Latin America News Round-up
February 9, 2012
The 'Dirty War' Against Colombia's Unions
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Brazil and Southern Cone
Brazil: Striking police leave occupied building. AP
Graca Foster takes charge at Brazil oil giant Petrobras. BBC
Argentina Tightens Limits on Use of Cash Transactions in Financial Markets. Bloomberg
Decriminalizing Drug Use in Argentina is a Correction to Bad Policy. New York Times
Paraguay reports sharp drop in soy production due to drought, disturbances. AP
Northern Andean Region
Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez faces tough challenge in likely foe Henrique Capriles. Washington Post
Venezuela’s PDVSA Has Record Revenue of $128 Billion in 2011. Bloomberg
Venezuela's PdVSA, Gazprombank To Form JV In Zulia. Dow Jones
Colombia-Venezuela relations continue to improve. Colombia Reports
Targeting Teachers: The 'dirty war' against Colombia's unions. GlobalPost
Colombia rate hike is basic central banking-finmin. Reuters
Show Time in Necocli, Colombia. NACLA
Western Andean Region
Ecuador’s Fiscal Spending Leaped 31% to $24.5 Billion in 2011. Bloomberg
Peru Likely to Keep 4.25% Rate as Economy Rebounds on Stimulus. Bloomberg
Peru to move ahead with new trade deals in 2012. MarketWatch
Southern Copper delays $1 bln Peru mine opening. Reuters
Mashco-Piro Tribe Appearance: Peru Reportedly Raids Illegal Logging Site. Huffington Post
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean
U.S. More Open to Asylum Bids from Mexican Activists. EFE
U.N. Investigative Body to Stay in Guatemala. Wall Street Journal
Genocide Trial against Ríos Montt in Guatemala: Declassified Documents Provide Key Evidence. Upside Down World
Indians, Panama gov't in deal to end road blockade. AP
US diplomat heads to Honduras to help fight crime. AP
Honduran Army Admits Theft of Grenade Launchers. EFE
Salvadoran indicted on Mass. immigration charges. AP
Lawyer for Cuban agents vows last-ditch appeal. AP
Brazil and Southern Cone [contents]
Brazil: Striking police leave occupied building
JENNY BARCHFIELD. AP. February 9, 2012
SALVADOR, Brazil -- Striking police officers in the northeastern city of Salvador on Thursday evacuated the state legislative building they occupied in protest for more than a week.
It was not immediately clear, however, whether the conclusion of the dramatic standoff between the strikers and 1,000 army soldiers and elite federal police officers would also mark the end of the 10-day-long work stoppage that has threatened one of the globe's biggest Carnival celebrations here.
Army spokesman Marcio Cunha didn't know whether the estimated 10,000 striking officers would return to the job, and some local media reported that negotiations were to continue.
The strike had sparked an immediate spike in violence here in Brazil's third-largest city, with murder rates more than doubling since it started last Tuesday. The murders, as well as a rash of shop lootings and holdups, have scared tourists away from Salvador in the run-up to the city's iconic Carnival festivities. State authorities have been under intense pressure to resolve the strike.
A total of 245 strikers evacuated the building early Thursday, filing out between rows of soldiers surrounding the building. All were adults. About 10 kids were evacuated earlier this week. Earlier in the week, there were reports that several children were inside the building.
An initial group of several dozen men and a handful of women left the building on foot early Thursday, while a steady stream followed on motorcycles and on cars packed with blankets and other gear. They were greeted with cheers by a group of family and friends, many of whom had camped out on the building's grounds for days.
Army spokesman Cunha said the legislature building appeared to be "dirty but in OK conditions." He declined to say whether arms had been found in the building or on those leaving it. The officers had been carrying their work weapons earlier in the building.
The strike's head, Marco Prisco, and another top leader were detained, said Cunha. Under the terms of an agreement with government negotiators, both were spirited out through a back entrance, far from the media scrum. They were taken to a military police facility in Salvador, Cunha said.
The fate of Prisco and other leaders was a major sticking point in the negotiations. Arrest warrants have been issued against 12 of the leaders on charges of organizing roaming bands to stir up panic in the city and of robbing police cars.
Seven remain at large following Thursday's arrests.
Bahia Gov. Jaques Wagner has alleged that the strikers were partly responsible for the wave of violence in a bid to strike fear into the public.
Recordings of what were purported to be Prisco's phone conversations suggested the strike leader incited his followers to commit acts of vandalism. Bahia's public security authority made the recordings, which were broadcast on television here late Wednesday.
The strikers have narrowed their demands to amnesty for the walkout and payment of bonuses that would add about $350 a month to officers' paychecks. Monthly salaries for officers in Bahia now range between $1,100 and $1,330, depending on rank and experience.
The state government has offered a raise of 6.5 percent as well as bonuses but refused to offer amnesty for the striking officers.
The evacuation in Bahia coincides with a meeting later Thursday in Rio de Janeiro where police, fire fighters and others were to decide on whether to strike.
A walkout by workers there could spell disaster for Brazil's premier Carnival showcase, slated to being on Feb. 18. The festivities in Rio attract upward of 800,000 tourists and pump more than $500 million into the city's economy annually.
Graca Foster takes charge at Brazil oil giant Petrobras
Dias Carneiro. BBC. February 9, 2012
Maria das Gracas Silva Foster has worked for Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras almost all her career.
And now, after 32 years, she is set to take over the running of a company that is crucial to Brazil's economic development.
Petrobras, ranked 34th in the Fortune 500 list of companies, aims to become one of the world's biggest suppliers of oil, capitalising on the deep water reserves found off the Brazilian coast.
Graca Foster, as she is known, will be in charge of an investment budget for the next four years of some $225bn.
After confirmation by the Petrobras board, Ms Foster, 58, will be the firm's first female chief executive and the first woman to run a major oil company.
She was nominated for the post by Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's first female president.
The two began working together in 1998. When Ms Rousseff became mines and energy minister in 2003, she asked Ms Foster to be her secretary for oil, gas and renewable fuels.
Both have the reputation of being tough, no-nonsense operators.
"Ms Foster is very hard-working and likes things to be done well," says John Forman, a former director of the Brazilian Oil Agency (ANP).
She is not one to easily forgive mistakes, he says. "In this sense, she's like Dilma."
But if the two share the same determination to succeed, their backgrounds could hardly be more different.
Ms Rousseff grew up an upper middle-class household in Belo Horizonte.
Ms Foster grew up in Morro do Adeus, a poor Rio neighbourhood that today is part of Complexo do Alemao, a sprawling and at times violent slum.
"I lived in Complexo do Alemao until I was 12, dealt with domestic violence in my childhood and faced difficulties in life," Ms Foster told the O Globo newspaper last September.
As a child, she collected recyclable paper and cans to help support her family and buy her own schoolbooks.
"I always studied because I knew I had to. I needed to survive and take care of my mother," she said in an interview with Valor newspaper.
Ms Foster joined Petrobras as an intern, studying and working her way up the ranks.
She has expressed her dedication to Petrobras, declaring that she would be "ready to die" for the company.
Petrobras's share price rose when her nomination to succeed Jose Sergio Gabrielli was announced.
This indicates market approval of her appointment, says consultant Adriano Pires.
"Firstly, she has a more technical profile (than Mr Gabrielli) and has worked her whole life in Petrobras; secondly, she is close to President Dilma," he says.
"Her main challenge will be to balance political and technical decisions. A trademark of Gabrielli's administration was that many decisions were political, and this has caused Petrobras's shares to drop since 2010."
Ms Foster and Petrobras will indeed face challenges in the years ahead.
The oil fields off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state are estimated to hold more than 50bn barrels of oil, but these are buried some 7km (4.4 miles) under the ocean floor beneath a thick layer of salt.
Environmental issues may also come to the fore in case of any oil spills.
And when the oil does really start to flow, expect heated political discussions over how and where the money should be spent.
Editing and additional research by Liz Throssell, BBC News
Argentina Tightens Limits on Use of Cash Transactions in Financial Markets
Camila Russo. Bloomberg. February 9, 2012
Argentina limited the use of cash in the country’s financial markets as President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner ramps up oversight of currency transactions.
