Friday, June 30, 2017

Mexican spyware scandal broadens (June 29, 2017)

Mexico's spyware scandal widened yesterday with news that opposition leaders were targeted by government owned software. (See yesterday's briefs.) Last week news broke that human rights activists and journalists critical of the government were also victims of hacking by the software. 

The report by Internet watchdog group Citizen Lab doesn't say who is responsible for the spying, but notes that the infiltration of the conservative National Action Party leaders' phones occurred as Congress was debating anti-corruption legislation, reports the Los Angeles Times. PAN members also received infected messages after key state elections in 2016, in which voters punished the PRI over a string of corruption scandals, reports the Guardian.

NSO Group, the Israeli company that makes the spyware, says it sells its product only to government agencies for the purpose of fighting criminals and terrorists. President Enrique Peña Nieto admitted the government purchased the software, but denied ordering surveillance of targets. (See June 23's briefs.)

The purchase of the Pegasus program for about $32 million took place in October of 2014, under the aegis of then-chief prosecutor Arely Gómez, reports Animal Político. Prominent journalist Carmen Aristegui received the first messages with links that would hack her phone in November of 2015. Other activists and journalists started receiving the messages in early 2016. In an interview with Animal Político, Gómez insists the spyware was used lawfully during her tenure.

The scandal is a new low for Peña Nieto's tarnished administration, according to the Guardian.

News Briefs
  • Venezuela's "renegade" chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz charged the former head of the country's national guard, Antonio Benavides Torres, with systemically violating human rights during three months of anti-government protests that have left nearly 80 people dead yesterday. In a statement, she cited the use of unauthorized firearms and torture of those apprehended. Police and military officers are responsible for about a quarter of the nearly 80 deaths so far in about three months of protests, according to information released by her office yesterday, reports the Associated Press. Benavides was replaced last week by President Nicolás Maduro, who assigned him as government head of the capital district. He is one of seven Venezuelan officials sanctioned by then U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015 for allegedly violating human rights against protesters during the 2014 demonstrations that left 43 people dead.
  • Today, the U.N. criticized President Nicolas Maduro's government for curtailing the powers of the chief state prosecutor and called on it to uphold the rule of law and freedom of assembly in Venezuela amid a clampdown on protesters, reports Reuters. A Supreme Court decision earlier this week began removal proceedings against Ortega, froze her assets and forbade her to leave the country. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • A new WOLA report examines Mexico’s immigration enforcement and its emerging role as an asylum destination. It finds that low levels of migrant apprehensions in Mexico and at the U.S. border during the first few months of 2017 are not sustainable -- in fact, over the past few months apprehensions have increased already, by 31 percent over April, with apprehensions of unaccompanied minors jumping 50 percent. Significant migration is likely to continue, given ongoing violence and insecurity in Central America. "The Trump administration’s hard line inspired a wave of Central American migration before the inauguration, and a sharp drop afterward. But these decreased migration flows are not likely to last," said Adam Isacson, WOLA Senior Associate for Defense Oversight. "The violence and misery in Central America that cause people to migrate—and often flee for their lives—have not changed," he said.
  • The displacement surge from Central America is driven by two main factors -- organized violence and deportations, writes Robert Muggah in a Guardian opinion piece. Hundreds of thousands of people have left their homes due to extremely high rates of violence, in part fomented by the U.S. policy of deporting people with criminal records between 2013 and 2015, he argues.
  • The recent Central America summit in Miami shows how U.S. priorities have shifted away from development towards security based initiatives, writes Laura Weiss in World Politics Review. "The return to militarized policies and investment plans that benefit a small circle of business interests in the U.S. and Central America will only exacerbate the current crisis. Although security and economic issues in Central America are inextricably related to migration, the Homeland Security office that handles asylum requests was not invited to the conference, nor was the Office of Population and Resettlement, which handles budgeting for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Civil society groups in Central America and Mexico were not consulted, either—an ongoing issue since the launch of the Alliance for Prosperity in 2015."
  • Brazil's powerful attorney general's term is set to end in September. Yesterday, just two days after Rodrigo Janot charged President Michel Temer with corruption, the leader chose his successor. Temer bucked tradition and chose the runner-up in an election among top prosecutors that generated a list of three attorney-general candidates from which he could choose, reports the Wall Street Journal. Leaders traditionally choose the candidate favored by prosecutor. The choice comes as critics say the government is aiming to undermine the broad-ranging Operation Car Wash probe into corruption, and as the administration accuses prosecutors of politically motivated attacks. (See Wednesday's post.)
  • The lower house of Congress must now vote over whether to put Temer on trial based on the charges filed earlier this week. Few lawmakers attended the reading of the charges, indicating a lack of appetite among legislators to put the embattled president on trial, according to Bloomberg.
  • Brazilian authorities issued arrest warrants for 95 Rio de Janiero cops yesterday, in an effort to root out entrenched corruption. They allegedly sold arms and tipped off drug gangs to future operations, reports Reuters. The massive operation adds "to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the state's militarized security policy is failing," according to InSight Crime.
  • The U.S. requested the extradition of former Guatemalan interior minister and police chief Lieutenant Colonel Mauricio López Bonilla. The court documents allege he issued orders for his subordinate agents to guard cocaine shipments that drug traffickers moved throughout the country, gave advance warning to criminals of police operations aimed at capturing them, and reassigned officials in an attempt to facilitate drug trafficking, reports InSight Crime.
  • Tamaulipas authorities detained two of the four suspected murderers of activist Miriam Rodríguez, who was killed last month, reports Animal Político. Prosecutors said yesterday she was apparently murdered in revenge for her years searching for her disappeared daughter, reports the Associated Press. Her investigations led to the detention of several people in relation to her daughter's kidnapping.
  • A rare positive note for Mexico's kingpin targeting strategy? New government data shows a reduction in Sinaloa Cartel activity in Mexico since the extradition of leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán to the U.S. earlier this year, reports Animal Político.
  • The case of over 100 Ecuadorean fishermen incarcerated in the U.S. and Central America on drug trafficking charges is indicative of "how those at the bottom of the trafficking chain often pay a disproportionate judicial price in the war on drugs," reports Insight Crime.
  • Chile's government might not be able to carry out pension reform before elections later this year, reports Reuters based on an interview with the country's finance minister.
  • The Pacific Alliance, which comprises Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru, will admit Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Canada as associate members today. The move is aimed at broadening the reach of its trade flows and investments, reports Reuters. The Alliance has a marked support of free trade in the region, even as the U.S. threatens to derail NAFTA.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his U.S. counterpart are set to meet up at next week's G-20 meeting in Hamburg, a chat likely to attract scrutiny ahead of NAFTA renegotiation talks, reports the Financial Times.
  • China is open to a free trade agreement with Mexico, according to China's ambassador to the country. Mexico is anxious to reduce its economic dependence on the U.S., reports Reuters.
  • Bloomberg is touting Mexican finance minister Jose Antonio Meade as an honest functionary and potential presidential candidate, thought the man himself demurred over whether he'd run.
  • This week marks the eight year anniversary of the coup that removed Honduran President Mel Zelaya, reports TeleSUR.
  • Brazil seeks to become a palm oil giant -- and could well compete with dominant producers Indonesia and Malaysia, given its vast tracts of land suitable for growing oil palm. The catch? Most of it is the Amazon, and environmentalists fear the push will fuel a surge in land grabbing, conflict and deforestation, reports the Guardian.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Venezuela coup attempt/telenovela?

