Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Salvadoran attorney general investigating top FMLN leader accused of arms trafficking (July 6, 2016)

Salvadoran attorney general, Douglas Meléndez, has opened an investigation into whether José Luis Merino, one of the three chief leaders of the ruling FMLN party, is involved in drug and weapons trafficking, reports InSight Crime

Meléndez is opening up a 2014 investigation into accusations that Merino's staff was in contact with the Venezuelan government to organize illicit drug flights. 

But he is adding to it accusations made by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently, alleging Merino has laundered money and trafficked arms for the FARC and corrupt Venezuelan officials. A source in Meléndez's office told InSight Crime that the attorney general has asked his staff to review the old accusations and include them in a new file that he decided to open after hearing Rubio's statement. 

In statements to the press Meléndez emphasized the importance of looking into accusations made by foreign officials, reports El Diario de Hoy.

Rubio was questioning the Obama administration for not sanctioning politicians related to corruption and potential relation to arms trafficking in Venezuela, El Salvador Haiti and Colombia, notes El Faro.

In 2008 the Colombian government said e-mails from Merino showed up on the laptop of a slain FARC commander, linking him to the FARC and Venezuelan officials in relation to arms trafficking, notes InSight Crime. The attorney general's office at the time sent a committee to Colombia to investigate the links, but the results were never made public, reports La Prensa Gráfica.

In statements this week, Meléndez criticized former attorney general Félix Garrid Safie who he said failed to follow through on the information found by Colombian authorities, reports El Faro. 

The 2014 and 2008 allegations will be gathered into the new investigation, reports La Prensa Gráfica.

This weekend the FLMN Political Commission called the accusations "slanderous and unfounded."