The government will restrict daily cash transactions to 1,000 pesos ($231) per person, down from 10,000 pesos, according to a statement today in the Official Gazette. The measure affects activity in the stock and bond markets, investment funds and in the futures markets. Operations above the limit will have to be done through Argentine bank accounts that are authorized by the central bank.
“They are forcing a higher level of formality in the economy, as cash transactions allow more irregularities,” said Felipe Hernandez, an analyst at RBS Securities Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut. “This is in line with other measures to prevent money laundering, for which the government has been under a great deal of pressure.”
The move is aimed at combating money laundering and terrorist financing, according to the statement.
Since winning a second, four-year term in October, Fernandez has ordered the tax agency to review all foreign currency transactions, required pre-approval for the importation of goods and raised capital requirements on banks in a bid to limit dividends and slow capital flight.
Outflows totaled $18 billion in the first nine months of 2011, double the same period in the previous year, and accelerated to the fastest pace in at least a decade in the third quarter. Fernandez’s measures have slowed outflows, allowing the central bank to rebuild its international reserves.
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Decriminalizing Drug Use in Argentina is a Correction to Bad Policy
DANIEL POLITI. New York Times. February 9, 2012
BUENOS AIRES — “When we first started, no one would consider advertising with us,” says Sebastián Basalo, the founder of THC, a magazine devoted to marijuana and its fans. (THC is the main psychoactive agent in the cannabis plant.) “Now we even get some big companies once in a while.”
When a publication that coaches readers on how far to place the lamp from the reefer plant gets corporate backing, you know times are changing. Argentina is becoming more liberal on several key social issues, like same-sex marriage, which was legalized in 2010. Now the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner seems poised to back the full decriminalization of illegal drugs for personal use.
This would be a long-overdue corrective to drug-control policies that have been an utter failure. Drug use and trafficking have continued to flourish even as law enforcement has cracked down hard on small players. Around one-third (pdf) of the country’s prison population is made up of drug criminals, the vast majority users, small-time dealers and drug mules. Consumption nonetheless is on the rise. In 2010, some 3.5 percent (pdf) of Argentinians said they had smoked marijuana over the previous year, up from 1.9 percent in 2004. In 2009, almost 10 percent (pdf) of high-school students reported using illegal drugs over the previous year, compared with just above five percent in 2001.
Decriminalizing personal use would both advance individual freedom and unclog Argentina’s notoriously slow judicial system. It would also free up resources for drug education, which is practically nonexistent today, and for tackling the real scourges of trafficking and addiction. It might even serve as an example for other countries in the region: except for Uruguay, where possession is not criminalized, most imprison too many people without putting a dent in the supply chain.
In December, Kirchner appointed the former foreign minister Rafael Bielsa as the new head of SEDRONAR, the government agency responsible for combating drug addiction and trafficking. Bielsa replaces the antagonistic José Granero, who spent more than seven years opposing any suggestion of decriminalization even after the Supreme Court held unanimously in 2009 that penalizing drug possession for personal use violated one’s constitutional right to privacy if it harmed no other party.
Bielsa faces a system that is grossly inefficient. Since the Supreme Court ruling, most judges throw out small-time drug cases, but the police keep making arrests. Around 70 percent (pdf) of all drug cases concern personal use. Sometimes suspects are in pretrial detention for weeks. The penalties are still too high, especially for minor offenses: one to six years in prison for possession alone (without consumption) and three to 15 years for growing marijuana, compared with four to 15 years for trafficking.
The current approach is also out of step with changing realities. Cocaine labs have cropped up, and Argentina is increasingly becoming a land of big traffickers, an important transit point between producers in Bolivia and Peru and consumers in Europe.
Several bills to decriminalize drug possession for personal use have been presented in Congress over the past year or so. Following Kirchner’s overwhelming reelection victory this autumn, which also gave her control of Congress, anything she backs will almost certainly win approval. But she has yet to express a full opinion beyond saying she doesn’t want addicts to be treated as criminals and allowing, during her previous term, her then-Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández to publicly advocate decriminalization. Bielsa has also been mum, but he is expected to go the way the government wind seems to be blowing these days.
The cover of THC’s first issue in December 2006 announced that Argentina was “close” to changing its drug law. Five years later, that prediction finally looks close to becoming a reality.
Daniel Politi is a freelance writer living in Argentina
Paraguay reports sharp drop in soy production due to drought, disturbances
AP. February 7, 2012
ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguayan exporters say that production of soy is likely to fall 47 percent in the current harvest.
The nation's chamber of cereal exporters says the 2011-2012 harvest is likely to be rough half of the 8.3 million tons produced in the previous season.
Technical adviser luis Cubilla says that means a loss of $1.5 billion.
Cubilla says dought has cut production per acre (hectare) to a little more than half the normal. And some soy farmers of Brazilian descent have been unable to plant due to clashes with landless workers.
Paraguay is the third-largest soy producer in South America, behind only Brazil and Argentina.
Northern Andean Region [contents]
Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez faces tough challenge in likely foe Henrique Capriles
Juan Forero. Washington Post. February 8, 2012
ACARIGUA, Venezuela — Displaying youthful vigor, Henrique Capriles sprang from his campaign van in the center of this farm-belt town on a recent day, leading his followers on a sprint along narrow streets.
Teenage girls mobbed him, mothers wanted to talk about better schools, and unemployed workers asked about jobs. And some even told him: You look like Hugo Chavez did in 1998, the way you energize your followers.
It is not a comparison the presidential hopeful easily casts aside as Venezuela’s campaign season kicks into gear. When Chavez came on the political scene as a trim, 44-year-old former army paratrooper, his fresh face and revolutionary ideas made him a viable alternative to the established order. He won big.
Now Capriles, who has a wiry athletic build and is 39, is offering a similar break — not only from the aging opposition politicians who came from the two-party system Chavez replaced but also from the president himself.
“I think the government is tired,” Capriles said in an interview in the midst of his campaign here. “It’s a government that talks and talks, promises and promises, but you cannot live on that. It is 14 years in power. We have to close the cycle.”
Capriles faces an uphill battle, but polls released late last year showed him closer to the president than any other politician who has challenged Chavez. On Sunday, Capriles is expected to emerge from a field of five opposition leaders in a first-ever primary designed to choose one strong candidate who could end Chavez’s long rule in October’s presidential election, according to the Caracas-based pollster Datanalisis.
The very fact that a primary is taking place — one in which various parties are represented — demonstrates how a once-fractured opposition has united, political analysts say. Aside from Capriles, two other candidates are younger than 45 and come with new ideas that make it difficult for Chavez to characterize them as part of the old, corrupt order that he smashed in his rise to power.
“There was once no unity. There were centrifugal forces but no structure,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the head of the United Democratic Platform, an anti-Chavez coalition that is organizing the primary. “We have advanced strongly and are now more coherent and more consistent, with a clearer message than before.”
The primary arrives after a year in which Chavez underwent delicate surgery in Cuba to remove a cancerous tumor. Four chemotherapy sessions followed, leaving him temporarily bald. Chavez says he has recovered, though he has not provided a detailed medical prognosis or disclosed what kind of tumor he had.
But since October, his activities have picked up, first with phone calls to state television and later with appearances. He has hosted summits of Latin American leaders, returned to his role as host and central guest of his Sunday television show and joshed around with visitors such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“The management of his health problems has been brilliant,” said Carlos Romero, a political scientist here. “Some people spoke of the possibility of a transition because President Chavez only had a few remaining days left. But six or seven months have passed, and Chavez is not only recuperating his health but also he is recuperating his leadership.”
Luis Vicente Leon of Datanalisis said Chavez’s approval rating rose from just above 50 percent in the middle of last year to 56 percent in December and has since inched up more. At the same time, Leon said, the government’s oil-fueled spending machine is in high gear as officials try to build homes for the homeless and start up programs to provide loans for everything from refrigerators to cars.
Javier Corrales, co-author of a recent book on Chavez, “Dragon in the Tropics,” said that central to the government’s message is that Chavez is indispensable as leader of the so-called Bolivarian revolution, a man so vital that it would mean chaos if he were to be replaced. Chavez has frequently said he hopes to rule until 2031.
