Thursday, August 31, 2017

Salvadoran judge acquits truce trial defendants (Aug. 31, 2017)

A Salvadoran judge acquitted the defendants on trial for abuses committed in the scope of a 2012-2014 gang truce, reports the Associated Press. (See Aug. 14's post.) Judge Godofredo Salazar recognized that illicit acts were committed -- namely easing of security for jailed gang leaders, including prohibited items such as cell phones. But he said the defendants were acting as parts of a state policy run by high level officials who were not accused in this case, reports El Faro

The 17 former government officials (20, depending on the source) and advisor Raúl Mijango were acting under orders from then Security Minister David Munguía Payés, he concluded. Munguía is the current government's Minister of Defense. 

The judge called Munguía Payés "irresponsible" and asked the prosecution why he was not accused. Last year El Faro reported that the attorney general's office had put together accusations, though Munguía Payés cabinet status would have required Congress to strip him of immunity.

In the current trial Munguía Payés reiterated past statements that he was indeed behind the design of the truce and again said that it was all done with the approval of then President Mauricio Funes.

The judge agreed, arguing that the defendants could not be charged with illicit association or for unduly transferring gang leaders to lower security prisons, as such actions were carried out with the knowledge and approval of Munguía Payés and Funes, reports La Prensa Gráfica. The judge also criticized the prosecutor's evidence in the case, saying it was insufficient to establish who had ordered the transfer of prisoners to lower security facilities.

The defendants did not have the power to act alone, nor to design a state policy, marked the judge, criticizing the prosecutor's case.

It's the first stumble in a series of emblematic cases Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has opened since taking office in January of last year, according to El Faro. Arena legislators are jumping on the judge's criticism of Meléndez, reports El Diario de Hoy and Solo Noticias.

News Briefs
  • The current government of El Salvador conspired to create a dissident faction of the street gang Mara Salvatrucha and transferred 17 jailed gang members to a low security prison facility, where the members of the MS-503 released a video manifesting discontent with MS-13 leadership, reports El Faro. El Faro was alerted of the suspicious move by a source within the traditional MS-13 cupola, who said the government was sponsoring a rupture of the street gang.
  • U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are pushing the White House to renew Temporary Protected Status for nearly 300,000 immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador. TPS is an immigration program that grants people temporary legal status in the U.S. due to conditions such as natural disaster or civil war that make returning to their home country perilous, reports McClatchy. The program is set to expire for Honduras on Jan. 5 and for El Salvador on March 9. (See June 14's post.)
  • Former Venezuelan attorney general Luisa Ortega has given U.S. prosecutors evidence that personally implicates President Nicolás Maduro in criminal activities. Maduro skimmed $8 to 10 million from public coffers, she said in a press conference in Costa Rica, report EFE. If she provides evidence to support these and other allegations of corruption, she could help create international cases against Maduro and members of the administration, further complicating the crisis-ridden government, notes InSight Crime. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Though Venezuela is reeling from U.S. sanctions affecting its ability to access international financing, the government pledged $5 million to help victims of Hurricane Harvey in parts of Texas, reports Bloomberg.
  • Though U.S. Treasury sanctions announced last week affect new debt from Venezuela, the moveis having broader consequences in the bond market, where cautious brokers are limiting trades in existing notes, reports Bloomberg. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • A Brazilian court issued an injunction protecting a swathe of Amazon rainforest opened up to mining companies last week by President Michel Temer. The judge said the dissolution of Renca (more formally known as the National Reserve of Copper and Associates) could only be done by Congress, reports the Guardian. Though the decision may be overturned by higher courts, it buys activists some time to continue campaigning against the measure. The government was responding to an international outcry over plans to open sections of the area to mining developments, notes the New York Times. The government has argued that authorizing regulated mining in the region will curb illegal gold mining and generate new jobs.
  • Nearly 50,000 Colombians disappeared over the course of the country's five decade civil conflict -- uncovering their fate should be a national priority said Paula Gaviria, presidential advisor on human rights.The government has been criticized for not doing enough in relation to the disappearances, reports Reuters. The government offers up to $8,600 U.S. in compensation for relatives and has passed a law paving the way for a special search unit, including forensic teams, to help find, identify and exhume bodies. But the unit has yet to start work, and its director has still not been appointed.
  • Mexican leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador said NAFTA renegotiations should be postponed until after next year's election. He also warned that he would renegotiate any deal that harms Mexico’s interests if he wins the vote, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A Peruvian judge accepted to hear a habeas corpus measure filed on behalf of jailed former president filed President Ollanta Humala and his wife, Nadine Herredia, reports EFE. The two were given 18 months of pretrial detention on allegations of money laundering.
  • Peruvian prosecutors are investigating opposition leader Keiko Fujimori over suspected illicit campaign contributions from Odebrecht, reports AFP.
  • Hundreds of Puerto Ricans protested austerity measures in San Juan yesterday, reports the Associated Press.
  • A new museum in the Guatemalan town of Rabinal seeks to create a space for historical memory in a place where the local indigenous community is still scarred by the atrocities of the country's civil war. In just four years – between 1980 and 1984 – the army and paramilitaries massacred 20 percent of the town’s inhabitants, killing more than 5,000 people, most of them members of the Maya-Achi tribe, reports EFE.
  • A Brazilian feminist writer launched a social media campaign against sexual violence, after she says she was assaulted by an Uber driver in São Paulo, reports the Guardian. "I am talking about this so that everyone who reads me knows what could happen to any woman, at any moment, and that helplessness and despair are inevitable,” she wrote. “The world is a horrible place to be a woman," Clara Averbuck wrote on Facebook.
  • And social media is also the forum for an increasingly acrimonious divorce between Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno and his predecessor Rafael Correa, writes Soraya Constante in a New York Times Español op-ed.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Guatemala's constitutional court ruled against Morales (Aug. 30, 2017)

Guatemala's Constitutional Court ruled that President Jimmy Morales can't expel the head of a United Nations anticorruption commission from the country. The court determined that Morales' order declaring Iván Velásquez persona non grata was issued improperly, reports the Associated Press

The court ruled yesterday afternoon that the presidential order violated a constitutional requirement to act in conjunction with relevant cabinet members, and also the convention with the U.N. establishing the commission, which stipulates that disagreements be resolved through negotiation, reports El Periódico.

