Tuesday, March 20, 2018

More U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, crisis continues to deepen (March 20, 2018)

News Briefs
  • The U.S. government broadened sanctions against Venezuela yesterday. Four more government officials were blacklisted, and a cryptocurrency aimed at circumventing sanctions was banned, reports the New York Times. The sanctions will have little practical effect (the petro was launched a month ago, but remains sketchy), but serve as a political warning to the Maduro administration. The White House emphasized the country's devastating crisis and said it would hold the government responsible for creating the conditions that have led to widespread suffering in the country. The Trump administration said any investment in the digital currency should be viewed as "directly supporting this dictatorship and its attempts to undermine democratic order in Venezuela," reports the Miami Herald. However, experts warn that sanctions of this kind often backfire. The NYT quotes Cynthia J. Arnson, the director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program who notes that they can make the government dig in its heels. The latest Washington move avoids oil sanctions, which would have a more significant effect on the economy, though officials say the option remains on the table.
  • A potential military option also remains on the table, though David Smilde warns that it would be a disastrous move. "Having a military option on the table hardens the Maduro government’s discourse and validates what it has always been saying: that the revolution is under violent threat from the outside," he said in an interview with De Standaard. "What is more, having a military option on the table divides the opposition among those who think there is a political solution to the crisis and those who have for over a decade sought foreign military intervention."
  • Smilde also emphasizes the importance of opposition unity in the face of upcoming elections. Currently there is a division between the MUD coalition that advocates boycotting due to lack of electoral guarantees, and Henri Falcón who is attempting to oust Maduro at the ballot box in May. While the opposition has attempted to minimize Falcón's influence, "it looks quite different when you realize that the most recent numbers show that Falcón is actually the second most popular opposition figure and is more popular than the MUD itself. What is more, his support comes from a more centrist segment than the rest of the opposition and has the potential to grow in both directions: into the traditional opposition, and into “light Chavismo.” So his candidacy has the potential to provoke a significant realignment."
  • Indeed, most Venezuelans want to vote, according to former MUD secretary general Jesús Torrealba, who proposed a Falcón transitional government with a MUD cabinet in Efecto Cocuyo.
  • A new survey conducted by Venezuela's opposition led National Assembly gives data backing up witness accounts that hospitals in the country are unable to provide even the most basic services. The poll carried out with the independent Doctors for Health Organization went directly to doctors in 104 public and 33 private hospitals in 22 of 25 states, reports the Washington Post. It found that drug shortages increased 33 percent over the past five years, reaching 88 percent in 2018, and that only about 10 percent of hospitals have fully functioning emergency and operating rooms. Doctors in 79 percent of hospitals said water is frequently unavailable and in 96 percent saying their kitchens cannot adequately feed patients. These findings come even as the government refuses international aid. Seventy-nine percent of hospitals said they lacked basic surgical supplies such as gauze, gloves and compresses, and 84 percent reported having no catheters and tubes.Ninety-four percent reported a frequent absence of X-ray equipment; 86 percent said they often could not perform ultrasounds; 96 percent said they often couldn’t offer CT scans; and 100 percent said their laboratories were not fully functioning given the scarcity of reagents.
  • Tuberculosis is making a comeback in Venezuela, along with other formerly controlled diseases like malaria, diphtheria and measles. They are affecting a Venezuelan population weakened by poor nutrition and rising stress, and with a collapsed health care system, reports the New York Times. In the case of tuberculosis, the crisis has forced families into increasingly crowded homes, speeding transmission. And experts fear that a potential epidemic could spill over Venezuela's borders along with the increasing numbers of refugees seeking to escape the country.
  • In a stirring New York Times op-ed film, Venezuelan violinist Wuilly Arteaga tells of his abuses in a Venezuelan jail and appeals to the international community to help his compatriots.
  • Refugees are increasingly facing difficult conditions abroad as well though, reports the Miami Herald. Neighboring countries are unprepared for the influx of Venezuelans, who are having trouble finding work and making new lives.
  • Along the Venezuelan border, about 300 Brazilians in Roraima kicked a group of 50 Venezuelan refugees out of an abandoned school and burned their belongings, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • Human Rights Watch's Tamara Taraciuk writes about Venezuelan journalists in exile in Univisión, many of whom continue exercising their profession from abroad.
  • Marielle Franco's assassination catapulted her from the local scene into a global symbol of racial oppression, reports the Washington Post. Evidence increasingly points to a hit by corrupt police officers. At home, the interpretations of why she was killed demonstrate divisions in how Brazilians choose to view race in a society that tends to think of itself as post racial. Critics however say such a perspective makes it impossible to discuss deep rooted inequality and violence. "Franco was targeted, her backers insist, because taking the life of a black woman is less risky in Brazil, especially in a state where only 1 in 10 homicide cases results in a conviction." As Human Rights Watch senior researcher César Muñoz put it: "To dare to murder someone with a profile as high in Rio de Janeiro as Councilwoman Marielle Franco takes a lot of confidence that there will be no justice." The Washington Post piece cites Igarapé Institute statistics showing that last year, 1,124 people died at the hands of police, the highest number in a decade. In recent years, nearly 80 percent of those killed by police were black or mixed-race. Every day, 112 blacks or mixed-race Brazilians are killed. They make up 54 percent of the national population, yet 71 percent of all homicides. Between 2005 and 2015, the proportion of blacks and mixed-raced Brazilians killed rose by 18 percent, while the figure for whites dropped by 12 percent.
  • Trump heads to the Summit of the Americas next month, a potential diplomatic minefield in a region where views of the U.S. are particularly low, argues Ben Raderstorf in a New York Times op-ed. He recommends the president stick to script and focus on the meeting's anti-corruption theme. "There is always more that the United States can do to support Latin America’s continuing fight against corruption. The Trump administration should develop a list of new commitments to bring to the table on Day 1. That, more than anything, would go a long way toward improving United States-Latin American relations. In short, to make his first Latin America trip worthwhile, the president just needs to follow three simple guidelines: Listen first. Talk softly. And do your homework."
  • U.S. policies that treat MS-13 like an international drug cartel are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Salvadoran street gang and are destined to fail, argues InSight Crime co-director Stephen Dudley in the Conversation. MS-13 has a violent presence at least a half-dozen countries on two continents, but does not have a significant role in the international drug trafficking market he explains -- though it has tried to establish itself in the business. "One reason MS-13 has failed so roundly at becoming a drug cartel is that it is more of a social club than a lucrative criminal enterprise. Its members benefit from the camaraderie and support that comes with membership – not the heaping monetary rewards that never arrive. ... Perhaps more critically, MS-13 is a decentralized organization with no clear hierarchy. The gang is broken into local cells called “cliques” – or “clicas” in Spanish – that are more loyal to each other than to the various leadership councils that operate around Central America and the U.S. Put simply, it has no leader. So what looks on paper like a tremendous built-in infrastructure for moving illicit products across borders is actually a disparate, federalized organization of substructures with highly local, even competing, interests."
  • Evangelical churches are increasingly having impact on politics in Latin America, writes Carlos Malamud at the AULA blog. "The line between religion and politics is getting increasingly blurred in Latin America as evangelical churches grow in strength and candidates try to curry the support of – or at least avoid confrontation with – the faithful," he writes.
  • A U.S. border patrol agent will go on trial today for the deadly shooting of a Mexican teenager on the Mexican side of the border, reports the Guardian.
  • Mexico and Syria are the world's deadliest countries for journalists. Twelve journalists were murdered last year in Mexico. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has aroused considerable anger by suggesting the deaths are a product of increased press freedom, reports the Guardian. "The fact that more than 100 journalists were murdered is, in grand part, to be blamed on the freedom of the press today, which allows journalists to say things that were not permitted previously. Narcotics trafficking plays an absolutely central part in all of this," he said. Press advocates criticized in particular his failure to acknowledge the aggression from public officials, political parties, and security forces. Bonus track: this weekend Vargas Llosa said feminism is literatures most determined enemy.