Chavez has also worked to solidify his base by promoting hard-line associates — some of whom participated with him in the failed 1992 coup that brought him recognition — to top government posts. They include Gen. Henry Rangel Silva as defense minister, even though U.S. officials accuse him of assisting Colombia’s drug-trafficking guerrillas.
Their arrival heralds what will probably be an increasingly bruising campaign season.
“They are wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Diosdado Cabello, recently named to head the National Assembly, said in a televised interview Sunday in talking about the president’s foes. “Their proposals are against the people.”
‘Vote for the best leader’
In a five-hour event he hosted last week in a theater in a poor Caracas neighborhood, Chavez reminded his followers that past leaders provided “hunger, misery, lead and death.”
“We’ll never go back. The retrogrades can forget it!” Chavez said, using a new put-down for his foes. “That’s a new way of calling the bourgeoisie, the ones who want to go back to the past. I call them retrogrades, and they will be called retrogrades forever.”
Still, the president has yet to face an electoral challenge quite like the one being mounted by Capriles, a former mayor and now the popular governor of Miranda state.
Polls show that Venezuelans are increasingly dissatisfied with the government’s handling of rampant crime, rising prices, substandard housing and other issues.
Such discontent helped opponents sweep into Congress in 2010 elections and also turn back a referendum that would have handed Chavez more powers. Those same concerns over Venezuela’s deep problems are giving ammunition to Capriles, who avoids direct criticism of Chavez and characterizes himself as a left-of-center progressive similar to former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
“You have to vote for the best leader, the one who will provide the best opportunity for changing the country,” Capriles said as he stopped for a moment during his campaign swing in Acarigua. Reporters thrust microphones in his direction, and Carmen Lucena, a 58-year-old hairdresser, tried to push through the crowd to hear him.
She said that she was tired of the political polarization, which she blamed on Chavez, and that her children were having problems finding work.
“Capriles represents a change for this country,” she said. “I have always admired Capriles, for his work and because he is young and well prepared.”
Venezuela’s PDVSA Has Record Revenue of $128 Billion in 2011
Nathan Crooks. Bloomberg. February 9, 2012
Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state oil company, posted a record annual revenue of $127.8 billion in 2011, Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said.
This compares with 2010 revenue of $94.9 billion in 2010, Ramirez said today on state television. PDVSA, as the Caracas- based company is known, is using loans to finance its investment plan of about $15 billion a year and pays expenses with cash flow, he said, without providing additional financial results.
“When a company like Petrobras takes on new debt, everyone is happy,” Ramirez said, referring to Brazil’s state-controlled Petroleo Brasileiro SA. “But they criticize us when we do. We get loans because our company is strong. The China Development Bank (SDBZ), for example, has a very rigorous way of qualifying a company for a loan.”
Venezuela is working to expand ties with Brazil on a refinery project. It has until March 31 to finalize loan guarantees required by Brazil’s National Development Bank for PDVSA to join the Pernambuco refinery being developed with Petrobras (PETR4), Ramirez said.
PDVSA wants to more than double exports to China from 460,000 barrels a day to 1 million barrels in 2015 and plans to construct three refineries in the Asian country to process crude from the Orinoco belt, said Ramirez. Venezuela doesn’t give China discounts for oil and charges a higher price than it receives for oil exported to the U.S., he said.
“There are a lot of buyers for crude from the Orinoco belt,” said Ramirez. “It sells like hot bread.”
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Venezuela's PdVSA, Gazprombank To Form JV In Zulia
Dow Jones. February 8, 2012
CARACAS (Dow Jones)-Venezuelan officials said Wednesday that they have authorized the formation of a new joint venture with Russia's Gazprombank to work on fields in the South American country's oil-rich western state of Zulia.
It's the latest agreement between Russia and Venezuela, whose socialist president, Hugo Chavez, has looked to strengthen economic and political ties between the two countries.
Venezuela said state energy giant Petroleos de Venezuela, or PdVSA, will take a 60% stake in the projects while Gazprombank, a unit of OAO Gazprom (GAZP.RS), will have the remaining 40%.
The 25-year licensing agreement allows for the joint venture to explore and produce oil and gas at two fields around Bachaquero in Zulia.
A statement from the Venezuelan National Assembly had earlier said that both parties were looking to develop fields in the country's vast Orinoco heavy oil belt, considered to be one of the world's largest and mostly untapped hydrocarbons reserves.
Colombia-Venezuela relations continue to improve
Arron Daugherty. Colombia Reports. February 9, 2012
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez hold a cordial phone conference, the latest sign of improving relations between the neighboring countries.
According to a statement from Venezuela's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Santos started by thanking Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for Monday's "capture of paramilitaries Hector German Buitrago Prada and Orlando Buitrago, wanted in Colombia for their connection to thousands of killings in the eastern plains of the country."
The Colombian leader went on to celebrate the improved relations between the countries, specifically the $2 billion-worth of trade between the countries and their mutual commitment to "economic development, joint investment, and infrastructure projects like the Pacific oil pipeline and projects to navigate Meta and Orinocos river."
This dialogue, along with Monday's captures, mark a significant change in tone between the two countries. Former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe often accused Venezuela of harboring and even funding the FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group. The two countries cut diplomatic ties several times and periods of extreme tension prompted international intervention. Relations seem to have normalized under Santos.
Defense ministers of the two countries will meet on Friday, and the presidents will meet personally in May.
Targeting Teachers: The 'dirty war' against Colombia's unions
John Otis. GlobalPost. February 9, 2012
COTORRA, Colombia — It was a savage, mafia-style hit.
Alejandro Peñata, a Colombian teacher and union activist, was strangled with a length of barbed wire that was still coiled around his neck when his brother fished his corpse out of a drainage ditch.
Peñata, 35, was a social studies teacher and school vice principal in Cotorra, a hamlet in the northern department of Cordoba, which is under siege from drug trafficking gangs. His wife, Lilian Perez, described Peñata as slightly nerdish, a man so dedicated to his job that he relaxed by reading teaching manuals. Why, she wonders, would anyone want him dead?
Like so many other cases involving Colombian union activists, mystery shrouds the killing of Peñata on June 20, 2011. Seven months after he was garroted, there have been no arrests. As he sat in a rocking chair sobbing so hard that his body quivered, Miguel Peñata, Alejandro's 78-year-old father, said: "My son didn't deserve to die like that."
Peñata's murder helps illustrate why, according to Human Rights Watch, Colombia remains the most dangerous country on Earth for labor activists. The U.S. State Department points out that more than half of the 90 trade unionists killed around the world in 2010 were Colombians.
The ongoing violence prompted Washington to condition passage of a free trade agreement with the Bogota government to a so-called Labor Action Plan that sets benchmarks and timetables for improving worker rights. But 10 months after the plan was signed, critics contend that hopeful rhetoric from Colombian officials doesn't square with the slow pace of progress on the ground.
"Unions are still being undermined," Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who is part of a Congressional group monitoring compliance with the Labor Action Plan, told GlobalPost.
"Human rights have to be more than an afterthought," McGovern continued. "If the Colombian government does not keep its promises, many of us (in Congress) would strongly urge the Obama administration to halt the implementation of the trade agreement."
McGovern's skepticism is echoed by Celeste Drake, an international trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO. She points out that death threats, union-busting tactics by businesses and other forms of intimidation — which don't grab as many headlines as killings but can prevent Colombian workers from organizing in the first place — have increased over the past five years.
After a quarter century of horrific violence against union members, Drake said, "It really does take a lot of time and commitment for a culture to say: 'We will not tolerate this anymore.'"
Colombian officials insist they are making headway.
They point out that the overall murder rate of union members has tapered off. President Juan Manuel Santos re-opened the Labor Ministry, which had been shuttered by his predecessor, and named a former union confederation leader, Angelino Garzon, as his vice president.
Santos also agreed to the Labor Action Plan which helped convince the U.S. Congress in October to ratify the trade agreement, which had been shelved since 2006 largely due to concerns among Democrats about the violent repression of labor unions.