The decisión increases political pressure on Morales to allow the work of the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to continue, according to the New York Times.

Already, the court had suspended the order, made over the weekend, temporarily protecting the head of the CICIG. (See Monday's post and yesterday's briefs.) Velásquez and the CICIG are well regarded by Guatemalans.

Last week the CICIG and the Public Ministry requested that the Supreme Court lift Moraels' immunity from prosecution, so he could face charges of illicit fundraising. (See Monday's post.) Speaking at a meeting of Guatemalan political leaders yesterday, Morales promised to face the judicial proceedings. At the meeting, mayors backed Morales' anti-CICIG stance, reports El Periódico

The Supreme Court is expected to rule today, according to some reports, though others say justices could delay. 

Should the court rule in favor of lifting Morales' immunity, then two thirds of Congress must approve the request as well. It won't be easy, notes Nómada. Morales' FCN party has 37 legislators, and needs to gather 16 more votes in order to block the motion to lift immunity. But the secretary general of the majority UNE party is also accused of corruption by the CICIG.

In parallel, Acción Ciudadana also filed a suit against Morales, accusing him of obstructing justice and abuse of authority in trying to kick Velásquez out of the country, reports El Periódico.

International and civil society pressure in favor of Velásquez has been pronounced. This week over 80 organizations of civil society -- including the Open Society Justice Initiative, CEJIL, DPLF, CELS, Centro Prodh and WOLA -- condemned Morales' move against the CICIG head and called for respect of rule of law in Guatemala.

News Briefs
  • The U.S. foreign policy apparatus did not support democracy in Honduras in the wake of the 2009 coup that ousted its president. Rather, an in-depth investigation by The Intercept and the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that "hidden actors during the crisis tilted Honduras toward chaos, undermined official U.S. policy after the coup, and ushered in a new era of militarization that has left a trail of violence and repression in its wake." Though the State Department said it was supporting a peaceful solution, documents reviewed by the investigation showed close cooperation between the U.S. and Honduran militaries. In fact, the night before the coup, "American military officers and diplomats were at a party at the U.S. defense attaché’s house, with their Honduran counterparts." The investigation details how U.S. actors helped Honduras' de facto government to lobby in Washington, and how key U.S. actors from both parties "were working toward the same goal: elections without Zelaya’s prior restoration to office." The policy was influenced by U.S. interest in battling Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez's influence in the region, writes Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) Research Associate Jake Johnston. "The machinations in Washinton and Tegucigalpa after the coup laid bare the preeminence of the Pentagon’s geostrategic interests in shaping U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, helping a 21st century military coup succeed and changing the fate of a small Central American nation forever."
  • The U.N. human rights office said earlier today that Venezuela’s security forces had committed extensive and apparently deliberate human rights violations in repressing anti-government protests, reports Reuters. Democracy is "barely alive" in the country, said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. "I think we would argue that over the course of time we have seen an erosion of democratic life in Venezuela." Some 882 people are currently believed to remain in custody, among 5,341 arbitrarily detained in street protests since April, according to the U.N. "Credible and consistent accounts of victims and witnesses indicate that security forces systematically used excessive force to deter demonstrations, crush dissent and instil fear," according to the report. The U.N. office said it hopes the report can be used extensively, especially by the OAS, which last month said it would be evaluating whether there are grounds to charge the Maduro administration in the International Criminal Court, reports EFE.
  • U.S. sanctions aimed at cutting off Venezuela's access to financing (see Monday's briefs) will ultimately affect the country's poorest and further polarize an already divided country, writes Mark Weisbrot in The Hill. And the unilateral action by the U.S. comes just as violent street protests have died down and many opposition politicians have agreed to participate in October's long-delayed regional elections. "This is a positive development for those who would like to see a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But for regime-change extremists like Marco Rubio, whom Trump seems to be listening to on Venezuela, peace is bad news, especially for the media strategy of “if it bleeds, it leads.” They may see exacerbating the economic crisis and suffering to their advantage, hoping to bring people back into the streets and away from the negotiations that will be necessary to settle the conflict."
  • In recent months shortages have been somewhat eased by a de-facto opening of imports and permission for merchants to pass on the full price of formerly price-controlled goods to consumers, reports the Associated Press. "The result of the de-facto dollarization has been a devil's bargain: Shelves are fuller than Venezuela has seen for months, but with prices that are out of reach for the vast majority of poor Venezuelans. Inflation, which has been running in the triple digits for more than two years, hit a record last month and has risen to 650 percent over the past 12 months."
  • Venezuela's former attorney general Luisa Ortega accused the government of hiring contract killers to target her and other justice officials, reports AFP. "I have information that the persecution is continuing against me and that the government has contracted hitmen to end my life," she said in a news conference in Costa Rica.
  • Policy decisions based on rational-actor theories often fail to explain Venezuelan reality, writes David Smilde in a very clear academic presentation posted on Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. He explains from a cultural sociological perspective why the sanctions targeted against government officials actually strengthen the reigning anti-imperialist narrative (as they always have in Cuba as well); and how a sociology of culture shows how the opposition has consistently misinterpreted Venezuelan reality. Finally, he looks at how illiberal ideologies, including Chavismo, can be convincing to people because they explain their world. "Thinking about illiberal ideologies in terms of embodied realism would suggest that representatives of the liberal world order actually need to make their case. They cannot treat illiberal movements–whether they be Christian fundamentalists, Islamists, nationalists, neofascists or neoLeninists–as irrational, duped or under the spell of a charismatic leader."
  • A retired U.S. army colonel was arrested in Maryland yesterday and accused of conspiring to bribe senior Haitian government officials to win support for an $84 million port project in Haiti's northern region, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Mexico's government has targeted critical civil society leaders with a string of actions -- ranging from exhaustive government audits to phone hacking -- in order to deter transparency efforts, reports the New York Times. The piece focuses on Claudio González Jr., scion of a wealthy family, who founded Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity. The group focuses on investigative journalism, research and legal action and has published important stories on government corruption in Mexico. And investigation of spying on critics and family members, using government owned software, is being carried out in a way that has victims concerned for their privacy, reports the NYT.
  • The Colombian government and the the ELN, said this week that they hope to reach a ceasefire agreement before Pope Francis's visit next week, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazilian lawmakers won't take up President Michel Temer's pension reform bill until late September, reports Reuters. The government does not currently have the votes to pass the unpopular measure, aimed at reducing the country's budget deficit, said congressman André Moura. A survey of the lower chamber completed last week by Arko Advice consultancy found that 83 percent of the 201 lawmakers surveyed from 25 parties do not believe pension reform will be passed this year.
  • El Salvador's government still hasn't given a convincing response to an investigative report last week that revealed how elite squadron carried out extrajudicial killings, reports InSight Crime. Though there have long been allegations of death squads operating within the security forces, "this time the revelations are clearer and more serious. They show that the alleged perpetrators of the crimes are part of a group that acts within the police. Moreover, the group exists within an elite unit endowed with extraordinary resources and directly supervised by the presidency."
  • El Salvador's attorney general called for urgent measures to protect off-duty police this week, after two more officers were killed by suspected gang members, reports the Associated Press.
  • Though Chilean President Michelle Bachelet presented a marriage equality bill this week, it's not clear that her fractured Nueva Mayoría coalition will succeed in passing the proposal, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's briefs.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