Monday, March 19, 2018

PPK on trial (March 19, 2018)

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski defended himself from charges of of corruption before a Congressional committee on Friday. It's the start of a week-long attempt to save his presidency before an impeachment vote on Thursday, reports the Washington Post.

PPK spoke before a special legislative committee local ramifications of the sprawling Brazilian Lava Jato corruption investigation. His closed-door testimony to six lawmakers was scheduled before Peruvian lawmakers voted to open an impeachment hearing for next week. But it will be critical in determining whether he is ousted, according to the WP.

The president told lawmakers that he used an offshore firm to legally avoid paying U.S. taxes, reports Reuters based on a leaked audio from the hearing. "Why would we pay Uncle Sam and Mr. Trump a bunch of money that’s here in Peru?" Kuczynski is heard telling the committee in a four-minute segment of the audio recording from the closed session. Though Kuczynski's lawyers said the move was legal, opposition lawmakers said it only raised more questions about his moral fitness to lead the country.

This afternoon the commission will decide whether to lift the reserve off of PPK's testimony, reports La República.

PPK narrowly survived an impeachment proceeding in December based on the same allegations of improper payments from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. Supporters are now arguing that this is a case of double-jeopardy, and he is being tried again on the same accusations.

How lawmakers will swing on Thursday isn't clear, and several parties may be split on the issue, reports La República. (La República has a graphic showing how each party's lawmakers are leaning, as of today, about 85 lawmakers would support impeachment.)

Internationally the timing is difficult. Peru is set to host the Summit of the Americas next month, that will focus on governance against corruption.