"These commitments lay the groundwork for significant labor rights improvements in Colombia," U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said last week after meeting in Washington with Colombian Labor Minister Rafael Pardo.
But as labor advocates are quick to point out, Colombia still has a very long way to go.
Luciano Sanin, executive director of the National Labor School, a Medellin-based research center, says the hostility stands in sharp contrast to many other Latin American nations where workers have been fortified over the years by pro-labor governments.
They included Juan Perón's populist regime in Argentina in the 1940s and 50s, the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for decades, and most recently the Workers' Party in Brazil. Before serving as president of Brazil from 2002 to 2010, Luiz Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was president of the country's steel workers union.
In Argentina, 38 percent of the labor force is now unionized while the rate is 17 percent in Mexico and 21 percent in Brazil, according to the National Labor School. In Colombia, by contrast, just 4 percent of workers belong to unions — one of the lowest rates in the hemisphere.
Within Colombia's unionized work force, teachers compose the largest bloc with 27 percent. Partly due to their sheer numbers and nationwide presence, educators also make up the largest number of victims. In addition, they come under fire for their role as vanguards of knowledge, reform, and freedom of expression in remote and lawless areas.
"We feel like we're in the middle of a hurricane," said Alvaro Gonzalez, a high school professor in Cotorra who worked alongside Peñata before he was strangled. "We wonder: Who will be next?"
Among the 51 Colombian union members killed in 2010, 29 were teachers. Last year, professors made up 14 of the 26 labor activists murdered in Colombia.
Over the past 25 years in Cordoba, nearly 100 teachers have been killed — so many that the Cordoba teacher's union, known as ADEMACOR, commissioned a sculpture in their honor.
Unveiled in 2009, the fiberglass-and-steel art work titled "Monument to the Fallen Teacher," adorns the entrance to ADEMACOR's headquarters in Monteria, the provincial capital. It depicts a martyred professor sprawled face down, his fingers wrapped around a diploma in a defiant death grip.
The Dirty War
Made up of tailors and shoemakers, Colombia's first legally recognized union emerged in 1909. But Sanin, of the National Labor School, said a series of military and conservative governments viewed the labor movement as a kind of disloyal opposition. However, it was the country's guerrilla war, which began a half century ago and still rages today, that provoked a far more brutal backlash.
For decades, leftists had been shut out of Colombia's political system which gave rise to a handful of rebel groups in the 1960s. Guerrilla commanders and union leaders often espoused the same left-wing rhetoric and, in a few cases, labor activists gave up on legal politics and joined the rebels.
"Some union members obeyed the interests of the guerrillas rather than the interests of the workers. It was obvious and it did a lot of damage to the labor movement," Labor Minister Pardo told GlobalPost. "Of course, none of this justifies the violence against the unions."
Although limited, the rebel connection allowed paramilitaries to paint the entire labor movement as a den of Communists and to begin hunting down union activists en masse. These right-wing death squads worked in cahoots with the Colombian Army and were often financed by business leaders and land owners who had no interest in seeing their workers organize.
The death toll was staggering. Nearly 3,000 union activists — including close to 1,000 teachers — have been killed since 1986, according to the National Labor School.
Still, one imprisoned former paramilitary commander, Ever Veloza Garcia, who admitted to killing 18 labor activists in the mid-1990s, told prosecutors that he often acted on erroneous information. Many of his victims, Veloza concluded, had no ties to the guerrillas.
In some cases, the Colombian government ignored the bloodshed — or actively participated. Jose Miguel Vivanco, who heads the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said the paramilitaries "historically operated with the toleration or even active support of members of the public security forces, as well as in collaboration with politicians and allies in the private sector."
One of the most outrageous cases involved the the country's now-shuttered intelligence agency, known as the DAS, which provided information to paramilitaries on union activists who were later assassinated. Among them was Alfredo Correa de Andreis, a university sociology professor who was investigating illegal land seizures in northern Colombia. Working with intelligence provided by the DAS, motorcycle hit men gunned down Correa de Andreis in September 2004.
"Academia is, in many ways, the engine that drives a pluralistic, democratic society," Elizabeth Brumfiel, president of the American Anthropological Association, wrote in a letter to the Colombian government shortly after the Correa killing. "Every time a student, a schoolteacher, or a university professor is lost to an act of violence in Colombia, public trust in the educational system is compromised and confidence in the future is diminished."
Mystery and impunity
Under a government peace process, the paramilitaries formally disarmed in the mid-2000s. Last year, in a rare case of justice being served, former DAS director Jorge Noguera was convicted for his role in the killing of Correa de Andreis and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
But teachers and other trade unionists remain in the crossfire.
Many former paramilitary fighters have gone on to form a new generation of armed groups dedicated to drug trafficking, extortion and other crimes. These organizations, which now have about 6,000 members, are called bandas criminales in Spanish, or "bacrim." Colombian security officials say they now pose an even greater threat to national security than the guerrillas.
The bacrim often go after teachers and anyone else who gets in their way, according to Domingo Ayala, president of ADEMACOR, the Cordoba teachers' union, who has been assigned a bodyguard from the Interior Ministry after receiving death threats.
With the rise to the bacrim, which have no political ideology, the traditional Cold War paradigm that once drove anti-union violence has given way to a murkier set of motives. The Peñata killing in Cordoba, which has become a key cocaine-smuggling corridor for the bacrim, is a prime example.
Peñata's motorcycle and personal documents were found next to the drainage canal indicating it wasn't a robbery gone awry. A police investigator told GlobalPost that his men found a logbook indicating that Peñata owed loan sharks about $17,000. But Perez, Peñata's wife, pointed out that the couple lived modestly in a rented house and had no children to support.
"This is a total mystery," she said.
At the school in Cotorra, a sun-drenched village surrounded by cattle ranches and cotton farms where Peñata worked, several of his former colleagues said Peñata was always agitating to improve working conditions. Peñata had accused the principal of misusing school funds and the two men clashed over the leaky roof in the teachers' lounge and the Spartan classrooms that lacked everything from light bulbs to textbooks.
"Alejandro complained a lot which is why we think his death was related to his role as a teacher," said Gonzalez, who has worked at the school for 18 years.
That possibility is why the Peñata case has been transferred to a special unit within the Colombian Attorney General's office that investigates anti-union crimes. But of the 195 murder cases that the special unit has taken on since it began operating in 2007, there have been just six convictions, according to Human Rights Watch.
This widespread impunity has a chilling effect on the labor movement. Whether Peñata was killed for personal or political reasons, Gonzalez says, the mystery surrounding his death will make teachers and other workers balk when it comes to demanding their rights and joining unions in the future.
On the other hand, he says, the assassins won't think twice about striking again because they almost always get away with murder.
Threat level: Severe
Yet most of the time, the gunmen don't even have to pull the trigger. Sanin says that a single, threatening message is often enough to disrupt organizing drives or to convince activists to flee.
A chilling example took place in Dorada, an impoverished, off-the-map hamlet in southern Cordoba where Indira Parra accepted a job as a school psychologist and social studies teacher. But shortly after she arrived in 2008, members of a bacrim called the Black Eagles moved into Dorada.
Its members informed villagers that they were their new overlords and began patrolling the streets at night, Parra said. They also stressed that officers at the nearest police station 10 miles away were no longer welcome in Dorada.
When the police learned of the meeting, agents made a brief appearance in the village to reassert their authority. They also visited Parra at the school and handed out candy to her students. That afternoon while Parra was walking home, one of the Black Eagles approached her.
"He told me: 'If the police keep coming here, you are going to pay for it,'" she recalled.
Parra shrugged off the threat and immersed herself in her job. In villages like Dorada, where there's not even a church and the only symbol of the government's presence is the school, teachers often become respected community leaders. Parra used her influence to convince local teenagers to resist the lure of the Black Eagles, who were offering teenagers monthly stipends to serve as informants and drug runners.
"A lot of students wanted to join. I told them: 'No. You need to study to have a better future,'" Parra said.
"Teachers are union members," she continued. "We fight for the rights (of teachers and students) but not through violence. We do it pacifically. So, the bacrim began to view me as an obstacle."
