Friday, April 29, 2016

Commission to review Haiti's contested presidential elections (April 29, 2017)

Haiti is facing increasing political upheaval, after yet another postponed election deadline passed last weekend. (See Monday's briefs.) 

Yesterday, a five-member verification panel was installed by the interim government. The commission will determine whether the apparent winners of October's contested first round of presidential elections should remain in a much-delayed presidential run-off election, reports the Miami Herald. It has 30 days to evaluate balloting that was contested last year due to fraud allegations. A new election calendar is expected to be published next month.

The commission is aimed at restoring credibility to a very questioned process, according to Interim President Jocelerme Privert.

But the missed deadlines raise questions about the fate of the provisional government, which is supposed to hand over power to a newly elected government on May 14, reports the Miami Herald.

Things on the street are increasingly heated, with almost daily protests by former President Michel Martelly's PHTK party, and threats of opposition groups to counter those demonstrations by also taking to the streets, according to the Herald.  Partisans of rival political factions threw rocks at each other in front of Parliament and riot police dispersed demonstrators with rubber bullets, reports the Associated Press.

The U.S. State Department's special coordinator for Haiti, Kenneth Merten, arrived in Haiti yesterday, hoping to help resolve a political mess that has left an unfinished electoral cycle in limbo, reports the Associated Press. He is in talks with Haitian officials and international partners, though the U.S. said Merten is only there to assess the situation, avoiding language that would give the appearance of meddling, according to the AP. 

News Briefs
  • A large slope of trash in a Guatemala City garbage dump collapsed yesterday, killing at least five people, with up to 18 still missing, reports the Associated Press. The authorities said about 1,000 people, including garbage pickers known as "guajeros," worked in that area of the dump and had been asked to evacuate after an earlier slide, but some resisted.
  • Two men consultants hired by Republican primary contenders Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the U.S. formerly worked together advising Guatemalan presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón, whose platform included a call for public executions, reports the Guardian.
  • Seventy labor activists were murdered in Guatemala between 2004 and 2013, according the Network of Labor Rights Defenders, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Venezuelan opposition leaders said that in one day they managed to collect five times the signatures needed to begin a referendum recall effort against President Nicolás Maduro, reports the Wall Street Journal. More than 600,000 people signed, triple the amount needed, reports the BBC. (See yesterday's and Wednesday's posts.) The signatures will be submitted to the National Electoral Council, which will then have 20 days to authenticate them and the accompanying fingerprints. If it does, the opposition must then collect nearly four million signatures in three days to trigger the actual recall vote. Experts warn that government obstructionism and bureaucratic foot dragging could make the process difficult, if not impossible, to actually carry out, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Venezuela's opposition led National Assembly ordered the dismissal of Food Minister Rodolfo Marco Torres over chronic shortages of staple goods yesterday, reports Reuters. The vote was held against him after he failed to show up in Congress to answer questions regarding the shortages, reports the Associated Press. Legislators used a constitutional censure vote to order that President Nicolás Maduro dismiss the minister. The government dismissed the move as symbolic, and also said it was invalid because of a recent court ruling on parliamentary procedures.
  • ELN rebels in Colombia released a former governor held captive more than two years earlier this month. But to free Patrocinio Sanchez Montes de Oca, whose health was suffering from a gallbladder infection, the guerrilla's required his older brother, Odin, in exchange, reports the Associated Press. The hostage switch came just after an announcement that the Colombian government would enter peace negotiations, and could endanger the process. (See March 31's post.) At the time of the announcement, Santos admonished the rebel group for kidnapping, which he said was incompatible with the peace talks.
  • Colombia's Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, the fourth country in Latin America to do so, reports the BBC.
  • A new program loosely modeled on the "birthright" model that pays for Jews from around the world to visit Israel is being created by young Cuban-Americans who hope to promote connections between the young exile community in the U.S. and their island counterparts, writes Ernesto Londoño in a New York Times op-ed. "Travelers will stay in Cuban homes, rather than hotels. Itineraries will be designed to link up people with similar professional interests in an effort to help the fledgling private sector."
  • British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond is visiting Cuba, the first in his post to do so since before the Communist Revolution in 1959, reports the BBC
  • The Mexican attorney general said top crime fighters, including Tomas Zeron, head of the attorney general's criminal investigation agency, are under investigation over a key incident in the probe into the apparent massacre of 43 trainee teachers in 2014, reports Reuters. The probe was triggered by a report from an IACHR-backed panel of independent experts who questioned he circumstances in which a charred bone fragment was discovered in a river. (See yesterday's and Wednesday's briefs and Tuesday and Monday's posts.)
  • Brazilian prosecutors filed charges against a political strategist who worked on President Dilma Rousseff's successful 2010 and 2014 campaigns. João Santana and his wife and partner in their consulting firm, Mônica Moura, were charged with corruption, conspiracy and money laundering for allegedly receiving $7.5 million in payments diverted from Petrobras, reports the Wall Street Journal. Prosecutors also filed money laundering charges against Marcelo Odebrecht, the former chief executive of Brazil's biggest construction company, Odebrecht SA, yesterday.
  • Brazilian photographer Mauricio Lima, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for for Breaking News Photography for his work with the New York Times, devoted part of his acceptance speech to denouncing what he called a coup against Rousseff, spurred in part by anti-government bias in major media corporations, reports Glen Greenwald in The Intercept. "I would like to express my support for freedom of speech and democracy — which is exactly what’s not going on in Brazil at the moment," said Lima.
  • Zika virus-caused prenatal brain damage is far worst than past birth defects associated by microcephaly, reports the Wall Street Journal. New data shows that Zika eats away at the fetal brain, particularly the areas that control thought, vision and other basic functions.
  • Nacla has an interview with Mexican environmental activist Gustavo Castro Soto, the sole witness to Honduran activist Berta Cáceres' murder in March. On the subject of the "criminalization of human rights" in the region he discusses how free trade agreements potentially open up corporate lawsuits against governments which seek to protect the human rights of local communities. "This is such an important issue that few take into account. It is not just Berta, nor just COPINH, but all the social movements in Honduras, and in the region, which face this threat."
  • Argentina's Central Bank aims to implement an inflation-targeting system in September, with the goal of reducing annual inflation to 5 percent by the end of 2019, reports the Wall Street Journal. President Mauricio Macri's new administration said it won't publish inflation indices till June, but estimates from Buenos Aires and the province of San Luis, said prices rose 37 percent on the year in March.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Lootings and protests in Venezuela (April 28, 2016)

