Friday, January 29, 2016

Corruption 2015 regional theme - Transparency International's corruption index (Jan. 29, 2016)

Last year was a warning to the corrupt in the Americas, according to Transparency International, which released its 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index this week.

TI notes two "remarkable" trends in the region last year: the uncovering of grand corruption networks -- Petrobras in Brazil and La Línea in Guatemala -- and mass mobilization of citizens against corruption. While neither affected corruption scores very much, it sends a strong message that institutional reform is needed, writes Alejandro Salas the Regional Director for the Americas.

Brazil and Guatemala suffered the region's worst increases in public perception of corruption, which is related to the corruption scandals unveiled there over the last year, explains Salas in Mexico's Vanguardia. In that sense the numbers can be misleading: what looks like a negative development is actually an indicator of longstanding corruption that is being addressed.

He points to Argentina and Brazil as two countries with potential to improve scores over the next year -- pointing specifically to Mauricio Macri's new government in Argentina which has spoken a lot about combatting corruption, though exact policies have not been proposed.

Argentina is close to the bottom of the list of 168 countries, notes InfoBae
In the case of Mexico, Salas is dubious of real anti-corruption efforts on the part of the government, despite increased interest given to the issue after the disappearance of 43 teachers college students in 2014. Efforts have been "lukewarm," according to Salas.

As a whole the region might be improving: 17 countries improved over their performance last year, notes InSight Crime. Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, and Paraguay all made double digit gains in this year's rankings over last year's.

But Venezuela and Haiti rank among the countries with the worst perception of corruption in the world. TI's Venezuela director, Mercedes Freitas notes that the government has coopted watchdog agencies, eliminating separation of powers and vastly weakening accountability, she told BBC Mundo.

World Politics Review notes that the increased focus on corruption in the region comes as the most countries in the region face economic difficulties that limit governments ability to placate with social programs.
Near the top of the list, Uruguay and Chile are the region's least corrupt, notes BBC Mundo.

The index got coverage in papers around the region, who note their country's movements and specifics.

In Honduras, La Tribuna notes that there have been significant improvements in perceptions in the past two years, the country rose 28 points in the world ranking.

Colombia's score remained virtually the same in recent years, a worrisome trend in light of peace accords which could be signed this year, according to La Semana.

Critics note that the index is subjective, and doesn't measure actual corruption levels. Bolivia's government, for example, has clarified that it doesn't recognize TI's index, reports La Razón.

News Briefs

  • Norway's sovereign-wealth fund, which is the world's largest, placed Brazilian state-run oil company Petrobras under observation due to the risk of corruption, reports the Wall Street Journal. The Central Bank, which took the decision, cited the broad bribery system in which executives and politicians are accused of receiving kickbacks in return for overpriced contracts.  
  • The Brazilian government presented a plan to jump-start the economy yesterday by increasing credit available for farmers, home buyers, exporters, small businesses and for financing the purchase of capital and consumer goods, reports the Wall Street Journal. The goal is to pull the economy out of recession without increasing inflation or worsening the budget deficit. The funding won't require subsidies and won’t hurt public finances, promised Finance Minister Nelson Barbosa.
  • The upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the massive mosquito-borne Zika virus outbreak in Brazil could combine to spread the virus around the world, reports the New York Times. In fact, researchers believe that Zika came to Brazil during the last mega sporting event held there, the 2014 World Cup. The disease is believed to be linked to birth defects and has already spread to more than 20 countries and territories in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Already the World Health Organization is predicting four million cases of Zika in the Americas, reports Reuters. The agency plans to convene a meeting of independent experts Monday to decide whether the Zika outbreak should be declared an international health emergency, reports the Los Angeles Times. The disease has become a major health concern in the Americas, and experts are trying to find answers regarding the link of Zika to babies born with microcephaly and potential vaccines, reports the Wall Street Journal
  • In Venezuela, some civil society groups and medical organizations say the country could have the region's worst Zika crisis, as the virus combines with an already faltering health care system where medicines are extremely difficult to obtain, reports the Miami Herald. Further complicating matters, epidemiological data is not regularly published by authorities. Doctors are calling for the government to publish statistics about Zika, warning that Venezuela could already be facing an epidemic, reports the Associated Press.
  • And Colombia is reporting an uptick in Guillain-Barré syndorme, a rare neurological disorder that can cause paralysis among people. Authorities believe it is Zika related, reports the Guardian.
  • Hypochondriacs in Latin America really shouldn't keep reading all the gory details coming out about Zika and how it spreads. But if you can't resist, the Associated Press explores why Brazilian cities are such fertile mosquito breeding grounds and whether other mosquito species could also be spreading Zika.
  • Supporters of outgoing Haitian President Michel Martelly have taken to the streets demanding a new election date to choose his successor. While politicians are scrambling to agree on a transitional government to take power on Feb. 7, when his mandate ends, Martelly is now saying he won't leave without a clear path of succession, reports Reuters. Options include shelving the current elections, ensuring that Martelly leaves office as scheduled, installing an interim government and holding a completely new vote within weeks or months, reports the Los Angeles Times which has a review of the situation of Haiti's political crisis.
  • Haiti asked the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to send a four member delegation to help ensure the elections are free and transparent, reports TeleSur.
  • A report in Other Worlds accuses the government backed presidential candidate Jovenel Moïse of dispossessing as many as 800 peasants - who were legally farming - and destroying houses and crops two years ago. The land was seized by his company and turned into a private banana plantation, according to the piece.
  • Honduran lawmakers chose eight of 15 Supreme Court magistrates, using a system of secret balloting after a failed attempt earlier this week to select the judges by open vote. Each candidate, selected from a group of 45 submitted by a Nominating Committee, must obtain the support of two-thirds of the Congress. The Liberal and Nationalist parties agreed in advance on their slate of candidates, but alone did not obtain enough votes to push them through. The votes of the Anti-Corruption Party were definitive in the selection of the new magistrates yesterday, reports La Prensa. Former president Mel Zelaya's Libre party officially abstained from voting any candidates, although at least two congressmen broke ranks.
  • The U.N. mission to monitor a potential Colombian peace accord will be made up entirely of officials from neighboring CELAC countries, according to Colombia Reports.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is asking the U.S. to remove the FARC from its list of terrorist organizations and suspend drug warrants against guerrilla commanders to help him seal a peace deal with Latin America's oldest leftist insurgency, reports the Associated Press.
  • Cut-rate dollar changers across Colombia, where customers can obtain a ten percent discount on money exchanges, are used to launder money obtained from drug trafficking and illegal mining, reports Bloomberg.
  • Colombia's top human rights official resigned yesterday, in a sexual harassment scandal that included sending nude selfies to his secretary, reports the Associated Press.
  • Puerto Rico will propose a debt exchange to investors today, offering debt swaps that would allow it to delay payments, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The question of relations with Cuba moves big money in U.S. politics, spurred by PACs both in favor of closer ties and those against it, reports the Miami Herald
  • But U.S. warmth toward the island is likely to cool, regardless of who wins the election later this year, as Cuba is reciprocating very little, argues Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

