Friday, April 28, 2017

Mexico plays grownup in Nafta renegotiations (April 28, 2017)

Nafta is apparently safe from U.S. unilateral withdrawal -- this week the White House said it would seek to renegotiate the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, rather than pullout. (See yesterday's briefs.) Renegotiation would affect several key industries that have come to rely on the free flow of goods across the borders, reports the New York Times, which looks at the examples of the automotive and apparel industries, agricultural trade between the three countries, and medical device manufacturing in Mexico.

And a piece by Luis Calle in Americas Quarterly looks at the unique nature of the original Nafta agreement, which imposed the same rights and obligations on all three partners, despite the lack of symmetry between the two developed economies and Mexico's relative poverty: "Symmetry was and remains NAFTA’s most important value for Mexico, for two reasons. First, it was and remains unacceptable for Mexico to be treated as a minor partner — one that requires patronizing conditions. In effect, NAFTA marked Mexico’s coming-of-age in the international arena. Second, NAFTA disciplines and the rule of law they imply represented an historic, revolutionary opportunity for Mexico to establish them in at least a growing segment of its economy." Mexico must demand symmetry moving forward he argues.

Mexico reacted with relative tranquility, or perhaps a willingness to call Trump's bluff, to the U.S. president's suggestion earlier this week that he was drafting an executive order leave NAFTA. In recent weeks Mexico has talked tough about the expected renegotiation and U.S. promises to build the border wall. (See Wednesday's briefs, for example.) It's a sign that Mexican politicians are learning to work with the U.S. administration's esoteric style, according to the New York Times. "In interviews with politicians, analysts, economists, business leaders and former diplomats, a general sentiment had emerged throughout the day on Wednesday that Mr. Trump’s threat to withdraw from the treaty using an executive order was mostly a piece of political theater — aimed as much at his voting base as at Mexico and Canada — and not something to get terribly worked up about."

Yesterday Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and agreed there is an opportunity to update Nafta for all signatories' benefit, reports Reuters.

Perhaps in part the security is due to the fact that despite gloom and doom predictions, Mexico's first quarter economic growth exceeded expectations, reports the Financial Times.

On the issue of migration, the White House is backing down from its request to Congress for $1.2 billion to start building that border wall. But it is persisting in another $1.8 billion in Fiscal Year 2017 for increased border security and intensified migrant apprehensions and deportations. The funding includes money to hire new agents for the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), explains WOLA. Such rapid expansion would multiply concerns regarding oversight, accountability, and potential rights violations.

Rather than increasing Border Patrol and ICE, Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer recommend increasing "funding for additional CBP agents working at the land ports of entry, through which the vast majority of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and heroin pass hidden in vehicles."

"On detention, WOLA recommends that the detention of migrants awaiting an immigration hearing be reduced, not expanded and that Congress and the administration continue to pursue more cost effective alternatives to detention."

On the issue of the border, Americas Quarterly has a series of articles exploring the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. "People who live near the border know: the United States and Mexico are indivisible. That’s not some warm and fuzzy platitude. Rather, it’s a real-life recognition of how closely our economies and societies have become bound together, especially over the past 25 years. The advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and a historic wave of immigration – some of it legal, some of it not – have changed both countries forever," writes Brian Winter.

And even a very great wall won't curb the massive illicit flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico, note Robert Muggah and Topher McDougal. "In 2014, roughly 70 percent of all traceable illegal weapons recovered in Mexico were tracked back to licensed U.S. vendors. Approximately four of 10 of these weapons originated in Texas."