NAFTA in Mexico (Aug. 29, 2017)

NAFTA has achieved enormous benefits in terms of industrial development and jobs for Mexico. But wages are stubbornly low, hobbling the country's economic growth and creating unfair competition for Canada and the U.S., according to the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. will likely focus on obtaining tougher labor standards in Mexico as a strategy in renegotiations to the 23-year-old free trade agreement. But experts point to complicating factors behind the country's low wages -- and in fact note that wages in areas benefited by NAFTA are higher than in the rest of the country.
NAFTA is viewed positively by 60 percent of Mexicans, and brought about a revolution in the country's access to consumer goods, reports the Washington Post. "The revolution in shopping ­options has become so ingrained that many Mexicans recall with haziness the pre-NAFTA days of limited brand choices, domestic knockoffs and black-market scrounging. In such cultural ways, the NAFTA years have brought Mexico and the United States far closer together, a cross-border blending of behaviors that even a clampdown on trade is unlikely to undo."

(See yesterday's briefs on Trump's social media approach to the renegotiations and Mexico's response.)

News Briefs
  • Hurricane Harvey could be the worst storm in Texas' history, and than 30,000 people are expected to be housed in shelters indefinitely. Mexico offered assistance in dealing with the impacts of the natural disaster. In 2005, Mexico sent aid to assist in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But this time the offer puts Trump in a bind, notes the Washington Post. "Should he accept the generosity, which, to some of his supporters, might ring of hypocrisy and weakness? Or should he deny it, while Texans cope with a nightmare?"
  • Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales unleashed a storm this weekend by trying to kick out the head of a U.N. anti-corruption commission who is investigating him. (See yesterday's post.) Pressure from Guatemalan civil society and the international community has been key in thwarting Morales' attempt at impunity, reports Nómada. Morales announced the immediate expulsion of CICIG head Iván Velásquez on Sunday, but the decision was blocked by the quick action of Justicia Ya, which had requested a precautionary measure against such a move the night before. The piece goes into detail about the protests in favor and against Velásquez that took place on Sunday.
  • The U.S. government called on Morales to rethink the expulsion order yesterday, reports the Wall Street Journal. A government spokesman yesterday said the government was considering its options -- both in response to the Constitutional Court decision protecting Velásquez and a request to the Supreme Court from the attorney general to strip Morales of immunity. (See yesterday's post.) However, there are signs that Morales could backtrack, reports Reuters, which notes that Morales said on Monday on his official Facebook page that he would be "respectful of the decisions of the courts."
  • What has changed in the two years since the CICIG and popular protests ousted then-President Otto Pérez Molina? The CICIG and the Public Ministry have expanded their focus from political corruption into illicit political financing in exchange for favors and contracts, argues Nómada. That means big business owners are now targets, and back Morales' quest to defang the anti-corruption efforts. El Periódico goes into detail about the "military mafias" controlling corruption networks within the state. "Nobody knows how this crisis will be resolved. What is true is that one day, for the first time in a year and half heading the government, Jimmy decided to exert his authority and be Chief of State, only to gladden the mafias by trying to expulse Iván Velásquez. Since then, he is keeping the nation in uncertainty because he hasn't yet clarified whether he will obey the Courts order, or if he plans an authoritarian turn ... Things could get worst," concludes Nómada.
  • Wuilly Arteaga, the violin wielding Venezuelan protester who made headlines around the world when he was beaten and imprisoned by security forces, is an example of how the government has used "intimidation, torture and propaganda to cement its power," according to the Washington Post.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet proposed extending the right to marry to same-sex couples yesterday, a bill that will go to Congress next week. The proposal comes amid a spate of progressive legislation this month -- last week she sent a bill to Congress that would revamp Chile’s migration law to make it more welcoming to the country's growing immigrant population. And earlier in August Congress approved a reform to the country's abortion regulations that had been proposed by the president. Though Bachelet's gay marriage proposal reflects evolving public opinion among Chileans on the issue of same-sex marriage, it's not clear whether the proposal -- which would give same-sex couples the right to adopt -- will pass, writes Brendan O'Boyle in Americas Quarterly.
  • The ultimately successful efforts to modify Chile's strict abortion ban can serve as an example for the remaining countries in the region where abortion is completely prohibited -- El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Surinam, argue José Miguel Vivanco and Verónica Undurraga in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • Colombia's demobilized FARC released a list of assets worth approximately $332 million, but the accounting falls far short of the former rebel groups true holdings said the Colombian attorney general. According to InSight Crime calculations for 2015-2016, before the FARC officially disarmed, the guerrillas' potential yearly earnings from illegal activities may well have reached $580 million, mostly from the drug trade and illegal mining. And there is evidence that much of these holdings remain hidden, according to Insight.
  • Cuban asylum seekers entering the U.S. are treated differently according to gender, reports the Miami Herald. Men are kept in immigrant detention centers during the entire process, while women (especially those with children) are released far more quickly, according to advocates.
  • Venezuelans now lead all nationalities for U.S. asylum requests. This diaspora, however, has been welcomed by U.S. conservatives, and could potentially reshape Florida's electoral map, reports Americas Quarterly. But as the Venezuelan community grows and more become U.S. citizens, they may defy Republican expectations and the Cuban model, argues Andrés Rabellino.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is encouraging the dozens of native languages with a policy that will require government agencies to offer services in those languages in areas where they are dominant, reports the Economist.
  • Around the world, three billion people cook or heat their homes with open fires, with deadly consequences for their health, reports the National Geographic. In Guatemala aid efforts have made inroads in providing families with alternatives, but local quirks and and ingrained ways mean that replacing open fires is not as simple as it might seem. "For a stove to be fully accepted by a household, both stove and fuel must be affordable, accessible, and easy to use—goals that aren’t easy to achieve simultaneously."