New appointees in El Salvador focus on crushing homicide and corruption issues (Jan. 28, 2015)

As the gang wars in Central America fuel record murder rates (see yesterday's post) and spur a tsunami of migrants attempting to escape rampant violence, the organizations themselves are evolving into international criminal networks. Gangs are increasingly acting with more discipline, and even infiltrating the ranks of El Salvador's institutions, reports Foreign Policy.

A series of new security and justice officials in El Salvador draw attention to the country's somewhat desperate situation.

Over the past year and a half or so, ever since the unravelling of a government-gang truce in 2014, violence in El Salvador has escalated catastrophically. The country currently takes the cake for the most murderous in the Western Hemisphere, reports InSight Crime. Last year there were at least 6,640 murders.

With a rate of 103 homicides per 100,000, to say that El Salvador has a problem is somewhat of an understatement.

So it's not surprising that the newly named Minister of Justice and Security, former head of the National Civil Police (PNC) Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, said that reducing homicides and extortion will be the priority for the new security leadership, reports Diario Co Latino. He admits the homicides have caused a widespread sense of insecurity and need to be targeted, reports El Salvador.

The homicide rates have distracted from other police achievements he said, according to La Página.

Last year, with gang violence already spiking homicide rates, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén announced a militarized security policy and deployed troops to combat crime in the most dangerous neighborhoods. Members of El Salvador's main street gangs, Barrio 18 and MS13, increased attacks on security forces, which have responded aggressively. (See post for June 22, 2015.)

The newly named PCN chief Howard Augusto Cotto also has his work cut out of him: Last year 63 members of the PCN were killed in line of duty -- and 358 officers quit, part of a rising trend of abandonment of a force that's increasingly in danger of gang attacks, reports La Prensa Gráfica. A police protest yesterday demanding salary increases was joined by the forces sent out to keep order, reports El Faro.

And reports of extrajudicial killings by security forces in the country keep piling up. (See post for July 23, 2015, for example.) El Faro reports that the former head of El Salvador's Institute of Forensic Medicine has detected "a pattern in the assassination of gang members, which makes him think the police and armed forces are committing extrajudicial killings." InSight Crime has the piece in English.

In terms of historical human rights, Cotto is following his predecessor and dragging his feet with an international order to capture 17 military officers accused of murdering 8 people in 1989, reports El Faro.

On the justice end, El Salvador's new attorney general, Douglas Meléndez, took office earlier this month, promising to differentiate himself from his predecesor. He emphasized transparency, independent action, and welcomed the possibility of working with an international commission, reports El Faro.

This week he denounced dozens of cases of nepotism within the Prosecutor's office. This adds to earlier reports he made of possible infiltration of organized crime, irregularities in hiring, and unpaid rent in several locations, reports Contracts will be examined one by one in order to check that personnel is apt for the jobs in question, he promised, according to La Página.