There's still no consensus on what exactly happened in Venezuela with the "Chopper Coupster" helicopter attack on government buildings on Tuesday evening. (See yesterday's post.) 

The government called it a terrorist attack -- though nobody was killed or injured. And later officials said it was part of a CIA sponsored coup with the help of retired Gen. Miguel Rodríguez Torres, who broke with the administration earlier this year, reports the Wall Street Journal

Some wondered, briefly, if it signaled the beginning of a break within the armed forces. Many people suspect the whole episode is a government ruse to cover up increasing encroachment on the opposition-led National Assembly and the critical attorney general. 

The fact that the special forces member suspected of carrying out, Oscar Pérez, is also a part time actor just makes the whole thing more confusing and suspicious. However, one prominent journalist says Pérez's actions were genuine, though isolated and possibly a bit mad, reports the Washington Post

"My sense is what happened [Tuesday] was so bizarre that most Venezuelans don’t know what to make of it or know who to blame," WOLA's David Smilde told the New York Times, noting that Venezuelans do not in general favor military coups. "In the current context, most Venezuelans prefer an electoral solution to the crisis," he said. 

(Bonus track: check out Perez's Instagram account, featuring videos of him parachuting with a German shepherd and helping children with cancer obtain medication."

News Briefs
  • Venezuela's Supreme Court has banned attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz from leaving the country and froze her assets yesterday, reports the BBC.
  • A young asylum seeker who was tortured in Venezuela is no longer facing deportation from the U.S. reports the New York Times.
  • A new report by Igarapé Insitute found that over 67 percent of Haitians were made homeless or forced to temporarily relocate after Hurricane Matthew last year. Their findings, based on three household surveys taken in October and December of last year and this February, show that women were disproportionately affected and were more likely than men to have experienced ongoing displacement. The surveys show how households were forced to resort to survival strategies to meet their food needs. Additionally, the report highlights the lack of information before the storm. Just 15 percent of respondents heard about the impending storm from radio, school and church announcements, community loudspeakers, social media and text messages while most heard by word of mouth, family, or friends. And just 5.7 percent of households evacuated before the cyclone made landfall.
  • A new World Bank study questions health priorities in Haiti, and calls on government and donors to better coordinate efforts and focus on primary and preventive healthcare and not hospitals, reports the Miami Herald. The study found that Haiti has significantly more hospitals than many countries but spends less on healthcare per capita than its closest neighbors. Also on the issue of Haitian healthcare, a Pulitzer Center report looks at controversy over a cervical cancer screening procedure with questioned efficacy.
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer lost another bit of support yesterday when senate leader Renan Calheiros quit his post and declared the government to be "discredited." Calheiros is a rival of Temer within their PMDB party, and wants to distance himself ahead of a reelection campaign next year, according to  the Guardian. In fact, reelection campaigns could eventually erode Temer's support within Congress, where many members face corruption investigations of their own, notes the Washington Post. Though he is expected to survive an initial vote to put him on trial, his base may start cracking if requests pile up over the next few months. "By that point, the congressional members, who face elections next year, may bow to mounting public pressure to oust Temer." (See yesterday's post.)
  • Brazilian authorities have suspended the issuing of new passports because of a budget crisis, reports the BBC.
  • Caribbean migrants are an increasingly contentious issue in Chile ahead of November's presidential elections, reports the Guardian. Already the more than 50,000 Haitians and 15,000 Dominicans in the country face discrimination and outmoded immigration policies that consider them potential subversives. They are confronting ingrained racial discrimination in a country that until recently had a small black population. The leading right-wing candidate, former president and billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera, has promised to follow the example of his U.S. and Argentine counterparts and crackdown on undocumented migrants -- an estimated 150,000 in Chile.
  • Three senior opposition leaders in Mexico were also apparently targets of spyware owned by the government, according to a report by the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab. It's the same software that has been use to spy on activists and journalists, reports Reuters. (See last Wednesday's briefs.)