Monday, August 28, 2017

Morales declares Velásquez persona non grata, triggers political crisis (Aug. 28, 2017)

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales declared the head of a U.N. anti-corruption panel persona non grata this weekend, a polemic choice that pushes the country into a grave political crisis. Morales accused U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) head Iván Velásquez of exceeding the organism's mandate by trying to lobby for constitutional reforms, and also publicizing allegations against "Guatemalan citizens" without allowing for presumption of innocence, reports El Periódico. He made the announcement vía a Twitter video posted early Sunday, notes the Wall Street Journal.

The sudden expulsion order was immediately blocked by the country's Constitutional Court, reports the New York Times. The court later granted two more precautionary measures defending Velásquez, reports La Hora. Morales said yesterday the court had no standing to block his expulsion of Velásquez, a stance that would put him him in contempt of court according to judicial officials, reports El Periódico.

Morales' announcement came less than 48 hours after Velásquez and Thelma Aldana, the attorney general, asked the court to strip Morales of his political immunity in order to proceed with charges linked to illegal campaign funds allegedly received by his political party the National Convergence Front (FCN) during the 2015 election, reports the Guardian. On Friday they announced that investigators have identified at least $825,000 in anonymous contributions to the president’s election campaign that went unreported to regulators, reports the WSJ. (See Friday's post.) 

A judicial ruling is expected today on their request, and a two-thirds vote from Congress could leave Morales exposed to prosecution.

The decision to oust Velásquez has left Morales extremely isolated politically. He fired his foreign minister for refusing to carry out the order yesterday, reports the Guardian

Several members of the cabinet resigned yesterday, or voiced their support for Velásquez, reports Plaza Pública. Sources say most are unhappy with the president's decision. A long list of government officials, judicial officials, international diplomats, members of civil society and international organizations has spoken out in favor of Velásquez's permanence in the post. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres was "shocked" by the declaration and said Velásquez to "be treated by the Guatemalan authorities with the respect due to his functions as an international civil servant." Protesters gathered in the streets after Morales' early morning announcement. And the U.S., German, Canadian, Spanish, French, Italian, U.K. Swiss and E.U. embassies said the decision harmed the CICIG's ability to fulfill its mandate, reports El PeriódicoU.S. lawmakers warned that the actions could affect aid funds. And Transparency International's local branch, Acción Ciudadana, started a suit against Morales for obstruction of justice, reports El Periódico separately.

(See last Thursday's and Friday's posts.)

"I think it’s fair to say this is a constitutional crisis of the gravest proportions," Wilson Center's Eric L. Olson told the NYT, suggesting that Guatemala’s fragile institutions may be unable to withstand the rupture. "The train is veering off the tracks, and it’s not clear who will stop it."

The CICIG is credited with making inroads against what has been characterized as a "corporate mafia state." The commission received unprecedented power within a sovereign state, including the right to launch probes and act as a plaintiff in criminal cases, reports the Wall Street Journal. It has been instrumental in landmark corruption cases, including exposure of the corruption network that brought down then-President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015.

The CICIG has broad public support, and is one of the country's most trusted institutions.

