Latin America News Round-up
August 30, 2012
Colombia Exploring Peace Talks With FARC
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Brazil and Southern Cone
U.N. agency revises Latin America, Caribbean growth downward
Brazil cuts interest rates to fresh record low. BBC
Most Brazil public workers to end strike on Monday. Reuters
Work Resumes on Dam in Brazilian Amazon. EFE
YPF CEO to reveal future plans after 100 days. AP
Argentine unions, bosses agree on minimum wage hike. Reuters
Chile Supreme Court rejects $4.5b coal power plant. AP
Tens of Thousands March in Chile for Better Schools. EFE
Northern Andean Region
China Lends Venezuela $4 Billion to Renew Fund, Chavez Says. Bloomberg
Staff saved lives after Venezuela refinery blast: Ramirez. Reuters
Amazon tribe massacre alleged in Venezuela. The Guardian
Colombia exploring peace talks with FARC. Washington Post
Colombians Learn First Details on How Peace Dialogue Will Go. EFE
Colombia arrests suspects in attack on Fernando Londono. BBC
Colombia-US Labor Action Plan led only to 'cosmetic changes': WOLA. Colombia Reports
Western Andean Region
Ecuador upbeat about deal to end Assange standoff. Reuters
Ecuador court refuses to extradite Belarussian dissident. AP
Ecuador finance minister sees 2013 economic growth above 4 pct. Reuters
Peru may give environment ministry more power over new mines. Reuters
For Peru farmers, water and mining don't mix. AP
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean
Mexico's electoral court set to confirm Pena Nieto victory. Reuters
Americans Shot in Mexico Were C.I.A. Operatives Aiding in Drug War. New York Times
200 US Marines join anti-drug effort in Guatemala. AP
Honduras policeman apologizes to journalists. AP
Authorities bust cocaine lab in remote Honduras. AP
Militarizing the Police and Killing Natives: How the US Drug War Is Ripping Honduras Apart. AlterNet
Gangs’ Truce Buys El Salvador a Tenuous Peace. New York Times
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration
U.N. agency revises Latin America, Caribbean growth downward. Reuters
Brazil and Southern Cone [contents]
Brazil cuts interest rates to fresh record low
BBC. August 29, 2012
Brazil's central bank has cut its benchmark interest rate to a record low of 7.5% in an attempt to reignite a stalled economic recovery.
The cut, from the previous level of 8%, in the main Selic rate follows recently unveiled government stimulus measures.
The central bank move is the ninth cut in a row since August last year, as the growth rate has fallen dramatically from the 7.5% recorded in 2012.
Now the economy is forecast to grow by less than 2% this year.
The monetary policy committee left the door open for future interest rate reductions, which some analysts expect to happen as early as October.
"If future conditions were to allow for an additional adjustment of monetary conditions, that movement should be conducted with maximum parsimony," the bank said in the statement.
Policymakers face the delicate act of balancing between boosting growth and keeping inflation in check, after it was pushed up by higher global food prices and tax cuts on car sales.
It reversed a downward trend in the 12-month inflation rate that began in September 2011. The annual inflation currently stands at 5.2%, above the central bank target of 4.5%.
Capital Economics analysts said they expected interest rates to remain low for some time as growth would struggle to pick up.
"We think that the consensus expectation for a strong rebound in growth over the next 6-12 months is overly optimistic and remain of the view that rates will stay lower, for longer, than the market currently anticipates," they said in a note.
President Dilma Rousseff's government earlier this month announced the first phase of a major economic stimulus package, which would involve a $60bn (£38bn) investment in the country's roads and railways over the next 25 years, with more than half in the next five years.
This includes 8,000km of new roads and 8,000km of railways. Further announcements involving investment in ports and airports are expected in the coming weeks.
Until now the government's previous measures, such as the devaluation of its currency, the real, and progressive reductions in interest rates, have so far failed to stimulate growth.
Brazil has suffered from the global economic slowdown which has crimped demand for its raw materials and commodities.
On Wednesday, Brasilia unveiled new measures aimed at increasing investment and consumption, including an extension of tax breaks on home appliances, furniture and cars.
Finance Minister Guido Mantega said that the economy was showing signs of recovery, but further measures were needed to maintain consumer spending and investment and sustain growth in the second half of the year.