News Briefs
  • Massive proposed cuts in U.S. foreign aid would reduce the $1 billion currently devoted to the Western Hemisphere by 40 percent, reports InSight Crime. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is attempting to downplay the national crisis through social media videos, but instead he's coming across as "tone-deaf and out of touch," according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • The European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the “brutal repression” of Venezuelan protesters by state security forces, increasing the government's international isolation, reports Bloomberg.
  • Venezuela's National Assembly created a commission to investigate the role of pro-government armed groups -- known as colectivos -- in protest related violence in recent weeks, reports InSight Crime. If the move is an indication that the civilian militias would be dismantled in an eventual transition, it could have significant impact on the country's criminal landscape, where the colectivos are deeply embedded, according to InSight. 
  • Brazilian senators approved a bill aimed at curbing "abuses of power" in corruption investigations -- a measure prosecutors say is intended to strike back against judicial probes that have dozens of sitting lawmakers in their sights. The bill, passed late Wednesday, would curtail some practices recently used in the investigation, such as detaining suspects for questioning without prior requests, with penalties of up to four years in prison, reports the Wall Street Journal. The approved bill, which now passes to the lower house, was modified somewhat in response to judicial criticisms, notes El País. For example, punishment for judges whose rulings are later overturned and permission for investigated people to prosecute investigators and magistrates, were removed from the project. Prosecutors say the bill is aimed at curbing their investigations. At least 24 senators are under investigation in the "Car Wash" case, notes Reuters.
  • A general strike today, called by unions opposed to Brazilian President Michel Temer's economic reforms, has practically paralyzed São Paulo and disrupted traffic around the city, reports the Wall Street Journal
  • Authorities boarded up government buildings in Brasilia ahead of potential violence, reports Reuters.
  • Yet another human rights defender killed in Colombia, in the Cauca region, reports TeleSUR. The latest in a string of dozens of murders, Diego Fernando Rodriguez, a legal representative for a local community council in the Gana Plata area was found dead with stab wounds. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • A self-defense group in El Salvador is seeking formal legal recognition, calling attention to an increasingly dangerous situation as non-state actors seek to fill a perceived power vacuum in battling street gangs, reports InSight Crime.
  • Mexico's Senate passed new legislation that would raise prison sentences for enforced disappearances and create a national system for searching for missing persons, reports the Associated Press. (See Wednesday's briefs for a WOLA analysis of Ayotzinapa a year after the GIEI's exit.)
  • Uruguay's "barra bravas," organized soccer club fans, "have transformed themselves into true cartels that even fight for [control of] territory and the criminal activity they are involved in," according to Rafael Peña, head of security for the Uruguayan Soccer Association (Asociación Uruguaya de Fútbol - AUF). If so, their evolution could parallel that of their counterparts in Argentina, explains InSight Crime.
  • The tiny vaquita porpoise may already be extinct, and if it is not, the species' last hope may be captivity if scientists can find any surviving animals, reports the New York Times.
  • Trump and Argentine President Mauricio Macri had a friendly Washington meeting, accompanied by their glamorous wives. They played up their business history and announced  a bilateral working group dealing with cyber security to “protect economic and security interests” in both countries, reports EFE. Trump repeatedly referred to his counterpart as his "good friend" and praised Macri as "a great, wonderful person," and "a great leader," reports the Associated Press.
  • Forty years after their first march, las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, in their characteristic white headscarves, are hailed as human rights champions around the world. But they "warn that the current era of alternative facts and revisionist history poses a new kind of threat for the country," reports the Guardian.
  • Trump said he's opposed to helping Puerto Rico resolve its $70 billion debt load, reports the Associated Press. Students have taken the lead in resisting the territory's austerity push and insisting the debt be audited, reports The Nation.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Venezuela to quit OAS (April 27, 2017)

Venezuela will quit the Organization of American States, the hemisphere's oldest regional alliance, reports the Washington Post. The move comes after OAS member states voted to convene an emergency meeting to discuss the worsening humanitarian, political and economic crisis besieging Venezuela. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has led a regional charge against the government, which he has criticized as authoritarian.

Venezuela denounced the resolution as meddling in the country's internal affairs, reports the Wall Street Journal. But, the unprecedented exit points to the country's increasing isolation, according to the New York Times.

Protesters continue to pressure the government from the streets. Three more people were killed in clashes with security forces yesterday, bringing the total death toll up to at least 26 in recent weeks of protests, reports the Miami Herald. The AP put the number at 29.

Should Venezuela leave the OAS it would join Cuba, which was kicked out in 1962, as the only non-member in the hemisphere, notes the WP. It's departure could risk a rupture in the organization if allies like Nicaragua and Bolivia follow suit, notes Christopher Sabatini in the WP.

And in another twist to regional diplomacy, the CELAC bloc -- which excludes the U.S. and Canada -- set an emergency meeting for next week in response to a Venezuelan request. That international body could also be crippled if other Latin American countries boycott the forum.

Nonetheless, the OAS exit involves a two year process, which potentially be blocked by Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly or reversed if Maduro is unseated in general elections next year.

The window of time for exit gives the OAS room to continue discussions with Venezuela, notes David Smilde in the NYT.

Almagro said exit would require Venezuela to pay a debt of $8.7 million under O.A.S. rules.

In the meantime, fake news is taking Venezuelan social media by storm, reports El Confidencial.

An aside: There have been reports on how the latest spate of protests is different from the 2014 unrest which was largely confined to middle-class demonstrations. A post at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights looks at protests last week in a traditional Chavista stronghold in Caracas. "With the passing of time, President Nicolas Maduro’s inability to respond to the multiple demands of this sector and the recent revival of the massive protests by the opposition have turned the slums of Caracas into places where violent protests could potentially break out due to the rising levels of frustration," writes Yesman Utrera.


Labor reform sails through Brazilian lower house ahead of 24-hour strike tomorrow

Brazilian President Michel Temer's labor reform passed the lower chamber of congress with an ample majority: 296 to 177. The victory was expected, and is a boost for Temer's economic program, even as he battles extreme unpopularity. The proposal, which relaxes the country's restrictive labor laws, is a main plank of his attempt to revive an economy in deep recession, reports Reuters.

It's the biggest overhaul to labor laws in 70 years, according to El País. It would reduce or scrap mandatory union dues, make it harder for workers to sue their employers, and expand the scope for flexible work arrangements and temporary employment contracts, explains the Wall Street Journal. Supporters say the end result would be to make the country more competitive for manufacturers hampered on a global stage by worker protections.

But critics say the reform attacks long established workers rights. And The Intercept found that as many as a third of the bill's reforms came directly from business associations.