News Briefs
  • New U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuela imposed Friday restrict trading of Venezuelan bonds sold by the government in the U.S., but stopped short of prohibiting imports of Venezuelan crude oil to American refineries. Friday's announcement, Venezuela’s ability to borrow money from American creditors, reports the Miami Herald. The move could increase the likelihood of a Venezuelan default on its debts at the end of the year, reports the New York Times. The sanctions have been the object of a schism within the Trump administration -- pitting the State Department against a White House group advocating tougher actions against Maduro, reports the Miami Herald. Though the sanctions will not be a crippling blow to the government, it will likely complicate the country's cash flow problem as it struggles to import food and pay interest on its debts, according to analysts.
  • Hunger continues to affect broad swathes of the Venezuelan population, including the struggling middle class, reports the Guardian. Activists are signaling a humanitarian crisis.
  • Florida politicians began expressing their support for expanding a temporary program that would allow Venezuelans who have fled to stay in the U.S., reports the Miami Herald.
  • External interference and unilateral sanctions only make things more complex and will not help resolve problems said the Chinese foreign ministry in response to the sanctions announcement, reports Reuters.
  • El Salvador's Human Rights Prosecutor's Office (PDDH) ordered the country's police to guarantee protection for Factum journalists who were threatened after publishing an investigation showing police involvement in extrajudicial killings, abuse and extortion, reports Factum. The precautionary measures obligate National Civil Police chief Howard Cotto to take measures necessary to guarantee the safety of the investigation's authors Bryan Avelar and Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson, as well as the magazine's editor César Castro Fagoaga, and their families.
  • The PDDH is investigating at least 40 extrajudicial executions allegedly committed by members of security forces so far this year, reports La Prensa Gráfica.
  • The U.S.  Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which has granted permission to stay and work to about 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children is again under threat. U.S. President Donald Trump promised to eliminate it last year while on the campaign trail, but later backtracked and seemed to support it. But now it's under threat by conservative state attorneys general and key members of the administration are urging the president to wind it down, reports the New York Times.
  • Violence is so widespread in Mexico that the Zapatista rebels are renouncing armed revolution, reports the New York Times. The rebel group has neither reached a peace deal with the government nor achieved the indigenous rights they have fought for. But Mexico does not need more violence, no matter what the cause, says the group. Instead, they will work within the political system, backing a political candidate for next year's presidential elections.
  • Trump again tweeted that Mexico must pay for his proposed border wall (this time tweeting that it could be through reimbursement), reports the Guardian. "With Mexico being one of the highest crime Nations in the world, we must have THE WALL. Mexico will pay for it through reimbursement/other," he wrote. Mexican officials again said they wouldn't finance the project, reports CNN. "This determination is not part of a Mexican negotiating strategy, but a principle of national sovereignty and dignity," said the Mexican foreign ministry in a statement yesterday. The ministry also said crime is a "shared problem" for both countries and is caused in part by U.S. demand for Mexican narcotics. Trump also tweeted a threat to terminate NAFTA, and complained that the renegotiation process with Mexico and Canada was "difficult." In response Mexico's foreign ministry said its Mexico said its position at the negotiating table was "serious and constructive," and that the country "will not negotiate NAFTA nor any other aspect of the bilateral relationship through social media or the media."
  • Two married journalists in Honduras survived an attack by gunmen who they say wanted to kill them, but police on Friday called the incident a robbery attempt, reports the Associated Press. Johnny Lagos, director of the online news site El Libertador and his wife,  Lurbin Yadira Cerrato, survived the attack unharmed and with light injuries, respectively. 
  • Crusading Brazilian Judge Sergio Moro is at the center of a clash between judicial efforts to eradicate entrenched government corruption at the country's highest levels and a legislative backlash from politicians seeking to protect themselves, reports the New York Times. But Moro himself has become a contentious figure, revered by people for his anti-corruption efforts and reviled by those who say he is politically motivated.
  • Brazilian Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot accused filed criminal charges against some of President Michel Temer’s closest allies -- including Senator Romero Juca and ex-Senate chief Renan Calheiros, reports Bloomberg.
  • Ecuadorean lawmakers cleared the path for vice president Jorge Glas to be investigated in relation to allegedly receiving Odebrecht bribes, reports the Associated Press. Glas has denied any wrongdoing and refused to resign -- in fact asking for the investigation to continue so he can clear his name. (See last Tuesday's briefs on the schism between President Lenín Moreno and Glas.)
  • Members of the newly disarmed FARC are holding their first congress since the peace deal with the Colombian government, reports the BBC. About 1,200 delegates attended the first day of meetings in Bogotá, which launch the movement's political career. Over the course of the week will select candidates to run for office in next year's elections.
  • Canadian officials are trying to dispel rumors among the U.S. Haitian community that asylum seekers are welcome north of the border, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The U.S. Patriot Act is posing an unexpected obstacle for Uruguay's legal cannabis industry. U.S. banks, including Bank of America, said that they would stop doing business with banks in Uruguay that provide services for those state-controlled marijuana sales, reports the New York Times. And rather than risk losing access to the U.S. banking system, Uruguayan banks are threatening to close the accounts of pharmacies selling legal marijuana. Some of the 15 pharmacies that initially started sales last month have already backed out as a result of the banking issue, and others that were supposed to join the scheme are waiting while the government explores possible solutions. (See July 19's post.)
  • The Buenos Aires Herald, known for it's courageous stand against the human rights violations of Argentina's last military dictatorship, closed down this month, 141 years after it started publishing, reports the New York Times. By the time it closed, "the Herald was more loved than read," acknowledged Sebastián Lacunza, 45, who took over as the paper’s editor in chief in 2013. The closing comes as thousands of Argentine journalists have lost their jobs under the Macri government, notes Daniel Politi. But the paper also fell prey to changing times, he writes. "By the time the paper closed, it seemed the Herald itself had been left alone. It was in search of an audience that never adapted to the digital world and a product that had survived for years on the backs of a tiny, dedicated staff."
  • The hearing problems affecting over a dozen employees of Havana's U.S. embassy could be related to a botched electronic surveillance operation, reports the Guardian. (See Friday's briefs.)
  • Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich urged people not to make a political battle over the disappearance of a social activist a month ago. "The police are not the same as 40 years ago," said Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, referring to the country's military dictatorship. Her comments spurred an angry social media campaign demanding the whereabouts of Santiago Maldonado, last seen in an indigenous community protest violently repressed by police, reports the BBC.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Guatemalans protest in defense of CICIG (Aug. 25, 2017)

Protesters gathered outside the Guatemalan Casa Presidencial last night, in rejection of President Jimmy Morales' plan to oust the head of the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Iván Velásquez, reports El Periódico. (See yesterday's post.) 