Prolonged power and water cuts in Venezuela are fueling citizen anger and protests, just as a petition drive to trigger a recall referendum on President Nicolás Maduro gets underway. (See yesterday's post.)

There were lootings and riots in cities around the country, reports the Associated Press.

Caracas Chronicles reports on Maracaibo, where protests were particularly strong. About 3,500 troops were deployed to keep the peace yesterday, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

And Caracas Chronciles has a new interactive map documenting incidents of looting around the country.

Hundreds of people in Caracas and thousands in Maracaibo lined up yesterday, eager to add their signatures to the effort which kicked off yesterday, reports the Wall Street Journal.

But there are still many hoops to jump through before an eventual vote could be held. The opposition is now gathering nearly 200,000 signatures, representing 1 percent of the nation's more than 19 million voters. If they are successful, they will then have to collect a further four million signatures over three days to trigger an election. (See yesterday's post on the technical nuances set by the electoral board.)

A recent Venebarometro poll showed some 60 percent of people said they favored Maduro's resignation, reports the WSJ.

Separately, the Wall Street Journal has a photo essay showing Venezuelan's empty refrigerators.

In the midst of ever growing inflation, the country is actually in danger of running out of printed money now, reports Bloomberg.

Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blogger David Smilde provides a wonderfully refreshing and interesting counterpoint to all the constant "disaster" reporting out of Venezuela. His post focuses on the everyday difficulties in moving around and obtaining groceries in Venezuela.

"For those who have enough money and are in good health, daily life in Caracas has become and endless series of uninteresting challenges interspersed with dirt-cheap delights. Stresses can be compensated for by the opportunities inevitably afforded by economic distortions. 

"But for the poor who depend on price-controlled goods and the sick who cannot obtain medicines it has become an endless series of cruel challenges interspersed with harsh realities. Opportunities for extra income through bachaqueo are confronted by the fact that it is next to impossible to really obtain the variety of price-controlled goods required by a household. And people with chronic illnesses can only wait for the moment when 'no hay' takes its toll."