The bill is fiercely opposed by unions, and the vote came on the eve of a massive general strike tomorrow, reports El País. The mobilization -- the first since plea-bargain testimony from former Odebrecht execs implicated many members of the administration and congressional allies -- aims to influence lawmakers against the reform. A recent IPSOS poll put Temer's popularity at 4 percent, a fact protesters hope to leverage against his reform bills.

The vote was largely seen as a bellwether for the upcoming vote on pension reform, which will require the support of three-fifths of lawmakers (308 votes) as it alters the Constitution. 

Brazil is angling to join the OECD as soon as next month, a move the Temer administration hopes will help attract foreign investment, reports Reuters.

Having trouble keeping the hundreds of Brazilian politicians under investigation for corruption straight? A new Chrome plug-in promises to highlight the names when they pop-up in your browser and to summarize the allegations in question, reports the Guardian.

News Briefs
  • U.S. President Donald Trump's budget proposal involves drastic reductions for to foreign aid, and shifts funding from development to a national security oriented program, reports Foreign Policy. rump aims to merge USAID and the State Department, a move that could lead to the elimination of 35 percent of its field missions and 65 percent of its regional bureaus. Though his proposal will meet with bipartisan opposition to cutting foreign assistance, experts say the final budget will likely contain a decrease. Health programs abroad will also be hit with an estimated 25 percent reduction. And virtually all funding targeted at helping developing countries cope with climate change would be cut by the proposal, as well as 2016 Paris climate agreement commitments. "The cuts are also indicative of the wider push to tie development aid with U.S. national security interests. The budget zeroes out funds for development assistance, which funds 77 countries and regional offices, and redirects much of the remaining funds to the economic support fund, which is tied to specific U.S. political or strategic objectives."
  • The proposed reductions form part of a broader withdrawal from promoting human rights globally, a move which could impact efforts in other countries that can shield themselves with the U.S. example, argues Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times op-ed. "Even when the United States puts its full efforts behind human rights and democracy, the results can be disappointing. Countries like Mexico will ultimately be obliged to fix their justice and law enforcement systems on their own. Still, it is better to have the United States, with all its power, on the right side of the equation, rather than on the wrong side, where President Trump is increasingly placing it."
  • Castañeda's piece also makes reference to several key reforms in Mexico that could roll back judicial reforms -- including the presumption of innocence, the inadmissibility of hearsay and testimony obtained under torture, and a prohibition on holding suspects for a long time without trial -- as well as a proposal that would a legal framework for the military’s role in law enforcement. "Many Mexican legal analysts say this could offer the military a blanket amnesty for human rights violations." In the Conversation, Luis Gómez Romero analyzes the armed forces proposal in depth.
  • The U.S. will not unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA according to a White House statement after rumors that Trump would pull out of the landmark trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, reports the Guardian. Instead Trump agreed with his counterparts to advance swiftly in a renegotiation, reports the Financial Times. (The latest issue of Americas Quarterly is dedicated to the relationship between Mexico and the U.S., more details tomorrow.)
  • Sixteen U.S. Senators with the Democratic party sent a letter urging Trump to maintain temporary protected status for 50,000 Haitians living in the U.S., reports U.S.A. Today. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • Paraguay's lower house of Congress rejected a bill that would have permitted presidential reelection, after protests against the project turned deadly a few weeks ago. (See April 3's briefs.) The vote comes after President Horacio Cartés said last week that he would not seek reelection, reports TeleSUR. (See April 18's briefs.)
  • In the midst of El Salvador's high levels of violence, the trans community is particularly vulnerable to attacks -- about 16 trans people are killed each year and the life expectancy for a transgender woman in El Salvador is less than 35 years, reports Vice News.
  • Honduras' homicide rate dropped slightly last year, to 59.1 murders per 100,000 people last year, down from 60 per 100,000 in 2015, according to the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. However, the Observatory attributed the drop to a slight increase in the country's population and criticized the government's militarized approach to internal security, reports Reuters.
  • The PRI returned to power in Mexico in 2012, and has sought to distance itself from decades of accusations of stolen and purchased electoral victories. But faced with an unpopular president, corruption allegations and several former governors on the lam, the party is resorting to pressuring voters, reports the Associated Press.
  • New York Times Español op-ed by Diego Fonseca analyzes the broad grin on recently arrested Veracruz governor Javier Duarte's face, linking it to widespread political corruption that perpetually evades justice. While this case has become an attempt by the PRI to show change, in reality the majority of governors accused of corruption are never even investigated. "The general discredit of politicians in Mexican society leads to the supposition that the party system operates like a caste mechanism, where one old class of leaders is supplanted by agreement or by assault, by a new generation that repeats a premodern conception of power: patrimonialism, or the right to use public office to enrich oneself like a feudal overlord."
  • Mexico's federal government loses more than a billion dollars a year to fuel theft, an epidemic feeding a brisk black market around the country and possibly even in the U.S. and Central America, reports the New York Times. The crisis, which the government seems unable to stop, is also affecting efforts to attract foreign investment in the energy sector.
  • Former Peruvian president Ollanta Humala and his wife Nadine Heredia were questioned yesterday by a prosecutor who is investigating them for alleged money laundering, reports EFE.
  • Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez met to continue negotiations for a free trade agreement between Mercosur and the EU, reports EFE.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri is set to meet with Trump in Washington later today, reports EFE. Macri is expected to defend his market oriented reforms, despite lagging economic indicators and popular unrest at home, reports the Financial Times.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mexico calls Trump's wall a "hostile act" (April 26, 2017)

  • Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray lashed out strongly against U.S. President Donald Trump's plan to build a border wall, calling it an "unfriendly" and "hostile act," and saying it would be unlikely to actually deter undocumented migrants and illegal merchandise from crossing between the two countries, reports the Guardian. He spoke before the international relations commission in the lower house of congress and assured lawmakers that Mexico would not contribute any funding, and that the country would pursue legal measures if its border is infringed on. "The wall is not part of any bilateral discussion nor should it be," Videgaray said. "Under no scenario will we contribute economically to an action of this kind." The uncharacteristically strongly worded speech comes as U.S. funding for the project is increasingly uncertain. Trump has backed down from plans to fund the project in this week's spending bill, reports the BBC.
  • A year after the exit of the OAS interdisciplinary group of independent experts (GIEI) left Mexico, the Ayotzinapa case remains unresolved and forced disappearances continue at worrisome levels, according to a new WOLA analysis.
  • There's plenty of room for improvement in NAFTA -- unfortunately, much of those improvements were already included in the now nixed Trans Pacific Partnernship agreement, argues Jeffrey Frankel in the Guardian.
  • The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, has announced an urgent session on May 2 about ongoing opposition violence in Venezuela, reports TeleSUR. The meeting will be held in El Salvador, and is convened at the request of Venezuela, to address "threats against the constitutional order in Venezuela, as well as the interventionist actions undermining its independence, sovereignty and its right to self-determination."
  • Venezuela's crisis has been long already, but recent protests give a sense that a bridge has been crossed, notes a Guardian editorial. But change will not come from protests alone, a fact the opposition must accept in order to broker a reasonable solution, warns the paper, citing Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "That means uniting around concrete objectives such as a timetable for local and governorial elections. It means uniting behind a single leader, a putative presidential candidate that all factions trust – a tall order when one pre-eminent leader, Leopoldo López, is in prison and another, Henrique Capriles, has been banned. They must acknowledge that Chavismo still has a real hold on the hearts of many Venezuelans and any future settlement must make space for it; it cannot be the kind of exercise in revenge that has been seen too often in other South American countries."
  • In a piece for the World Politics ReviewDavid Smilde, analyzes how increased international pressures placed on the Venezuelan government have resulted in a surge in opposition activity. "...In the current context, the opposition’s demands are eminently reasonable: respect for the democratically elected National Assembly and an electoral calendar. And now they are receiving the support and sympathy of countries and multilateral institutions across the region concerned by Venezuela’s slide into authoritarianism." But it's far from clear how these demands will be met, and it is possible the government will dig in its heels until running out of money, given high exit costs for loyalists on various U.S. sanctions lists. "Finally, all eyes are on the military. So far, the National Police and the National Guard have been called on to repress opposition protests. It is not clear how unified they are in this task. Last Saturday, for the first time in almost three years, some officers allowed an opposition protest to march through the western part of Caracas at the same time that others were repressing the same march on the city’s main highway. If protests overwhelmed these two security forces and Maduro had to call in the army, how would officers respond? For a government that increasingly needs to rely on force to stay in power, any resistance from the military could pose the most serious challenge yet."
  • Indigenous protesters clashed with security forces in Brasilia, exchanging tear gas, rubber bullets and arrows, reports Reuters. Organizers estimate some 4,000 people took part in the demonstration. They demanded better protection of indigenous lands from ranchers and other business interests, reports the Associated Press.
  • Politicians of all of Brazil's mainstream parties who find themselves under investigation for corruption allegations can probably relax somewhat when they contemplate the Supreme Court backlog of 54,951 cases, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Brazilian gangsters carried out a cinematographic "heist of the century," attacking a Paraguayan security vault and police headquarters using automatic rifles, dynamite and anti-aircraft guns and making off with $8 million in a speedboat get-away, reports the Guardian. The BBC says some reports indicate a sum of $40 million and involve fifty armed men.
  • A Brazilian footballer convicted of murdering his girlfriend has been redetained, after two months of freedom from his 22 year sentence in which he was permitted to sign for a club, reports the Associated Press. Bruno Fernandes de Souza became a target of protests over activists who say Brazilian culture is forgiving of gender violence and femicide.
  • More than two thirds of people living in Mexico, Chile and Ecuador are overweight or obese, according to a new U.N. report. The tend is driven by changing diets, including more processed food that are high in salt, sugar and fat, along with more sedentary lifestyles, reports Reuters.
  • Argentina's economy contracted 2.2 percent in February, indicating that economic recovery might not happen as soon as expected, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Trouble in Paradise: A long report on land-disputes in Mexico's idyllic spiritual getaway, Tulum, by the Guardian.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Colombian civil society leaders victims of violence (April 25, 2017)

Colombia's government must strengthen efforts to protect rights defenders and community activists, increasingly the lethal victims of attacks since a peace deal was signed with the FARC, said Human Rights Watch. Reports estimate that up to 25 civil society activists had been killed in 2017, through March.  "Somos Defensores and the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Colombia report that most of the killings appear to have been committed by paramilitary successor groups, some of which emerged after a flawed demobilization process of paramilitary death squads a decade ago."