Soon, Parra discovered graffiti on the bathroom wall of the school saying she would be raped and killed. She scrubbed the wall clean but the threatening language reappeared. Students began showing up at school with machetes and handguns and several dropped out to join the Black Eagles.
Finally, Parra requested a transfer. After leaving Dorada she filed a criminal complaint but her case remains in limbo. In fact, the special unit at the Attorney General's office has failed to obtain a single conviction for the more than 1,500 threats against union members registered since 2007, according to Human Rights Watch.
A growing number of these threats are aimed at teachers' wallets. In the village of Las Delicias in southern Cordoba, for example, all 42 teachers came under pressure to make payoffs to a local bacrim.
Educators, it turns out, are often the only people in rural communities who receive regular monthly salaries. And as members of unions that bargain collectively to set pay scales and working conditions their wages – though hardly lavish – are better than the average. Many earn around $800 a month, more than twice the minimum wage.
"If you are part of a union," Sanin said, "the union can pull you out of poverty."
But decent paychecks can also turn teachers into easy marks, said Alexander Fernandez, the vice principal of the combined elementary and high school in Las Delicias.
Last May, Fernandez and other teachers in Las Delicias received messages on their mobile phones instructing them to pool their resources and come up with about $3,000 to pay a bacrim commander. When they refused, a subsequent message upped the figure to about $8,000 and said the teachers had one week to meet the new demand. Fearing for their lives, the teachers closed the school and fled with some taking refuge in the ADEMCACOR union hall in Monteria.
During a recent visit to Las Delicias, the only person at the school, a complex of one-story concrete buildings shaded by almond trees, was a janitor who doubled as the security guard. Dust lay thick on the desks while the chalkboards were still marked with verb conjugations and math equations.
"People panicked and we all left the village," explained Fernandez, who was eventually transferred to another school and now lives in Monteria. "It was a very painful chapter in our lives."
Colombia rate hike is basic central banking-finmin
Helen Murphy. Reuters. February 8, 2012
Feb 8 (Reuters) - Colombia's surprise decision to raise the benchmark lending rate last month was a necessary move that Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry likened to basic "central banking 101."
Echeverry, who sits on the central bank's seven-member board, said on Wednesday policy makers took the unanimous decision to raise the lending rate a quarter-percentage point to 5 percent to help cool the pace of lending and prevent households taking on too much debt.
"It's central banking 101," he said, using the numerical term for an elementary introductory course in U.S. universities. "The bank had to increase the rate."
Speaking in a conference call to investors, he added the economy is not overheating but the price of housing is a "bit high."
The economy will likely accelerate 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter compared with a year earlier, Echeverry said. He put full year 2011 gross domestic product growth as high as 6 percent.
The central bank on Jan. 30 raised its benchmark overnight rate in a bid to anchor inflation expectations and ease lending in an economy where consumers have been encouraged to buy cars and luxury items after a decade of blows against illegal armed groups made the country safer.
The rate decision was criticized by exporters who said it would bring in speculative capital and further strengthen the currency, threatening to dull their companies' competitive edge for goods sold abroad.
The peso has strengthened 8 percent so far this year against the U.S. dollar.
Improved security after almost 50 years of a bloody insurgency by Marxist FARC rebels and right-wing paramilitaries has spurred business and consumer confidence, attracting almost $15 billion in foreign investment last year, mostly to the oil and mining sector.
Echeverry said strong tax receipts helped reduce the fiscal deficits both this year and last.
The consolidated deficit for last year was expected to be 2.2 percent of gross domestic product and this year it will likely shrink to 1.8 percent, Echeverry said. The central government deficit is forecast at 2.9 percent in 2011 and end 2012 at 2.8 percent, he said. (Editing by W Simon)
Show Time in Necocli, Colombia
Nazih Richani. NACLA. February 8, 2012
The reactionary right-wing forces in Colombia started mobilizing to defend their class interests as President Juan Manuel Santos and his government gather support to implement Law 1448, which calls for the restitution of land to the victims of Colombia's conflict. The Association of Banana Plantations in Colombia (AUGURA), an important part of the reactionary camp, warned the president that his intended demonstration this coming Saturday in Necocli, Antioquia, an epicenter of land conflicts and right-wing paramilitaries, could only unleash more violence. Necocli forms part of the subregion of Uraba, known for its national and multinational banana agribusinesses such as Chiquita and affiliates.
This is just the beginning of a long and protracted battle that most likely will result in the restitution of only a fraction of the 6 million hectares usurped over the last few decades, unless President Santos takes bold steps to break the backbone of the reactionary forces. For him to achieve this goal, he has to draw on the support of a wide cross section of the democratic and progressive forces in the country, something that he is not showing any signs of doing.
More importantly, 21 leaders of the displaced and dispossessed were already killed by the end of 2011, and the campaign of killings and intimidation is not ceasing, expected to increase in light of Augura's open letter to Santos. This is a déjà vu of Colombian 20th century history where the good will of a president—if we give President Santos the benefit of the doubt—is shattered by the strong resistance of the reactionary coalition, which is made up of agribusinesses, cattle ranchers, and large landowners. Stay tuned for more coverage.
For more from Nazih Richani's blog, Colombian Cuadernos, visit nacla.org/blog/cuadernos-colombianos, or see the NACLA Report July/August 2009, "Coercion Incorporated: Paramilitary Colombia." See also "Colombia's Catch 22: Undermining the Victims' Law," by Nazih Richani, from June 13, 2011 and "Victims Law Decree Fails Afro-Colombian Communities," by Charo Mina-Rojas, from February 3, 2012.
Western Andean Region [contents]
Ecuador’s Fiscal Spending Leaped 31% to $24.5 Billion in 2011
Nathan Gill. Bloomberg. February 8, 2012
Ecuador’s fiscal spending rose 31 percent last year to $24.5 billion, or 37 percent of gross domestic product, according to a statement today on the Economic Policy Ministry’s Twitter account.
The South American nation’s 2011 budget called for outlays of $24 billion, according to Finance Ministry data.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nathan Gill in Quito at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peru Likely to Keep 4.25% Rate as Economy Rebounds on Stimulus
John Quigley. Bloomberg. February 9, 2012
Feb. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Peruvian policy makers will probably keep borrowing costs unchanged for a ninth month today as they weigh the success of fiscal stimulus in offsetting the effect of Europe’s debt crisis.
The central bank will maintain the overnight rate at 4.25 percent, according to all 16 economists surveyed by Bloomberg. The seven-member board, led by bank President Julio Velarde, will announce its decision at about 6 p.m. local time.
Growth in South America’s sixth-largest economy accelerated for the first time in four months in December as the government rolled out stimulus spending to counter waning global demand for its metal and manufacturing exports. Though inflation eased from a two year-high of 4.74 percent last month, the central bank won’t lower rates unless Europe’s debt turmoil intensifies, said Enrique Alvarez, the head of Latin America fixed-income research at IdeaGlobal.
“They’re not going to cut rates with inflation so far outside the target’s upper bounds,” Alvarez said in a phone interview from New York, referring to the country’s inflation target of 1 percent to 3 percent. “A crash in Europe would have to develop before they’d cut.”
Peru unveiled plans in November to spend as much as $3.5 billion to shore up domestic demand on concern recession in Europe could spread to China and the U.S., the Andean nation’s top trading partners.
Public Works, Mining
The economy expanded faster than expected in December as the government pumped up investment in public works, Finance Minister Miguel Castilla said Feb. 7.
Castilla said the government may revise its forecast for 2011 economic growth, which will be reported Feb. 28, to about 7 percent from 6.8 percent.
Public investment jumped 39 percent to a record 500 million soles ($186 million) last month from a year earlier, according to the Finance Ministry. The government is targeting a 30 percent increase this year to compensate for slowing spending by companies.
The Peruvian sol has strengthened 0.3 percent since the end of December to 2.6880 per U.S. dollar yesterday, according to Deutsche Bank AG’s local unit.
The yield on the nation’s benchmark 7.84 percent sol- denominated bond due August 2020 has fallen 10 basis points, or 0.1 percentage point, this year to 5.65 percent, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg.