"Though only about 300 strong, the protests are reminiscent of the demonstrations that accompanied legal proceedings against former President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015, leading to his eventual ouster on charges of corruption. Social organizations called for further protests today. It could "could be the start of yet another political crisis in Guatemala's leadership only two years after criminal allegations toppled the previous presidency," notes InSight Crime.

Since reports that Morales would seek Velásquez's ouster in a meeting with the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Gutéres  today, there has been a chorus of rejection of the move. These include: Aldana's promise to resign, a U.S. State Department call to Morales urging him to desist, a statement from Gutéres' spokesperson that he backs Velásquez, threats from U.S. lawmakers to cut funding to Guatemala, a social media campaign in favor of Velásquez, and rejection from the business community -- reports Nómada.

The National Alliance for Transparency, which includes the MP, the Attorney General's office, Acción Ciudadana and the Human Rights Prosecutors' office committed to work on eradicating government corruption, and also backed Velásquez, reports El Periódico separately.

Morales' dissatisfaction with the CICIG began in January when the organism, together with the Public Ministry (MP), requested the arrest of Morales' brother and son in a 2013 corruption case, reports Nómada. But his current quest to oust CICIG head Iván Velásquez stems from the CICIG-MP investigation into the financing for the second round of his 2015 presidential campaign. Attorney General Thelma Aldana confirmed to Nómada that the investigation into several parties' financing includes Morales' FCN party. Morales himself was party secretary general and head of finances that year.

The specific allegations seem to involve a $500,000 contribution that may have been made to the FCN by alleged drug trafficker Marlon Francesco Monroy Meoño, alias "El Fantasma," reports InSight Crime.

Yesterday the CICIG and MP announced an investigation into all the country's political parties during the 2015 campaign, reports Reuters. Aldana and Velásquez revealed irregularities in the financing of several parties and requested the stripping of immunity from two lawmakers, reports Aristegui Noticias.

Ultimately, Morales can force Velásquez out of his post, but such a move would impact Guatemala's international standing, aid funding from the U.S. and investment potential, notes El Periódico in another piece.

News Briefs
  • Transitional justice human rights cases in Guatemala -- for crimes committed during the country's civil war -- have been hindered over the course of the year by "an erratic and deficient administration of justice for all the parts involved in the trials," reports Plaza Pública. The piece examines the case against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, accused of genocide; the Creompaz massacres of hundreds of victims in the Military Zone 21; and the case of the forced disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen and the detention, rape and torture of his sister, Emma Guadalupe. In a visit earlier this month, the  Inter-American Commission on Human Rights criticized the excessive use of precautionary measures, requests for amnesty and prescription as methods for delaying the trials. (See the International Justice Monitor's ongoing coverage of the trials.)
  • InSight Crime and Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) have a new report on the illegal arms market in Honduras, where about 75 percent of homicides are carried out with guns. "...The illegal arms trade in Honduras does seem to follow some fairly clear and consistent patterns," they note. "It features both small, individual players and large, sometimes institutional actors. It benefits from a poorly regulated market and a contradictory legal framework. In the end, there are so many gaps in the system that those participating in the trade demonstrate the old adage: opportunity makes the thief." Major findings include that half of the country's unregistered weapons come from the U.S., and neighboring countries are also a significant source of trafficked weapons -- often Cold War-era relics. Additionally there is evidence "that weapons seem to be leaking from Honduran military and police stockpiles, and that some current and former military and police officials appear to be active in the firearms and ammunition black market." Problems with gun registration push Hondurans into the black market, and there seems to be insufficient real deterrents to trafficking.
  • A U.S. federal judge threw out the last remaining class-action lawsuit against the United Nations over the cholera epidemic in Haiti, upholding the organization’s assertion of diplomatic immunity, reports the New York Times.
  • Canadian officials are seeking to dissuade Haitians from illegally crossing their border with the U.S. in hopes of obtaining asylum, reports the Miami Herald. (See Aug. 14's post.)
  • Former Venezuelan attorney general Luisa Ortega has become a leading voice internationally and nationally against President Nicolás Maduro. But some in the opposition remain wary of working with an official who for years pressed charges against them, writes José González Vargas in Americas Quarterly. "But Ortega is now a valuable asset for the Democratic Unity Table, Venezuela’s main opposition coalition. Dissidence within chavismo isn’t new, but it has never really been a threat to the stability of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). What makes Ortega’s break from the government different is the power she wielded when she decided to defect."
  • Colombian TV network Caracol has been taken off the air in Venezuela, part of a growing list of blocked media, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Peruvian indigenous leaders are threatening to block access to the country's largest oil field unless an indigenous rights law is applied within 20 days, reports the Guardian. The leaders accuse the government of refusing to carry out a consultation process regarding development plans that might affect them.
  • U.S. authorities arrested the brother of former Sinaloa Cartel leader Dámaso López Núñez, alias "Licenciado," himself in jail. The detention raises questions about the future of the criminal group, reports InSight Crime, which says López Nuñez may be trading in top lieutenants in exchange for leniency. 
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer disolved a 46,000 km Amazon reserve, a move designed to to attract foreign investment and improve exports according to the government. The administration says mining will only be allowed outside protected areas and will be bound to environmental regulations. But conservationists it will open the door for mining companies to enter the area, and the decision will damage the forest and local indigenous communities, reports the Guardian. Opposition senator Randolfe Rodrigues of the Sustainability Network party, as the "biggest attack on the Amazon of the last 50 years." It's all part of an ambitious privatization plan aimed at reviving the country's economy, reports the Wall Street Journal. Also this week, the administration announced plans to grant licenses for the development of oil and gas fields, and sell airports in Brazil’s agricultural hinterlands, the busy and outdated Congonhas airport in São Paulo, the National Lottery, seaports, highways, power plants and the national mint.
  • Temer's tenure in office has been marked by the country's withdrawal from the world stage. The shift is particularly notable after the years of Workers' Party governments, particularly the prominent role of "independent foreign policy" under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, writes Folha de S. Paulo politics editor Fábio Zanini in Americas Quarterly. "If he survives in office to the end of his term, which is by no means certain, Temer will be replaced in just under 18 months by an elected successor. He or she then will have to decide, as has happened in Brazil for decades, to which diplomatic role Brazil will aspire: a junior seat at the rich man’s club, or a front row spot at the poor man’s hall."