These concerns will form part of a second U.N. monitoring mission, aimed at verifying security and protection measures for former FARC fighters and community leaders once the cease-fire and disarmament phase is complete, explains a WOLA analysis from last week. The wave of assassinations is one of the gravest risks for the process writes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli.

Last week former President Álvaro Uribe sent a "blistering attack" on the accords to every U.S. congressional office, as well as to Washington’s community of analysts, advocates and donors who work on Colombia, reports WOLA. "Colombia’s peace accord implementation is going slowly, and faces daunting problems. There is a responsible, fact-based critique that a conservative analyst could make. Uribe’s document is not that critique. It suffers from numerous factual inaccuracies and statements that are easily rebutted. Its fixation on the FARC, a waning force, deliberately lacks important facts regarding other parties to the conflict and it does little to explain how the United States can help Colombia address post-conflict challenges. ... The vast majority of his claims are either inaccurate, or debatable."

News Briefs
  • U.S. Senator Marco Rubio denies setting up a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and two former Colombian presidents opposed to the peace process with the FARC, reports CBS News. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Homicides have gone down drastically in Colombia, but further reductions will require a focus on urban violence, write María Victoria Llorente, Juan Carlos Garzón and Boris Ramírez in El Espectador, part of the  “Instinto de Vida” campaign that aims to reduce homicides in the region by 50 percent. The piece analyzes homicide data from Cali, Bogotá, Medellín and Barranquilla, analyzing how homicides are grouped into specific neighborhoods with weak state presence. 
  • Rodrigo Tot, a Guatemalan land activist and evangelical pastor, was awarded the Goldman Environmental prize yesterday, in recognition of his defense of indigenous Q'eqchi community's lands against a mining company and the government, reports the Associated Press. Tot has fought for decades to try to obtain government recognition of locals' right to fertile farmland in Guatemala's eastern department of Izabal. Two previous Latin American recipients of the prize were killed in 2016 and 2017: Honduran Berta Cáceres in March of last year, and Mexican Isidro Baldenegro in January of this year.
  • Four people died in clashes between anti and pro government protesters in Venezuela yesterday, reports the Guardian. The government blamed the opposition for attacks on supporters. In Caracas the political opposition organized "sit-ins" that gathered thousands of people in support of elections and blocked major roads, reports the New York Times.
  • Venezuela's political opposition is "primarily a reactive force: able to mobilise the masses for short spells, but struggling to retain momentum subsequently," writes Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez in a Financial Times opinion piece. "In a country where scrounging for food and medicine has become a full-time job for many, the personal costs of sustaining protest are simply too high. When the world stops paying attention and international pressure begins to wane, so too do the crowds and the cycle begins anew. Time therefore is on Maduro’s side even as 80 per cent of Venezuelans are not."
  • In America's Quarterly, Venezuelan Daniel Fermín urges protesters to hew to non-violence, noting that "in nonviolent struggle, repression often backfires on the regime, causing cracks in their ranks. Nonviolent action is particularly effective in gaining international support and causing shifts in the regime’s international support base. Far from achieving its goals, when demonstrations turn violent they: 1) significantly raise the costs of participation, decreasing the number of people willing to join; 2) stimulate greater cohesion in pro-government groups; 3) lower the costs of repression, which is then seen by police and military forces as necessary and justified; and 4) delegitimize the protest in the eyes of the international community. All of this can happen –and has happened in the past– in Venezuela."
  • Ecuador's state media watchdog has fined seven media companies for failing to cover a story deemed in public interest. The government said there was an obligation to report on a story about the alleged off-shore dealings of then-presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso, who lost in a run-off election earlier this month. The companies -- including El Comercio, La Hora, Expreso and El Universo, and television channels Televicentro, Teleamazonas and Ecuavisa -- have accused the government of censorship, and appeals are underway, reports the BBC. The fines imposed on the companies are about $3,750.
  • Cash transfers had long-term impact on recipients' well being and fostered social mobility among Ecuador's poorest, according to a new United Nations University study on the country's Bono de Desarrollo Humano. Researchers also found that higher transfers translate into higher wellbeing, writes Andrés Mideros Mora in the Conversation. "For economists and policymakers, our research results should confirm that cash transfers must not be seen as merely a way to ensure the minimum level of food consumption, education and access to health for society’s poorest. Rather, they are a tool for fostering longer-term social mobility. The finding that size matters is also noteworthy. The more money families receive, the better their outcomes."
  • Former Haitian police commander Guy Phillipe pleaded guilty Monday in Miami federal court to a drug-related, money-laundering conspiracy charge that could send him to prison for at least nine years, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Peruvian police could expel two foreigners accused of inciting rural communities to protest against a Canadian owned copper mine, reports Reuters.
  • Colombia's National Electoral Council is asking President Juan Manuel Santos to voluntarily testify in its investigation into whether his re-election campaign received contributions from the scandal-tarred Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, reports the Associated Press.
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed a former Colombian director of intelligence from the country. Enrique Ariza Rivas has been charged in Colombia with aggravated psychological torture of a journalist and for various crimes relating to unlawful wiretapping.
  • Chile's leftist New Majority coalition is fielding a political outsider, Senator Alejandro Guillier, in this year's presidential elections. He will face off against conservative former President Sebastian Pinera, who seems likely to win, according to the Economist, which compares Chilea's post-dictatorship trajectory to Spain's. "In Chile, as in Spain, the transition ushered in the most successful period in the country’s history, with greater prosperity and social progress. In both cases the centre-left began to go astray when it ceased to believe in its own success." Over at the AULA blog, Stefano Palestini Céspedes says Guillier's selection indicates disillusionment among the center left's base, but that "the PS may be abandoning its previous ideological platform without a clear idea of what is going to be the new one.  The ideological and programmatic orientations behind Guillier’s candidacy are unclear."
  • Nine people, including an evangelical pastor, were killed in Brazil's Matto Grosso state last week. A human rights group points to a pattern of pressure aimed at displacing small-scale farmers from lucrative territories, reports AFP.
  • Extensive plea-bargain testimony from former Odebrecht executives has implicated a large swathe of Brazil's political class, and provides a sort of "900-hour corruption tutorial," according to O Globo. But the testimony shows how deep the culture of corruption in Brazil goes, to the point where experts say extensive reform will be needed to route it, reports the Financial Times. In the meantime, it's largely business as usual for the government, though several cabinet members and key lawmakers are officially under investigation in relation to allegations of corruption stemming from the Odebrecht testimony, notes the Economist.
  • In the meantime, while it appears next years presidential elections are the best bet for rescuing a delegitimized political system, its not clear who will be allowed to run thanks to corruption allegations besmirching leading politicians of the country's main parties. "Except for some miniscule political parties, virtually the entire political system now faces corruption charges," notes Fabio Kerche at Aula Blog.
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer said his tenure is not threatened by a legal case accusing him of receiving illegal campaign donations in the 2014 election in which he formed part of then-President Dilma Rousseff's ticket, reports EFE.
  • Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán has become an unlikely champion of penal reform -- albeit through complaints about the conditions he is subjected to in a Manhattan jail. His lawyers say the restrictions imposed on Guzmán have hindered his ability to prepare for trial, and have asked that Amnesty International be allowed to investigate conditions in the 10 South federal jail, reports the New York Times. (Other complaints include the quality of tap water and an oft-replayed rhinoceros tv show.) 
  • Nicaraguan police blocked thousands of farmers and rural residents from demonstrating against a canal that could cut across their territory, reports AFP.
  • Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo announced the recovery of grandson 122, reports TeleSUR.
  • Ecoturism is murky at best in the Amazon, where a lack of clear laws governing ecotourism and the use of natural resources permit tour operators to promote programs with negative impact for increasingly endangered wildlife, writes Vanessa Barbera in a New York Times op-ed.
  • Gushing article on Mexican wine country in the New York Times. Valle de Guadalupe is increasingly appealing to millennials with design oriented wineries and cheaper tourism options, reports the New York Times separately.

