Friday, October 6, 2017

Guatemala's CICIG Reveals Corrupt Govt-Prison Network (Oct 6, 2017)

In a blow against corruption networks run by political elites, Guatemala's Attorney General's Office and the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) revealed Thursday that a prison-based criminal network worked with a former president, lawyers and other government officials to embezzle public funds
Investigators arrested 11 people linked to the network and have three other arrest warrants pending. They also issued a formal petition that former president and current Guatemala City Mayor Alvaro Arzu be stripped of his immunity, so as to charge him with embezzlement and mishandling political funds. 

At the head of the network was Byron Lima, a former army captain who was jailed for conspiring to murder human rights defender Bishop Juan Gerardi. As the CICIG and the Attorney General's Office revealed in 2014, Lima ran a massive bribery ring within prison -- inmates paid him to receive special favors like conjugal visits, and Lima distributed a cut of the funds to government officials who looked the other way. Lima was killed in prison in 2016. 

In addition to this bribery ring, Lima ran what was essentially a sweatshop that produced paraphernalia for various conservative political partieswith the blessing of the country's then-minister of the interior.

In continuing the investigation into Lima's criminal enterprises, the Attorney General's Office and the CICIG found that Lima produced materials to support Arzu's re-election campaign for mayor in 2012 (Lima worked in Arzu's security detail when Arzu served as president from 1996 to 2000. Arzu was elected to his fourth consecutive term as city mayor in 2016). 

Documents show that associates linked to Arzu paid Lima's intermediaries -- including his partner, Alejandra Reyes Ochoa (who served as a key witness in the case) -- with city government funds to produce campaign paraphernalia for various conservative parties, and to fund political events. In some of the seized documents, Arzu is referred to as "Mr. Gold." One letter asks for 727,000 quetzales (about $99,000) to pay for lawyers' fees and other expenses.

The investigation indicates that the CICIG and the Attorney General's Office are continuing their record of building criminal cases using a wide range of evidence -- such as recorded telephone calls and seized documents -- rather than relying heavily on witness testimony. This is a problem that plagues justice systems across Latin America, particularly Mexico, where (in addition to issues like negligence and torture) the over-reliance on witness testimony to build a case was identified by experts as a major problem in the missing Guerrero students probe. 

elPeriodico reports that Arzu unsuccessfully attempted to interrupt the CICIG and Attorney General's Office press conference announcing the outcome of the investigation. Arzu told the press that the investigation is "politically motivated" because he helped "prevent a coup" against President Jimmy Morales during the recent stand-off between the CICIG and the Morales administration

In terms of challenging Guatemala's long-entrenched, corrupt networks of political power, in some ways going after Arzu may be more shocking for Guatemala's political and economic elites than going after President Morales (who ran and won on being a political outsider). As noted by Plaza PublicaArzu has long considered himself "untouchable," and seemed shocked when he wasn't able to hijack yesterday's press conference. 

In a small yet key sign of support, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala tweeted that the U.S. government is "committed" to helping fight corruption in the country. 

Under Guatemalan law, mayors cannot be prosecuted unless a judge strips them of their immunity first. It remains to be seen whether the courts will rule in Arzu's favor, as has happened in previous cases

News Briefs
  • Tropical Storm Nate tore through Central America and has left at least 22 people dead, reports the BBC. It is now headed towards Mexico and the U.S. Gulf Coast. According to the AP, the country most affected by the storm may have been Nicaragua, with 15 deaths reported. 
  • Brazil's Congress passed a law which allows political parties and candidates to force social media outlets to delete "offensive" content by anonymous authors without a court order, reports Reuters. Various media associations condemned the move as censorship, with the country's investigative journalism association (known as ABRAJI) stating"Brazil hasn't seen such explicit censorship practices since the end of the military dictatorship."
  • Scientists doubt sonic weapons were used in the "attacks" that allegedly caused mysterious ailments in nearly two dozen U.S. diplomats, and has prompted tensions between Cuba and the Trump administration (see Tuesday's brief). The New York Times provides context on the history of U.S. forces attempting to develop such weapons, and notes that, while there is research showing that ultrasound beams can have health effects, there's little evidence that it can be used as a covert weapon. Researchers posited that an environmental "weapon" -- such as a toxin or bacteria -- could have caused the diplomats' symptoms. 
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on shifting U.S. migration trends, noting that more migrants are coming from Central America rather than Mexico, and that crossing into the U.S. has become more dangerous and expensive. The article includes a graph showing how Border Patrol apprehensions have generally been dropping steadily since 2005.  
  • Argentina's top anti-corruption official accused former president and current senatorial candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of owning more than 60 properties in Florida purchased with "dirty money," reports The Miami Herald. However, the investigation is still ongoing and the allegations against Kirchner "still [have] to be proven," a spokeswoman for the anti-corruption office told the newspaper. Last year the Herald revealed that a top Kirchner aide had bought some $70 million in luxury properties in South Florida, an area which is "known as a haven for dirty cash," the newspaper stated.  
  • Reuters profiles how deprivation is affecting children in Venezuela, based on interviews with over two dozen parents, psychologists, teachers and others. The lack of affordable food is putting the greatest strain on children from low-income families, the report says. The psychological toll on the country's youngest generation will also likely become a significant hurdle should Venezuela begin to recover from its current economic crisis. 
  • Another Reuters piece looks at how the approximately 150 multinationals still based in Venezuela, including companies like Ford, are surviving, mainly by "shortening shifts, reducing payrolls and focusing on cheaper products." 
  • An Open Democracy analysis examines Rio de Janeiro's use of the armed forces for public security, a trend which also remains prevalent in Mexico and Central America. The article critiques Latin America's reliance on a militarized approach to public security, as it prevents governments and other actors from conceiving of other, less punitive and repressive responses.  "It is surprising that the same militarized option is repeatedly applied, despite our enormous database that would confirm its failure in the fight against crime and drugs," the article states. 
  • The New York Times examines how the U.S. decision to suspend visa processing has affected families in Cuba, noting that many are "despondent." "The sudden suspension of legal pathways for Cubans to settle in the United States could set off a new migration surge," the article states. A Reuters scoop revealed that the Cuban Embassy officials expelled from the U.S. include all those who manage business sector relations. This will likely prove to be another blow to the Cuban economy, as the expulsion of these officials makes it harder for U.S. businesses interested in having dealings in Cuba to move forward. 
  • Miami Herald feature visits the Cuban village made famous by writer Ernest Hemingway. The village is currently busy with recovery efforts after getting hit by Hurricane Irma. The article offers a snapshot of Cuban government efforts to offer hurricane relief in hard-hit areas
  • From La Silla Vacia: Colombian police and coca eradicators clashed with community residents in Tumaco, one of the country's biggest coca zones, leaving four dead and 14 wounded. These types of conflicts will likely escalate as Colombia comes under U.S. pressure to reduce coca cultivations, and as Colombia primarily uses manual eradication teams (rather than aerial spraying) to eradicate coca. 
  • The New York Times reports on former President Obama's latest corporate speech which took place Thursday in São Paulo. Brazilians paid top-dollar to attend Obama's keynote address at an event sponsored by several banks, partly because Obama's message about overcoming political polarization "resonates powerfully in a country that has endured years of political upheaval," the Times reports. 
  • The AP reports on one of the world's most significant monkey research center on Cayo Santiago (just off the Puerto Rican coast) which was debilitated by Hurricane Maria. The research center, first established in 1938, was studying macaques to better understand the causes of autism, among other research initiatives. 
-- Elyssa Pachico 

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