Most Brazil public workers to end strike on Monday
Reuters. August 30, 2012
BRASILIA, Aug 29 (Reuters) - Unions representing 90 percent of Brazil's striking public workers have agreed to return to work on Monday, accepting tough terms set by President Dilma Rousseff, who insisted on putting fiscal discipline over the demands of her own political base.
While most of the public sector has been functioning normally, strikes by federal police and other workers demanding better working conditions and raises ranging from 4 percent to 150 percent have sporadically crippled operations at airports and some key ministries since May.
Rousseff, whose Workers' Party began as a union movement, offered a 15.8 percent wage increase over three years, barely covering inflation expected for the period. Unions for 18 categories of public employee accepted the terms Tuesday.
Rousseff's administration feared any raise beyond that could imperil several policy goals, including her quest to drive down interest rates. The central bank's most recent inflation report, published in June, identified wage negotiations as "an important risk" to future price movements.
Pay raises in Brazil's public sector often set a baseline for the private sector, where unions in the oil, automobile and other sectors are also engaged in contentious wage talks.
Not all striking federal workers have agreed to the terms. Brazil's Planning Ministry said Tuesday it had received signals the federal police would not accept the proposal, while central bank and tax authority workers have rejected the deal.
Work Resumes on Dam in Brazilian Amazon
EFE. August 29, 2012
SAO PAULO – Work on what will be the world’s third-largest dam resumed on Tuesday after Brazil’s Supreme Court reversed a ruling by another tribunal that put a temporary halt to the controversial project.
Employees “directly implicated” in the current phase of construction returned to their posts “on all fronts,” the consortium building the dam, Norte Energia, said in a statement.
The Belo Monte project was suspended after an Aug. 14 ruling by a federal district court that cited irregularities in the approval process.
Construction of the dam began in March 2011 despite staunch opposition from environmentalists concerned about its impact on the Amazon and from local Indians, farmers and fishermen worried about its effect on their livelihoods.
The hydroelectric complex, which is to require total investment of $10.6 billion and is not scheduled to begin operating before 2014, will flood a 503-sq.-kilometer (195-sq.-mile) area and directly and indirectly affect 66 communities.
President Dilma Rousseff’s government, however, says the project will not have a direct impact on any indigenous lands.
Due to oscillations in the flow of the Xingu River, guaranteed minimum capacity generation from the Belo Monte Dam will be 4,571 MW, or roughly 40 percent of its maximum capacity of 11,233 MW, according to government estimates.
The office of Brazil’s solicitor general applauded the Supreme Court decision to allow work on the dam to resume, asserting that delaying the Belo Monte project would cause “irreparable” harm to the “public patrimony, administrative order, economic order and Brazilian energy policy.” EFE
YPF CEO to reveal future plans after 100 days
MICHAEL WARREN. AP. August 30, 2012
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- The CEO of Argentina's state-controlled YPF oil company has mapped out ways to woo foreign investors willing to take expensive bets on the nation's vast unconventional oil and gas reserves in a plan he's releasing on Thursday.
The state-run news agency Telam said Miguel Galuccio's 1,000-page plan also lays out how he intends to squeeze more oil and gas out of aging wells and increase domestic oil and gas production in Argentina's refineries, recovering the country's capacity to provide for its own energy needs.
Few governments have intervened so deeply and directly in the energy business as Argentina has since it expropriated Repsol's controlling stake in YPF on April 16 without paying a single centavo of the $10.5 billion the Spanish company has demanded in compensation.
Galuccio has already made a series of presentations in his first 100 days aimed at attracting foreign investors. In June, he promised to reverse 15 years of declining oil and gas production at YPF and achieve 6 percent annual growth by drilling 1,000 new wells at the cost of $7 billion a year for the next five years.
"I am going to defend your investment. Believe me that we can grow while making money," he told potential investors last week at a Council of the Americas symposium on Argentina's economy.
His high-profile meetings with leaders of Brazil's Petrobras, U.S.-based Chevron Corp. and other leading oil companies have led to general promises of cooperation and praise for Argentina's potential, but to date, none have committed to investing the many billions of dollars necessary to develop the world's third-largest shale reserves, behind the U.S. and China.