Monday, April 24, 2017

InSight Crime delves into Guatemala's homicide data (April 24, 2017)

It has become commonly accepted knowledge that Central America's homicide epidemic -- concentrated in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador -- is driven by gang violence and drug trafficking organizations. That "truth," has been touted by government officials who use it to justify iron fist approaches to battling gangs, and international aid, which is funneled into programs focused on international narcotics trafficking and gangs.

But, "the reality is that we do not know how much of the homicides in the Northern Triangle are related to DTOs and gangs," explains  ground-breaking research project by InSight Crime. "When faced with an incomplete picture as we frequently are when it comes to rising presence of gangs and DTOs, and increasing violence in the region, the easy conclusion is to say that these events are related, but the fact is that there are few analyses of the homicide data to tell us who the victims are, how they have been killed, what the official investigations tell us about these criminal events, and who the presumed murderers are."

The project takes on two areas in Guatemala -- one controlled by gangs and another a drug trafficking corridor -- and delves in depth into disaggregated data available in an attempt to pinpoint homicide causes and how they relate to gangs and drug trafficking organizations.

Researchers found that in the case of the drug trafficking corridor, only 28 percent of the homicides could reasonably be attributed to organized crime-related activities -- less than is normally chalked up to organized crime by authorities. But in the case of the gang-controlled area, about 41 percent of the homicides could be linked to gang-related activities, in line with Guatemalan authorities' statements.