  • "As implementation of the Colombian peace process moves forward, violence against human rights defenders continues," notes a WOLA update from yesterday. "June was a particularly difficult month for Afro-Colombian organizations and their leaders after Bernardo Cuero Bravo, leader of the Association of Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados, AFRODES) was murdered in his home in Malambo, Atlántico. Human rights defenders, trade unionists, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous and other community leaders carrying out vital efforts to secure peace in Colombia continue to be under threat." (See yesterday's briefs on the Colombian peace process.)
  • A minimum wage hike in El Salvador increased maquila worker wages by nearly 40 percent - the sector represents nearly 10 percent of the work force, mostly women. But "the wage increase has provoked a strong backlash from what has been described as El Salvador’s “rabidly anti-union private sector”, with business lobbies issuing legal challenges, factories firing workers and other businesses threatening to relocate to countries with cheaper labour costs," reports Equal Times.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto praised telecommunications reforms that significantly expanded access to cellular phones and internet, even as the overhaul faces a major challenge from billionaire Carlos Slim in the Supreme Court, reports Reuters.
  • A secretive attempt to permit presidential reelection and the violent protests it spurred seem to have been rapidly left behind in Paraguay -- at least according to international press coverage. But the conflagration over a constitutional issue -- an a strange alliance between left and right wing parties -- indicates deeper problems with Paraguay's rural landownership based political economy, argues Laurence Blair in World Politics Review.
  • The founder of Peru's Shining Path rebel group, already serving a life sentence for terrorism, refused to answer prosecutors' questions over a 1992 car bombing this week, reports EFE.
  • "Social acupuncture," alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders, and investments in public space, education and social services drastically reduced homicides in Medellín and Bogotá. "Why has the rest of the region failed to grasp these lessons" asks Igarapé Institute's Robert Muggah in the Conversation. "Rather than replicate these experiences, Latin American governments have responded to rising violence by sinking more money into police forces, prosecutors and prisons."

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Helicopter fired at Venezuelan government buildings (June 28, 2017)

A police helicopter, possibly manned by a former police intelligence officer, fired shots at Venezuela's Interior Ministry and lobbed four grenades at the country's Supreme Court building yesterday. No injuries were reported. President Nicolás Maduro called it an act of terrorism, and said the arms failed to detonate, reports the Guardian.

Venezuela's political opposition questioned the attack, saying Maduro had orchestrated a diversion from attempts to intervene in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, reports the Wall Street Journal. Yesterday soldiers surrounded the congress building, and clashed with lawmakers who said troops were carrying equipment to be used in a government takeover of the building.

The alleged attack on government buildings took place shortly after Maduro said his supporters would be willing to take up arms if his government is toppled. Speaking at a rally to promote a 30 July vote for a constituent assembly, Maduro seemed to threaten to fight unfavorable electoral results with weapons, reports the Guardian separately.

Venezuelan media describe an exchange of fire between building guards and the helicopter, and pin the attack on Oscar Pérez, a former captain in the CICPC, Venezuela’s intelligence and investigative body. In a video released on social media, Pérez speaks directly to a camera flanked by four masked men wielding what appear to be assault rifles. He said he represented a coalition of military, police and civilian personnel who opposed what he called "this transitional, criminal government," reports the New York Times. (Footage of attack and video.)

The helicopter used in the attack flew a banner reading, "350 Libertad," apparently a reference to the article of the Venezuelan constitution which says citizens will not recognize regimes that run counter to democratic values. In the video Pérez  says his allegiance is to "the truth and to Christ," reports the Guardian separately. The NYT reviews some mysterious elements of Pérez's past, such as an appearance as a police officer in a 2015 film.

The incident could indicate growing dissent within the security forces against the Maduro government.

The incident occurred in the wake of the worst incidents of looting since a wave of daily protests against the government began over two months ago, notes the Guardian. Some 68 businesses, including supermarkets, liquor stores, bakeries and food shops were ransacked in a wave of lawlessness that began Monday night in the city of Maracay, 100km west of Caracas. And residents of a middle-class gated community shot at national guard members to prevent them from entering the neighborhood, in eastern Caracas.

Yesterday the Maduro-loyal Supreme Court published a decision that gave investigative powers to the human-rights ombudsman, an ally of the president, usurping powers of Attorney General Luisa Ortega who has been increasingly critical of the regime, reports the WSJ.