Galuccio's main challenge is that investors outside Argentina don't trust the government to keep its promises, says energy analyst Jean-Baptiste Bruny with BBVA Bancomer in Mexico.
"What's happening with the controls of the government, not only in oil but in mining as well, doesn't provide much confidence. Now people have more fear about investing long term, which is what they need to achieve this potential. The investor needs to be 100 percent sure that they can make a profit before putting down the money," Bruny said Wednesday.
Galuccio, 44, is an Argentine engineer who got his start at YPF but quit after Grupo Repsol bought it in the 1990s. Before he was picked by President Cristina Fernandez to lead YPF, he rose through the ranks of Houston, Texas-based oil services giant Schlumberger Ltd. to become president of its production division, which works with many of the world's state-run oil companies.
Fernandez also named Axel Kicillof, her 41-year-old economic guru who pushed for the takeover, to the company's board. Kiciloff then unveiled an elaborate system of price controls over nearly every aspect of the domestic energy industry, aimed at determining what companies operating in Argentina can "reasonably" make in profits.
YPF laid out its challenges in black and white in a 400-page legal filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in April. It ended 2011 nearly $1.8 billion short of "working cash," and most of its $12 billion in debt is due in less than a year. Much of this debt, the company said, has "acceleration clauses" that can require immediate repayment if control of the company changes. Disputes over much of that money, such as the $10.5 billion Repsol is demanding for its controlling shares, may end up in international courts.
Still squeezed for cash, YPF plans to issue billions of dollars worth of peso bonds to be sold within Argentina, and the government has delayed the company's tax debts and other commitments to entities within the country. Galuccio put the best face he could on the challenges last week in a pair of public presentations in Buenos Aires, vowing to make Argentina an energy exporter again.
"I think the potential does exist in Argentina and is really big," Bruny said. "Now they need to find long-term partners by offering guarantees of profit. Until now there have been only rumors that foreign oil companies are interested, businesses from the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China). But until now we haven't had anything concrete."
Argentine unions, bosses agree on minimum wage hike
Reuters. August 28, 2012
Aug 28 (Reuters) - Argentina's government, unions and industry leaders agreed on Tuesday to raise the minimum wage by 25 percent as inflation shows few signs of cooling despite a slowdown in Latin America's No. 3 economy.
The minimum salary will rise in two stages to 2,875 pesos a month (US$621) from the current 2,300 pesos a month, although the full increase will not take effect until February.
It is the ninth straight year the government has raised the minimum wage. Salary increases are closely watched as an indication of real inflation in Argentina, where official consumer price data is widely discredited.
"I'm very pleased to be part of this agreement between workers and bosses," President Cristina Fernandez told union leaders and business leaders gathered at the Labor Ministry.
Minimum wages will rise to 2,670 pesos from Sept. 1 and to 2,875 pesos from Feb. 1.
Private economists put inflation at more than 20 percent in Argentina, one of the region's highest rates and about twice the rate reported by the official INDEC statistics agency.
Chile Supreme Court rejects $4.5b coal power plant
AP. August 29, 2012
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chile's Supreme Court has rejected plans to build a $4.5 billion coal-fired power plant and port to serve northern Chile's copper mines, ruling that the project's Brazilian and German investors failed to prove they can protect the surrounding environment.
Critics said the Castilla project developed by Sao Paulo-based MPX Energia SA would have been one of the most polluting in Latin America. Former President Michelle Bachelet's government turned it down, but after lobbying by Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista, her successor Sebastian Pinera allowed to go forward.
MPX had promised $575 million to mitigate pollution from the plant, which would have produced 2,100 megawatts by 2020, increasing Chile's electricity capacity by more than 10 per cent. The court ruled Tuesday after MPX failed to persuade Chileans they could live with the contamination.
Tens of Thousands March in Chile for Better Schools
EFE. August 29, 2012
SANTIAGO – Tens of thousands of students and their supporters packed the streets of this capital on Tuesday for a march to demand improvements to Chile’s poorly funded public education system.
The demonstration saw far fewer clashes with police than last week’s student protests in Santiago.
Organizers estimated the number of participants in Tuesday’s event at more than 150,000, while authorities cited a figure of around 50,000.
“The march has been significant in the number of people who have mobilized and because it has taken place without major disruptions to public order,” government spokesman Andres Chadwick said.
