Friday, May 1, 2020

U.S. prosecutors charge former Honduran police chief (May 1, 2020)

U.S. federal prosecutors in New York charged a former Honduran national police chief with drug trafficking and weapons offenses, yesterday. The indictment alleged that former national police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla oversaw the shipment of tons of cocaine on behalf of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his brother Tony, a Honduran ex-congressman convicted in U.S. court last year of trafficking cocaine, reports the Washington Post. Bonilla has denied the charges.

Hernández is named as a co-conspirator in the Bonilla case. Prosecutors have accused him in court records in other cases of accepting drug money in exchange for protecting a trafficker from criminal charges, reports the New York Times.

It is the latest of several U.S. federal accusations that implicate Hernández, who denies the allegations. Hernández was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the trial of his brother Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, but the U.S. has continued to call him an ally in its "war on drugs," notes the Guardian.

Informants who pleaded guilty and cooperated in exchange for lighter sentences, told U.S. prosecutors that Bonilla was getting paid by the president’s brother to let cocaine shipments past checkpoints. In 2011, witnesses told authorities, Bonilla—nicknamed “El Tigre”—took part in the slaying of a rival drug trafficker, prosecutors said. He then claimed to investigate the killing, calling it a well-planned, efficient surprise attack, reports the Wall Street Journal.

During Bonilla's tenure as police chief, starting in 2012, he worked closely with US counter-narcotics forces operating in Honduras and helped to create a special unit of the police that works with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). U.S. authorities were well aware of Bonilla’s death squad past, according to historian Dana Frank. “It’s very clear that the U.S. has known all these years who they were working with. They’ve chosen to look the other way. And chosen to pour money into this government and its security forces,” Frank told the Associated Press.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy said yesterday that he and others in Congress had for years urged the U.S. to cut ties with Bonilla. “Those warnings were ignored, and our embassy treated him as a credible partner. That was inexcusable,” he said.

Bonilla remains at large in Honduras, and the case could put Hernández in a bind if the U.S. requests extradition.

Tony Hernández was convicted of drug trafficking in New York last year and is expected to be sentenced in June.


Critics accuse Bukele of authoritarian slide

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele maintains that his quick and decisive response to coronavirus -- lockdowns, quarantine centers for people returning from abroad, and detentions for supposed violators of stay-at-home orders -- has saved the country from pandemic. An increasingly loud chorus of critics say the measures further Bukele's increasingly authoritarian governance style, however. (Los Angeles Times)

Yesterday a large group of civil society organizations expressed concern about the Salvadoran goverment's actions in an open letter to Bukele, urging him to uphold the rule of law. The piece refers to measures implemented "to contain the pandemic, including the detention of people in forced confinement for breaching the quarantine," and is signed by Amnesty International, the Center for Justice and International Law, the Due Process of Law Foundation, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Mesoamerican Initiative for Women Human Rights Defenders and the World Organization Against Torture.

Characteristically, Bukele retorted with allegations that international organizations support the country's violent street gangs, in response to the letter's concerns about human rights violations in prisons and against alleged members. (EFE)

Bukele's moves to consolidate power have ballooned into a crackdown on the country's street gangs -- complete with a Twitter authorization for security forces to use "lethal force" against alleged gang members. (See yesterday's briefs, Wednesday's briefs, and Monday's post.) Images of gang members stripped down to shorts and crammed together in prisons while their cells are searched have outraged observers who point to human rights abuses and coronavirus concerns.

The photos were publicly released, however, indicating that the Bukele administration likely believes it will benefit from a proudly "mano dura" approach to crime, reports Brendan O'Boyle at Americas Quarterly. Indeed, Bukele continues to benefit from very high public approval ratings.

Another question is how the gangs will react to Bukele's crackdown, reports the Los Angeles Times. Bukele’s actions, some worry, could spur a broader conflict and a possible reemergence of the country’s darkest days of gang carnage. But it's not clear they will take the bait. Roberto Valencia interviewed a leading member of Barrio 18-Sureños who accused the government of seeking intra-gang warfare, but said the gangs will not fall for it. (RT)

Bukele's crackdown undermines his own government's security narrative, argue Héctor Silva Ávalos and Seth Robbins in InSight Crime. Indeed the spike in homicides in El Salvador last weekend is a clear demonstration of the gang's ongoing power, despite Bukele's claims to security gains.

Lest anybody confuse the reduction in homicides with a reduction in gang power, Óscar and Carlos Martínez write in El País about how MS-13 has enforced coronavirus quarantines with baseball bat beatings.