News Briefs
  • Brazil's ever expanding political crisis could have some unexpected victims, including potential permanent damage to civil liberties in the country, argue Igarapé Institute's Robert Muggah and Nathan B. Thompson in the Boston Globe. They point to last month's scandal, when a judge released questionable wire taps of President Dilma Rousseff and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as an example of how judges and prosecutors are increasingly going after suspects' private data. "Draconian surveillance legislation is accumulating in the country’s legislature. Alongside China, India, and Russia, Brazil is turning into a key front in the fight for digital liberty and a bellwether of what’s to come around the world. ... The lines are drawn. On one side are multinational tech companies aligned with civil liberties groups who are defending open expression and rights to privacy. On the other are Brazil’s justice and law enforcement authorities and politicians seeking to expand the state’s surveillance and investigative capabilities. What’s missing is a sense of proportionality. The central debate between the two sides should be how to balance the legitimate needs of the criminal justice system with citizens’ personal freedoms, online and off."
  • Rio de Janeiro favela residents are "living in terror" after 11 people were killed in police shootings in the past month, according to Amnesty International. A surge in police killings augers ill for human rights 100 days ahead of Rio Olympics. There has been a surge in the police use of excessive force in Rio de Janeiro state in recent years, and the majority of victims are young black men from favelas and marginalized areas. (See post for Nov. 4, 2015.)
  • The director of Mexico's criminal investigation agency, Tomas Zeron, defended the handling of evidence in the case of 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students, after criticisms from an international panel of experts. (See Monday's and Tuesday's post's and yesterday's briefs.) He said he visited the site where charred bone fragments which could belong to the students were found on Oct. 29, 2014. He acknowledged visiting the same site the day before, but said no evidence was picked up that day, reports the Associated Press.
  • WOLA reports on the key findings of the IACHR-backed GIEI group, noting that their last report on Sunday focused principally on avenues of investigation that were ignored by the government, and how the official investigation's single-minded focus on one (increasingly challenged) hypothesis created obstacles to finding the truth of what happened to the missing students. (See Monday's and Tuesday's post's and yesterday's briefs.)
  • Two soldiers and three federal police officers in Mexico will stand trial in connection with the torture of a young woman that was caught on video. They are accused of torturing the woman after she was detained in February of last year in Guerrero, reports the Associated Press. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • A new financial-discipline law for Mexican states and municipalities aims lower borrowing costs for responsible local governments, while promoting financial discipline at the local level said President Enrique Peña Nieto yesterday. The move comes as the federal government is reducing spending in response to low oil prices, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Key parts of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's landmark labor reform were declared unconstitutional by a court yesterday, invalidating union protection aspects just weeks before the legislation is due to take effect, reports Reuters.
  • Pulitzer Center report focuses on the difficulties caused by child protection legislation in El Salvador. While the 2010 Ley De Protección Integral De La Niñez Y Adolescencia (LEPINA) is aimed at protecting children's rights, an unintended negative effect has been to maintain youths in abusive households due to a focus on the right to a biological family.
  • A Peruvian peasant who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize this year, is under harassment for her continued opposition to a large mining project seeking to move her off her land, reports TeleSur. She is a subsistence farmer who has kept mining giant Newmont from opening at $4.8 billion open-pit copper and gold mining project. (See April 21's briefs.) She reported that gunmen opened fire at her house while she was away to receive the accolade and her husband was home alone. The Yanococha mining company is holding her family prisoner in their home, limiting their freedom of movement and constantly intimidating them, she told TeleSur. A previous winner of the Goldman prize, Honduran Berta Cáceres, was murdered last month. (See March 4's post.)
  • A sibling squabble between the Fujimori scions in Peru could endanger the presidential chances of Keiko Fujimori in June's runoff election. She threatened to throw her younger brother Kenji Fujimori out of the political movement founded by their father, former President Alberto Fujimori, after Kenji said he'd run for president in 2021 if she loses this round, reports Reuters. His declaration fed into fears of a dynastic ambition in the family, and contradicts earlier statements from Keiko promising that no one with the Fujimori surname would seek the presidency in 2021.
  • Of the many shady dealings revealed by the "Panama Papers" document leak, the ones pertaining to Haiti show how politically connected characters negotiated questionable side deals in a petroleum deal, reports the Miami Herald. The data links a close friend of then-President Michel Martelly, Georges Andy René, who headed a government agency charged with promoting investment, with an effort to cash-in on a purchase of oil from Trinidad and Tobago.
  • In the wake of the "Panama Papers," the U.S. and Panama signed an information sharing deal that will formalize the Internal Revenue Service's ability to get information on U.S. citizens’ bank accounts in Panama, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri's austerity policies are contradicting his promises to work for "zero poverty" in the country. "Five months into his term, Macri's policies have so far swelled the ranks of the poor, souring public opinion and raising the risk of backlash against an economic overhaul that is winning over foreign investors," reports Reuters.
  • Victims of human rights abuses in a secretive German colony in Chile hope that Germany's decision to declassify documents will give them more information about the torture, slavery and child abuse that went on at Colonia Dignidad, reports the Associated Press.
  • Latin America's newly empowered middle class citizens are pushing forward anti-corruption and transparency efforts that are pushing back against a long-standing tradition of graft in the region, reports the Washington Post. The piece quotes Guatemala and Brazil as prime examples, but also notes that "new anti-corruption laws are on the books or are working their way through legislatures in Mexico, Colombia and Chile, a response to citizen demands for cleaner government."

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Venezuela's opposition to begin collecting signatures of recall referendum (April 27, 2016)

Venezuela's National Electoral Commission (CNE) released documents that would allow opposition politicians to begin a referendum attempt to finish President Nicolás Maduro's mandate early yesterday.

They CNE had previously resisted handing over the papers, which are needed to collect the signatures of one percent of eligible voters, the first step in setting off a recall referendum, reports the New York Times.

The MUD opposition has 30 days to deliver the next batch of 197,978 signatures, representing one percent of eligible voters in each state in support of the referendum, explains the Caracas Chronicles. The geographic requirement was only made clear this week, and other hoops include a requirement that signatories then validate their signatures at the local CNE office.

Another Caracas Chronicles piece rather colorfully describes the effort as: "a showdown so unbelievably lopsided that David and Goliath should both file injunctions for copyright infringement, and then sit together while weeping softly to Enya. Today's signature drive will be but the first in what is sure to be a long string of bouts consisting basically of CNE kicking us in the balls and then expecting us to thank them."