Convened by organizations representing high school and university students, the march was also supported by educators, grassroots groups and labor unions.
Chilean students took to the streets in large numbers more than 40 times in 2011 to denounce a highly stratified education system that funnels state subsidies to private institutions even as public schools in poor areas struggle.
The protests have continued this year, but Tuesday’s mobilization was the first of 2012 to enjoy official backing from teachers and professors unions and other elements of organized labor.
This latest march unfolded in a festive atmosphere and culminated with a concert in Santiago’s Blanco Encalada neighborhood.
After the performance, small groups of hooded militants threw sticks and stones at riot police, who responded with tear gas and water cannon to repel the attackers and disperse the still-peaceful majority of the protesters,
Smaller demonstrations took place Tuesday in other Chilean cities, including Concepcion, Temuco, Punta Arenas, Valparaiso, Viña del Mar and Antofagasta.
“Today there is a majority of the people who are fighting for a common goal, which is to recover our right to public, free and quality education for all Chileans,” the vice president of the Chile Students Federation, Camila Vallejo, told the media.
The largely peaceful march on Tuesday came after weeks of protests that included student occupations of Santiago high schools punctuated by police operations to evict the occupiers.
Chile’s public schools and universities were neglected by the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who embraced doctrinaire free market policies.
Private schools mushroomed under the military regime and the trend continued after democracy was restored, even during the 1990-2010 tenure of the center-left Concertacion coalition.
The students want public primary and secondary schools to be administered centrally – not at the level of individual municipalities, as is currently the case – as well as the elimination of school fees.
The movement also demands an end to for-profit universities and a reduction in the high cost of college, which forces many students to take on large debt.
President Sebastian Piñera, a right-wing billionaire, has taken steps to make college more affordable for low-income students and is now asking Congress to pass a tax reform bill that would generate as much as $1 billion in additional education funding.
Critics dismiss that figure as woefully inadequate. EFE
Northern Andean Region [contents]
China Lends Venezuela $4 Billion to Renew Fund, Chavez Says
Daniel Cancel. Bloomberg. August 29, 2012
China Development Bank Corp. has deposited $4 billion with a Venezuelan state-run institution as part of the renewal of a bilateral investment fund, President Hugo Chavez said.
Venezuela will add another $2 billion to the fund from its National Development Fund known as Fonden to continue investing in infrastructure projects in the South American country. Venezuela repays the loans to China with oil exports.
“A new tranche of the China-Venezuela fund has been activated with $6 billion which is good news, our financing system for works and projects,” Chavez said today during a nationwide broadcast. “My appreciation goes out to China.”
China has lent Venezuela more than $36 billion since 2007 for investment in infrastructure projects including a railway in the central plains of the oil producing nation and housing projects. Venezuela currently sends about 640,000 barrels of oil a day to China, of which 264,000 barrels is to repay the loans, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said in an interview with El Universal on Aug. 15.
Venezuela is increasingly looking to China for credit to fund development projects as interest rates in international markets rise on perceived risk of Chavez’s heterodox economic policies. The extra yield that investors demand to hold Venezuelan debt over U.S. Treasuries is the highest of major emerging market economies after Pakistan and Argentina.
Chinese companies including China National Petroleum Corp., Qingdao Haier Co. and Chery Automobile Co. operate in the country and have benefited from the increased economic activity from the loans.
To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Cancel in Caracas at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff saved lives after Venezuela refinery blast: Ramirez
Marianna Parraga. Reuters. August 28, 2012
PARAGUANA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Veteran staff at Venezuela's biggest refinery raised the alarm about a gas leak before an explosion tore through the facility and killed 48 people, helping management save lives, the energy minister said on Tuesday.
In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Rafael Ramirez said he had personally interviewed two workers who detected the leak at the sprawling 645,000 barrel-per-day Amuay facility.
"Thanks to them, we were able to take certain actions that prevented more deaths. One of them has 24 years experience, the other 33 years," Ramirez said.
He said the cloud of olefins resembled a mist, visible to the naked eye, that reached about head height above the ground.
"It is possible that the (gas) cloud formed itself in less than an hour. How did it become so extensive and dense? It has to do with the origin of the leak," he said. "In one month, this investigation should be finished."