Thursday, August 24, 2017

International support for CICIG's Velásquez (Aug. 24, 2017)

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is seeking to oust the head of the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Iván Velásquez. (See yesterday's briefs.) Sources say he planned to ask U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, reports Reuters. The two are scheduled to meet tomorrow, and government officials have said ousting Velásquez is not on the agenda, reports El Periódico.

Already, Public Minister Thelma Aldana has threatened to resign if this occurs.

Reports of the request have been rejected internationally and by rights organizations. Canada, Sweden, U.K. and the E.U. have voiced support for Velásquez, reports El Periódico. Nobel peace prize laureate and business leaders have also spoken in favor of Velásquez. "#IvánSeQueda" is trending on Twitter.

 The move would be a major blow to accountability there, Human Rights Watch said yesterday. "Seeking the commissioner’s removal would be a blatant betrayal by President Morales of his past commitment to support the anti-corruption agency," said Daniel Wilkinson, HRW's managing director for the Americas. "Given that his own son and brother are facing prosecution by the commission, it would also represent an egregious interference in the judicial process by the president."

It would be "political suicide," according to Nómada (InSight Crime translation), which reports that Morales himself might be the target of a CICIG investigation into his campaign financing activities from the second round of the 2015 election. "Nómada’s sources confirm, the MP and CICIG are investigating the finances of then-presidential candidate Jimmy Morales and his party. Three of the sources say they were related to the cooptation case and other corruption probes. ... The political moment recalls the months between December 2014 and April 2015, when then-President Otto Pérez Molina hesitated to support the CICIG, which came closer to the presidential office with each investigation, eventually leading to his resignation and arrest."

News Briefs
  • Factum's investigation into a police execution squad in El Salvador includes extensive Whatsapp chats, in which over 40 police officers participate, from many branches of the National Civil Police. Their discussions demonstrate a normalization of extrajudicial executions within the police force, explained, co-director César Castro Fagoaga to El Faro. The chats show officers discussing how to set up false crime scenes disguising executions as confrontations with gang members. "These platforms also form an organization that facilitates killings via an informal intelligence system. They also warn and guide each other when a homicide scene from a false confrontation is badly set up," explains Factum. (InSight Crime translation.)
  • Ousted Venezuelan chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega accused President Nicolás Maduro of profiting from the nation’s hunger crisis. She spoke in Brazil at an international meeting of attorneys general, and said she had evidence linking Maduro to the ownership of Mexican company that provides products to Venezuela’s state-sponsored food-distribution program. She also said Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht had paid Diosdado Cabello, a powerful Venezuelan government leader, $100 million in bribes, reports the Miami Herald. "I am going to give [evidence] to authorities in different countries — the United States, Colombia, Spain — so they can investigate," she said. "In Venezuela, there is no justice. It’s impossible to investigate any act of corruption or drug trafficking." She said that international courts need to review the cases because the "rule of law has been dismantled" in Venezuela.
  • Magistrates who have fled Venezuela, where they are accused of treason after being named by the opposition-led National Assembly, seek to create a spate of international lawsuits against the government for human rights violations, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Thirty-three judges are affected -- about a dozen have left the country, and others have taken refuge in embassies in Caracas. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The Trump administration is considering further sanctions against the Venezuelan government (see yesterday's briefs). Applying such sanctions successfully would require the U.S. to act multilaterally and gradually in order to affect the government more than the general population, argues Francisco Monaldi in a New York Times Español op-ed. Carried out in a way that clearly states how they will be executed and also lifted, "... the sanctions could motivate moderate actors within the coalition government and impulse a resolution of the political crisis, though there is no guarantee of it." However, "if they are applied arbitrarily, unilaterally and extensively, they could devastate the population, hinder the democratic transition and increase the geopolitical influence of Russia and China in Latin America," he warns.
  • The National Constituent Assembly (ANC) is continuing attacks against prominent opposition members -- a member has said he would seek to remove legislator Freddy Guevara's parliamentary immunity, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • At least 10 people died in a boat sinking in the Brazilian state of Pará, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted a precautionary measure for the protection of the rights of the Argentine activist, Santiago Maldonado who disappeared three weeks ago, reports TeleSUR. The international organism urged the government  to take the necessary measures to locate Maldonado, who was last seen in a violent repression of an indigenous protest, reports Página 12.
  • Trump's rhetoric about Mexico doesn't seem to be improving, but Mexicans are learning to shrug it off. The latest: his threat to scrap NAFTA, made at a Phoenix rally. Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray brushed off Trump's comments as simply a negotiating tactic that should not surprise or frighten Mexico, reports the Washington Post.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Elite Salvadoran police carried out summary executions - Factum investigation (Aug. 23, 2017)

Members of an elite corps of El Salvador's police carried out at least three summary executions, sexually assaulted two teenagers, and at least one case of extortion, reports Revista Factum based on an in-depth investigation. The four police officers accused of these crimes formed part of the Specialized Reaction Forces (FES) of the National Civilian Police (PNC).