News Briefs
  • Hunger is growing in Latin America and the Caribbean, as is obesity, leaving the region vulnerable to a food security "perfect storm," according to a recent FAO conference. Reductions in malnutrition of recent years have started to revert, as Latin America is hit with slower economic growth and attendant increased unemployment and reduction in social programs, reports the Economist Intelligence Unit. "As a proportion of the population, hunger in South America rose to 5.6% in 2016, up from 5% a year earlier. By contrast, hunger has not increased in either Central America or the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the absolute level of hunger remains highest in the Caribbean, where it affects 17.7% of the population (the figure is skewed by Haiti, where nearly half the population." The report also draws attention to the issue of family farmers, who are particularly vulnerable to climate change.
  • Venezuelan opposition candidate Henri Falcón touts himself as a potential transitional president for a post-Chavista age. But the presidential candidate has aroused the anger both of his former chavista allies, and the majority of opposition parties that favor boycotting the upcoming elections, reports Reuters. Though opinion polls show that Falcón has a shot of winning, severe electoral irregularities mean that is unlikely, note experts.
  • OAS head Luis Almagro said Falcón is being used as a tool to divide the Venezuelan opposition ahead of a highly questioned May presidential election, reports Reuters. His candidacy ultimately favors the government, said Almagro.
  • Almagro proposed sanctions against Venezuelan government officials on holdings in the region, reports EFE
  • The recently reinstated Haitian army is rapidly resembling its predecessor, "disbanded in 1995 after a long history of involvement in coups, violent repression, and drug trafficking," writes Jake Johnston for CEPR. Six individuals appointed to lead the new armed forces are carryovers from the old force. "At least three of the officers appear to have held senior positions within the early-‘90s military coup regime. One of them is a convicted intellectual author of a civilian massacre, and another was a member of a committee that sought to cover it up."
  • At least 1,000 people marched yesterday in Rio de Janeiro, in protest of the killing of councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Pedro Gomes, reports the New York Times. The focal point of the march was the Maré favela where Franco grew up. (See last Thursday's post and Friday's briefs.) The Guardian reports on the Maré and Franco's history there.
  • Franco's killing has aroused anger around the country, mostly through citizen-driven online activism. "For once, Brazil’s major media has been a bystander in this story, not its driver," writes Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept. He criticizes the "whitewashing" of the story by downplaying Franco's radical politics. "The crime that ended her life was also purely political. There is no way to meaningfully understand Marielle’s life and assassination without a candid, clear, and honest discussion of her politics. What makes her story such big news is her politics, which in turn produced the political motives that caused powerful people to want her dead."
  • "In this context, international condemnation of this murder matters," argues a Guardian editorial. "It offers moral support to protesters and reminds mainstream politicians that Brazil will be judged on whether it brings Franco’s killers to justice and listens to her warnings. Authoritarianism will further brutalise poor communities, which have already suffered such violence."
  • Local media reported that the bullets used to kill Franco, a vocal critic of police brutality in the city's favelas, and Gomes came from lots sold Brazil's federal police, according to EFE. The crime was carried out with knowledge of how the investigation would be carried out and thus avoid detection, notes Greenwald in The Intercept.
  • Former football star Romario de Souza announced a run for Rio de Janeiro governor in October. He promised to tackle violence and the state's bankruptcy problem, reports the BBC.
  • Andrés Manuel López Obrador officially filed candidacy papers to run for president in Mexico's July election. The leftist front-runner said he hopes to go down in history as one of the country's greatest presidents, along with Benito Juarez, Francisco I. Madero and Lazaro Cardenas, reports EFE.
  • Former Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala obtained the necessary signatures to run as an independent, a candidacy that will likely divide the vote and ultimately benefit López Obrador, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • In the next couple of months Guatemala's president must select a new attorney general. And in Honduras and El Salvador, lawmakers must also pick new top prosecutors. These processes take place as all three governments are being strongly criticized for a lack of commitment to anti corruption efforts spearheaded by those attorney generals, writes Héctor Silva Ávalos at InSight Crime. "The selection of the new Northern Triangle prosecutors marks a new chapter in the attempts to improve the fight against corruption and impunity through the strengthening of state offices in charge of pursuing crime." In the case of Guatemala, analysts are concerned the selection of a new top prosecutor could interrupt a string of successful investigations carried out in conjunction with a U.N. backed anti-corruption commission (the CICIG). In El Salvador, a newly elected right-leaning National Assembly might reelect Douglas Meléndez, who has been praised for investigations against former leaders, but criticized for going soft on alleged extrajudicial executions carried out by security forces. (El Faro reports on how the ruling FMLN party considers Meléndez partial against them.) In Honduras, it appears that most candidates for the post are close to President Juan Orlando Hernández.
  • In June, Salvadoran lawmakers will also choose four new members of the Constitutional Court, which has positioned itself as a counterweight to the government and national assembly, reports El Faro.
  • The owner and two executives of the largest Guatemalan palm oil producer, Repsa, were arrested on Friday on charges of bribery and tax fraud, reports Reuters.
  • Eighty-four human rights activists were killed in Colombia last year, according to the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights. On Friday he said activists and social leaders are still being targeted by drug traffickers, right wing death squads and smaller rebel groups, reports the Associated Press. According to the High Commissioner's report, human rights activists have become caught up in a fierce competition among criminal groups to control former FARC areas in the wake of the guerrilla groups demobilization.
  • InSight Crime reports on the fourth generation of Colombian drug lords, who have found that anonymity is their best protection. "The Invisibles," as the investigation carried out for the Colombian Observatory of Organized Crime calls them, "have learned that violence is bad for business. The new generation of traffickers have learned that anonymity is the ultimate protection, that “plata” (“silver”) is infinitely more effective than “plomo” (“lead,” as in bullets). The Colombians have ceded the world’s biggest market, the United States, to the Mexicans. This is not a sign of weakness but rather a savvy business move." This new generation wears the face of a respectable businessman, and involves intimate knowledge of the financial world, according to the report. It is booming in post-conflict Colombia, and is taking advantage of the weakening of formerly dominant cartels such as the Urabeños. Weak implementation of the FARC peace deal is pushing dissidents into a new criminal network dubbed the FARCRIM. "The drug trade is the most agile business on the planet. Managing billions of dollars and able to defy national and international law enforcement, it adapts to changing conditions far more quickly than governments and security forces. It learns from its mistakes in what is the world’s most unforgiving and brutal markets. And the conditions today and until 2019 are in their favor thanks to a variety of national and international factors ..."
  • U.S. President Donald Trump will likely target Venezuela's cryptocurrency with sanctions today, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Venezuela's highly questioned cryptocurrency, the Petro, is the brainchild of a former U.S. congressional intern who had campaigned for stronger sanctions against the Maduro government, reports the Associated Press.
  • The chief executive of Canadian Phantom Secure has been indicted in the U.S. on charges of selling modified devices to drug cartels, reports the BBC.
  • Bolivia appealed to the International Court of Justice to force Chile into talks granting the country access to the Pacific Ocean, reports the Associated Press.
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said he is “ready” to go to jail and serve a 12-year and one-month sentence on a corruption charge conviction, reports the Associated Press.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump's protectionist stance is pushing closer ties among Latin American countries that are also seeking to expand trade with Asia and free trade agreements with the EU, reports the New York Times. And in regional diplomatic circles, White House chaos is causing headaches, according to Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald.
  • Mario Vargas Llosa is the most overtly political of the Latin American Boom writers -- and his prolific writing is obsessed with "what he regards as Latin Americans’ chronic weakness for demagogues and phantom utopias," according to a New York Times review of his two most recent works. "The contradiction between Latin America’s extravagant creativity and its agonies of injustice and poverty can be overcome with sound laws and reasonable democracy, he believes, if only “poetic metaphors” are kept out of politics and stay where they belong."
  • Guardian series looks at how cities in the world are growing exponentially in some areas. El Alto in Bolivia and Mexico City are highlighted as success stories -- the former because it demonstrates how to build a city from scratch in a difficult environment, and the later as a mega city that has brought growth under control. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Colombia's Special Peace Jurisdiction kicks off (March 16, 2018)

Colombia's transitional justice system officially opened up yesterday, fulfilling a key measure of the peace deal with the FARC, reports the Associated Press. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) will try cases considered most representative of the war’s violence, committed by guerrillas and government soldiers, reports Reuters

It will consist of three chambers where magistrates will examine case files gathered from years of investigations by various government agencies and humanitarian groups as well as victim accounts and compare them with testimony provided by offenders. More than 4,600 former FARC fighters and nearly 1,800 members of the armed forces have already submitted testimony for the JEP to process.

A special investigative unit will get involved when there is a discrepancy to help determine the truth. Human Rights Watch's America's director José Miguel Vivanco criticized the ambiguities of the system, which he said risks letting war criminals off the hook.

News Briefs
  • In the wake of the peace accord, the Colombian government must combine military action with development projects to reclaim territories that have been affected by decades of conflict. InSight Crime reviews some of the key challenges, including security, coca eradication and substitution, and rural development.
  • The Colombian government announced a new program to protect community social leaders, after acknowledging that at least 150 have been killed since 2016, reports Caracol.
  • Colombian negotiators resumed peace talks with the ELN guerrilla in Ecuador, reports EFE.
  • Mexican cartels are increasingly present in Colombia according to the country's attorney general, reports Reuters.
  • Colombian authorities detected more than 50,000 cyber attacks against the country's voter registration system in the lead up to last Sunday's election. Some originated in Venezuela which experts say is a proxy for Russia, reports Voice of America.
  • A new report by DeJusticia details cases of "corporate complicity" with human rights violations committed by paramilitary groups between 1970 and 2015 in Colombia. Despite the perception that foreign multinational actors played a dominant role in financing Colombia’s conflict, 98 percent of the cases included in the report involved Colombian economic actors, notes InSight Crime.
  • Colombian authorities detained a Cuban man accused of plotting to kill U.S. diplomats in the name of ISIS, reports the Associated Press.
  • Protests were held around Brazil after a Rio de Janeiro council member and her driver were killed on Wednesday, reports the Guardian(See yesterday's post.) Marielle Franco's home city, where she was known as a human rights defender and representative of the city's poor favela residents, turned out in anger at the deaths. She was a vocal critic of police brutality in a city where killings at the hands of security forces have risen sharply in recent years. The assassination has rattled a country that is somewhat inured to violence, reports the New York Times. And the crowds are a challenge to President Michel Temer's controversial military intervention of Rio de Janeiro state's security, reports El País. Franco and her party, the PSOL, had been highly critical of the president’s decision, which many considered politically motivated and likely to increase violence against favela residents, notes Americas Quarterly. Its the first politically motivated death since the Rio intervention started a month ago. "Marielle’s murder comes at a tense moment in Rio. The investigation of her death will test the military intervention she opposed; the state police she had often denounced; and the resolution of civil society, which will have to remain engaged to ensure a resolution," writes Maurício Santoro in another Americas Quarterly piece.
  • The past month of military intervention in Rio de Janeiro "has been a mixture of promising moves from the military, and troubling echoes of previous deployments," according to InSight Crime. Though the government initially promised a significant show of force, there hasn't been a general deployment of federal forces in the city. "However, the main military deployment into Villa Kenedy has seen the rights of local residents waived in a way that would unlikely be seen in richer parts of the city. The extended placement of military personnel in communities like Villa Kenedy is the same tactic used previously in Rocinha, Maré and countless other favelas before that, and will likely have the same outcome once federal forces leave. A return to lawlessness and a spike in crime."
  • Rising violence has some Brazilians nostalgic for military dictatorship. The country's authoritarian past violated human rights, but is also credited by admirers with maintaining public order. The result could be dangerous for the country's wobbly institutions, according to the Washington Post.
  • A community organizer in the Brazilian state of Pará was killed earlier this week. Fellow activists believe Paulo Nascimento was shot in retaliation for his participation in a campaign against a Norwegian owned aluminium factory in the area, that the community believes is damaging their environment and health, reports the Guardian.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski will against face impeachment charges in relation to alleged improper payments from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. (See yesterday's briefs.) Though he survived a similar ouster attempt in December, this time around analysts say he is far weaker, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexico's lower chamber of Congress picked David Rogelio Colmenares, an economist, to head the Federal Audit Office (ASF). The process was criticized by anti-corruption groups who said the selection of candidates was not transparent, reports Reuters.
  • Artículo 19 criticized a bill intended to regulate government publicity, saying it ratifies current poor practices, reports Animal Político.
  • Mexican authorities arrested 18 people in relation to the case of two prosecution agents kidnapped and later killed, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Groups of migrants who have lost temporary protected status (TPS) in the U.S., along with advocacy groups, are legally challenging the Trump administration. All of the lawsuits raise similar claims that the decision to end TPS violated procedures and TPS holders’ due process, and question President Donald Trump's attitude towards people of color, reports the Miami Herald. One of the complaints presented this week raises the issue of children of TPS holders, U.S. citizens who must decide whether to leave their country or grow up without their parents, reports the Guardian.
  • Recent U.S. governments have lacked vision when it comes to Latin American diplomacy, allowing a narrow security agenda to dominate, argues Thomas O'Keefe at the Aula Blog. "While broad policies and political commitment behind them have been lacking, Washington has run a number of security programs in the region.  This focus, however, has often turned out to be problematic."
  • Former President Michelle Bachelet may not have fulfilled her ambitious campaign promises, but her government took important steps to channel citizen mobilization, especially in the case of a project for a new constitution, writes Patricio Fernández in a New York Times Español op-ed. In Americas Quarterly, Beryl Seiler and Ben Raderstorf also argue she deserves more credit than pundits are giving now. "All told, Bachelet’s second government was arguably the most impactful – in a purely ideological sense, for good or ill – of any in Chile’s post-dictatorship history."
  • Protests against urban regeneration plans in Panama's Colón turned violent, reports the BBC. Four police officers have been injured and 45 people arrested.
  • ECLAC Executive Secretary Alicia Barcena called for a "Latin America First" strategy at the World Economic Forum being held in Brazil, reports EFE.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

#JustiçaParaMarielle (March 15, 2018)

A Rio de Janeiro council member and her driver were shot dead yesterday in an apparent targeted assassination. Police sources say gunmen opened fire on her car, but nothing was taken, reports El País.

City council member Marielle Franco was a vocal critic of police violence and recognized for her human rights trajectory. She was a member of a city commission monitoring the federally decreed military intervention of Rio de Janeiro's security, reports El País. Last weekend, she had criticized security forces for harassing favela residents -- a common issue worsened by the intervention, she tweeted.

Amnesty International urged that the investigation be rigorous and focus on "the context, motive and responsibility" for the killing.

President Michel Temer said the shooting was an attack against democracy and called an emergency meeting regarding the federal intervention in Rio, according to El País

In a city increasingly used to shooting deaths, this attack stands out as it wasn't a shootout between gangs or security forces, but rather appears to be an execution of a politician. The word "mexicanization" began to appear in social media in the hours following the attack, reports El País separately.

Protests were called for today against the genocide of black youths in cities around the country.

Franco grew up in the Maré favela, and criticized deaths of residents ascribed to security forces, reports the BBC. Defense of favela inhabitants' rights was a key part of her 2016 campaign platform, when she was the city's fifth most voted council candidate, reports O Globo. As president of the council's Commission for the Defense of Women she presented a project for the municipal government to compile data on gender violence. She also questioned the lack of female representation in city politics.


Ayotzinapa investigation marked by torture of detainees

Mexico's investigation into the disappearance of 43 students who disappeared in 2014 was marked by "a pattern of committing, tolerating and covering up torture," according to a new report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The report draws on judicial files, interviews with authorities, detainees and witnesses to conclude that there is evidence that at least 34 of the individuals prosecuted in relation to the Ayotzinapa case were tortured.

The report states that the internal oversight unit of the Office of the Attorney-General of the Republic (OAG) appeared to have made a genuine effort in 2016 to address some of alleged torture or other human rights violations, but this internal investigation was subsequently thwarted by the replacement of the officials in the unit. To date, there has been no prosecution and sanction for the acts of torture or other human rights violations, the report says. 

The report identifies extensive physical torture, including electrocution and anal penetration, as well as threats to rape detainees' families and mock executions, reports El País.

On Monday authorities said they had detained a key suspect in the case, with links to a drug gang. (See Tuesday's briefs.) But an independent group of experts and local human rights groups have questioned the government's account of what happened to the Ayotzinapa students, reports Reuters.

Another report by Mexican human rights groups, including Fundar and Centro Prodh, looks at the aftermath of the disappearances for victims' families. On the whole, they are poorer and sicker than they were four years ago. Many are afflicted with "survivors guilt" or "frozen mourning," reports El País.

News Briefs
  • Nicaragua's powerful vice president and first lady, Rosario Murillo, said Nicaraguans are "negatively influenced" by social media. On her daily television program she announced a project to target "fake news," shorthand for censorship of critical voices, reports El País.
  • Not that fake news and misinformation aren't also threats to democracy, note the participants of a World Economic Forum and El País organized round table.
  • Peru's Congress approved a motion to impeach President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who must now defend himself against allegations of impropriety for a second time in a few months, reports La República.
  • Sources say Vice President Martin Vizcarra would not resign in order to spur early elections if PPK is impeached, according to Reuters.
  • Corruption allegations have essentially kept PPK's government on hold, a fact that is intimately related to Peru's institutional oddities, argues Simeon Tegel in Americas Quarterly. "Peru’s peculiar democratic framework – a presidential-parliamentary hybrid unique in Latin America – serves both to institutionalize conflict and prevent fresh voices with public backing from entering the political arena."
  • At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights David Smilde responds to critics who feel the U.S. has no moral standing to pressure Venezuela. "The only reason I would oppose a Trump policy regarding Venezuela is because I think it would worsen the situation. The only reason I would support a Trump policy regarding Venezuela is that I think it could improve the situation. I am not willing to use nor dismiss the plight of Venezuelans for other political ends, however noble these latter might be. I understand politics and coalitions, and how one battle might be sacrificed for a larger battle. But people’s basic human rights serves as a check on the play and conflict of politics. They point to the areas in which people must be treated as ends in themselves."
  • Pentacostalism is helping members of El Salvador's street gangs escape their commitment to the bloody groups, writes Sarah Maslin in 1843. "Rehabilitating gang members demands filling the void that drove them into gangs. Pentecostalism offers a compelling mix of boot-strapping individualism and tight-knit community. Some swear it is the only way. Gangs stay in power by maintaining a large standing army; defectors undermine their projection of strength. Members know sensitive information: the location of weapon stashes and clandestine graves, the gang’s leadership structure and its extortion network. ... Gangs need to manage this risk, so leaving entails a delicate process of negotiation. Older gangsters who have proved their trustworthiness have an easier time, as do churchgoers who avoid alcohol, drugs and other activities associated with la vida loca. Religion serves as a kind of ankle tag that lets the gang keep an eye on its former members."
  • Diplomatic observers are holding their breaths after former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's surprise ousting. But the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Lima could provide a good forum for U.S. President Donald Trump to favorably engage with regional leaders. A wave of conservative leaders could be more accommodating to the U.S. president, if he can avoid bluster aimed at impressing his domestic audience, argues Richard Feinberg in Americas Quarterly. "The assembled Latin American leaders will avoid warm embraces that would be unpopular with their voters back home, but they will not seek to ignite inter-American warfare. Possibly, the Lima summit might even make some substantive progress on salient regional issues. The Latin American leaders might persuade Trump to return, at least partially, to the more open trade policies of his predecessors. There should be pre-negotiated documents that advance national battles against corruption in public life.  And the search will continue for a mediated, diplomatic solution to the deepening crisis in Venezuela."
  • Six people died and 20 more were wounded in a police operative to reestablish control over a Bolivian jail, reports El País. A group of inmates attacked police officers engaged in unraveling gang control over the prison with lit gas canisters and firearms. Earlier this week a couple of inmates escaped during a mutiny in the same prison.
  • Brazil could take Trump's steel tariffs to the WTO, reports El País.
  • The daughter of two victims of Argentina's last military dictatorship, Paula Mónaco Felipe, ponders the death of Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, a prominent member of the regime that killed an estimated 30,000 people, in a New York Times Español op-ed. "We don't celebrate death, we are not them. He went in cowardly silence, without saying where he hid the remains of our loved ones. But his family could bury him, because he died in a different Argentina than the one he terrified, he died in a more just country, which, among other things, is what our parents wanted." His death has helped reignite old debates about justice and punishment in Argentina, writes Sylvia Colombo in another New York Times Español op-ed. Rather than pushing for former torturers to continue accruing life sentences, she argues, perhaps prosecutors should seek a sort of plea bargain system in order to obtain information about the victims whose whereabouts have never been discovered.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Salvadoran court commutes 30 year abortion sentence (March 14, 2018)

A Salvadoran woman convicted of aggravated murder after suffering a stillbirth has been released from jail after 15 years. The Salvadoran Supreme Court commuted her 30 year sentence, calling it excessive and immoral, reports the Guardian

It's the second such reduction for sentences in alleged abortion cases in a country known for its draconian anti-abortion laws, reports the BBC. (See Feb. 16's briefs.) Not only is the procedure banned in all cases, but enforcement is particularly harsh. In many cases where obstetric complications lead to fetal or newborn death, women have been charged with aggravated homicide, with a minimum sentence of 30 years.

A recent Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report highlighted the issue: "These sentences are said to be occurring in the context of proceedings that allegedly fail to respect the right of the accused to a fair trial by not recognizing the principle of presumption of innocence and not assessing the evidence in accordance with inter-American standards on due process protections. Moreover, negative stereotypes around the concept of the “bad mother” and the “murderous mother” are said to prevail in these sentences." (See Jan 30's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • Support for legal abortion through the fourteenth week of pregnancy is swelling among Argentines -- led by comedians and cultural referents who have changed the conversation, especially among the younger population, reports the Guardian. That being said, women often find it nearly impossible to obtain an abortion now, even in the limited cases where it is legal -- rape, and when the women´s life or health is in danger. Amnesty International said over half the provinces in the country don't have regulations ensuring access, and the situation on the ground is often similar to countries where the procedure is totally banned. "During the last 30 years, complications related to risky abortions have been the main cause of maternal death, accounting for a third of total deaths59. The 2007-2011 statistics show that 23% of maternal deaths were a consequence of unsafe abortions."
  • Venezuelan authorities arrested a former cabinet member turned prominent government critic. Former interior minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres was arrested yesterday and accused of plotting violent acts, the latest in a string of opposition figures targeted by the government, reports the New York Times. Allies say he was detained without a warrant while participating in a political act in a Caracas hotel, reports Efecto Cocuyo. He was arrested by the Sebin, the intelligence agency he headed between 2002 and 2013, notes Efecto Cocuyo separately.
  • The United Nations is considering Venezuela's request for election monitoring in the upcoming May presidential vote, reports the AFP. UN political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman met for two hours at UN headquarters with opposition candidate Henri Falcon, Venezuelan Ambassador Samuel Moncada and other opposition representatives to discuss the request. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The withdrawal of former FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño from Colombia's upcoming presidential race may actually good news for the peace process, argues Fabio Andres Diaz in the Conversation. (See last Friday's briefs.) "As a scholar of civil conflict, I believe this ex-guerrilla’s withdrawal from public life could be good news for Colombia," he writes. "His withdrawal spares the volatile young party the embarrassment of being crushed in next month’s presidential primary and gives the transitional justice system time to do its job before the FARC faces voters again for 2019’s mayoral races. Londoño’s campaign was an important step in the FARC’s transition from armed rebellion to political party. But it was a powder keg. His retirement averts the risk of a big explosion."
  • Peru's highest court ruled in favor of asking the U.S. to extradite former President Alejandro Toledo, who is accused of taking a $20 million bribe from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, reports EFE.
  • Senator Romero Juca, a key ally of Brazilian President Michel Temer, has been indicted on charges of corruption and money-laundering, reports Bloomberg.
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed its concern about reports that Chilean police spied on reporters as part of an intelligence operation in the southern La Araucanía region.
  • The sudden replacement of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday with former CIA director Mike Pompeo likely won't signal a major policy shift towards Latin America, reports InSight Crime. Nonetheless, it may be aimed at bringing diplomacy in the region more in line with President Donald Trump's personal preferences, according to experts consulted.
  • Mexico's Veracruz state is suing Florida state in an attempt to recover public funds allegedly stolen by former Governor Javier Duarte and invested in Florida properties, reports Bloomberg.
  • Violence in Mexico's resort cities is threatening tourism, which accounts for accounts for about 8 percent of the country's GDP, reports the Guardian.
  • A powerful Mexican business lobby asked presidential frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador to stop questioning the government's economic agenda for fear of damaging investment, reports Reuters. The CCE lobby specifically referred to AMLO's proposals to scrap a new Mexico City airport already under construction and review oil and gas exploration and production contracts.
  • Candidate Ricardo Anaya, who polls second after AMLO, has promised to push corruption investigations for President Enrique Peña Nieto and members of his government, reports Bloomberg.
  • Curious about earthquakes in Mexico? This piece in the Conversation tells you more than you ever thought possible about how tectonic plates bend and what that means for Mexico City, which authors Diego Melgar and Xyoli Pérez-Campos say is at risk for another large quake.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