If the opposition is successful, the following step requires 20 percent of voters would have to agree to the recall. Finally, Maduro's opponents would have to garner more votes than the President obtained in the election which brought him to power, nearly 51 percent.

Should the opposition succeed in winning a recall referendum this year, the result would trigger a new presidential election. If a recall succeeds in ousting Maduro next year, his vice president would serve the remaining two years of the term. This is one reason the government seems to be stalling the process, as it would likely lose at the ballot box, according to an expert cited by the NYTimes. Efecto Cocuyo has details on the referendum initiation process.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, expressed his satisfaction towards the CNE's decision to hand over the recall paperwork, reports the Caracas Chronicles.

All electoral posts can be subject to recall referendums once half the term is up, explains Efecto Cocyuo. The last presidential recall attempt was led by the opposition in 2004, against former President Hugo Chávez. The signature gathering effort for that was lengthy, taking up most of 2003, with several technical difficulties regarding the validity of the signatures.

The move comes as the country's Supreme Court stymied another avenue the opposition wanted to use to oust Maduro: a constitutional amendment reducing the presidential term in office. (See yesterday's briefs.)

The country is facing an acute energy crisis due to a drought that has nearly shut down the country's largest dam, El Guri, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs.)

The latest in Venezuela's increasingly desperate energy saving measures, is a further reduction in public employee's hours. The public sector will now work for four hours on Monday and another four on Tuesday, reports the Caracas Chronicles.

Public employees account for more than a third of Venezuela’s formal labor force, notes the WSJ.

Schools will also shut down on Fridays. Other measures include rolling blackouts across the country, which have prompted some protests, a half hour time change to maximize daylight working hours, a reduction in mall hours and government urging that citizens reduce use of energy intensive home appliances, reports Reuters.

Last night residents of Maracaibo, the country's second largest city, looted bakeries and blocked streets with burning tires in protest against shortages of basic services in blackout affected shantytowns, reports the WSJ.

Press workers protested yesterday, saying journalists are suffering aggression in covering anti-government protests. Specifically against 13 journalists covering a protest by legislators at the CNE last week, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

In general, Venezuela is the most vulnerable of oil producing countries, which are facing the effects of a dramatic slump in crude prices, reports the Guardian. Energy accounts for almost all of Venezuela's exports and pays for vital imports.

News Briefs
  • InSight Crime and Revista Factum broke a story yesterday linking a prominent Salvadoran businessman to planes that appear to be used for smuggling drugs into the U.S.  José Enrique Rais, who is politically connected at home, is under investigation in the U.S. in relation to four aircraft that could be used for drug smuggling. K9 units detected drugs in at least one of them, though Rais has not been formally charged with crime in the U.S. and denies the allegations. He is a priority target for the DEA and "subject of international investigation for his ties to to the organized crime groups, shell companies, cartels, and corrupt politicians," according to a Florida sheriff's petition filed with a U.S. judge. Separately, one of the journalists who reported the piece has denounced personal attacks by Rais' lawyers, reports InSight Crime.
  • Yesterday Salvadoran security forces carried out raids parts of the capital as part of a new crackdown on gangs, reports AFP. The raids  were carried out by a new taskforce made up of 800 police officers and soldiers focused on urban missions. (See March 31's post.)
  • El Faro has a more detailed account of a human rights case opened by El Salvador's prosecutor's office against security forces, who allegedly carried out two massacres last year. (See yesterday's briefs.)The cases were initially reported on by El Faro (San Blas, see post for July 23, 2015) and La Prensa Gráfica (Pajales).
  • Nómada reports on how Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and the G-8 (a group of the country's most powerful family corporations) are facing off against the Public Ministry and CICIG efforts to 1980's human rights violations and more recent tax evasion. "...R etired generals and big corporates, seem to be driving the two-month recently installed president to go up against the AG-CICIG and the US Ambassador," according to the piece.
  • The issue of reintegrating the FARC's child soldiers into society is a crucial element for a lasting peace deal, reports the New York Times. "If poor or botched reintegration programs fail to offer opportunities to former child combatants, Colombia’s powerful paramilitaries and trafficking groups may offer them a tempting alternative," WOLA's Adam Isacson told the NYTimes. The feature focuses on the difficulties former child fighters face after leaving the guerrilla group.
  • Thousands of protesters gathered in Mexico City yesterday, demonstrating against the government's apparent mishandling of the investigation into the 43 disappeared teachers' college students in 2014. About 2,000 people were led by the parents and relatives of the victims, who carried small torches and black and white photos of the missing students, reports Reuters. The families are also angry about the government's treatment of an independent group of experts reviewing the case, whose mandate ends this week. On Sunday the panel, known as the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), said it had been repeatedly blocked in efforts to obtain evidence from Mexican authorities and said the attorney general's office did not let its members re-interview detainees accused of the crime. (See yesterday's and Monday's posts.)
  • The IACHR-backed group of international experts investigating the Ayotzinapa disappearances did "not conclusively establish what happened to the students. But it’s impossible not to interpret [their second report on the issue delivered on Sunday] as an indictment of Mexico’s notoriously corrupt and often brutal justice system," argues a New York Times editorial. And the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement that the office is "concerned about the many challenges and obstacles reported by the experts," including the ability to examine other lines of investigation such the possible roles of the military and other officials in the case, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's and Monday's posts.)
  • There is increasing evidence showing the regular use of torture by security forces in Mexico. The issue persists because of a lack of accountability of security forces to anybody else, argues El Daily Post columnist Alejandro Hope. Interesting fact: a recent survey found that 29 percent of Mexican adults agree that torture is sometimes necessary and acceptable to protect the public.
  • The prosecutorial team behind Brazil's wide-ranging Operation Car Wash probe into corruption at state-owned oil company Petrobras will continue, assured a prosecutor yesterday. He was attempting to assuage fears it could be shut down by a new government coalition would replace President Dilma Rousseff's administration if she is impeached, reports the Wall Street Journal. While Rousseff hasn't been implicated in the massive Petrobras corruption scandal -- though she was chairwoman of the company during much of the alleged wrongdoing -- her eventual successor, Vice President Michel Temer, has. So have the leaders of the House and Senate.
  • Brazilian authorities said they repatriated $125 million last year from funds sent to to foreign bank accounts by corrupt officials, politicians and businessmen, reports the BBC. It's a record figure over eight times what was recovered over the past decade, and was made possible by a policy of negotiating plea bargains with suspects has helped them recover assets, according to the Justice Ministry.
  • A lawyer for Mexico's Gulf Cartel who was gunned down in Dallas in 2013 was an informant for law authorities and living legally in the U.S., reports the Wall Street Journal. Lawyers in the murder trial which started yesterday said a rival cartel boss hunted down Juan Jesus Guerrero Chapa using a sophisticated tracking operation, reports the Guardian.
  • An Alabama tractor company is angling to become the first U.S. business to set up shop in Cuba, and is about halfway through a long approval process, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who played a key role in bringing about Cuba and the U.S.'s diplomatic detente, is retiring, reports Reuters. Only the second Cuban to be made Cardinal, Ortega was a sometimes polarizing figure, reports the Miami Herald. Critics felt he should have been a more outspoken defender of human rights and freedom on the island.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Experts' Ayotzinapa probe shows government mishandling (April 26, 2016)

After a scathing report from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission group of independent experts investigating the disappearance of 43 students in Mexico in 2014, victims' parents lambasted the government yesterday. (See yesterday's post). They accused accused authorities of lying to them, planting evidence and not adequately investigating the case, reports the Associated Press.

The most important elements Sunday's report focus on the government handling of the investigation, notes El Daily Post columnist Alejandro Hope. As the GIEI mandate draws to a close, he notes that the experts will leave without having been able to answer key questions about the tragedy: what happened to the students and what was the motive for the attack?

"Yet, they provided an invaluable service to this country: they exposed as no one else the incompetence and malicious neglect of the authorities. There might a debate as to what exactly happened to the students and, yes, the GIEI did not offer an alternative to the "historical truth." But one thing is beyond doubt: the official story is built mostly on confessions, many of them extracted by means of torture, almost all without corroborating physical evidence. That is no way to conduct a supremely important investigation such as this one.  Showing that fact to the world could (maybe) shame Mexico into reforming its terribly flawed criminal justice and law enforcement institutions. If so, that would be an incredibly valuable legacy of the GIEI, no matter what happens to the Ayotzinapa case in the future."

The disappeared Ayotzinapa students might define the Enrique Peña Nieto's presidency, but the human rights scandal likely won't affect his party's electoral chances. The PRI will likely continue to be the dominant political force in the country, despite citizen rage and frustration over the case and human rights issues in general, reports the New York Times

Mexican officials seem more concerned with Donald Trumps defamatory comments about their citizens than the botched Ayotzinapa investigation and signs that the government is attempting to discredit the GIEI group's work, notes Pro-Publica journalist Ginger Thompson has a New York Times op-ed. (See yesterday's post.) Trump is a good distraction for cynical citizens who are tired of reports of corruption and abuse. "It's simpler to focus on foreign demons, rather than on internal ones, particularly when the foreigner spouts the racist attitudes they suspect many Americans share," she writes.

News Briefs
  • UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday voiced "deep concern" after another deadline was missed to hold a presidential runoff in Haiti and called for the elections to take place, reports AFP. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced an anticipated cabinet shakeup, ahead of a peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group, reports El País. Seven new cabinet members include several women and representatives of all political forces except for opposition leader Álvaro Uribe's Centro Democrático. Santos said the new line-up would be "a cabinet of peace" and "one that would consolidate the economy," reports Reuters.
  • Violence is down in Colombia, unless you work in human rights. In 2015, the total of murdered rights activists was 63 — almost a 15 percent increase on the total for 2014, according to Colombia Reports.
  • Land restitution in Colombia is is failing to adequately process the return of land to victims of displacement, according to NGOs. A new report from the University of Antioquia and a series of NGOs says that little headway has been made over the past five years in reclaim around 8 million illegally stolen hectares, according to Colombia Reports.
  • Estimates about the FARC's hidden wealth, such as The Economist's recent estimation that they had assets worth $11.4 billion in 2012, draw attention to a crucial aspect of peace talks, explains InSight Crime. "Money and power can not only give an armed group increased leverage at the negotiating table, they also increase the risk that dissident factions will choose to maintain their criminal activities rather than demobilize."
  • Venezuela's Constitutional Court anticipated that a proposed constitutional amendment shortening the presidential term to four years would not be applicable retroactively to the current government, reports El País. The court is referring to an opposition proposal aimed at cutting short President Nicolás Maduro's mandate, and would seem to cut off legal strategies to oust him. It's the latest thwarting of opposition maneuvers against Maduro, which have included plans for constitutional reform or a recall referendum, reports Reuters. (See March 9's post.)
  • Rolling blackouts of up to four hours started yesterday in 18 of Venezuela's 24 states, reports the Associated Press. (See last Friday's briefs.) But electricity problems are only part of a wider infrastructure deficit, reports Atlantic's City Lab.
  • David Smilde on the drought affecting Venezuela (and spurring the energy crisis, according to the government).
  • El Salvador’s human rights prosecutor said that police and soldiers used excessive force or executed presumed street gang members during two supposed confrontations in 2015, reports the Associated Press. One of the cases involved the deaths of eight people in March 2015 at a ranch supposedly taken over by gang members. (See July 23's post.) The other case occurred in August 2015, when five gang members died in a supposed shootout with security forces, none of whom were injured.
  • The killing of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres has created a dilemma for the Obama administration: "The White House supports Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez — even as some U.S. officials suspect state or state-supported assassins killed the activist," reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her Workers' Party may be obliged to support a call for new elections if she is suspended for an impeachment trial in the Senate, reports Folha de S. Paulo.
  • "... The most important means for understanding the truly anti-democratic nature of what’s taking place [in Brazil] is to look at the person whom Brazilian oligarchs and their media organs are trying to install as president: the corruption-tainted, deeply unpopular, oligarch-serving Vice President Michel Temer," writes Glen Greenwald in The Intercept. "Doing so shines a bright light on what’s really going on, and why the world should be deeply disturbed."
  • The conservative BBB (bullets, beef and bible) bench in the Brazilian Congress stands to win if President Dilma Rousseff is impeached and Vice President Michel Temer steps up to the plate, reports El País. The Segurança Pública, Evangélica e do Agronegócio fronts have already been discussing their main demands with the VP and are critical regarding a "lack of dialogue" with the current administration.
  • Brazilian authorities are cracking down on illegal Amazon logging. Reuters reports on a five-day operation coordinated between the country's environmental agency and a foundation for indigenous peoples, carried out the Yanomami people's territory.
  • Brazil's Supreme Court revoked the house arrest of founder and former CEO of investment bank BTG Pactual, paving the way for André Esteves to return to his position, reports the Wall Street Journal. Esteves was arrested in November on charges of obstructing a federal investigation into corruption at state-run oil company Petrobras. The case is under seal, so the court did not reveal information about the decision.
  • Ecuadoreans use a referendum vote to revoke a constitutional law barring presidents from seeking a third term in office, according to a decision by the country's high court yesterday, reports TeleSur.
  • Cruel irony: Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa repeatedly demanded the release of the full archive of leaked "Panama Papers" documents, boasting that his government was unblemished by the scandal. But the documents actually show that the secret documents show that he and his estranged brother, Fabricio, caught the attention of anti-corruption authorities in Panama in 2012, reports McClatchy DC.
  • Getting over Zika panic? Read this Los Angeles Times feature on Brazilian parents confronting the tribulations of raising children with microcephaly and it will come rushing back.
  • Last week the U.S. wrapped up a four-day cultural diplomacy mission to Cuba that included representatives from U.S. government agencies, Usher and Dave Matthews, among others, reports the Miami Herald.
  • A Bolivian judge ordered DNA testing to prove the paternity of a boy allegedly fathered by President Evo Morales, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. The scandal when that paternity came to light may have cost him a referendum vote that would have permitted him to run for another reelection. (See Feb. 22's post.)
  • Waiting in the wings: Kenji Fujimori, the youngest son of imprisoned former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori said he will run for president in 2021 if his sister loses the upcoming runoff election, reports Reuters.
  • Mexico City is launching an innovative experiment in digital democracy: citizens can petition for issues to be included in a new constitution using, and can  annotate proposals by the constitution’s drafters via an editing platform, reports Quartz. It's worth noting, however, that the constitutional assembly is under no obligation to consider any of the citizen input.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Tortured witnesses and other issues with Ayotzinapa investigation, new GIEI report (April 25, 2016)

A group of international experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)  investigating the September 2014 attacks on 43 trainee teachers in Mexico presented a second devastating report yesterday.

They found inconsistencies, errors and omissions in the government's official investigation, along with evidence of suspects being tortured, reports the Guardian.

Some of the students were abducted by municipal police officers, with a military intelligence official looking on and state and federal police officers in the immediate vicinity, according to witnesses, reports the New York Times. The report, together with an earlier one from last year, detail a night of terror inflicted on protesting students and bystanders by security officers.