This week the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced a program to train officials in anti-corruption techniques in El Salvador. The three-year project will be funded by the U.S., part of ongoing efforts to target corruption in the region, but is a far cry from the kind of heavily resourced, international body with broad investigative powers of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, reports InSight Crime. El Salvador has yet to accept pressures for any kind of international mechanism that might bring its spiraling level of homicides and violence under control.

News Briefs

  • Meanwhile, over in Guatemala anti-corruption prosecutors seem to have set their sights on the municipal level. A former mayor and several local officials were arrested on corruption charges, a possible theme in the year to come, reports InSight Crime.
  • And, on the subject of homicide stats, the Mexican Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y Justicia Penal A.C. released it's annual city homicide rate roundup. Caracas "wins" the 2015 ranking, with a rate of 119.87 intentional homicide per 100 thousand inhabitants. While San Pedro Sula (111.03) moved into second place, by achieving a significant decline in the number of homicides.
  • Mexico's battle with corruption is lagging, reports the Wall Street Journal. In the just released Transparency International corruption perceptions index for 2015, Mexico remained the worst-rated among the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 
  • The OAS authorized a a special mission to Haiti to assist with resolving a political stalemate that has postponed elections indefinitely and with just 10 days until the president's mandate ends, reports the Associated Press. The measure was taken in response to an urgent request from outgoing President Michel Martelly.
  • The WHO will hold a special session today on the Zika virus. Experts are urging the U.N. agency to act quickly to contain the spread of the mosquito-transmitted virus that is believed to cause serious birth defects, reports Reuters.
  • The outbreak of the virus in Brazil has caught the healthcare system off guard, as thousands of babies with microcephaly impose a new burden on already deficient hospitals in a public health system suffering from budget cuts because of government shortfalls and an economic recession, reports Reuters. But the link between Zika and microcephaly might not be as direct as believed, according to the New York Times. Brazilian researchers are attempting to study the issue, even as they battle the spread of the virus.
  • Venezuela's opposition leader and President of the National Assembly Henry Ramos Allup "is driven by one central goal: to remove Mr. Chávez’s political heirs from power and install a market economy that he says will extricate Venezuela from a meltdown," reports the Wall Street Journal. But not all of the opposition backs his approach, others, such as Julio Borges, the head of the moderate Justice First party, advocate more technocratic and economy-focused policies. Some analysts say Ramos' hardline approach is only deepening an already polarized political scene, but others support his confrontation with President Nicolás Maduro.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri cut electric subsidies, a move that could save billions but also anger consumers already hit by austerity policies, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Macri appointed a former IMF official to Argentina's financial crimes agency, in a bid to improve relations with the agency's U.S. counterpart and the national effort to fight money laundering and corruption, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazilian police arrested a number of people and searched the offices of a contractor they say used the construction of a beachfront apartment complex as a way to pay bribes and launder money, reports the Wall Street Journal. The name of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been connected to the building, though authorities have neither confirmed nor denied that he is under investigation in relation to the case.
  • Mexico inaugurated a series of national debates on the issue of marijuana laws, an initiative that was launched after the Supreme Court potentially opened the door to legalizing pot for recreational and medical use last year, reports AFP.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Honduras' evolving homicide rates (Jan. 27, 2016)

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández claimed victory for his militarized internal security strategy, pointing to the fact that the country's homicide rate was reduced significantly in the past two years.

Since assuming office two years ago Hernández has delegated police intelligence and anti-narcotic operations to the military, and deployed a militarized police force to patrol gang-dominated neighborhoods.

In his inaugural speech to Congress on Monday he noted that Honduras no longer leads the world's homicide ranking, reports Reuters. Honduras had a murder rate of 56.7 per 100.000 inhabitants last year, down from 75.1 in 2013. 
InSight Crime clarifies that while the government's homicide stats have been questioned, civil society coalition Alliance for Peace and Justice (Alianza por la Paz y la Justicia – APJ) recognized last year's data.

Nonetheless, massacre cases increased last year, even as the overall murder rate fell. The disturbing stat points to organized crime-related violence, explains InSight Crime in a separate piece.

Of course, it's worth noting that Honduras' improvement in the regional homicide ranking -- and it does still come in third -- comes in the wake of El Salvador's catastrophic increase in violence last year. 

A December report by InSight Crime and the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa traces how Honduras' two largest gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18, are evolving, and how their current modus operandi has resulted in staggering levels of violence and extortion.
The piece reviews how over the past 20 years Honduras has been at the mercy of increasing gang membership, crime and violence -- to the point where its cities are now some of the most violent places on earth. (See post for Dec. 11, 2015.)

Last year in a piece in Americas Quarterly Robert Muggah examined the phenomenon of homicides in the region, which a few decades ago matched the global average and have since taken off. 
He examines a long list of factors that help explain the regional crisis, including: persistent inequality, youth unemployment, "aspirational" crime, weak security and justice institutions, and (the regional scourge) organized crime. (See the post for Oct. 27, 2015.)

News Briefs
  • Honduras' Congress failed to reach a two-thirds consensus in selecting 15 new magistrates for the country's Supreme Court earlier this week. The judges will be selected by secret ballot instead, possibly later today, reports Tiempo. Legislators will vote to select candidates from a list of 45 submitted by a nominating committee. Former President Mel Zelaya's Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) party was among those blocking agreement, saying there was no transparency in the selection process and that the new magistrates would be a continuation of the outgoing court (which supported his ouster in 2009). Deutsche Welle reports that the U.S. objected to 24 candidates in the nominating committee's first filter due to corruption and drug trafficking links. And, in a report released ahead of the vote, the American Bar Association (ABA) noted cases of justices who had been formally denounced for abusing power and falsifying public documents, justices whose rulings contradicted international norms, and justices whose rulings had been overturned by superior courts among those who made it through the first filter of congressional consideration, reports InSight Crime.
  • Venezuela's opposition is borrowing a leaf from Chavez's populist playbook: They want to give away the deeds to hundreds of thousands of homes built by the Socialist government in a ploy to win popularity, reports the New York Times. The piece cites experts mostly in favor, including WOLA's David Smilde who says the question "gets at the heart of what the economic model should be in Venezuela." Related NYTimes photo-slide show. The move is also part of a bitter political fight between the Assembly and the government: President Nicolás Maduro is fiercely opposed. (See Jan. 18th's post.) 
  • Maduro's economic emergency decree was rejected by the Assembly last week (see Monday's briefs). In response Maduro created a new organizational body for the Bolivarian Revolution: the Congress of the Fatherland. Conformed by one hundred delegates from social organizations, the new body will likely mainly serve as a mechanism of consultation, explainsHugo Pérez Hernaíz at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
  • Foreign tourists, especially Americans, are avoiding Venezuela. The Miami Herald reports how the industry has adapted to cater to locals. 
  • The Obama administration lifted restrictions on American financing of exports to Cuba, and relaxed limits on products that can be shipped to the island, effective today. Until now, American products sent to Cuba had to be paid for in advance in cash or routed through a third country, a costly and burdensome process, reports the New York Times. Administration officials emphasize that the relaxed regulations will have greater impact if they are matched by Cuban policies to permit their citizens to take better advantage of them, notes the Miami Herald. The new rules are accompanied by other provisions aimed at facilitating trade, travel and cultural exchanges with Cuba, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Belize authorities announced they will free 32 Cuban migrants detained for entering the country illegally, but they have yet to be informed of the details and remain in jail, reports theMiami Herald. The group is in legal limbo, having served the requisite jail time but asks not to be deported to Cuba.
  • While the U.S. government is trying to move forward with Cuba agreements before the end of President Barack Obama's term, Cuban authorities are dragging their feet, reports the Miami Herald. The piece looks at attempts to bring American telecom and Internet companies to the island.
  • Forest fires sparked by illegal loggers hiding their tracks have consumed hundreds of square miles of forest located in indigenous territories in Brazil's drought-stricken state of Maranhão, reports National Geographic. The fires are threatening the survival of at least two groups of uncontacted nomads from the Awá tribe. Indigenous communities have joined forces with government firefighters to save their villages.
  • Brazil is losing the battle to contain the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and will deploy 220,000 troops for a day next month to go door-to-door to spread awareness, reports the New York Times. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • Forty-one convicts remain on the run after two prison breaks last week in Brazil's Pernambuco state. Both used explosives to blow holes in outer walls, reports the Guardian
  • Brazilian prosecutors charged the chairman of  JBS SA, the world's largest meatpacker, with "crimes against the financial system," reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Puerto Rico will explore a possible restructuring of $70 billion of municipal bonds with several bondholder groups, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Mexican regulators are slowing oil auctions due to low oil and gas prices which are predicted to last longer than originally thought, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A much anticipated papal mass in Ciudad Juárez next month will focus on immigration, especially the widespread violence and crime that has caused a flood of Central American migrants towards the U.S. in recent years, reports the Associated Press.
  • Urbanization, sedentary lifestyles and marketing that introduces kids to processed foods are the main causes behind the rapid increase in overweight and obese youths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. The Wall Street Journal points to Mexico's cutting-edge policies in the area. A 2014 law taxes sugary beverages. Junk-food ads are also limited and guidelines limit unhealthy snacks and meals in schools.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

U.N. Security Council approves observers for FARC disarmament (Jan. 26, 2016)

The United Nations Security Council unanimously approved the establishment of an international mission of observers to verify the disarmament of FARC fighters in Colombia.

The 15 member countries approved a British-drafted resolution, agreeing to establish a year-long mission soon after the final peace pact is signed between the rebels and the Colombian government. (See Jan. 19th's post.) 

The unarmed members, who would come from Latin American and Caribbean countries, would monitor a bilateral cease-fire and the end of hostilities, including the laying down of weaponry, reports the Wall Street Journal.
It's "a step that diplomats and politicians hailed as pivotal in ensuring a permanent end to Colombia's civil conflict,"  according to the WSJ.

The terms of the disarmament are still under negotiation. The FARC reportedly wants 63 demobilization sites for its 17,000 fighters, while the government has proposed 30, notes the Los Angeles Times.

The piece cites WOLA's Adam Isacson who says President Juan Manuel Santos is likely to ask the U.S. Congress for $1.5 billion in aid over the accord's first three years

Last week the peace delegations of the Colombian government and the FARC reiterated their intent to reach a final agreement in Havana and announced a series of decisions to facilitate reaching an agreement to end the conflict, explains Virginia Bouvier at Colombia Calls. The talks have shifted into high gear, and the parties will focus on reaching a pact by the self-imposed March 23 deadline.

The new "turbo" style negotiations will involve an executive committee formed by representatives from each side, explains La Silla Vacía's Juanita León. She goes into detail regarding the new negotiating system, but also notes that the most recent communication is silent regarding the March 23 deadline, and argues that it's a cover for a potential failure to reach it.

Yet, a final peace deal would have to be approved by Colombian voters. Recent polls show a majority of Colombians are skeptical about terms of a peace deal, which would include amnesty and post-conflict political roles for the rebels, reports the Los Angeles Times.

News Briefs

  • Haiti's president, Michel Martelly is now determined to leave office as scheduled on Feb. 7, despite the postponement of elections to choose his successor, meaning an interim government will take power, reports Reuters. Politicians are starting to agree on an exit to the crisis that has strained the country's democratic institutions. A runoff vote that was scheduled for last Sunday will likely be held in upcoming months, reports the Associated Press.   (See yesterday's post.)
  • Cuba's tourism industry is already under strain from a record number of visitors last year -- up 17.4 percent from 2014. Experts worry that the infrastructure will not be able to absorb the added strain of regular U.S. commercial flights and ferry services, reports Reuters.
  • Several Latin American countries, including Colombia, Jamaica and Ecuador, are recommending women postpone pregnancy because of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is believed to cause fetal malformations. El Salvador has taken the most drastic approach, recommending women avoid pregnancies for the next two years. The recommendation is unprecedented in scope, but has little information on how authorities expect the population to carry it out, reports the New York Times. And women's rights activists say the recommendation is naive, as women in the region often have little choice regarding pregnancy. They point to lack of sexual education, contraceptives and a high prevalence of pregnancies from rape, reports Reuters. El Salvador has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Latin America, with girls aged 10 to 19 accounting for about a third of all pregnancies. (See Friday's and yesterday's briefs on the subject of abortion and Zika.)
  • Meanwhile, health officials in Brazil are seeking to quell tourist and Olympian athletes' fears regarding Zika. State officials promise daily inspections, if necessary, during the upcoming mega event and could fumigate Olympic sites before events, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Plagues of Latin America? It's not a great season in the region. Droughts (in BrazilVenezuela, and Colombia, for example), mosquito-borne illnesses (see Zika above), floods (in Argentina) and, now a locust invasion brewing in northern Argentina's dry forests. Authorities are desperately scrambling to contain what threatens to be the worst locust plague in half a century, reports the New York Times.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Haitian election postponed indefinitely, faces constitutional power vacuum (Jan. 25, 2016)

Widespread protests and election related violence in Haiti -- in which demonstrators blocked roads and burned voting centers -- led to a last minute cancelation of the runoff election that had been scheduled for this Sunday.

The head of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) said on Friday that the election would be postponed indefinitely due to violence that left it unable to guarantee the security of election workers and the 5.8 million registered voters, reports the Miami Herald.

Examples include masked gunmen firing upon electoral officials, arsonists burning down two electoral offices in Port-au-Prince and attempts to burn a school in the south used as a polling center, reports the New York Times. Workers transporting election materials were also robbed and threats were phoned in. 

The electoral council did not announce a date for the new election or explain what steps would be taken after Feb. 7, when the current president's mandate ends. The political opposition refuse to extend the term, while the government refuses to consider alternatives, according to the NYTimes. 

Some form of interim government is likely to be formed to oversee the election process, according to Reuters. The latest proposal calls for a consensus prime minister to govern under a transition government that will last no longer than 120 days, reports the Miami Herald. (Haiti Libre has the full proposal of the opposition presidential candidates who called for a boycotting of the election, the so-called G-8)

Allegations of fraud led important sectors of Haitian society -- including human rights groups, local election observers, the political opposition and the newly sworn in Senate -- to urge the delay. Jude Célestin, who came in second in October's contested presidential election, was refusing to participate in the runoff election due to allegations of widespread fraud. Politicians are attempting to negotiate a transitional government.

(See last Thursday's and Friday's posts.)

On the other hand, international observers of October's election said the first round results were accurate, despite irregularities in the process. The international community, including the U.S. which has given $33 million to supporting the Haitian electoral process, was pushing for the runoff to move forward in order to avoid a constitutional power vacuum, notes the New York Times

President Michel Martelly's mandate ends in the first week of February.
On Saturday protesters demanded Martelly's ouster, while counter protests on Sunday vowed to keep him in office. Experts feared the competing rallies could lead to violence, reports the New York Times in a later piece.