More El Salvador
  • In the latest twist, National Assembly lawmakers overcame a presidential veto yesterday, on legislation aimed at regulating the executive imposed quarantine measures. (El Diario de Hoy)
News Briefs

  • Alma Guillermoprieto laments the tragic impact of coronavirus on Latin America's long struggle to overcome deep poverty, inequality and shaky democracies. It is likely, she writes in El País, that "the problems which had not found a solution before the arrival of Covid-19 will continue unsolved in the post-epidemic, but worst." The article introduces an issue of El País semanal focused on coronavirus in Latin America, with pieces on indigenous families in Colombia, informal workers in Mexico, and more.

  • The U.S. has finalized an agreement that would allow it to send asylum seekers from third countries to Honduras instead. The agreement is similar to one the U.S. has already implemented with Guatemala, which has been legally challenged by advocates who say these countries lack adequate asylum systems. Critics point to yesterday's charges against a former Honduran police chief (see main post) as yet another example of how Honduras is ill-equipped to protect asylum seekers. Nonetheless, the Associated Press noted that the agreement will have little impact in the current scenario, as the U.S. is quickly expelling most people it encounters along the U.S.-Mexico border under an emergency public health order signed by President Donald Trump last month in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
  • The latest planeload of U.S. deportees to Guatemala -- 89 people who arrived yesterday -- tested negative for Covid-19 before boarding the flight. The Guatemalan government did not say whether deportation flights were resuming as a result of this new methodology, which responds to concerns that the U.S. has deported Covid-19 patients, reports the Associated Press.
  • Venezuelan migrants stranded at the Colombian border in an attempt to return home protested long delays. (Reuters)
  • Bolivia’s opposition-controlled parliament approved a law last night that calls for presidential elections within 90 days. The MAS party backed measure establishes that a presidential election redo, originally scheduled for May 3, must be held by Aug. 2. Interim-president Jeanne Áñez protested that former president Evo Morales's party is flouting coronavirus concerns in order to reclaim power. Áñez posponed the May 3 elections due to the country's coronavirus lockdown. (Reuters)
  • Bolivia will extend its lockdown against the COVID-19 pandemic until May 10. (Reuters)
  • The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a closed-door meeting on the humanitarian situation in Venezuela and the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic -- Venezuela Weekly looks at some of the opinions voiced.
  • The U.S. asked Mexico's government for help investigating to Mexican companies involved in an oil-for-food pact signed in 2019 with Venezuela's government, reports Reuters.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on countries to deny overflight rights to Mahan Air, an Iranian airline under U.S. sanctions, which he said recently delivered cargoes of “unknown support” to the Venezuelan government. (Reuters)
  • Venezuela is asking the Bank of England to sell part of the country's gold reserves and send the proceeds to the United Nations to help with the country’s coronavirus-fighting efforts, reports Reuters. The Bank of England has refused to transfer the 31 tonnes of gold it holds of Venezuelan reserves to the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The current request signals the government's desperation.
  • When and how to reopen economies -- even as countries in the region await their Covid-19 peaks -- is an increasingly acrimonious debate. Fears of infection are battling with economic concerns in Latin America, where most countries are facing recession already, reports Reuters.
  • Brazil's neighbors are starting to worry that its loosey-goosey approach to the coronavirus will undermine their considerably stricter measures. Argentina and Paraguay are seeking to limit contact with truck drivers from Brazil, while even the U.S. has voiced concern about eventual air travel from the country, reports the Associated Press.
  • Multitudes of destitute Brazilians face bureaucratic delays in getting coronavirus emergency assistance, amid fraud and a disjointed response by federal officials, reports the Associated Press.
  • Nicaragua's official Covid-19 count -- 13 positive cases -- is increasingly questioned by independent organizations that estimate at 300 cases, reports El Confidencial. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Costa Rica's enhanced border security measures aimed at cracking down on human smuggling in the midst of the pandemic, risk being undermined by lack of communication with Nicaragua's government, reports InSight Crime.
  • Chile stepped back from a controversial "immunity passport" initiative, thought the government will begin issuing certificates next week to people who tested positive for Covid-19 and correctly carried out their quarantine period, reports Reuters. (See last Friday's post.)
  • Chile will begin opening malls to the public today, reports Voice of America.
  • Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra promised a full pension reform plan, after he vetoed a bill approved by Congress earlier this month that would have let people withdraw up to 25% of their holdings in private pension funds. (Reuters)
  • President Ivan Duque’s response to the coronavirus has earned him a rare boost in approval ratings according to a new Invamer poll. (Reuters)

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