Methodology buffs will also be interested in the conclusions of the report, which point to the potential of the data available from public sources. The investigation process generates a tremendous amount of information, though much of it is lost and undervalued. The data could be applied to actually solving crimes -- most of which go unpunished -- but also for mapping homicide hotspots, and crossing data to see trends in victims, weapons, suspects, etc, notes Stephen Dudley in his write up.

"To date, the emphasis on the data gathering has been to satisfy a political appetite, to show that there is someone paying attention and, in the best case scenario, that these statistics are moving in a positive direction. But this is short-sighted and ignores the underlying issues that lead to this violence in the first place. Data is not a bureaucratic burden to be used for career advancement or political benefit. It is the core upon which strategies are made, resources are deployed and lives are saved."

News Briefs
  • A dozen people died in chaotic looting in Caracas last Thursday and Friday. Authorities said at least eight were apparently electrocuted attempting to rob a bakery, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Thousands of people marched in Caracas on Saturday, honoring the 20 people killed in the recent weeks of anti-government protests. For the first time, demonstrators managed to cross from the wealthier eastern side of Caracas to the traditionally pro-government west without encountering resistance from state security, reports the Associated Press.
  • President Nicolás Maduro must be considered directly responsible for all the deaths in recent days, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro told the Miami Herald's Andrés Oppenheimer.
  • The political opposition is also attempting to woo the armed forces, directly asking them to defy orders to repress protests, reports the Washington Post. Their goal is to create more pressure on internal divisions, but not to carry out a coup, according to opposition leadership. However, Maduro has carefully worked to create loyalty with the military, which has an influential role in the government and extensive benefits.
  • Armed pro-government bands -- colectivos -- are playing a key role in repressing dissent in Venezuela, reports the New York Times. Security forces are wielding water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, but these paramilitary groups are engaged in more constant and deadly intimidation. Increasingly, they are dabbling in criminal pursuits for financing as well.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump quietly met with two former Colombian presidents at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The meeting with Álvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana -- prominent critics of the FARC peace process led by current President Juan Manuel Santos -- was arranged by Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and was not on Trump's schedule and was not disclosed to reporters, according to the Miami Herald. Santos will be seeking continued U.S. support of the peace agreement and the $450 million in foreign aid promised by former President Barack Obama.
  • The French government pledged an aid package worth billions of euros for French Guiana, and lifted a strike that has paralyzed the country for nearly a month, reports the AFP.
  • At least 35 people were killed in Mexico this weekend, 12 in different incidents in Sinaloa state on Sunday, reports Reuters. The homicides are attributed to an increase in battles between gangs since the arrest of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán last year. Violence has surged to the highest levels since 2011, and President Enrique Peña Nieto is facing criticisms over his handling of the issue.
  • It appears that El Salvador's vice president, Óscar Ortiz, carried out money laundering activities, in relation to the illegal activities of José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo," captured earlier this month, reports Factum. (InSight Crime has the English version.)
  • Honduran authorities say their policies targeting organized crime are responsible for the country's drop in homicides. But they "appear to be making contradictory assumptions about the effects of their anti-crime strategies," warns InSight Crime.
  • Guy Phillipe, a former Haitian policecommander, has agreed to plead guilty to a drug-related charge in a Miami federal court. He likely obtained a deal allowing him to avoid a life-sentence, reports the Miami Herald. Phillipe participated in the 2004 coup and has been accused of human rights violations. He was elected to the Senate last year, and was captured DEA agents just before swearing in would have granted parliamentary immunity. Haiti's President Jovenel Moïse openly campaigned with Philippe, despite his fugitive status, and has appointed a number of close Philippe supporters to key government posts, notes the Herald.
  • The Trump administration believes conditions have improved enough in Haiti to justify sending back 58,000 of Haitians currently granted temporary immigration relief, reports the Miami Herald. (Last year, Obama moved to end the temporary protected status for undocumented Haitian immigrants, but reversed course after Hurricane Matthew devastated part of the country. See post for Sept. 22, 2016.)
  • A group of retired, senior U.S. military officers has asked Trump to continue the normalization process with Cuba for the sake of U.S. national security and stability in the region, reports the Miami Herald
  • The infrastructure investment related to Brazil's recent mega-games -- the 2016 Olympics and 2014 World Cup -- is laced with allegations of bribes and corruption, reports the Guardian.
  • The U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean — ECLAC — estimates regional GDP growth will reach 1.3 percent this year, but analysts emphasize that recovery is likely to be "shallow" and "subdued," reports the Miami Herald. In the Caribbean growth is expected to be uneven -- while some countries are predicted to grow at 5 percent, others will have negligible growth, notes the Miami Herald in a separate piece.
  • The New York Times profiles Gendes, a research and advocacy group in Mexico City that seeks to improve male behavior through counseling, education and public awareness campaigns: in short, "confronting the entrenched ideas fueling machismo."

Friday, April 21, 2017

Protesters stay on Venezuelan streets (April 21, 2017)

For the second day in a row, Caracas was filled with protesters and tear gas yesterday. Crowds were smaller than the massive turnout on Wednesday, and opposition lawmakers accused security forces of using excessive teargas to block protesters, reports Reuters. Police in armored trucks faced off against stone-throwing demonstrators, reports the BBC.