Asked why local residents, some of whom lived close to the refinery's fence, near the storage tanks, had not been moved to safety when the gas leak was reported, Ramirez said: "It is not risky for people to stay in their homes, so we didn't tell give the order to abandon them."
Describing it as a "once in a decade" accident, he said President Hugo Chavez's government had invested some $4.8 billion dollars since 2007 in the Paraguana Refinery Complex (CRP), which also includes the 310,000 bpd Cardon facility.
"We are now evaluating the situation of every family that was affected ... we are ready to assume our responsibilities."
On Monday Chavez said he had created a $23 million fund to help pay for cleanup operations and to repair damaged houses. He also said 257 new homes would be made available in the coming weeks for families who lost theirs, 60 of them immediately.
Ramirez added that Amuay was insured and that all the damage was covered, but did not provide further details.
(Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by M.D. Golan)
Amazon tribe massacre alleged in Venezuela
Virginia Lopez. The Guardian. August 30, 2012
A massacre of up to 80 Yanomami Indians has taken place in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, according to claims emerging from the region, prompting the government to send in investigators.
Blame is being placed on illegal garimpeiro miners who cross the border from Brazil to prospect for gold and have clashed violently with Amazon tribes before. According to local testimonies an armed group flew over in a helicopter, opening fire with guns and launching explosives into Irotatheri settlement in the High Ocamo area. The village was home to about 80 people and only three had been accounted for as survivors, according to people from a neighbouring village and indigenous rights activists.
The claims were presented to local authorities in Puerto Ayacucho, the capital of Amazonas state on Monday, asking for an immediate investigation of the site where the alleged killing took place, and for the expulsion of the garimpeiros. The event would have taken place during the first two weeks of July but due to the remoteness of the village it is only now been made public.
A spokeswoman at the public prosecutor's office said the government could not yet confirm the attack nor how many people may have been killed.
Luis Shatiwe, a leader of the Yanomami group, told a Venezuelan newspaper that the survivors were hunters who had been out of the village at the time of the alleged attack. The hunters, he said, heard a helicopter and gunfire and said a communal hut in the village was destroyed by fire.
Survival International, a London-based organisation that seeks to protect native peoples, said in a statement that another Yanomami told the group that tribespeople had found bones and charred bodies in the village.
A member of the team that collected the testimony said: "When we heard the first accounts we flew into Parima-B [the closest town] by helicopter with a contingent of military. In Parima we spoke to Yanomami who had walked six days to get to Parima-B to talk to us. In places this remote that is how people communicate." The man asked not to be identified.
Luis Bello, a lawyer in Puerto Ayacucho who defends indigenous rights, said the allegations were the latest in a series of reports of abuse as garimpeiro activities in the region have increased. "Reports of garimpeiros attacking different communities are becoming more and more frequent, and now we also hear of rivers being poisoned with mercury. We've reported to the authorities but we are so far away that is it all easily forgotten," Bello said.
Bello said a combination of high gold prices and pressure from the Brazilian federal police in their own territory had led to the influx of garimpeiros. "They have also become more sophisticated. They used to fly in and land in clandestine strips, now they come in helicopters and use huge extracting machinery that is decimating the jungle," Bello said.
In 1993, 16 Yanomamis were killed by garimpeiros in what became known as the Haximu massacre. But there have been cases that turn out to be fake. Aime Thilet, a member of Wataniba, an NGO that defends indigenous rights, said that when the latest alleged attack was reported "we were in the Alto Siapo, also on the border with Brazil, because we got radio a very detailed and what seemed credible report of another massacre, which turned out to be false".
Livorio Guarulla, the governor of Amazonas state, said remoteness and military restrictions on access to the area made it difficult to investigate the claims quickly. "This happened in July but because it takes close to seven days to get there we don't really know what happened. The shaponos – the collective community dwellings – house more than 100 people, so it could be 70 [casualties] or it could be more or less."
The minister for indigenous affairs has yet to make a statement.
Colombia exploring peace talks with FARC
Juan Forero. Washington Post. August 28, 2012
BOGOTA, Colombia — The Colombian government says it has embarked on “exploratory talks” with rebel commanders to end one of the world’s oldest armed conflicts, a hit-and-run guerrilla war that is fueled by the cocaine trade and leaves hundreds dead every year.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s brief announcement in a nationally televised address prompted cautious optimism Tuesday in a country where polls show that 74 percent of people support talks to end the conflict. Though in recent years Colombia has become more peaceful and attracted record levels of foreign investment, terrorist attacks and combat are not uncommon in the countryside far from the biggest cities.