Revista Factum carried out a three month investigation of the FES group under the command of Lieutenant Diaz Lico, with the participation of the agents Bladimir de Jesus Flores Avalos, Jose Roberto Ventura Gamez, and another agent identified as Mogwli. The four police officers were accompanied by a civilian identified as Rastreador (Tracker), whose testimony of the crimes committed by the group is known to the Attorney General’s Office (FGR).  Lack of supervision "lack of institutional supervision, in part, contributed to this unit becoming an extermination group within the PNC."

But Factum's investigation also demonstrates these "...are not isolated cases of rotten apples -- the figure used by diverse PNC directors and Ministers of Security since the formation of the civil police in 1992 -- or of extermination groups foreign to the institution," argues the magazine's editorial. "No, this journalistic dispatch certifies that the crimes have been executed by police personnel with tolerance of the institutional leadership."

"Today, with this investigation, we know that, in effect, the Salvadoran state opted to tolerate another gang within its breast, formed by high-level police with legal licenses to bear arms and exert lethal force ... These are not isolated cases, it is an institutional trend, tolerated by those who direct the institution and the government."

Factum's investigation includes interviews with dozens of witnesses, the review of autopsy reports from the murders, reviews of police data bases, and access to real time communication between Rastreador and Lieutenant Diaz Lico and other PNC members via social media groups used to exchange information and respond to petitions to execute gang members.

If verified, the actions described are directly criminal, said PNC director Howard Cotto, in an interview with Factum.

According to official sources, 293 gang members died in alleged confrontations between police and gang members so far this year. The investigation shows how in at least one of those cases, officers beat and killed an unarmed gang member, reports Factum in a piece focusing on the killing of Ivan Benjamin Carcamo Caballero, a 29-year-old man known as Bam Bam.

The magazine published extensive Whatsapp chats between police officers who share videos of a beaten gang member, a photo of a body with multiple gun wounds and advice over how to stage a homicide scene, and frank discussions. 

News Briefs
  • Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is reportedly scheming to get rid of the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) director Iván Velásquez. A government source has said Morales will travel to the New York U.N. headquarters to request Velásquez's exit, reports El Periódico. Should this occur, attorney general Thelma Aldana has threatened to resign, emphasizing the important work the Public Ministry has carried out together with the CICIG.
  • The U.S. government is considering restricting trades in Venezuelan debt, as part of efforts to pressure the Maduro administration, reports the Wall Street Journal. The extent of the measure has not yet been determined -- different sources say it could range from temporarily banning U.S.-regulated financial institutions from buying and selling dollar-denominated bonds issued by the Republic of Venezuela and state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA to more limited restrictions. Up until now, economic sanctions have been applied only to government officials, though U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened broader economic sanctions. (See Aug. 10's post on the issue.)
  • Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro says he is seeking an international arrest warrant for the former chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, who will reportedly seek asylum in the U.S., according to the BBC.
  • Chile’s government granted political asylum to five former Venezuelan Supreme Court justice appointees who had sought protection at the Chilean embassy in Caracas, reports the Wall Street Journal. The five were among the magistrates recently appointed to the court by the opposition-led National Assembly. Chile’s Foreign Ministry said in a news release that it had requested Venezuelan authorities safe-conduct, or immunity from arrest, for the five judges so they could travel abroad.
  • Chilean women's rights campaigners hailed a Constitutional Court decision affirming limited access to abortion as a "triumph of reason," reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Public opinion surveys commissioned by the Instinto de Vida campaign in Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala and Venezuela — the six most violent countries in the region -- found that between 50% and 75% of the respondents were afraid of being victims of homicide. But they also found that most respondents preferred prevention oriented public policies, writes Igarapé Institute director Robert Muggah in the Los Angeles Times. "These hopeful views are backed by evidence. The Instinct for Life campaign has identified a series of data-driven measures that have successfully prevented killings. These include deterrence-based strategies that prioritize the most violent crimes, hot spot interventions, responsible gun and ammunition regulation, and recidivism prevention. When it comes to value for money, the most effective strategies to reduce lethal violence are investing resources in stabilizing unstable households and promoting positive parenting. Interventions that keep children in school, provide vocational training, generate meaningful jobs and teach life skills to at-risk youth are also effective."
  • A Mexican journalist Cándido Ríos was killed this week, despite being under a government protection program for reporters and human rights defenders, reports AFP. He is the tenth journalist killed so far this year in Mexico.
  • The U.S. State Department broadened its travel warning to citizens traveling to certain Mexican tourism areas -- including Cancún-- due to increased cartel violence, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Peru's justice system is advancing against several top politicians accused of corruption -- "but without much-needed legislative reform, its institutions will remain susceptible to criminality," according to InSight Crime. Now new data from IDL-Reporteros could implicate Keiko Fujimori in receiving illicit Odebrecht campaign donations in 2011.
  • Brazil's government announced a plan to privatize the country's largest electric utility, Eletrobras. The announcement earlier this week sent the stock market soaring, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazilian prosecutors filed charges against Aldemir Bendine, the former chief executive of Petrobras and Banco do Brasil, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A year after the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, the sports facilities built for the events languish around the city, reports the Miami Herald. However, other related projects, such as new transportation lines, have fared much better.
  • Trump said he would risk a government shut-down in order to obtain funding for his proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico, reports the BBC. "Now the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it, but believe me if we have to close down our government, we are building that wall," Trump said at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona.