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.)

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