Friday, August 14, 2015

Gang arrests in El Salvador amid growing violence (August 14, 2015)

El Salvador's attorney general has issued about 300 arrest warrants for gang members suspected of "terrorist acts," reports the BBC. Its the latest in a spate of violence related El Salvador news, where so far in this month, 24 people have been killed on average every day, police said on Monday.

The New York Times has a piece from earlier this week on the soaring gang violence in El Salvador, which has reached levels unseen since the 1980's civil war convulsed the country. A government strategy from the beginning of the year to combat gangs with military force has backfired, according to the piece and violence has intensified. The police are given free reign to shoot in "self-defense" as part of a crackdown intended on getting gangs out of slums, but "a growing number of voices are beginning to warn against the abuses as innocent people are caught up in the police sweeps and reports emerge that police are killing gang suspects." 

El Faro has denounced that the publication and several of its journalists have received threats since the publication of pieces denouncing police brutality and a massacre of alleged gang members (seeJuly 23rd's post).

A piece in El Faro from a couple of weeks ago looks some of the reasons behind the gang-led transportation strike that collapsed public transportation in El Salvador, left seven public transportation employees dead and millions of dollars in estimated losses. Roberto Valencia says the three main gangs in El Salvador were likely behind the actions. Though many social media commentators wondered whether the gangs are colluding with a political party, Valencia notes that such collaboration would be very tricky to implement as gangs are difficult to make deals with. (Which has implications for the allegations in the following brief.)

In an El Faro op-ed José Miguel Cruz says the strike shows that the Salvadoran state and its institutions are still very weak, that the effective governance of the territory is shared and constantly negotiated with armed bands and criminals and that there is a critical deterioration of human security in the country.

The Dialogue has a piece from last week on the strike. Ben Raderstorf and Manuel Meléndez Sánchez argue "the most troubling implication of the transportation shutdown is what it reveals about the relative power of the government vis-à-vis the gangs, particularly in operational capacity and authority—i.e. the ability of each side to make credible guarantees."