Though the global outlook has improved since the start of the year, anti-mining protests in Peru may deter investment and damp domestic demand, said Felipe Hernandez, an analyst at RBS Securities Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut.
Newmont Mining Corp suspended its $4.8 billion Minas Conga gold project in November after two weeks of protests that sometimes became violent. Opponents to what would be the country’s biggest-ever investment project resumed street protests Feb. 1.
Government officials have held talks with communities in three other mining regions in the last month to stem spreading unrest.
Though business sentiment has improved after President Ollanta Humala revamped his Cabinet in December to better deal with the protests, investor confidence won’t return to levels seen prior to his election in June so long as the Conga project remains on hold, said Hernandez.
Business confidence rose in January for the first time in three months, according to a central bank survey published Feb. 3.
A separate survey by the bank showed economists forecast that the economy will expand 5 percent this year, compared with 5.3 percent in the previous month’s survey. Inflation expectations for 2012 declined to 2.9 percent from 3 percent.
Consumer prices fell the most in 15 months in January as the cost of food and bus fares eased.
Annual inflation slowed to 4.23 percent from December, and will continue to decelerate this year, creating leeway for the central bank to ease its monetary policy stance to shore up demand, said Roberto Flores, the head of research at Inteligo SAB, a Lima-based brokerage.
“Deflation could mean the economy is being held back by political noise,” said Pedro Olaechea, president of the National Society of Industries, in a Feb. 7 interview in Lima. “We’re more worried by the political noise surrounding investment than we are by a default in Greece.”
--Editors: Robert Jameson, Richard Jarvie
To contact the reporter on this story: John Quigley in Lima at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Peru to move ahead with new trade deals in 2012
Ryan Dube. MarketWatch. February 9, 2012
LIMA (MarketWatch) -- Peru's government plans to continue ambitious plans this year to advance a number of free-trade agreements that will involve bilateral negotiations with emerging-market powerhouses and wrapping up a multilateral deal with countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Peru already has a number of free-trade accords, including with the world's two biggest economies, the U.S. and China. China in 2011 overtook for the first time the U.S. as Peru's largest export market.
Peruvian shipments to the Asian country totalled $6.96 billion last year, up 28% from 2010, while exports to the U.S. amounted to $5.83 billion, down slightly from the previous year.
Peru also has free-trade agreements in place with the EU, Canada, Chile and Japan, the latter of which is expected to come into force in early March. Late last year, Mexico's senate ratified a trade deal with Peru after five years of negotiations.
With those trade pacts wrapped up, Peru is now looking at deals with India and Russia, Carlos Posada, Peru's deputy trade minister, told Dow Jones Newswires this week.
Posada said Peru expects to complete an internal feasibility study on potential trade agreements with both India and Russia as early as June. Joint feasibility studies are expected to be completed before the end of 2012, he said.
In Latin America, Posada said Peru's trade negotiations with El Salvador and Honduras are "on track" to be finished this year, while trade deals with Panama and Guatemala are scheduled to come into force in the second half of 2012.
Posada added that a trade agreement with Venezuela was signed last week and is expected to come into force around mid-March. "The deal with Venezuela basically just focuses on goods, and does not cover services, investments and intellectual property," Posada said.
Meanwhile, Peru is also involved in negotiations for a multilateral trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. In addition to Peru, other countries involved in the TPP talks are the U.S., Australia, Singapore, Chile, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
Canada, Japan and Mexico are also interested in joining talks for the free-trade zone. "I expect the entrance of these three countries [into the TPP] could be in the second half of 2012," Posada said.
He added that talks for the TPP will not be delayed amid discussion to allow Canada, Japan and Mexico to join. Officials have said they plan to complete the trade agreement by the end of 2012.
Peru expects its exports to total $49.3 billion this year. In 2011, the country's exports were worth $45.7 billion and in 2010 they totaled $35.8 billion.
Southern Copper delays $1 bln Peru mine opening
Reuters. February 9, 2012
Feb 9 (Reuters) - Southern Copper Corp, a major global copper producer, posted record annual earnings of more than $2 billion but pushed back the start date for its $1 billion Tia Maria project in Peru until 2015.
The company said last week it was starting a new environmental impact study on the Tia Maria project, which had been expected to start producing 120,000 tonnes of the red metal per year in 2013.
Peru's then-President Alan Garcia rejected the previous impact study for the project last April after protests by local residents worried about losing control of scarce water supplies in Southern Peru erupted in violence.
In its earnings report, Southern Copper said fourth-quarter net income was $537 million, up 9.1 percent from a year earlier.
Net income for 2011 was an all-time high of $2.34 billion, up 50.3 percent from 2010. The company restored full operations at the Buenavista mine in Mexico in 2011 after several years of crippling labor disputes.
Southern Copper is an affiliate of Grupo Mexico .
Mashco-Piro Tribe Appearance: Peru Reportedly Raids Illegal Logging Site
Huffington Post. February 9, 2012
Advocacy group Survival International reports that Peru has raided an illegal logging site in the Manú National Park, where a previously uncontacted Amazon tribe was spotted two weeks ago.
Members of the Mashco-Piro tribe started to appear on the banks of a busy river and were blamed for bow-and-arrow attacks in the region, the Associated Press reports. According to scientists, their appearance may have been related to the activities of loggers and the appearance of low-flying aircraft in the tribe's territory.
A group of men were arrested in the Peruvian operation, Survival International notes, and police uncovered more than 3,000 feet of harvested timber. The group also reports that a regional indigenous organization is planning to set up guard posts in the tribe's territory to help protect them from intruders.
Carlos Soria, a professor at Lima's Catholic University, told the AP that the Mashco-Piro are one of about 15 "uncontacted" tribes in Peru. Anthropologist Beatriz Huerta told the news service that she suspects the clan's habitat is becoming less isolated and that the change may have contributed to the tribe's move.
"It's very clear that they don't want people there," she said.
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean [contents]
U.S. More Open to Asylum Bids from Mexican Activists
EFE. February 9, 2012
EL PASO, Texas – U.S. authorities have granted four asylum requests from Mexicans over the past 12 months, an impressive figure considering the near impossibility of such petitions being approved prior to 2010, activists and immigration lawyers in El Paso say.
In July 2010, the United States granted the first asylum application from a media professional since Mexican President Felipe Calderon militarized the struggle against the nation’s powerful drug cartels in late 2006.
That protection was afforded to Jorge Luis Aguirre, an editor of the online newspaper La Polaka who denounced death threats in Ciudad Juarez – just across the border from El Paso – from Chihuahua state government officials.
El Paso-based immigration attorney Carlos Spector says the most recent successful Mexican asylum request was that of activist Saul Reyes Salazar, 46, whose application was approved in late January.
Reyes Salazar, who had denounced death threats targeting him and the rest of his family, currently is speaking out at U.S. universities and forums about the violence and lack of safety guarantees for activists south of the border.
He has joined a movement – Mexicans in Exile – that is striving to create awareness of the rights abuses and the need for Washington to pressure Mexico to rein in its army.
According to international rights organizations such as New York-based Human Rights Watch, Calderon’s war on drug cartels has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces.
“I’m very grateful to the United States for receiving and protecting my son Saul, one of four children I have left, because they murdered six in Juarez,” Sara Salazar, Reyes Salazar’s mother, told Efe.
Salazar, 76, who attended an event this week in El Paso to mark the first anniversary of the slayings of two of her children and her daughter-in-law, said other surviving family members will not spend their days mourning but rather demanding justice from Mexican authorities.
“We’re bringing attention to the situation in Mexico so that both ordinary (U.S.) citizens and immigration authorities and the courts understand that the horror movie in Mexico is real and the asylum applicants are really seeking that status to save their lives,” Spector told Efe.
“It’s no coincidence that murders of human rights activists and asylum petitions have risen since the Mexican army arrived in Juarez in 2008,” the attorney added.
Ciudad Juarez, a coveted drug-smuggling corridor that is being fought over by the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels with backing from enforcers from local street gangs, is considered Mexico’s murder capital.