Brazilian politics reeling -- again, even more

Bribery charges filed against Brazilian President Michel Temer bring the country's leadership close to a potential ouster, for the second time in little over a year. (See yesterday's post.) Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot accused Temer of accepting about $150,000 in bribes and agreeing to take about $11.5 million more. He is expected to bring additional charges for obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy in upcoming days, and requested permission from the Supreme Court to investigate the president for money laundering. Each of the charges must be evaluated by the lower house of Congress, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in order to put Temer on trial before the Supreme Court. If that happens, he will be suspended for 180 days. 

Though analysts say he currently has enough support from lawmakers to duck a trial, that could change as new evidence comes to light or successive charges are filed and evaluated by Congress, reports the Wall Street Journal. The longer the process takes, the more his support could wear thin, and eventually it might come down to whether ruling party legislators consider him a liability ahead of next year's elections, according to the Guardian.

Calls for Temer to resign and call early elections before his mandate finishes next year are multiplying -- he is resisting and insists on his innocence. He has said the charges against him are politically motivated, and that Janot's supporters are against the national interest, reports the Guardian. Ironically, his supporters say the anti-corruption push by prosecutors is undemocratic and denies power to elected officials. In the meantime, the opposition is making much of the fact that Temer is the first sitting president charged with corruption. 

While Temer supporters insist it is vital he remain in office and complete a series of economic reforms aimed at pulling the country out of recession, the current political scenario makes that unpopular legislation unlikely to pass, notes the WSJ. (The Wall Street Journal has a handy summary of how the charges will wend their way through the system -- there is no timeline for when the House of Deputies will vote on the case.)

News Briefs
  • Colombia's FARC rebels turned over the last of 7,132 weapons yesterday to U.N. monitors. The U.N. has also destroyed also destroyed 77 of hundreds of the guerrilla group's secret arms caches throughout the country. "Goodbye to weapons, goodbye to war, hello peace," said FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño. The FARC plans to become a political party, likely launching in August, reports the Guardian. A ceremony yesterday in a transition camp where fighters prepare for civilian life was attended by President Juan Manuel Santos. He gave Londoño a gold shovel made from an old machine gun, and white butterflies were released, reports the Financial Times. The weapons handed over by former fighters will be melted down and used to create monuments to peace. Now comes the challenge of implementing the rest of the complex peace agreement that promises special tribunals for war crimes and extensive rural development programs, reports the New York Times. That will be the hard part, Cynthia J. Arnson, the director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told the NYT. The peace process has polarized Colombia, and next year's presidential election promises to become a second referendum on the issue, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombia's top anticorruption prosecutor was arrested in Bogotá, after U.S. DEA agents said they had recorded him in South Florida at meetings where a former Colombian governor was asked to pay bribes in exchange for favorable treatment and names of witnesses, reports the New York Times. It is another blow for Santos' administration.
  • Peru's public prosecutor has opened an investigation in the wake of a fire that killed four people in Lima, apparently working in virtual conditions of slavery. Two may have been locked into a container on the roof of a building where they worked. The case draws attention abysmal working conditions in a country where 70 percent of the work force is in the unregulated labor sector, according to the Guardian.
  • Gang warfare has spurred incredible violence in Honduras, where the homicide rate in San Pedro Sula is among the world's highest. Clashes between the dominant MS-13 and 18th Street gangs are motivated by conflicts over specific drug trafficking routes and local representation of Mexican cartels, according to a Fusion piece by Douglas Farah
  • A Honduran-Guatemalan customs union could boost economic growth in both countries by one percent, reports Reuters.
  • Argentina is unlikely to make headway with economic reform ahead of October's midterm elections, which have paralyzed Congress, warned treasury minister Nicolás Dujovne according to the Financial Times.
  • Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is constructing a massive new urban intervention in Mexico City -- a  $13.4 billion airport project. "The stakes are high, and not just for Slim," reports the Guardian. "Should this project be a success, it will be his crowning glory, a symbol of his role in shaping Mexican modernity and a great gateway for the country’s global ambitions. Should it be a fiasco, future generations will see it as an ostentatious monument in an era long on mathematics and short on wisdom, in which natural resources existed to be consumed, megaprojects were a way to keep the poor fed and occupied, and the future was an afterthought."
  • Mexico City's mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera is harboring presidential ambitions for next year. But his plans for a major mass-transit bus line have been paused by complaints from ecological groups who say it will require chopping back trees along Reforma Avenue, reports the Financial Times.
  • Miss Escobar, El Patrón del Mal? Netflix has now released a new series about Mexican drug cartel kingpin, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. But not for the faint of heart. According to the Guardian review, it sounds like another Hollywood-version of a narcocorrido: "El Chapo traces the Scarface blueprint of a young buck with a big idea who butts up against the established order and prevails thanks to clever alliances and chilling ruthlessness. If you’re expecting carnage, the show will not disappoint. Explosions, decapitation, torture, unimaginable cruelty, slaughter of innocents and coke-induced psychosis pop up with the reliability of a drug dealer who always comes through."
  • Yay parrots! A rare new species discovered in Mexico and no birds were harmed in the DNA testing to identify their ancestry, reports the Guardian.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Temer indicted (June 27, 2017)

Brazilian President Michel Temer was accused by the country's prosecutor general of taking a $152,000 bribe via an intermediary, reports the New York Times. Rodrigo Janot said Temer had accepted a payment from the owner of a meatpacking giant, Joesley Batista in exchange for helping resolve a problem that a Batista company was having with a power plant it owned. He said the act "helped to compromise the image of the Federal Republic of Brazil," and said the president should pay $3 million in moral damages. According to the charges a further $11 million were promised. 