It contradicts the government version of events, the "historical truth" insisted on by officials who say the students were killed by a drug gang, burned in a nearby trash dump and disposed of in a river, reports the New York Times in a separate piece.

Among other findings, the report asserted that five suspects whose testimony underpinned the government's conclusions gave confessions "under torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment," notes the New York Times. Such evidence is  not admissible in Mexican courts.

The allegations of torture could endanger convictions in the case, one of the highest profile human rights cases in the country's history, as the government's version of events hinges, in large part, on the testimony of some drug gunmen who now say they were tortured into confessing, reports the Associated Press.
The report says a study of 17 of the approximately 123 suspects arrested in the case showed signs of beatings, including, in some cases, dozens of bruises, cuts and scrapes, notes the AP.

The cases are only a sampling, and there are indications of torture of other suspects, reports Animal Político.

The government version of a fire at the Cocula dump in which the bodies were burned is built on the back of testimony by tortured witnesses, reports Animal Político.

Mexico's Attorney General's office announced an investigation into allegations of torture, reports Animal Político.

The GIEI report also shows an analysis of phone records that show seven of the students' cell phones remained active days after the attack, further undermining the Cocula dump fire theory, notes Animal Político.

Full report by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI).

The new report found that the disappeared students did not belong to any criminal group, nor were they planning to interrupt a political event, both tenets of the government report, according to the Guardian.

The IACHR experts again recommended investigating the drug business in the area, following up on the September report that noted avenues of investigation that went ignored by Mexican officials, such as buses being used to carry opium paste to the U.S.

The group also accused the federal government of not cooperating with the investigation and of permitting a smear campaign against them in an attempt to discredit the final report and harass them out of the country. 

"In a context of strong polarization in Mexico, the [GIEI] has become an object utilized by some to generate greater polarization," the team said in its final report.

Last week group members had already publicly complained that the government was making their work impossible, reports the New York Times.

"The conditions to conduct our work don't exist," said Claudia Paz y Paz, a panel member who earned international recognition for prosecuting a former Guatemalan dictator on charges of genocide. "And in Mexico, the proof is that the government opposed the extension of our mandate, isn't it?"

piece by Francisco Goldman in the New Yorker makes the case that the Mexican government has consistently undermined its own independent investigation. (Goldman has an eight part series for the magazine on the case, this is the last installment.)

"The Mexican government had accepted GIEI's mission in order to demonstrate that it possessed the will, if not always the capabilities, to investigate, solve, and achieve justice for a crime that had shocked the world. Ayotzinapa became symbolic of so many other crimes that have occurred in Mexico, and epitomized the lawlessness and violence of a drug war that has led to an estimated hundred and fifty thousand deaths and some twenty-seven thousand disappearances."

Mexican public officials responsible for human rights skipped the meeting, a sign of tensions between the GIEI and the government, reports the Guardian. It will be the last report by the GIEI, as it's mandate ends this week and is unlikely to be renewed by the Mexican government, notes the NYTimes.

Mexico’s attorney general’s office took to Twitter on Sunday to defend its investigation and actions, saying it had done nothing to impede the experts. It also defended claims of a controlled burn in the garbage dump and denied any allegations of mishandling evidence or allowing torture to occur, reports the Guardian.

In an earlier report the GIEI released in September already questioned Mexican investigators conclusions, including that the bodies of the students were burned in a garbage dump the night they were disappeared in Iguala after being attacked by police. (See briefs for Sept. 8, 2015.)

For those who are having trouble following the years-long chain of reports, refutations and accusations the New Yorker piece has a good review of the many events in the investigations.

