Friday, September 4, 2015

Otto Pérez Molina spends first night out of office in jail (Sept 4, 2015)

Former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina's fortunes have flipped in a very short space of time: he spent his first night out of office under military custody as hearings proceed against him in a corruption and fraud investigation case.

As that occurred yesterday Guatemala's Congress swore in Vice President Alejandro Maldonado to serve the remainder of Pérez Molina's term, until January. Maldonado vowed to leave "a legacy of honesty" and demanded that ministers and top officials submit their resignations so he could form a transition government, reports the Associated Press.

Maldonado, a conservative former member of Guatemala's top court, asked civil society to help him build a government that could bring together Guatemalans and re-establish trust, reports the Wall Street Journal. His speech was met with thundering applause.

During a break from the court hearings yesterday Pérez Molina told the AP that the process had been "very hard, very difficult," and that he could have derailed the probe but did not. "I had things I could have done," Pérez Molina said, according to AP. "I could have replaced the prosecutor, I could have dug in." Pérez Molina maintains he is innocent of the accusations. (See yesterday's post.)

The decision to jail the now former president -- for his own safety and in order to ensure the continuity of the hearing, according to the judge -- marks a radical change in Guatemalan institutions. The Wall Street Journal noted that it was a "deeply symbolic moment," and "it offered a dramatic validation of a growing street demonstration movement demanding his ouster and prosecution," according to the New York Times.

"For much of Guatemala’s violent history, marked by dictatorship and military repression, such a scene would have been unimaginable: a president forced to resign, then sit in open court to hear charges leveled against him and ultimately spend the night in a prison he once might have overseen as a top general. All that in the course of a single day."

At the Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor, the Guatemalan ambassador to the U.S., Julio Ligorria says this is just the beginning. "We are starting to see a new trend in Guatemala's justice system that will continue in high-impact cases. But an effort is needed to bring justice to the average citizen. The system will have succeeded only when a campesino can go to a court against those who are powerful and enforce a contract on a level playing field."

But the sudden changes are out of synch with the elections this weekend, notes the NYTimes piece. There has been no serious election reform and most of the candidates are firmly entrenched in the same political system many protesters are rejecting. The piece quotes Eric Olsen from the Wilson Institute who notes that "at their finest moment, Guatemalans are faced with this really difficult choice between candidates who may not lead to the kinds of changes that people have been fighting for."

InSight Crime notes that many of the candidates are dogged by allegations of corruption and criminal ties. The piece profiles the four top candidates and their links to criminal schemes.

Other pieces wonder whether the success of the U.N. backed  International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which together with Guatemalan prosecutors uncovered this and other corruption scandals that have rocked the political elite in recent months.

The LATimes cites ideas to create similar bodies in Honduras and El Salvador, though experts caution that the CICIG's success took years and required local cooperation and the recent grassroots push to achieve the massive changes of the past weeks.

A body like the CICIG doesn't offer a one-size-fits-all solution, Olsen told the Los Angeles Times. "What happens in Latin American countries confronted by huge problems of crime and violence is that they don't deal with it by enabling the justice system to function appropriately ... They deal with it by focusing on confrontations with criminal groups, prison and incarceration etc., but they never deal with the underlying problem of corruption and weak state institutions, and that's really what's at the heart of it."

Over at InSight Crime, Stephen Dudley analyzes the potential impact of this week's events on Guatemala's "deeply entrenched military criminal networks." Pérez Molina -- a former military general -- built his economic and political power in large part thanks to his connections to the military, explains Dudley. He was also part of the Sindicato "a shadowy network of former and current military personnel that was equal parts criminal facilitator and criminal actor."