News Briefs

  • In other El Salvador news, a piece in The Nation by Hilary Goodfriend makes the case that U.S. diplomats and El Salvador's opposition parties are engaged in a soft-coup attempt against the ruling FMLN party, using the Constitutional Chamber of the nation's Supreme Court and gang violence to pressure and derail the government's left-wing policies. A central point in her story is a Wikileaks released 2008 cable from the U.S. ambassador detailing an opposition plan to dominate the Supreme Court in order to countermand a loss of power in the executive. She says the magistrates subsequently elected -- known popularly as the "Fantastic Four" -- have been pursuing a strategy of undermining the FMLN government by defunding initiatives and overstepping boundaries by intervening in electoral issues. Her version is contested by a lot of El Salvador sources however, who note that the election of the Fantastic Four did not occur until after the FMLN administration took power and the fact that opposition ARENA deputies actually sought to impeach the magistrates, argues "Tim's El Salvador Blog." The piece notes that "the Constitutional Chamber received four new justices who have been widely praised for their judicial independence and their commitment to the rule of law.  See, for example, the report of the Due Process of Law Foundation and FESPAD, a respected Salvadoran legal organization, which described the work of the Constitutional Chamber as a major improvement in the Salvadoran judicial system and a model for Central America (report at page 9)."
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Cuba today to raise the American flag over the newly reinstated Embassy in Havana. The visit "reflects the balance that the Obama administration is trying to strike between working with an authoritarian government and supporting Cuba’s beleaguered dissidents," reports the New York Times. After today begins the hard work of continuing the detente -- expanding economic ties between the U.S. and Cuba, reports theAssociated Press. Issues remaining between the two countries include the U.S. economic embargo on the island and billions of dollars in fifty-year-old American claims over property confiscated after the Cuban revolution. Fully normalized relations shouldn't be expected for several more years, reports the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times has a great story on the difficult and secretive negotiations between U.S. State Department aides and Cuban representatives, along with Vatican support, that finally led to the long-sought rapprochement. Juicy details include gifts brought to Ottawa based negotiations by Cuban representatives: "boxes of Cuban cigars and bottles of Havana Club rum that the Americans were barred by the embargo from bringing home and so had to leave in Ottawa." The piece also details how a secret letter was delivered from the Pope to U.S. President Barak Obama, using Havana archbishop Cardinal Jaime Ortega as an intermediary. Key moments in the negotiations since December included finding a bank in the U.S. to handle Cuban diplomatic accounts (according to the piece no bank was willing to take on the challenge) and negotiating freedom of movement for American diplomats. (Check out this April piece from The Guardian on the Vatican's influence in negotiating the deal.)
  • Venezuela freed two prominent jailed opposition leaders this week, but "not clear if the unexpected releases represented a significant shift in the fiercely antagonistic relationship between the opposition and the government of President Nicolás Maduro," reports the New York Times. The move aims to ease international pressure on Maduro, according to the Wall Street Journal. He has been under fire from rights groups and U.S. officials who accuse his government of human-rights abuses and holding political prisoners. The move also comes as the government has deployed a variety of tactics to fight the divided opposition, including declaring several politicians and activists ineligible to hold public office and using the courts to mandate changes in the leadership of some political parties.
  • A growing wave of violence is engulfing the Venezuelan state of Aragua, reports the Miami Herald, where gangs have merged to form mega crime organizations. These mega gangs are the target of the new “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” (hereafter referred to as OLP), which send heavily-armed police and military forces to reclaim the State’s monopoly of violence over poor areas supposedly under the control of armed non-state actors, explain Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. A video has surfaced in which Venezuelan police officers appear to execute at least one suspect, a troubling sign for the new policy, reports InSight Crime. In response, members of the mega-gang have reportedly launched attacks against police and a police station, which have so far left two officers dead.  Hernáiz and Smilde say the OLP has produced hundreds of arrests, and that press reports show at least eighteen civilians dying, supposedly in the course of armed confrontations. "... We found no reports of security force casualties. Several eyewitness accounts speak of families being forcefully evicted from their homes and abused by security forces."
  • A general strike against Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa virtually paralyzed Quito, provincial cities and major highways yesterday and violent clashes broke out between protesters and police in several cities, reports the Associated Press. A diverse coalition mobilized thousands of indigenous activists, unionists and environmentalists who blocked roads with tree trunks, rocks and burning tires, and public transport was scarce in the capital. Demonstrators were protesting against government policies, including one that would permit the populist leader to run for office indefinitely, according to the Wall Street Journal. A a slump in oil prices has weakened the pace of Ecuador’s robust economic growth of recent years, fueling discontent, and coming a day after ratings firm Standard & Poor's lowered its sovereign credit ratings on Ecuador by a notch. TeleSur has a very different take, initially reporting that the protests were "met with little enthusiasm from Ecuadoreans Thursday, as scenes of uninterrupted normal life prevailed throughout the South American country." A later reportsays that demonstrators provoked the police by throwing projectiles. 
  • A piece at The Dialogue analyses Ecuador's attempt at radical education reform over the past decade. "Overall, the general outlook of the education system in Ecuador has changed radically in the last few years in terms of governability, access, and quality. ... The Ecuadorian state gained jurisdiction over the education system through the Ministry of Education, which was re-designed to generate public policies and supervise their implementation nationwide.  ... Results from available statistics show a sustained growth in school enrollment beginning in 2007 that reached near universalization of General Basic Education in 2012, as net enrollment rate grew from 91.2% in 2006 to 95.4% in 2012. Moreover, the net enrollment rate in upper secondary school (Bachillerato) rose from 47.9% to 62.1% over the same time period. However, the most important accomplishment was the fact that historically neglected ethnic groups—indigenous people and Afro-Ecuadorians—showed the greatest increase in school attendance, so that both groups’ enrollment rates are now comparable to the national average," concludes Pablo Cevallos Estarellas.
  • Improved ties between Bolivia and the U.S. (see yesterday's briefs) would have a significant impact on the South American country's capacity for combating drug trafficking organizations, reports InSight Crime. Bolivia has become vulnerable to transnational criminal groups looking to supply cocaine to consumer markets in South America, due to its weak drug interdiction resources, according to the piece."A return of the DEA and increased US anti-narcotics assistance would help Bolivian authorities in their efforts to weaken these criminal organizations, and shed the country's status as an emerging drug hub."
  • Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came out in defense of his successor, beleaguered President Dilma Rousseff, saying she is not to blame for the country's current crisis, reports El País.
  • Six people were killed in a gun attack on a bar in Mexico's Veracruz state yesterday, including a former television reporter who was having drinks with an alleged boss of the violent Zetas gang, reports the Wall Street Journal. Two other journalists at the table with the victims were beaten by the attackers but left alive.
  • By avoiding pushing for the application of the so-called “Leahy Amendments,” which cut US aid to foreign security forces if there is credible information they are involved in significant human rights violations, human rights groups are circumscribing the debate on potentially effective policies to respond to anti-Haitian racism from the Dominican Republic, argues Greg Grandin inThe Nation. But "over 500 former Peace Corps volunteers, including three former DR Country Directors, have sent a letter ... to Secretary of State Kerry urging for the enforcement of Leahy, citing State Department reports documenting extrajudicial killings, torture, and the case of 31-year-old Haitian immigrant Jean Robert Lors, whose home was invaded by Dominican security agents (in 2013) and who was beaten so severely—allegedly “with the butts of their weapons”—that he died."
  • The Guardian has a piece on the ongoing protests against corruption in Guatemala and Honduras -- the Central American spring. The piece doesn't really say anything new, but provides a useful roundup of the latest developments in both countries, including Guatemalan protester's rejection of upcoming elections and a meeting in Honduras scheduled for today that will bring together government and opposition parties, as well as representatives of the indignado movement. 

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