Ruling party candidate Jovenel Moise said he was mystified that electoral authorities would again postpone the runoff without immediately providing a new date. The vote was originally supposed to be held Dec. 27, reports the Associated Press.

A Senate candidate and former coup leader wanted by the U.S. for cocaine smuggling has called on his supporters to resist the "anarchists" who forced a presidential election to be canceled. The example points to the polarization of the political crisis, according to Reuters, and the difficulty in negotiating an exit.

In a statement yesterday, the U.S. State Department called for accountability for any violence related to the delayed election, saying electoral intimidation and destruction of property were "unacceptable." The U.N Secretary General and the observer missions of the E.U. and the O.A.S. also called on Haiti to move forward with elections as soon as possible and condemned the acts of violence that led to the postponement, reports the Miami Herald.

The crisis will likely reconfigure Haitian politics, according to an expert cited by the Miami Herald.

The NYTimes reviews the main players in the drama: Jovenel Moïse, the banana exporter who came in first in October's elections with 33 percent of the vote, is Martelly's handpicked successor. He was virtually unknown before the election, and many opposition leaders say the vote was rigged. Célestin, a former government construction official who came in second, was ousted from the 2010 race after election fraud.

The allegations of fraud in October's election center on the 900,000 election observers from all parties, who were permitted to vote outside of their home precincts and supposedly used the accreditations to cast multiple ballots.
Some of the wider causes of frustration in Haiti, include the cholera health crisis and misused aid funds after the 2010 earthquake, suggests Georgianne Nienaber in a photo slide show at the Huffington Post.

News Briefs

  • Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly rejected an economic emergency decree proposed by President Nicolás Maduro to confront the deepest recession in the country’s history. (See January 18th's post.) It's the first time the body has moved against the government in 17 years, notes the Wall Street Journal.
  • Lynchings are on the rise in Mexico, a frustrated reaction to government corruption and indifference, reports the New York Times. One expert says there were 78 lynchings last year more than double that of 2014. They take place in a setting of widespread impunity, where 98 percent of all murders go unresolved and where some estimate only 12 percent of crimes are even reported.
  • The World Health Organization says the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is suspected of causing brain damage to babies in Brazil, is likely to spread to all countries in the Americas except for Canada and Chile, reports Reuters. The disease's rapid spread, to 21 countries and territories of the region since May 2015, is due to a lack of immunity among the population and the prevalence of the mosquito species that carries the virus, the WHO said in a statement. In Latin America, governments are urging women not to get pregnant in an attempt to limit birth defects believed to be linked to the mosquito-borne illness, reports the Washington Post. (See Friday's briefs.) El Salvador is the most extreme -- it's recommending women wait two years. Any link to the fact that it has the most draconian abortion laws in a region already known for limited access? (See Dec. 21st's post.
  • Humberto Moreira, the former Mexican state governor who was arrested last week in Spain on suspicion of laundering money, was released from jail on Friday but must remain in the country, reports the New York Times.
  • The U.N. Security Council is expected to approve a draft resolution today that calls for establishing a U.N. mission to oversee disarmament should Colombia's government and leftist FARC rebels reach a final peace deal, reports Reuters.
  • One of six ormer Guantanamo Bay prisoners living in Uruguay was detained on charges of domestic violence on Friday, but released after a judge found insufficient evidence, reportsReuters.
  • U.S. banks are increasingly cutting off Mexican customers, a trend "consistent with a broader shift across the industry, in which banks around the world are retreating from emerging markets as regulators ramp up their scrutiny and punishment of possible money laundering," explains the Wall Street Journal.
  • Human Rights Watch called on the Ecuadorean government to drop terrorism charges against activists who oppose a hydroelectric project in Bolivar province. Manuela Pacheco and Manuel Trujillo are accused of participating in violent incidents during a protest in August 2012. If convicted, they face up to 8 years in prison.
  • Hollywood is looking at Cuba as a new shooting location -- but difficulties, such as Cuban government script approval and lack of commercial flights (for now) could counter the allure, reports the Miami Herald.
  • British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has told Argentinian diplomats he wants a Northern Ireland-style power-sharing deal for the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, reports the Guardian.
  • In Bolivia at the annual Alacitas festival, people buy elaborate miniatures of their wishes for the next year: toy cars, tiny crates of plastic beer, little sacks of household goods (all elaborately copied from existing brands), model plots of land and pocket-sized suitcases filled with paper laptops, passports and credit cards, reports the Guardian. The yearly event was more colorful and creative than ever, thanks to a decade-long boom in the economy and the incorporation of once-shunned Aymara superstitions into the mainstream.
  • On Friday celebrations for Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, "the country's first indigenous leader and longest-serving president saw thousands of formerly marginalized Aymara and Quechua people gather outside the national congress building in Plaza Murillo in La Paz, alongside representatives from indigenous groups from neighboring Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Peru," reports the Guardian.
  • Why is "Colombia" so frequently misspelled as "Columbia" in the U.S.? The Miami Herald looks at the reasons and the gripes of Colombians who are fighting back for the correct spelling. One interesting explanatory factor could be the various spellings of the Genoa-born explorer Cristoforo Colombo: who became Cristóbal Colón in Spanish and Christopher Columbus in English. (Mea culpa, it's a mistake that I've made more than once.)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Murders on the rise in Mexico - Haiti's ongoing electoral SNAFU (Jan. 22, 2016)