U.N. says post-election repression in Honduras involved excessive lethal force (March 13, 2018)

The Office of the UnitedNations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Honduras found that the government's response to post electoral protests starting last November led to serious human rights violations. A new report details "that elements of the security forces, especially the Military Police of the Public Order and the Army, used excessive force, including lethal force, to control and disperse protests, leading to the killing and wounding of protesters as well as passers-by.

By the end of January, the OHCHR registered at least 23 people killed in the context of post-electoral protests, all but one were civilians. "Based on its monitoring, OHCHR considered that at least 16 of the victims were shot to death by the security forces, including two women and two children, and that at least 60 people were injured, half of them by live ammunitions. In addition, OHCHR found that mass arrests took place, and that at least 1,351 people were detained between 1 and 5 December for violating the curfew. OHCHR also received credible and consistent allegations of ill-treatment at the time of arrest and/or during detention. It also received reports of illegal house raids conducted by members of the security forces. Another concern during the period under review is the surge in threats and intimidation against journalists, media workers, social and political activists." 

The report indicates that all the deaths attributed to the security forces resulted from firearms wounds and could amount to extra-judicial killings. "The analysis of the type of injuries suffered by the victims32 indicate that the security forces made intentional lethal use of firearms, including beyond dissuasive purpose, such as when victims were fleeing. This was illustrated in particular by the case of seven victims who died as a result of the impact of live ammunitions in the head. These cases raise serious concerns about the use of excessive lethal force and may amount to extra-judicial killings." 

The report places the violations "in the context of a political, economic and social crisis, which can be traced back to the 2009 military coup d’état, and the subsequent delay in undertaking critical institutional, political, economic and social reforms."

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement that things were likely to get worse unless Honduras prosecuted people for the killings.

"The already fragile human rights situation in Honduras, which suffers from high levels of violence and insecurity, is likely to deteriorate further unless there is true accountability for human rights violations, and reforms are taken to address the deep political and social polarization in the country," he said.

News Briefs
  • The arrest last week of the alleged intellectual author of Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres' killing "offers a glimpse into the links between government, military and business elite in a culture of corruption," according to the New York Times editorial board. "Far less clear is whether the arrest represents a fundamental change in Honduras or merely the sacrifice of a scapegoat in a case that got too big." (See March 5's post.) The piece also criticizes U.S. support for the 2009 coup in Honduras and the aftermath, saying that President Juan Orlando Hernández "may not be directly involved in the murder of Ms. Cáceres. But for the United States to demand that her murder be solved while cynically enabling the corrupt politics behind it makes it more likely that hers will not be the last killing."
  • Mexican authorities said they detained a key suspect in the emblematic case of 43 students who were disappeared in 2014. Erick Uriel Sandoval is accused of forming part of the gang that is thought to have killed the trainee teachers and burned their bodies, reports the BBC. He was detained near Cocula in Guerrero, and is accused of playing a key roled in the disappearance of the students, reports Animal Político. Authorities say he is probably a member of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang with links to former Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca. Known as "La Rana" the suspect has been on the run for years, but sources found he had returned to Guerrero and was operating openly in Cocula, reports El Universal. Earlier this month a Mexican official told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that authorities hope to have the case solved by the end of President Enrique Peña Nieto's mandate in December.
  • Mexican presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador tends to arouse strong emotions in observers (and hysteria among investors), who have compared him to everybody from Hugo Chávez to Donald Trump, passing through Lula and Jeremy Corbyn along the way. "These diverse and even opposing reactions speak to the anxieties of their authors—as well as to the ambiguities that AMLO himself has cultivated over his many years in politics," write Carlos Bravo Regidor and Patrick Iber in Dissent. "Still, these comparisons to foreign leaders are misleading and frequently superficial, focusing excessively on personality while neglecting the political conditions that have both made AMLO a viable candidate and will shape his presidency if he wins. As of late February, AMLO looks like the clear frontrunner, and the likely next president of Mexico. But the coalition he is assembling will probably not constitute a solid majority, and the political situation he is likely to enter into may make the transformative changes that people either expect or fear from him difficult to carry out." The authors situate AMLO within Mexican politics and trace his history of opposition to the PRI political machine, as well as his successful tenure as Mexico City mayor, though downplaying his radical credentials. "If AMLO’s detractors are unlikely to see their worst fears realized, his enthusiasts are almost certain to be unsatisfied as well," they write. AMLO’s critics portray him as a danger to Mexican democracy, and it’s true that his personal leadership style might test the strength of its institutions. But so would the election of any other candidate. AMLO’s election would also be a testament of democratic normalcy: he is the strongest opposition candidate confronting a deeply unpopular administration."
  • At Buzzfeed, Karla Zabludovsky details some of AMLO's unlikely alliances with ideological opponents that have alienated some of his base.
  • AMLO's alleged affinity with Venezuela's leadership is touted as a negative among his detractors. Verificado.mx, a new fact checking initiative, found that a popular video "proving" President Nicolás Maduro's backing of AMLO's campaign is false, reports Animal Político.
  • As Venezuelans increasingly flee their country's crushing crisis, the U.N. has asked countries in the region to treat them as refugees, rather than economic migrants, reports the Miami Herald. The UNHCR recommends countries that have received Venezuelans to not deport them, even if they entered illegally or lack proper identification papers. The guidelines are an apparent rebuke to Colombia, which has been struggling to manage the incoming flow and has implemented stricter policies. (See Feb. 9's post.)
  • Venezuela's new Frente Amplio opposition alliance asked the U.N. not to monitor upcoming presidential elections, to avoid legitimizing what it characterizes as a rigged process, reports Reuters. Venezuela's government asked the U.N. to send an observer mission, in an apparent bid to legitimize the process despite failed negotiations with the political opposition. But sending observers would require a mandate from the General Assembly or Security Council.
  • Francisco Rodríguez, an advisor to Venezuela's main opposition presidential candidate, Henri Falcón, argues needs to dollarize its economy, seek $15 billion to $20 billion a year from abroad, and ease oil sector taxes in order to climb out of its economic crisis, reports Reuters.
  • Outgoing U.S. ambassador to Panama John Feely has come to symbolize the depletion of the State Department under Trump, a situation that has particularly affected diplomats specialized in Latin America, reports the Washington Post. (Plus check out the endearing and humorous goodbye videos Feely posted online.)
  • In a year of key elections around the region, continuous setbacks could challenge the perception that democracy is more entrenched in Latin America than other developing regions, write Beverly Goldberg and Francesc Badia i Dalmases in Open Democracy. "Endemic corruption continues to penetrate society from its very roots up, and self-serving politicians, in a pursuit for power, have left a trail of devastation in their wake."
  • The MeToo trend of scandalization -- of beautiful stars denouncing powerful men, without criminal proceedings -- is dangerous in Latin America where femicides and gender violence remain alarmingly high, writes Alberto Barrera Tyszka in a New York Times Español op-ed. He points to the less sexy case of Venezuelan Linda Loaiza, who last month denounced the Venezuelan government for making it impossible for her to pursue justice in a case of a horrific abuse. (See Feb. 6's briefs.) "Catharsis is necessary, but insufficient. The reports of harassment cannot be the new reality TV. There are thousands of women in Latin America waging a daily battle, on all fronts, against sexual abuse and gender violence. Many of them could also be news. And journalism has a responsibility to this. It can impede showbusiness from kidnapping or frivolizing their struggles."
  • Univisión profiles Costa Rican lawmaker-elect Enrique Sánchez, the country's first openly gay congressman. Sánchez will take oath in May and form part of a political scene polarized by gay marriage. An ongoing presidential campaign was dominated by an evangelical candidate who opposes same-sex marriage. Activists have denounced an increase in attacks against the LGBT people in the context of the homophobic campaign, reports TeleSUR.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he'd resume peace talks with the ELN, suspended in January after a wave of attacks by the guerrilla group, reports EFE.
  • Chile's Congress was joined by the first two Mapuche women lawmakers, reports the BBC.
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer announced two new marine protection areas that would ensure a quarter of the country's oceans are protected, reports Reuters.
  • Mistrust of the Brazilian government among citizens is hindering efforts to vaccinate against a deadly yellow fever outbreak, reports the Associated Press. Rumors and misinformation, particularly via Whatsapp, are impacting a public policy and could lead to an urban outbreak in the country's megacities.
  • Brazil’s Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles is analyzing a presidential run in October, reports Reuters.
  • Will it ever be possible to enjoy quinoa without guilt? A few years ago it was stories about how fashionable cosmopolitan consumers were pushing the Andean staple out of economic reach for its indigenous cultivators. Now the bust has dashed the dreams of small-scale farmers, reports Nacla. "The quinoa boom-bust trajectory also challenges the wisdom of commercializing so-called “traditional crops” as a sustainable development strategy. ... Although small-scale quinoa farmers benefitted early on from the commercialization of this “underutilized species,” once its price became attractive to non-Andean farmers, there were no institutional mechanisms in place to ensure that small Andean farmers could continue to reap their fair share of the benefits from “sharing” this food with the world.  Instead, farmers with no cultural link to quinoa but with more capital to invest and larger, more productive farms are now outcompeting the small farmers in the Andes that quinoa’s commercialization initially had the potential to benefit."