News Briefs
  • El Salvador's three main gangs are working on a united front to wage a joint political war against the government, reports El Faro. They have managed to create a coordinating committee and achieve agreements to mutually respect each others' territory without mediators. Though the three gangs -- Mara Salvatrucha and two factions of Barrio 18 -- have maintained communication with each other since the 2012 truce, they have deepened cooperation since a government crackdown earlier this year. (See March 31's post.) They have agreed to a non-aggression pact among themselves and say its responsible for the extraordinary reduction in homicides in the second trimester of the year. The government attributes the decrease in murders to the crackdown.
  • More than fifty roadblocks and 252 school strikes took place yesterday in Mexico City, in solidarity with the CNTE teachers' union protest against education reform. (See yesterday's briefs and last Thursday's post.) Federal authorities counter that the protests are being joined by groups that are unrelated to the education sector, reports Animal Político.
  • News reports say about a 100 Venezuelans, mostly women, broke through a barricade on border with Colombia in order to do food shopping, reports the Miami Herald.
  • A new post by David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights gives an overview of the current situation in Venezuela, which he says has worsened "significantly" in recent months. "For about a year and a half we were in a context in which if people were willing to wait in line for hours a couple of times a week they could get some basic goods, and barter for or buy the rest on the parallel market. But since May it has gotten much more difficult. The government has dramatically slashed the dollars it makes available to importers which has led to a 40% decline in imports this year compared to last year, over 60% decline over 2012 when Hugo Chavez was reelected. That has a huge impact that has really hit home in the past two months." He notes that there is not currently starvation, but there is significant hunger and malnutrition that could turn into starvation. And medical scarcities for treatable conditions could turn hypertension, cholesterol and diabetes into deadly diseases. On a political note, he says the end result of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro's interventions against Venezuela in recent months has been positive, in bringing international attention to the situation and pushing the Venezuelan government towards permitting a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro's continuity in office. "The situation is very dangerous because the government has a completely unsustainable model of governance, but enough institutional power to prevent change. For there to be a democratic solution to the current crisis, there is going to need to be a process of dialogue, negotiation, and an exit strategy for Chavismo. Without the latter, many leaders would be willing to go down with the ship and take anyone else with them. What is more, Chavismo still holds the allegiance of twenty to thirty percent of the population and that requires democratic recognition and space."
  • Two nephews of Venezuela's first lady who are accused of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. say they thought their arrest from Haiti's capital last year was a kidnapping attempt and have asked that statements made to U.S. authorities in the aftermath be suppressed, reports Reuters. The case has been an embarrassment for the embattled Venezuelan government in the midst of an increasingly tense political situation at home.
  • A piece in InSight Crime highlights a new study that indicates June was the most violent month of the year in Caracas, but notes the fraught nature of obtaining information and creating statistics in Venezuela. (See yesterday's post on the issue of homicide statistics.)
  • Rio de Janeiro will be ready for the Olympics -- visitors just need to lower their expectations, said the city's mayor, Eduardo Paes. The city is transformed, he said, countering a series of security problems and stories of incomplete constructions. Instead he pointed to new rapid bus lines and a renewed port area, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazilian troops are patrolling Olympics venues, in an attempt to reassure athletes and international visitors in light of recent crime and security issues in Rio, reports the Guardian. (See last Friday's post.)
  • Folha de S. Paulo's #AgoraÉQueSãoElas blog has a heart-rendering piece by the mother of a teen who was killed by military police in Rio de Janeiro, in the lead up to the World Cup games of 2014, which were played in Brazil. She writes from Geneva, where she is participating in a U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting to discuss human rights violations in relation to Rio's mega sporting events. "I told how authorities striving to make the city pretty for foreigners coming for the Olympics, and, for that, they hid us. I questioned the legacy of the Games. I said the Olympics Committee cannot allow that the Olympics mean the death of youths in Rio favelas, and that they must guarantee that the police will not act violently, that they won't kill. I explained that I will not have time to root for Brazilin the Games. I'll be watchful and worried about my family and the residents of Manguinhos because of police violence. For the poor [the Olympics'] legacy [will be one] of pain, blood and tears."
  • Lawyers for former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have requested that crusading federal judge Sergio Moro be removed from a corruption investigation involving the former president, arguing he had shown a lack of impartiality, reports Reuters.
  • Colombia's FARC leaders have ordered members to stop extorting legal activities, a practice known as the "revolutionary tax." Leader Rodrigo Londoño (known as "Timochenko") said in an interview that the extortion was necessary to feed FARC fighters up until now, but with peace on the horizon will no longer be needed. Though the decision will be difficult to enforce on the ground, it is of important symbolic nature, according to InSight Crime. Ending the FARCs systemic extortion of legal economic activity was one of the items in the cease-fire agreement signed between the government and the FARC last month, explains El País. (See June 24's post.) 
  • Peace between the Colombian government and the FARC presents a unique opportunity for Colombia's organized crime groups, known as BACRIM, who will have the opportunity to expand into illegal markets currently occupied by the FARC. But the situation also poses a potential threat as they come under increased scrutiny from security forces, reports InSight Crime
  • Cocaine use in South America is growing at a fast clip, "creating an emerging market boom for organized crime groups that are engaging in more cross-border cooperation aimed at making the most of growing local demand for the drug," reports InSight Crime. Cocaine users nearly doubled between 2009 and 2014, pushing the region ahead of Europe, where use slightly decreased, according to the latest UNODC data. The new growing markets in world's only cocaine producing region offer profit opportunities for its criminal organizations, without the costs and difficulties of international transportation.
  • The CICIG, followed by the Evangelical and Catholic Churches, are Guatemala's most trusted institutions, according to a new poll. Corruption scandals over the past year appear to have impacted public faith in armed forces, traditionally an institution Guatemalans expressed confidence in. The Prensa Libre poll also shows that the justice system, political parties, members of congress and the presidency have all seen dramatic declines in public confidence in recent years, reports InSight Crime.
  • A report by Honduran NGO Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) found that half of the country's corruption cases result in prison alternative sentences like mediation or conditional suspension of penal prosecution. And sentencing for illicit enrichment can take up to a decade. The result is "nearly a null restitution of harm caused, while the accused can return to public function without a criminal record." Between 2008 and 2015 only one official was sentenced to jail for corruption -- a police officer sentenced for seven years and six months in a bribery case, notes InSight Crime in a piece on the study.
  • Uruguay's legal marijuana could reach pharmacies -- the designated selling point -- in coming weeks. But most of the country's 1,200 pharmacies have not registered to sell marijuana, citing fear of robberies and customer opposition as factors, reports the Associated Press

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