Social media users reported clashes between protesters and security forces after nightfall in several parts of the city, according to Efecto Cocuyo
The most recent wave of protests is characterized by people facing off against security forces, rather than merely marching to show street presence, argues Gisela Kozak Rovero in a New York Times Español op-ed. "Definitively, we have moved from appeasement to resistance."

The political opposition is attempting to maintain pressure on President Nicolás Maduro's embattled government, which has countered characterizing their efforts as a coup attempt. But analysts say demonstrations are unlikely to topple the administration, though, along with increasingly focused international pressure, they could force elections to go ahead as scheduled next year, reports the Guardian.

Maduro seems to retain the loyalty of the armed forces, which he has granted many privileges to in recent years, according to the Miami Herald. Yet the opposition claims there are internal fissures in the military that could come to a head due to the current social pressure.

The combination of internal and external pressure on the administration is a key difference with previous episodes of social conflict, however, according to Efecto Cocuyo. Attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz has been increasingly critical, and on Wednesday urged the government to respect the right to peaceful protest. (See yesterday's post.)

Taking advantage of these schisms and pushing for free and transparent elections is key for the anti-government movement, as is international pressure marking that a further slide to authoritarianism is unacceptable, writes Kozak.

A General Motors factory seized in Venezuela this week prompted the U.S. car making giant to suspend operations in the country, the latest in a long list of multinational corporations to pull out, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's briefs.)

Maduro ordered an investigation into Telefónica’s Movistar for alleged "coup-mongering," yesterday, reports the Financial Times

News Briefs
  • A laundry list of Venezuela's current crisis includes chronic recession, rampant inflation, punishing food shortages and lack of basic medicines -- all of which have been widely reported on. But the situation has also "fed the growth of criminality and organized crime to unprecedented levels," reported InSight Crime earlier this week. Caracas' homicide rate is among the highest in the world, high level government officials participate in drug trafficking, and pro-government paramilitary groups have gone rogue and are resorting to criminal tactics to support themselves. "Criminal elements within the regime and outside it would like nothing more than to maintain the status quo," explains the piece that looks at various aspects of criminality at high levels, including in the armed forces.
  • A human rights group representing Haitian women impregnated by U.N. peacekeepers who are seeking child support payments has accused the international organization of refusing to cooperate, reports the Guardian.
  • Amid plans for the U.N. to finalize it's longstanding peacekeeping stabilization mission in Haiti, the country is seeking to revive its military, 22 years after it was disbanded, reports the Associated Press. The proposal could potentially provide much needed jobs, but frightens those who suffered under years of military coups. Defense Minister Herve Denis said a new force focused on development is needed, and said a security vacuum could be created by the U.N. pullout.
  • At least 17 people were killed by a landslide in Manizales in central Colombia yesterday, reports the BBC. Earlier this month 300 people were killed in a landslide in Mocoa, in the country's south.
  • Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment process was motivated by a desire for revenge on the part of then-lower house leader Eduardo Cunha, who had sought protection from an ethics committee investigation into corruption. The admission comes from current President Michel Temer, who spoke in a television interview last weekend, reports TeleSUR. "If the vote (at the ethical commission) had turned out differently, Mrs. President would likely still be governing," said Temer. But he noted that vengeance did not motivate all the lawmakers who voted for the impeachment, and that the procedure was still valid, reports Valor Economico. Rousseff's lawyer said the statements will be added to a request to the Supreme Court asking for the annulment of her impeachment and a dismissal order against Temer. Interestingly, almost no coverage of the case in Brazilian mainstream media. The Intercept Brazil calls local media to task for slanted coverage of this and the recent laundry list of corruption accusations that involves many key government figures. (Thanks Manuel Rosaldo for your help on this one.)
  • Justice may finally be in sight for families of the victims of El Mozote massacre in 1981, after the case was reopened by El Salvador's Supreme Court, reports Reuters. (Nothing really new in the piece.)
  • Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are portraying El Salvador's MS-13 gang as an increasingly dangerous threat to the U.S., permitted to gain foothold by the previous administration's lax immigration policy. At InSight Crime Héctor Silva Ávalos fact checks the statements, noting of course that MS-13 originated in the U.S. and that U.S. law enforcement has actually carried out extensive actions against the gang in the past decade. "Both Trump and Sessions resorted to repeating misinformation that other officials -- including Central American presidents, ministers and police chiefs -- have used to justify heavy-handed anti-gang policies, which have only helped the MS13 and Barrio 18 to become more sophisticated as their members have been stuffed into prisons."
  • Uruguay's senate passed a bill that would make femicide a criminal offense, reports TeleSUR. The bill passed unanimously, and several lawmakers called for further actions to instigate social and cultural change, critical to combatting the phenomenon, reports El País.
  • Argentine actors have protested the government dismissal of the INCAA Film Institute president, calling it part of a plan to intervene and defund the industry, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brexit might be Argentina's chance to obtain E.U. support for its Falklands/Malvinas claim, according to Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, reports Reuters.