Janot's 64-page decision said that in general Temer showed a total disregard for the office, reports the Associated Press.

It's the first time since the return of democracy that a Brazilian president has faced criminal charges, reports the Financial Times. Temer denied the charges and said he would not resign.

Batista alleges that Temer led a group of politicians that acted as a criminal syndicate, charging bribes in exchange for financing from state banks and favorable regulatory actions, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Congress must now decide whether to accept these charges of corruption and any that might follow -- a two-thirds vote in the lower chamber and Supreme Court agreement would lead to Temer's suspension for 180 days while he is put on trial. (See last Wednesday's post.) Should Temer be suspended, House leader Rodrigo Maia would temporarily replace him, reports the Associated Press. Maia himself is facing 

Nonetheless, analysts say Temer continues to have enough votes in Congress to duck the charges, though he is increasingly unpopular and support for the administration is wavering. A recent poll found that 7 percent of Brazilians approved of Temer's government, 76 percent thought he should resign, and 47 percent felt ashamed to be Brazilian.

His increasing unpopularity could affect the government's ability to pass economic reform legislation through Congress, notes FT.

Former finance minister Antonio Palocci was sentenced to 12 years in prison yesterday, a major success for the sprawling anti-corruption Operation Car Wash probe. Palocci served as finance minister to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and chief of staff to his impeached successor, Dilma Rousseff. The sentence means Palocci could agree to a plea bargain that could lessen his sentence in exchange for providing information on other officials' crimes, reports the Financial Times. A deal is expected to be announced by September, reports Reuters.

Palocci's testimony could serve to widen the scope of Operation Car Wash even more.

The WSJ has an interesting summary of the unsettling impact of Operation Car Wash, which "has expanded from a narrow money-laundering probe into Brazil’s most significant anticorruption push ever. In a country where the rich and powerful historically faced few consequences for wrongdoing, the investigation has led to the jailing of scores of high-profile businessmen and politicians, yielded more than $7 billion in settlements and stirred broad hopes for a fairer society. But it hasn’t magically given Brazilians a new roster of honest politicians, something even the most optimistic political scientists say would take years. Instead, the investigations have fueled a state of nearly constant political turmoil, contributing to Brazil’s deepest economic downturn in more than a century and leading to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016." The question being, whether the costs of cleaning up corruption are worth it, asks the piece.

Investors are carrying on as usual, despite the presidential indictment, reported the Financial Times this morning. It's a marked contrast from the violent reaction in May, when news of evidence of Temer's collusion with hush-money payments first surfaced. (See May 18's post.) "The lack of a so-called “Temer tantrum” could in part be explained by the fact that the market has already priced in most of the shock from the corruption scandal in May."


U.N. lacks funds to fight cholera in Haiti

Already scarce funding for the U.N.'s cholera fighting efforts in Haiti are drying up, and current intensified efforts will not be able to continue through this year and the next if money is not procured, reports the New York Times.

The current outbreak of the disease was introduced in Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers in the wake of a 2010 earthquake, a fact only recently acknowledged (somewhat) by the organization's authorities. It has claimed over 10,000 lives since then. (See post for Dec. 2, 2016.) Last year, outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon outlined a comprehensive approach to battling cholera in the country and compensating victims, but fundraising efforts have fallen far short the $400 million the project would require. 

And while U.S. courts have so far shielded the organization from lawsuits by asserting it has diplomatic immunity, on Friday the lead lawyer for Haitian victims challenged a request for dismissal of their case by the Justice Department.

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council wrapped up a visit to Haiti, in which the issue of cholera victim compensation came up, reports the Miami Herald. The 15-member council heard other concerns in two days of discussion ahead of the withdrawal of the 13-year U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti or MINUSTAH. Haitian officials discussed with them the lack of independence of the judiciary; the abandoned children of peacekeepers; and the desire for a new, smaller mission to be Haiti’s last.

Haitian authorities said citizens would be better served if aid funding -- much of which is channeled through NGO's -- goes through the government, reports Reuters.

MINUSTAH is scheduled to end in October, and leaves a complicated legacy of cholera and sexual abuse, notes the Herald. A proposal dedicate about $40.5 million left over from the peacekeeping efforts towards cholera has been opposed by several countries. (See June 15's briefs.)

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the mission's base ahead of the Security Council visit, calling for reparations and an end to U.N. missions.

The outgoing MINUSTAH will transition to the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH), aimed at supporting institutional development, according to the organizationMINUJUSTH will work with the Haitian Government strengthen rule-of-law institutions, further develop and support the Haitian National Police and engage in human rights monitoring, reporting and analysis.

Last week U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of a high-level envoy to focus on fundraising for the cholera plan. (See last Wednesday's briefs.) She will be the third special envoy so far in relation to the cholera crisis, notes the NYT.