News Briefs

  • The Brazilian government called in army troops to keep order in Mato Grosso do Sul state after a land dispute between farmers and indigenous people led to a tribal leader's death this weekend, reports the Wall Street Journal. Hundreds of members of the Guarani-Kaiowá tribe occupied several farms in the area, near the border with Paraguay. The disputes are part of a larger disagreement as attempts to enlarge reservations for Brazil's growing indigenous population bumps up against farmers working land.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff says Uber increased unemployment and that local authorities must regulate the service. Conventional cab drivers have staged protests and lobbied lawmakers in Brazil's biggest cities, reportThe Guardian.
  • The Brazilian government dismissed market rumors yesterday that Finance Minister Joaquim Levy was quitting because of disagreements over his austerity plan, reports Reuters.
  • And the country's largest construction company, Odebrecht, was convicted this week of submitting workers to slave-like conditions at a sugar and ethanol plant being built in Angola, reports the Associated Press.
  • Wilson Center piece by Juan Carlos Garzón analyzes possible causes for Colombia's surge in coca cultivation. The five hypothesis include the FARC inciting farmers to plant coca, that a reduction in aerial spraying and manual eradication has increased coca cultivation, that the drop in gold prices has led people back to coca, the potential impact of domestic cocaine use and the lack of comprehensive intervention in coca-growing territories.
  • The new anti-drug strategy announced by Colombian authorities emphasizes manual eradication of coca crops but it's doubtful that these plans are enough to reverse the trend of increased production, according to InSight Crime
  • Reuters review of the Mexico's investigation into the abduction and apparent massacre of 43 students last year came to similar conclusions as other critics of the process: "The government's team lost evidence, did not properly investigate some leads and failed to provide scientific proof to back up its account that the students were abducted and incinerated and their remains dumped in a river."
  • Mexico is the new immigration enforcer. Mexico's apprehensions of child migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador - collectively known as the northern Triangle - are expected to increase, while such apprehensions by the U.S. are dropping sharply, reports NBC News based on a report by the Migration Policy Institute.
  • Just over a quarter of a million people were reported missing in Mexico over the past eight years, according to government statistics presented in the country's Senate, reports TeleSur. The figure coincides with human rights groups' estimates released last month for the same time period.
  • A mass grave found in Mexico's Nuevo León state could contain bone fragments corresponding to at least 31 bodies, reports AFP.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday he was open to talks with Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro aimed at resolving an ongoing border spat, but he set three conditions pertaining to respect for his countrymen's "basic rights," reports EFE. The steps, which Santos said he requested many days ago, include allowing a couple of thousand children on the other side of the border to attend school in Colombia.
  • Petropolitics: Argentina's YPF and Russia's Gazprom signed an agreement to develop tight and shale hydrocarbons in Argentina -- setting the scene for a final agreement that could be signed early next year, reports Bloomberg. Argentina's state-run energy company is seeking partners to finance development of a shale formation the size of Belgium known as Vaca Muerta that contains at least 23 billion barrels of oil.
  • And in Perú, Congress reversed course and voted yesterday to remove a legal barrier that kept state-owned Petroperu from taking control of the country's biggest oil block. The populist turn comes as Petroperu supporters continued protests against the government's recent decision to grant Pacific Exploration and Production Corp a two-year service contract after a 30-year concession failed to draw any bids in an auction last month, explains Reuters. It could be part of "the tide of nationalist and left-leaning posturing that tends to precede presidential elections in Peru," according to the piece.
  • Back in Russia, President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro did not come to any concrete measures to lift oil prices, though they agreed to combine efforts. Putin specifically rejected taking direct actions, including output cuts, to  support prices, reports Reuters.
  • But Maduro got good news this week from China, which gave the country a new $5 billion loan with few strings attached. The Washington Post analyzes why Beijing appears to be one of the last redoubts of confidence in Maduro's survival.
  • Former Argentine President Carlos Menem is refusing to testify in a trial in which he is accused of derailing the investigation into the South American nation's worst terrorist attack, the 1994 AMIA center bombing. The court has allowed him to be absent from the proceedings because of health problems, but he declined to testify yesterday via video conference from his home in La Rioja, reports the Associated Press.

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