“Any process has to bring the end of the conflict, not prolong it,” Santos told his countrymen Monday night, stressing that military operations will continue.
The president did not reveal details of the talks. But RCN Radio in Bogota and Venezuela’s state-run television network, Telesur, reported that Santos and negotiators from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had agreed to begin official peace negotiations in Oslo in October. Colombian media had also reported that discussions between the two sides had been secretly taking place in Cuba.
Sen. Roy Barreras, the president of Colombia’s congress, told reporters that the government should proceed with “prudence and caution,” though he said he supports the talks.
“What needs to be done is to find a path so all Colombians can put their faith in the construction of a new country,” said Barreras, who warned about “interminable” talks that go nowhere. “For the violent Colombians, this is also an opportunity for social and political reintegration.”
In Washington, Cynthia Arnson, a Woodrow Wilson Center scholar who has closely followed Colombia’s conflict, called the developments a “really promising moment.”
“It looks like a lot of Colombians of diverse political stripes are cautiously in favor of a process like this,” Arnson said.
This is not the first time the government has embarked on talks with the FARC, a group founded in 1964 by armed peasants in the rugged, nearly impenetrable mountains of southwestern Colombia. As the ragtag group of fighters slowly became a rebel army with several thousand members, presidents and their envoys began to appeal to FARC commanders to end the conflict through negotiations.
But talks in Mexico and Venezuela in the 1980s and in the plains state of Meta in the 1990s ended in acrimony. Under President Andres Pastrana, the government ceded a swath of cattle pastures and forests the size of Switzerland to the FARC in exchange for talks. But troops were sent in to seize back the territory in 2002 after the rebels were accused of stockpiling weapons, cultivating the crop used to make cocaine and hiding hostages.
The past decade, though, has not been kind to the rebels, who fund their way by taxing all aspects of the drug trade.
An increasingly modern and professional army, which has received U.S. helicopters, intelligence assistance and training valued at hundreds of millions of dollars a year, has struck decisive blows that have killed many of the FARC’s most legendary commanders. Last November, an elite commando force killed the group’s supreme commander, Guillermo Saenz Vargas, better known by the alias Alfonso Cano, in a shootout.
A government program designed to spur desertions has led thousands to abandon the group, dozens of them experienced, battle-hardened rebels who have provided the army with intelligence information used in military operations. The FARC is still thought to have 8,000 to 9,000 fighters, but that is less than half what it had a decade ago.
“Seeking a negotiated solution is a reflection of the setbacks the FARC has suffered,” Arnson said. “And it’s an attempt to achieve some social transformation at the bargaining table that they have not been able to achieve on the battlefield.”
The FARC is engaging in talks with an adversary its commanders appear increasingly open to trusting: Santos, scion of a politically influential family that once ran Colombia’s most important newspaper. Though Santos was a hard-line defense minister in the government of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, he has shown that as president, he can be politically flexible in order to bring the rebels to the negotiating table.
His government repaired broken relations with Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez, whom the FARC views favorably. Santos also pushed through reforms designed to compensate victims of political violence and return land to thousands of people displaced by armed groups, including the right-wing militias that collaborated closely with military units. The FARC leadership viewed all those gestures positively.
Carlos Lozano, editor of the communist newspaper Voz and an activist who has had contacts with FARC commanders, said the guerrillas will need the state to protect them from reprisal killings as the group engages in negotiations. In the 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of members of the Patriotic Union, a leftist political party partly created by FARC leaders, were gunned down by death squads.
“The state must ensure safety, that they’re not killed,” Lozano said, referring to the FARC leadership. “But the state also has to guarantee them political space in which to operate.”
Colombians Learn First Details on How Peace Dialogue Will Go
EFE. August 29, 2012
BOGOTA – Colombians learned on Wednesday the first details about how the peace dialogue between the national government and the FARC guerrillas may go, a process that has sparked great expectations but also fear and rejection.