The northern state of Chihuahua, where Juarez is located, has accounted for about 30 percent of the approximately 50,000 murders committed in Mexico since Calderon adopted the militarization strategy after taking office in December 2006.
Other recent successful asylum applications include that of Cipriana Jurado, a defender of the rights of workers at Ciudad Juarez’s “maquiladoras,” or export-oriented assembly plants, who obtained that status in June 2011.
Her petition was approved on the basis of evidence that Mexican army soldiers had harassed her after she had sought justice for a family that had suffered the disappearance of three of its members.
Another recipient of political asylum last year was Monica Arias, daughter-in-law of fellow activist Marisela Escobedo, who was killed in December 2010 while protesting outside the Chihuahua state government offices to demand justice for her daughter, Rubi Frayre, slain in 2008.
U.S. authorities also granted asylum in 2011 to a television cameraman who worked for Televisa in the northern state of Coahuila, Alejandro Hernandez. The media professional had fled Mexico after being kidnapped in July 2010 along with three co-workers.
Spector said his office is handling 50 more asylum cases involving Mexican business leaders, police officers, politicians and other activists such as Marisela Ortiz, co-founder of a group that provides assistance to the families of women murdered in Ciudad Juarez.
Another founder of that same group, Norma Andrade, is recovering from a stabbing in Mexico City and is considering fleeing the country. EFE
U.N. Investigative Body to Stay in Guatemala
NICHOLAS CASEY. Wall Street Journal. February 9, 2012
MEXICO CITY—A special United Nations investigative unit said Wednesday it would remain in Guatemala for at least another three years, continuing what many experts say is a successful experiment in prosecuting crime in the Latin American drug wars.
The announcement by the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG in Spanish, came a day after Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina asked to extend the group's mandate until the end of his presidential term.
"We all know that country is moving to fight against impunity and this effort cannot rest," said Francisco Dall'Anese, the top prosecutor of the group on Wednesday.
The decision is significant because Guatemala, torn by years of civil war, drug trafficking and high-level corruption, now ranks among the world's most violent countries. Its homicide rate is double that of Mexico's, according to government statistics, and only a small percentage of crimes are ever prosecuted.
Top institutions have come under the specter of crime as well: A recent ex-president, Alfonso Portillo, is set to be extradited to the U.S. for money laundering. Mr. Portillo is fighting extradition, saying he was unfairly arrested and should be released.
The CICIG—a group of international investigators and prosecutors—holds a broad mandate in Guatemala, working as a kind of shadow attorney general's office and aiding local prosecutors in investigative work. The arrangement is unique in Latin America, and experts say the results are as well.
The group was key in investigating the 2009 death of attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg, who they found had committed suicide, but whose attempt to frame President Álvaro Colom for killing him nearly brought down the government. It also worked on the case of Mr. Portillo among other high-level corruption cases.
But these successes had led many in Guatemala's political class to call for CICIG's ouster and even Mr. Colom said in an interview last year that Guatemala would soon be ready to move on without the group.
That changed this year with the arrival of a new president, Mr. Pérez Molina, who said he looked favorably toward the CICIG. He also decided to retain Claudia Paz, the country's aggressive attorney general who successfully obtained a ruling last month to try ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for war crimes. Mr. Ríos Montt has refused to enter a plea.
Mr. Pérez Molina's recent moves have surprised some experts: The president is an ex-military general who himself faces war crimes allegations. But the new president campaigned under a law-and-order platform and the slogan of an "iron fist" against criminals. Years before, Mr. Pérez Molina was also a key player in signing the peace accords that ended Guatemala's 36-year civil war in 1996.
"There seems to be a domestic project he wants to complete, a job he undertook as a negotiator and signer of the accords," said Anita Isaacs, a professor at Haverford College who studies Guatemala, but who also warned that it was too early to tell whether he would continue down the path. "It'll make people think twice before turning to criminal activity."
In a statement Tuesday requesting the CICIG to remain in Guatemala Mr. Pérez Molina praised the unit, saying the group was key to "helping us strengthen our institutions so that when they eventually leave, we will have the institutional strength to keep going."
Genocide Trial against Ríos Montt in Guatemala: Declassified Documents Provide Key Evidence
Emily Willard. Upside Down World. February 9, 2012
On January 26, 2012, a Guatemalan court determined that there is sufficient evidence to formally charge former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity. The ruling marks a dramatic turning point in Guatemalan efforts to redress the worst human rights violations in recent Latin American history perpetrated by the military against indigenous peoples during Ríos Montt’s “scorched earth” counterinsurgency operations in the 1980s.
Ríos Montt was the de facto military leader for 17 months between 1982 and 1983 after he took power and abolished the constitution. Prosecutor Manuel Vásquez told the court that he will produce documents, videos, and statements proving that Ríos Montt “had direct participation in the implementation of the plans” which resulted in 72 specific incidents where 1,771 people were killed, 1,485 acts of sexual violence were committed, and 29,000 Guatemalans were internally displaced.
For the past 14 years, Ríos Montt had enjoyed immunity as a member of congress; however his term expired on January 14, opening up the possibility of bringing charges against him.
“We can establish these are acts so degrading, so humiliating that there is no justification,” Judge Patricia Flores said in her ruling. She also stated: “You were the general commander of the military and had knowledge of the execution of these plans.”
Ríos Montt is accused of laying the foundation for the military plans Victoria 82, Firmeza 83, and Plan Sofia in which the military used counterinsurgency operations to “exterminate subversive elements,” including the elderly, women, and children. These military operations were carried about by Guatemalan military forces in the Ixil Triangle of the Quiché region and in other areas of the country. The Ixil Triangle consists of three ethnic Mayan-Ixil towns, Santa María Nebaj, San Gaspar Chajúl, and San Juan Cotzal.
One of the key pieces of the trial will be to prove chain of command. That is, proving that the low-level officers in the highlands were reporting their actions to superior officers, and those superior officers, including Ríos Montt, were giving the orders and condoning their actions. The defense argued that Ríos Montt did not have command responsibility over his officers in the highlands, and that he is not responsible for the massacres and human rights violations.
Evidence to Prove Chain of Command
Evidence presented at the trial last month contradicts this claim. One of the pieces of evidence is a clip of the film, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, which was featured at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Contrary to his defense’s argument, Ríos Montt in fact explicitly assumes “command responsibility” in an interview during his time in office with Pamela Yates (director of Granito). On camera he states categorically: ”If I can’t control the Army, then what am I doing here?”
Another key piece of evidence to prove chain of command that was presented at the trial is the collection of secret Guatemalan military documents, Plan Sofia. The official Guatemalan government records of this counterinsurgency operation prove the criminal responsibility of senior government and military officials in the country’s genocide by detailing how the chain of command functioned during the war, says National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle. [See Doyle’s first-hand account of her testimony, here.] The 365-page document was smuggled out of a secret military archive, given to Doyle and made public by the National Security Archive in December of 2009 after a lengthy authentication process.
Key Documents Remain Classified
The two other key documents in the trial, Plan Firmeza ‘83 and Plan Victoria ‘82 are not available to the public, despite Guatemala’s former President Álvaro Colom’s creation of the Military Archive Declassification Commission in March 2009, which was tasked with sorting and declassifying military documents from 1954 to 1996. Approximately 12,200 documents were released to the public in July 2011 as a result of the Commission’s findings. Fifty-five documents remain classified, the Commission insisting that their release would be a risk to national security; two of those documents are Plan Firmeza ‘83 and Plan Victoria ‘82.
The Commission has withheld these two documents, and possibly others that contain essential information related to this case, despite Article 24 in the Guatemalan Law of Access to Public Information, passed in 2008, which prohibits the withholding of information related to human rights violations or crimes against humanity. Members of the Commission have argued that no information related to human rights violations are contained in Plan Firmeza ‘83 and Plan Victoria ‘82, and that they remain classified due to current national security concerns.
It is essential that the Guatemalan government release Plan Firmeza ‘83 and Plan Victoria ‘82, so that citizens can see for themselves what evidence they contain to prove the chain of command responsibility and hold perpetrators accountable for genocide.