Murders in Mexico rose almost nine percent last year, the first such increase in four years. Yet other crimes like kidnapping and extortion have fallen, according to government data released this week, perhaps pointing to a shift toward more brutal tactics by some of the country's dozens of drug cartels, reports Reuters.

Homicides rose to 17,013 in 2015 from 15,653 the previous year, with the rate going up to 14 per 100,000 people from 13 per 100,000. That is still below the record highs in the region, like El Salvador's rate of 103 murders per 100,000 people last year. (Check out InSight Crime's analysis of Latin America's 2015 homicide data.)

The numbers are a blow for Peña Nieto's public security policies. The government had pointed to the decline of murders in the past couple of years as proof that initiatives, such as improved coordination between crime-fighting agencies like the army and federal police, were working, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Experts point to the fragmentation of larger drug cartels, which has led to smaller gangs fighting bloody 

The information could give momentum to a stalled proposal to dissolve local police forces, which are vulnerable to gang infiltration, and replace them with state forces that would be less susceptible, according to the WSJ. 

The new data  shows murders shifted from northern border states to center-south regions such as Guerrero, Guanajuato, Puebla and Mexico City, notes the WSJ.

The arrest of former Mexican state governor Humberto Moreira in Spain underscores the weakness of Mexico's institutions when it comes to confronting corruption among the political class, reports the New York Times. He was arrested last week by Spanish authorities who charged him with money laundering and misuse of public funds (see Monday's briefs), after Mexico’s attorney general said there was no evidence to charge him. Moreira is an ally of President Enrique Peña Nieto, and his arrest could lead to scrutiny of public corruption, wiping out the very brief moment of glory after the arrest of escaped drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.

Though Peña Nieto attempted to ride the Chapo recapture wave of positive news coverage, his new focus on security institutions falls short in a country wracked by widespread violence, murders of politicians and enforced disappearances like those of the 43 student from Ayotzinapa in 2014.

"Polls show confidence in institutions such as the army, police and politicians crashed after the attacks on the Ayotzinapa students. Ironically, a poll in Reforma showed 31 percent of Mexicans think worse of Peña Nieto's administration after the El Chapo arrest," reports the Guardian.

Meanwhile, authorities have not simply dumped Guzmán to rot in jail: he's been given a copy of the classic Spanish novel Don Quixote in order to battle depression and exhaustion from being on the run for six months, reports the Guardian.


Doubling down on the Haitian election SNAFU

Haitians are (re)scheduled to vote on Sunday to select their next president in a runoff between two candidates, one of whom is refusing to participate because of widespread allegations of fraud and irregularities in the electoral process. Warnings that going ahead with the vote could cause an explosion of violence and further deteriorate Haiti's fragile democratic institutions are piling up, reports the New York Times.
If carried out, the election pits government backed Jovenel Moïse against opposition leader Jude Célestin, who is boycotting the election.
Civic, business and religious leaders are engaged in tense back-room negotiations to broker a deal in an effort to avoid violence and put off the race. Eight election observer organizations have pulled out over the fraud accusations and chaos, including a Haitian group funded by the United States. But yesterday outgoing President Michel Martelly insisted the elections will take place, and accused the opposition of trying to derail the vote so a transitional government they would dominate could be set up, reports the Associated Press
His appearance deepened the political standoff, reports the Miami Herald. Opposition leaders are ignoring a prohibition on protests in the 48 hours before polls open, and announced four days of demonstrations yesterday.
Célestin wrote a Miami Herald op-ed saying that "elections cannot be held by any means necessary, and certainly not under the current set of conditions, evident by now to all in Haiti."
The  U.S., which has spent more than $33 million supporting the electoral process, and the international community are pushing for the election to move forward as scheduled. Without any agreement between the outgoing administration and the opposition, Washington "doesn't see any other option but to complete the process as currently planned," U.S. Ambassador Peter Mulrean told the AP. 
The NYTimes piece provides a useful review of the current situation and the past few years of Haitian politics and the role of the international community. (See yesterday's post.)