Guterres is backpedaling on his predecessor's promise of retribution for victims, argues Stephen Lewis in a CNN piece. About half of the $400 million program was to be directed towards communities and victims' families -- but last week Guterres said the aim was never individuals, but rather communities.

Haiti aside: Haitian textile workers protested demanding higher wages yesterday, as factory managers threatened to leave the country if the government doesn't clamp down on demonstrations, reports Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López's family says he's denouncing torture -- in a shouted message from the Ramos Verde prison where he has been held in isolation from his lawyers since April and where his family has not been permitted entrance for the past 20 days. Authorities say he is alright, but in an interview with Deutsche Welle, Amnesty International's Carolina Jiménez points out that his fundamental rights are being violated. "Isolation is a cruel, inhumane, and degrading form of treatment. That is torture." She emphasizes that cases of torture in Venezuelan jails are piling up, and that authorities are not following up on AI's denunciations. 
  • Colombia's FARC guerrillas handed over the last of their weapons yesterday, reports the AFP. But Colombia is not celebrating the end of fifty years of armed conflict, writes La Silla Vacía's Juanita León in a New York Times Español op-ed. In fact, pessimism and disapproval of President Juan Manuel Santos have reached record levels according to a recent poll. She reviews possible reasons for the indifference to peace, including Santos' lack of a charismatic narrative, and the country's largely urban population which escaped the worst impacts of conflict. "Now that the FARC have kept their word about disarming, it is possible that with time the Colombian government will keep its part of the accord and make a mega investment to develop rural areas and democratize politics. This would help eliminate many motives for the current lack of confidence [in the peace process]. The problem for President Santos is that he has very little time to recover the faith of his country. In 2018 Colombia has presidential elections, and former president Uribe's pre-candidates have already started to campaign on the promise to modify the accords if they win," she warns. She calls on civil society to help lead the country to a lasting peace, noting the difficult political situation the president finds himself in. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • "The opponents’ ability to tip the political balance against the accord is likely to grow as Colombia prepares for its presidential election in May 2018.  The Santos government, the left, and center-left have already looked weak while trying to make even modest reforms necessary to create conditions for a lasting peace and facilitating a transition from a war system political economy to a different one," writes The opponents’ ability to tip the political balance against the accord is likely to grow as Colombia prepares for its presidential election in May 2018.  The Santos government, the left, and center-left have already looked weak while trying to make even modest reforms necessary to create conditions for a lasting peace and facilitating a transition from a war system political economy to a different one," writes Nazih Richani at the AULA blog.
  • When it comes to Latin America, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has U.S. President Donald Trump's ear, reports the Miami Herald. He is well positioned to take advantage of the vacuum in the State Department, as the administration has yet to appoint dozens of high-level State Department employees, including the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. And Trump has shown distaste of following the advice of career diplomats, according to the piece. Rubio was key in drafting last week's Cuba policy change. (See June 19's post.)
  • The remains of a missing Mexican journalist were discovered earlier this month, making Salvador Adame the seventh journalist murdered in the country so far this year, reports the Guardian.
  • Mexico's chief prosecutor's office said it will ask the FBI for help in investigating allegations that government-owned software was used to spy on activists and critical journalists, reports AFP. Mexico's special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, Ricardo Sanchez, announced a new "technical support" group to aid in the investigation. Alleged victims, such as the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center's executive director, rejected the proposal, noting it falls short of the independent international group they demand. (See last Wednesday's briefs.)
  • At least two U.S. citizens were among those wiretapped on former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli's orders, reports Univision, based on a witness affidavit in the Miami extradition case against Martinelli.
  • Guatemalan migrants deported back to their country from the U.S. find themselves ostracized and unable to integrate upon their return, writes Anita Isaacs in a New York Times op-ed. "In fact, many Guatemalans want the migrants to go back. Their return spells an end to remittances that constitute about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. And returning migrants are flooding an already depressed job sector, where three-quarters of the labor force works off the books." Such treatment ignores the valuable skills many have picked up in their time abroad -- important resources the government should try to tap into, she argues.
  • Peru's government made access to water a constitutional right this month, and is taking steps to vastly increase water and wastewater coverage, reports Bloomberg.
  • Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno pardoned five people imprisoned after participating in violent protests in 2015, reports TeleSUR. He is reportedly considering the release of others on the 20-name list delivered by Ecuador's main Indigenous organization CONAIE.
  • Brazil's recession has hit the Paulista helicopter industry, but some enterprising city residents are finding alternate uses for idle helipads, reports the Financial Times.
  • Why did the Galapagos tortoise cross the road? Or rather plod alongside it? A New York Times photographer writes about capturing the shy creature on film.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Guatemalan president questioned over U.S. lobby firm contract (June 26, 2017)

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is under growing pressure over contracts with a lobbying firm closely linked to U.S. vice president Mike Pence, reports the Guardian. Anti-corruption activists are calling for an urgent inquiry in Guatemala and the U.S. over the origins of the $80,000 contract. 