Genocide Charges Are Not New
The charges against Ríos Montt and other high-level military and government officials for genocide are not new. In December of 1999, a group of Guatemalans led by Mayan leader Rigoberta Menchú filed suit in the Spanish National Court against 8 high ranking Guatemalan officials, including Ríos Montt. The charges were filed under the principle of “universal jurisdiction” and were upheld in the Spanish Constitutional Court. In February and again in December of 2009, National Security Archive’s Kate Doyle was called to Madrid to testify about evidence contained in thousands of declassified U.S. and Guatemalan documents which detail the activities of Guatemalan security forces. She testified about the composition of its military, its commanders, campaigns, military plans and general operations.
The global community will be closely watching the Ríos Montt trial as the Guatemalan judicial system is tested for its ability to challenge deeply imbedded impunity for crimes of the past. “Impunity is a perverse state that generates damage not only to the victim but to society in general,” Judge Flores stated as she ruled Rios Montt must face justice. A successful, history-making prosecution in Guatemala will go a long way to addressing the wounds of genocide for which he is finally being held accountable.
Indians, Panama gov't in deal to end road blockade
AP. February 8, 2012
(AP) PANAMA CITY — Members of an Indian tribe in Panama have agreed with the government to end a highway blockade in return for the release of demonstrators detained when police used tear gas to clear the road over the weekend.
Presidency minister Jimmy Papadimitriu says Panama will also compensate the family of an indigenous man who was killed in Sunday's clashes during which 40 other people were injured and 44 people were arrested.
Tuesday's agreement is only the beginning of talks with the government over mining projects and dams that members of the Ngobe-Bugle tribe don't want built in their western Panama lands.
The Indians first set up a blockade Jan. 30 to protest that lawmakers refused to prohibit the large-scale projects. The roadblocks stranded Central American travelers.
US diplomat heads to Honduras to help fight crime
AP. February 9, 2012
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The United States says it is sending a former ambassador to help advise Honduras on tackling violent crime.
Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, and crime there recently led the US government to withdraw Peace Corps volunteers from the country.
The US Embassy says it is dispatching Oliver P Garza to advise President Porfirio Lobo on developing a national security strategy aimed at protecting citizens, assuring human rights, fighting drugs and attracting more international aid.
Garza was formerly ambassador to Nicaragua. He arrived Tuesday in Tegucigalpa. Lobo has begun a process of cleaning up the 14,000-member police force, which he says is infiltrated by organised crime.
Honduran Army Admits Theft of Grenade Launchers
EFE. February 9, 2012
TEGUCIGALPA – The Honduran armed forces acknowledged Wednesday that 22 RPG-7 grenade launchers were stolen from an armory in 2010.
By itself, the launcher “does not represent a lethal danger,” the military said in a statement, explaining that the weapon is not usable without a sight and a warhead.
Tegucigalpa daily El Heraldo reported Tuesday that 22 RPG-7 launchers and their accompanying ordnance were stolen in October 2010. The RPG-7 can destroy tanks and other armored vehicles, the newspaper said.
Sgt. Luis Alberto Sanchez has been held in an army stockade near the capital since June 2011 on charges connected with the theft of the launchers, the military said.
Any member of the armed forces who commits acts against the interests of the state will feel “the full weight of the,” the statement said.
Recent years have also witnessed thefts from the arsenals of the National Police, now undergoing a purge after numerous cops were implicated in crimes such as drug trafficking, extortion and even murder. EFE
Salvadoran indicted on Mass. immigration charges
AP. February 8, 2012
BOSTON (AP) — A former Salvadoran military officer accused of a role in the 1989 deaths of six Jesuit priests has been formally indicted in Massachusetts on charges he lied under oath and made false statements on U.S. immigration forms.
Inocente Orlando Montano was arrested on the immigration charges last year and had been expected to plead guilty but didn't. He's been free on bail.
Wednesday's indictment charges Montano with two counts of perjury and two more counts of making false immigration statements, a total of three. He could face 40 years in prison if convicted.
The 69-year-old Montano has lived near Boston for about a decade. He was among 20 Salvadorans separately indicted in Spain last year in connection with the slayings during El Salvador's 12-year civil war.
His Boston lawyer hasn't returned a call seeking comment.
Lawyer for Cuban agents vows last-ditch appeal
PAUL HAVEN. AP. February 9, 2012
HAVANA -- A lawyer for five Cuban agents sentenced to long jail terms for spying in the United States said Wednesday he is preparing a last-ditch appeal, arguing that one of the men received bad counsel and that the jury for all five was prejudiced because the U.S. paid several journalists who covered the trial.
Attorney Thomas Goldstein said he would submit the appeal Feb. 15 before U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard, who can either rule on the matter, ask to hear arguments or order a full evidentiary hearing.
Four of the men have been jailed since 1998. The fifth, Rene Gonzalez, was released last year after 13 years in jail, but has been ordered to remain in the United States while he serves out his probation.
Gonzalez's lawyer, Phil Horowitz, said he would also appeal that probation decision shortly. He said the 55-year-old dual Cuban-American citizen is working as a caretaker at a private home, but would not reveal the location out of concern for his client's security.
The lawyers were interviewed by The Associated Press in a restricted area of Havana limited to government activities and hosting visiting foreign dignitaries.
While the agents' case is largely forgotten in the United States, it remains a cause celebre in Cuba, where the government hails the "Cuban Five" as heroes who were only trying to detect and prevent violent attacks against their country by exile groups. Cuban state-run media publish near daily accounts of solidarity from around the world, and images of the men stare down from billboards along rutted country roads.
Goldstein said he will argue that inadequate counsel from his lawyer resulted in a murder conviction and life sentence for one of the agents, Gerardo Hernandez, and he said all of their cases were prejudiced by a U.S. government program that was paying thousands of dollars to key journalists while the high-profile trial was going on, a fact that only came out later.
The journalists were paid for appearances on U.S.-funded Spanish-language radio and TV broadcasts primarily aimed at Cuba but available in Florida, while also publishing critical reports in local media.
Advocates for the five also say the trial court was wrong to reject their request for a change of venue from South Florida, which is home to a large Cuban exile community.
"I don't think anyone can deny that it is a serious issue when you try supposed Cuban agents in a Miami court ... and that it obviously is going to be a very political, very fraught trial," Goldstein said. "On top of that, to learn that the media is being paid by the U.S. government, we think raises a serious issue."
Goldstein, a Washington-based Supreme Court litigator, said he would take the case all the way to America's highest court if necessary, and that if the appeal fails, it will mean "the end of the road" for the legal process in the case. After that, he said, the only hope would be a political solution.
That is the same situation facing Maryland native Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail after being caught bringing satellite phones and other equipment into Cuba illegally while on a USAID-funded democracy program. His appeal to Cuba's top court was denied last year, so Gross's only chance at release rests on a humanitarian pardon by Cuban President Raul Castro or some form of prisoner exchange.
Cuba has stopped short of linking the cases, but senior officials have said no one should expect the island to free the 62-year-old American in a "unilateral gesture."
Goldstein rejected any attempt to compare the cases legally, but that the symmetry of the two cases presented a political opportunity. He stressed, however, that he was a private lawyer and not privy to the thinking of the Cuban government on Gross.
"Alan Gross is entitled absolutely to individual justice," he said. "I would never encourage anyone to link what happens to him to what happens to my clients. You can't hold someone literally hostage," he said. "But it strikes me that to the extent that there are political solutions to both sets of cases, then there could end up being linkage ... on the political front."
Goldstein said the politically charged atmosphere in the lead-up to the U.S. election in November complicated any efforts to find common ground, particularly given the importance of Florida in presidential politics and strong feelings about the agents' case among many Cuban-Americans.
But he said he hoped President Barack Obama would ultimately see that freeing the men was good politics, and something that would likely lead to reciprocal gestures from Havana.
"If the president of the United States were to release the Five and nothing else happens, then it kind of falls like a dud," he said. "If, on the other hand, Cuba releases Alan Gross, the president releases the Five, the Cuban government, whatever ... it would allow the Cuban government to do a number of things."
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