News Briefs

  • Zika panic: Cases of microcephaly, a rare infant brain defect, continue to pile up in Brazil -- reaching 3,893 since authorities began investigating the surge in October. Health officials blame the jump (from 150 in all of 2014) on a sudden outbreak of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease similar to dengue, reports the Associated Press. Brazilian officials have deployed troops and drones to disrupt stagnant water that provides mosquito breeding grounds, is experimenting with genetically modified sterile mosquitos and has funded work to develop a vaccine.
  • But many of the families of affected babies feel unsupported in their struggle to care for them, reports NPR. They require constant care and the Brazilian health system is overwhelmed by the surge in demand.
  • And now Brazilian authorities are concerned that Zika can also cause another rare condition, the potentially life-threatening Guillain-Barré syndrome, in which a person's immune system attacks part of the nervous system, leaving some patients unable to move and dependent on life support, reports the New York Times. Other countries around Latin America where Zika is spreading are reporting an increase in cases of Guillain-Barré, including Colombia and Venezuela.
  • Carnaval celebrations, which start in early February could aggravate the virus' spread, reports the Guardian.
  • As Zika starts spreading through the region, panic is following in its wake. U.S. authorities have warned pregnant women to avoid travel to the region, including Puerto Rico where the virus is present. 
  • In El Salvador, where there are 96 suspected cases of pregnant women with the virus, public health officials are advising women to put off pregnancies for the next two years to avoid passing on complications from the mosquito-borne Zika virus, reports the Associated Press.
  • But pregnancy is not always a matter of planning, and a piece in Slate hypothesizes that Zika could help change conservative stances towards abortion in the region. "Zika may become for certain Central and South American nations what rubella was for the U.S. in the mid-20th century: a birth defect–causing disease that becomes an exception to social and political barriers to abortion," argues Christina Cauterucci at Slate.
  • And the health crisis could impact tourism, at a terrible time for the region in general and Brazil in particular. About 1 million people, a third of them foreigners, are expected to flood Rio de Janeiro in the coming month to celebrate Carnival. And hoteliers and others have invested billions of dollars in anticipation of a flood of visitors to the Summer Olympics in Rio in August, reports the Associated Press. Zika-related fears could further batter the recession-hit economy.
  • Brazil lost 1.5 million jobs in 2015, due to a contracting economy, high inflation and layoffs the manufacturing and service sectors, reports the Associated Press.
  • A British drafted U.N. Security Council resolution would create a 12-month political mission to help monitor and verify rebel disarmament should Colombia's government and leftist FARC reach a final peace deal, reports Reuters. The two sides agreed to ask the 15-nation council to help monitor and verify rebel disarmament. A vote could happen as early as next week, according to the Associated Press. Diplomats said that because the U.N. mission was requested by both sides they didn't expect any opposition in the Security Council.
  • An ongoing slump in oil prices has investors betting that Venezuela will soon be forced to default on its $120 billion foreign debt. The government has reaffirmed its commitment to paying, and has met debt obligations up to now, though it has meant limiting dollars used for imports and contributed to widespread shortages. But analysts say a default this year is becoming increasingly likely, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Venezuela has requested that OPEC hold an emergency meeting to discuss steps to prop up oil prices, which have fallen to their lowest since 2003. But the meeting is unlikely to occur, reports Reuters. In the meantime, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said this week that his government was "tired" of pushing OPEC to decrease output and that the nation would keep working as if the oil cartel "did not exist," according to another Reuters piece.
  • A former journalist and prominent political ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was killed by gunman in Caracas this week, reports Reuters. There were conflicting suggestions as to whether Ricardo Duran Trujillo was the victim of a botched robbery or a targeted killing. Neither his car nor valuables were taken, fueling speculation, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Smuggling across Venezuela's – as well as illicit domestic trading – has accelerated to unprecedented levels and is transforming society, reports Reuters. The piece draws on interviews with scores of smugglers and visits to more than a dozen sites, from the western village of Boca del Grita to the eastern port of Güiria and the borders with Brazil and Guyana.
  • The wife and mother of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez allege they are  being subjected to abusive strip searches, but Venezuela's government says they are lying, reportsReuters.
  • The ex-mayor of Antigua in Guatemala was arrested Thursday with 10 other people on corruption charges, reports AFP.
  • Talks between Argentina and holdout creditors will resume negotiations on Feb. 1 in New York in the sovereign debt default case, reports Reuters.
  • And the U.S. said yesterday that it will drop a 2011 policy of opposing development lending to Argentina, after the reforms undertaken by the new government, reports AFP.

  • Time to subsidize anxiolytics? According to The Economist Intelligence Unit's latest Democracy Index one of the biggest threats to democracy is the anxious mood of our times. The report is extremely critical of Latin American democracies, almost all of which are considered flawed or worst. It considers Uruguay the region's sole "full democracy." "The consolidation of democracy in Latin America continues to be impeded by the region's inability to match the extraordinary advances in electoral democracy made in previous decades with corresponding improvements in its political effectiveness and political culture. This, in turn, has fomented popular dissatisfaction, particularly in those countries where major corruption scandals have come to light (most dramatically this year in Guatemala and Brazil). Another driver of discontent has been the region's sluggish economic performance. Latin Americans in the past have often tolerated lower levels of democracy in exchange for economic progress. Where this trade-off is no longer possible, public attitudes towards political leaders will be increasingly hostile." (See Dec. 24th's post on the general issue of the end of Latin America's pink tide.)