News Briefs
  • Another torture video (see April 18's briefs) this time starring Mexico City police, has horrified citizens and spurred an official investigation, reports El Daily Post
  • A former Honduran police chief says documents detailing collusion between drug traffickers and high-ranking police officers in assassinations of two top antidrug officials are part of a crude set-up. In fact, the plot and corruption in the country's institutions, is far bigger, said former chief, Ramón Sabillón Pineda. The documents failed to expose the broader involvement of political figures beyond the police force, he told the New York Times. The documents divert attention from general collusion between drug gangs and the country's political elite, he said. The leaked documents show Sabillón was aware of the documents and asked for them to be kept under guard, though he said his signature was forged. (See April 6's post and April 18's briefs.) Last week Honduran authorities announced they were suspending two former national police directors as well as 25 officers for their alleged involvement in the 2009 murder of General Julián Arístides González, who at the time was the country's top anti-drug official, reports InSight Crime. Two of the former police directors implicated in the murders by the New York Times coverage have also denounced the documents as false, reports InSight Crime separately. The case will be taken up by the new OAS-backed Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).
  • Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres (whose case will also be taken up by the MACCIH) was bombarded by death threats in the days leading up to her March murder, reports the Guardian.
  • Nómada report revealed documentation linking a Guatemalan congressman who is currently under investigation for corruption to a police unit responsible for murders, torture, and disappearances during the country's 35-year civil war. InSight Crime has the English translation.
  • A 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Ecuador over a week ago has succeeded in overcoming economic ideology: the humanitarian disaster that claimed over 600 lives has pushed the country towards tax hikes and international loans, a path that was up until now resisted by its leftist leaders, reports the New York Times. (See last Thursday's briefs.) But the country is only the latest in the region to face the facts of falling commodity prices and adjusting economic policy to match, argues the piece.
  • As expected, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff used the opportunity of a U.N. visit on Friday to appeal for international support in light of a political campaign to oust her from office, which she argues is a glorified coup d’état, reports the New York Times. Though she limited her comments at a U.N. speech, saying only that she had faith that her fellow citizens will prevent a setback to democracy, she later made her case to reporters invited to the Brazilian ambassador's residence. "In the past, coups were carried out with machine guns, tanks and weapons," she said. "Today all you need are hands that are willing to tear up the Constitution." said she would appeal to the Mercosur bloc of South American nations for Brazil to be suspended if democratic process is broken, reports Reuters. Mercosur has a democratic clause that can be triggered when an elected government is overthrown in any of its member states, as happened in Paraguay in 2012. Her words was criticized by Brazilian media and politicians who said it would paint a negative international picture of the country.
  • Poor economic performance, especially high inflation, have eaten away at prosperity promised to Brazil's lower classes, and undermined the popularity of the governing Workers' Party, opening up Rousseff to impeachment, reports the Washington Post.
  • Street protests yesterday marked the date of yet another missed election deadline in Haiti, reports Reuters. April 23 was the agreed on date in a February political accord that created an interim government, aimed at carrying out a delayed and questioned presidential run-off election, reports the Miami Herald. The timeline was affected by a political battle over the formation of an interim government, delays in the creation of a new electoral body and demands for a vote recount. Provisional President Jocelerme Privert told the Miami Herald that he expects an elections calendar by the end of May. 
  • The horrific killing of three deaf women in Haiti highlights the pervasive victimization of people with disabilities -- especially women and girls -- and and prompted rare public protests by their advocacy groups, reports the Associated Press.
  • A much anticipated push for reform in world drug policy fizzled last week at UNGASS 2016, despite earnest attempts from Latin American countries pushing for a less prohibitionist regime, reports InSight Crime. "With the huge obstacles to a new international consensus made apparent, reformist countries around the region instead look set to continue national level experiments with drug policy." (See last Wednesday's and Thursday's posts.)
  • An opinion piece by Transform's Steve Rolls warns that the drug warriors who blocked reform made a terrible miscalculation. "A striking element of the General Assembly meeting has been the series of member states taking the floor to berate the failings of the outcome document – not so much what it says, but what it doesn’t say: its weakness on human rights, harm reduction, and regulation," he writes.
  • Speaking at the U.N. special session on drugs last week, Venezuela's Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez denied that her country has an endemic drug trafficking problem, "despite overwhelming evidence the country has become a key drug transshipment point," reports InSight Crime.
  • The death of five rave attendants in Buenos Aires last week, apparently of drug overdose, has prompted police investigation and political hand wringing regarding drug use at music events. In response, the Rosario municipal council passed a measure mandating harm-reduction policies at electronic music festivals such as pill testing. Another proposal would force organizers to provide potable water to party goers, in an attempt to avoid dehydration spurred by synthetic drugs, reports Página 12.
  • El Daily Post's Alejandro Hope has more on the relatively null impact of Mexico's proposed marijuana reform. (See last Friday's post.) An internal government report leaked to the press found that "raising the personal possession threshold for marijuana from 5 to 28 grams would allow somewhere between 2000 and 2500 prison inmates to regain their freedom. That represents between 0.8 and 1 percent of Mexico's total prison population and approximately 5 to 7 percent of all inmates charged with a drug-related offense."
  • Colombia's Inspector General said the country's softened approach to coca eradication benefits criminal organizations known as BACRIM, which means the paramilitary groups could be the big winners of a peace deal between the government and the leftist FARC rebels, reports InSight Crime.
  • A new poll in Peru shows presidential candidates Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in a statistical tie ahead of the June 5 runoff, reports Reuters. It's the third opinion poll in a week that shows PPK's lead shrinking.
  • Peru's poverty rate fell more slowly last year than in previous years, reports Reuters.
  • Clarification note: A reader pointed to an apparent discrepancy in two articles I cited on Friday, on the subject of homicide stats in Mexico. El Daily Post columnist Alejandro Hope wrote about how the numbers in general went up, but were down in March in Sinaloa compared to last year, while El País reported an increase in Sinaloa in the first months of this year. Both are apparently right. Hope is comparing government stats for March 2016 to the same month of last year, while El País is pointing to a 52 percent increase in homicides from January to February of this year. Trends might not be as clear cut as the articles make them seem, however. El País does not note that government stats then show a 56 percent decrease in March of this year. And the decrease that Hope notes in March is tempered if you look at the average for the first three months of this year compared to the same period of last: there were 211 homicides in the first three months of last year, and 246 this year.