The Indiana firm was apparently hired to improve relations between the U.S. and Guatemala, an arrangement apparently designed to avoid the U.S. State department and the Guatemalan foreign affairs ministry. The agreement aims to undermine the CICIG, according to Nómada

News Briefs
  • Morales allegedly gave orders that kept teens trapped in a public institution for abused children, in which 41 youths were killed in a fire in March, reports Nómada. (See March 9's briefs.) A Guatemalan judge charged five more people over the deaths, including two police officers and three government officials who were arrested earlier this month, reports the BBC.
  • Venezuelan protesters broke down a metal fence around the La Carlota airbase, before being repelled by security forces firing tear gas on Saturday, reports the Associated Press. Last week a protester was killed there, after being shot point blank by a security office, reports the Washington Post. Interior Minister Néstor Reverol tweeted to confirm the death of a protester and said a police sergeant had fired an "unauthorised weapon." The victim's father made a personal plea to President Nicolás Maduro, who he worked with in the Caracas transportation system, reports the BBC.
  • Reports of mistreatment of political prisoners and arrested protesters are increasing, reports the Washington Post, which recounts harrowing experiences including beatings and electric shocks. Over the past 10 weeks of protests in Venezuela, security forces have detained more than 3,200 people, with over a third of them remaining in custody, according to Foro Penal.
  • Whither Venezuela? The Center for Strategic and International Studies put together a report with four potential scenarios. These range from a "soft landing" -- in which opposition forces oust the government in fair elections, but coexist with remaining Chavista forces -- to the grim "civil conflict and national collapse -- "this is the “worst-case scenario” because the existing internal polarizing factors of instability lead to armed conflict, a complete national collapse, total chaos, and high loss of life. High pressure from the international community combines with Maduro’s erosion of power and desperate attempts to hold on."
  • The FARC will formally finish disarmament this week -- yet the country remains "awash with weapons" and an increasing gloom about the peace process, according to the Financial Times. Demobilized FARC fighters are handing in their weaponry, but about 900 arms caches remain around the country in difficult to reach terrain. The U.N. is supposed to find and dismantle them by Sept. 1, but some experts fear they could be located by paramilitaries or criminal groups before. Opinion polls about the peace process and President Juan Manuel Santos are increasingly negative. Nonetheless, the piece notes, the country's murder rate is lower than at any point in decades and infringements on the peace accord have been "negligible." Tomorrow Santos and the FARC leadership will hold a ceremony to mark the end of disarmament.
  • Two Dutch journalists captured by ELN were freed, reports the BBC.
  • Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner formally launched her senate bid this weekend, joining a mid-term race that will determine how the current administration will be able to carry out economic reform, reports the Guardian. She is running independently from the Peronist party, a break that divides the opposition and could strengthen President Mauricio Macri's hand. Fernández will be running for the Buenos Aires province, which has nearly 40 percent of the electorate and is traditionally a Peronist stronghold. However in the 2015 elections the governorship was won by Maria Eugenia Vidal, of Macri's party, notes the Financial Times.
  • Mexican activists have found an ally in Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour leader. While the Conservative government has forged close ties to President Enrique Peña Nieto's government, Corbyn has, in parliament, condemned Mexico’s media censorship and human rights abuses, and led demonstrations against Nieto’s state visit in 2015 while the British government was signing controversial oil deals, reports the Guardian.
  • A widely cited report that Mexico had the world's second-highest homicide rate last year -- following Syria's -- has been retracted by he International Institute for Strategic Studies, which said there was a methodological flaw in its data, reports the Washington Post.
  • Officially a Russian complex in Nicaragua is a Glonass (Russian GPS) station. But speculation is rife over what is really going on in there, along with Russian investment in capital Managua, reports the BBC.
  • Trump's anti-Nafta stance has American natural gas companies concerned -- but industry leaders believe they can count on Energy Secretary Rick Perry to stand up for the trade that provides Mexico with more than a quarter of its electricity, reports the New York Times.
  • Haitian migrants stranded in Tijuana have received an outpouring of sympathy, resources and effort from locals -- demonstrating how refugees can be put in distinct hierarchies by different societies, reports the Christian Science Monitor.
  • A Brazilian human rights specialist has been granted special protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due to threats he has received in the process of investigating human rights violations committed by Uruguay's last dictatorship, reports Radio Uruguay.
  • At least six people died yesterday when a tourist boat carrying 150 people sank near Medellín, reports the Guardian. A major rescue effort involving Colombia’s air force and firefighters from nearby cities was looking for survivors at the Guatapé reservoir, reports the Associated Press.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Homicides in LatAm will continue to rise without intervention - Instinto de Vida (June 23, 2017)

Latin America's average homicide rate is already the highest in the world -- but if nothing is done, projections have predict a climb from 21 homicides per 100,000 to 35 in 2030, according to a new Instinto de Vida campaign report, based on Igarapé Institute's Homicide Observatory. But the violence is distributed unequally. Seven countries -- Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México and Venezuela -- concentrate about a third of the world's homicides. Certain cities -- 120 in the region specifically -- similarly concentrate higher homicide rates, and within these, certain blocks and streets further concentrate violence. 

Furthermore, violence begets violence -- in general each new homicide in Latin America means another 0.66 the following year. The causes for all the violence however are far from homogenous, and often have a heavy local component, notes the report. Yet certain common factors include: inequality, youth unemployment, impunity, and arms trafficking. 

