basis.