The campaign is a call to action, for evidence based and results focused policies. They call for citizen participation, access to justice and due legal process -- as well as containing violence and considering citizen protection and security a public good. (See yesterday's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto admitted yesterday that his government purchased the sophisticated software apparently used to spy on critics and human rights activists. He said the government had not ordered that surveillance, and promised an investigation into misuse. However, he also threatened to investigate those who “have raised false accusations” against his administration -- a group which would presumably include the victims themselves, reports the New York Times. Hacking victims reacted with shock, but a spokesman said the president was not threatening the group nor the NYT which broke the story earlier this week. Civil society groups said his statements were inappropriate and threatening, reports Animal Político. Peña Nieto said he himself has received suspicious messages (presumably akin to those used by the Pegasus software to infect victims' electronics) and is careful about his phone conversations, reports Animal Político.  (See yesterday's briefs and Wednesday's.)
  • A lack of agreement at the OAS foreign ministers' meeting this week in Mexico appears to have strengthened the Venezuelan government, according to David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "...The domestic opposition is on its heels, Luisa Ortega is isolated, and the countries of the region have broken into finger-pointing and excuses." However, he also notes that support for the Maduro government itself was lackluster, instead opposition to a resolution condemning the administration focussed on procedural issues. "But beyond the actual votes and resolutions, these meetings deepen countries´ knowledge, develop their commitment to the issue and prime them to act. When the Maduro government, less than 48 hours later tried to use the SupremeCourt (TSJ) to grab what power the National Asembly had left, they were taken aback by the chorus of criticism from the region. The OAS is in permanent session regarding Venezuela, suggesting they may take up the issue again. It is not clear that this would be helpful. Venezuela has stated clearly that it would not accept any sort of solution or initiative coming from the OAS and it is clear they are serious about that. Turning around now and accepting an OAS solution would clearly amount to a loss of face and it is unlikely they will do so."
  • Speaking of intervention: The U.S. treats no other country in the world as it does Cuba -- "What makes Cuba different from countries such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Iran, where systemic human rights violations prevail," asks Ted Piccone at the Brookings Institution's Order from Chaos blog. The answer is not related to national security, but rather national politics, he argues. "What really makes Cuba exceptional is that it faces an organized, well-financed political machine of angry exiles in vote-rich Florida that extracts certain demands from political leaders for its votes." The blog gathers several other reactions to Trump's Cuba announcement. (See Monday's post.)
  • For now U.S. companies are not sure what the Cuba policy change implies, as regulations won't begin being drafted for another month. In the meantime "Don’t expect a rush by U.S. companies that have proposals pending before the Cuban government to get deals inked before the new rules go into effect," reports the Miami Herald.
  • Also a reaction from last week's Miami meetings: the U.S.'s shift in attitude towards Central America is a swing back to "war on drugs" type of policies, according to InSight Crime. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said that Washington assigns a large part of the responsibility regarding the war on drugs to Central America, and that such remedies are needed to strengthen public order. "In a nutshell, US policies in the region are going backwards. Washington has done nothing more than return to its outdated foreign policy doctrines, first used in Central America following the Cold War; those involving combatting drug trafficking via the one-size-fits-all approach of police and military intervention and the deportation of undocumented persons as a US national security strategy."
  • Central American gangs are playing an increasingly active role in trafficking cocaine and laundering money, in part through the use of the dark web, reports InSight Crime.
  • Though the White House is apparently pushing Colombia to resume aerial fumigation of illicit coca plants, U.S. officials speaking to InSight Crime tried to backtrack a bit on the issue. (See June 15's briefs.)
  • Mexico City authorities failed to properly investigate the murder of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa, activist Nadia Vera and three other women in a Mexico City apartment in July 2015, said the president of the city's human rights commission, reports the Guardian.
  • Bolivia is wandering in an authoritarian direction -- and keeping it on track will be a test case for the region's commitment to democracy, argues Oliver Della Costa Stuenkel in a piece for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He nods towards President Evo Morales' success as the country's first indigenous president, and notes his relative moderation, despite unflinching support for Venezuela. "Morales brought social inclusion, relative stability, steady economic growth, and falling poverty levels. Even opposition figures readily recognize his remarkable capacity to get things done in a country that has seen far too many economic crises to count and more than 150 changes of leadership since it gained independence in 1825. ... However, other recent trends threaten to undo Morales’s otherwise positive legacy. He is exerting tighter control over the judiciary and the opposition media. And even more significantly, he has chosen to ignore the result of a 2016 referendum that should have prevented him from seeking a fourth presidential term."
  • InSight Crime examines why Colombia's government has tried and failed to capture Urabeños leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," for two years. Despite the extensive manhunt, and the capture of thousands of its members, the powerful illegal organization is still growing, and seeking to capture former FARC territories.
  • Shortages are spurring Venezuelans to take on increasingly dangerous occupations, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The United States has suspended Brazilian meat imports over "recurring concerns about the safety of products intended for the American market," reports the BBC.
  • "South America is a hotbed of potential viruses that could be the next major threat to the world's health, according to "danger maps,"" drawn up by EcoHealth Alliance in New York, reports the BBC.
  • Nazi week in the Southern Cone: Newly released archives from the Chilean police document how Nazi supporters in the country supplied information to the Third Reich and planned to bomb mines in Chile, reports Reuters. Earlier this week Argentine police uncovered a trove of Nazi paraphernalia hidden behind a Buenos Aires bookcase -- the New York Times has lots of pictures for WWII history buffs.