Amid the government’s caution at engaging in such a dialogue with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC – and Bogota has only confirmed having “exploratory” contacts with the leftist rebels – RCN radio station released on Wednesday the text of the agreement to “begin direct and uninterrupted talks” with a commitment to “put an end to the conflict as an essential condition for the building of a stable and durable peace.”
The document, consisting of four pages and six general points, establishes that the delegates of the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC initially will hold the talks in Oslo and later move them to Havana, which will be their permanent seat.
The governments of Cuba and Norway, as guarantors, and those of Venezuela and Chile, as co-guarantors, will support the talks, according to the RCN report.
“It’s a very balanced group of countries,” Leon Valencia, the director of the Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris, or CNAI, a research center for conflict and peace, told Efe by telephone.
He said that the involvement of Cuba, which has hosted several Colombian peace dialogues, and Venezuela, which has facilitated meetings with similar aims, “gives (the FARC) a lot of confidence” in the process.
Norway and Chile also provide “a lot of confidence” to the Colombian government, Valencia said.
The CNAI director also said that Bogota has gotten along well with and been well-accepted by Cuba and currently has a “good relationship” with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The participation of Venezuela, which had been flatly rejected by former President Alvaro Uribe, who governed from 2002 to 2010, was equally praised by former Sen. Piedad Cordoba, the head of Colombians for Peace, or CCP, which has facilitated the release of about 20 FARC hostages in recent years.
The presence of Chavez “is important ... insofar as Colombia is a neighboring country,” said Cordoba during a meeting with reporters in Bogota.
Cordoba and the CCP believe that a bilateral ceasefire is feasible and they are demanding that the National Liberation Army, or ELN, guerrillas – who are also active in Colombia – be incorporated into the talks.
According to the agreement, Havana will be the “main seat” of the talks, but “meetings in other countries” may be held and “others may be invited by common agreement” to join or participate in the process.
The start of the talks will take place in Oslo, although the date for the commencement of the discussions is not specified in the text, but it could be on Oct. 5, according to the international television channel Telesur and other news sources.
Santos has only confirmed that “exploratory conversations have been held with the FARC to seek the end of the conflict” and the results “will be made public in the coming days.”
In a brief statement in the northern city of Barranquilla, Santos said Wednesday that “although it may be more difficult, (this government) wants to seek peace above encouraging war.”
The agenda for the dialogue, according to the document published by RCN, includes the issues of “comprehensive agrarian development policy,” “political participation,” “end of the conflict,” “solution to the problem of illicit drugs,” “victims” and “implementation, verification and endorsement.”
In addition, the text discusses matters such as a “bilateral and definite” ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, the laying-down of weapons and reincorporation of the guerrillas into society and politics as an opposition force.
Former conservative President Belisario Betancur, who governed from 1982 to 1986 and during that time authorized a peace process with the FARC that moved as far as a ceasefire but ultimately failed, on Wednesday called on Colombians not to be shocked at what is approaching.
“Let’s not be shocked and let’s let things continue evolving. Before the (former) guerrillas can give speeches in Congress, peace will have to have come,” he told RCN.
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is in Tehran participating in the non-aligned summit, expressed through his New York office his satisfaction at the announcement of the exploratory talks between Bogota and the FARC, and he offered his mediation to help arrive at a resolution of the country’s internal conflict. EFE
Colombia arrests suspects in attack on Fernando Londono
BBC. August 29, 2012
Police in Colombia have arrested five men suspected of involvement in the May 2012 attack on the former interior minister, Fernando Londono.
Mr Londono was not seriously hurt, but his driver and one of his bodyguards were killed when a man attached a mine to his car at traffic lights in the capital, Bogota.
Police say the suspects belong to criminal gangs which "work at the behest of terrorists".
One of those detained is only 16.
Police had originally blamed Colombia's largest rebel group, the Farc, for the attack.
But Prosecutor Eduardo Montealegre said it was not yet clear if the men, who were arrested in simultaneous operations in the western city of Cali and in the capital Bogota, were acting for the rebel group.
Colombia-US Labor Action Plan led only to 'cosmetic changes': WOLA
Adriaan Alsema. Colombia Reports. August 29, 2012
The Labor Action Plan agreed upon by Colombia and the U.S. to improve labor rights in Colombia and decrease impunity for perpetrators of crimes against unionists has "only led to cosmetic changes," said think tank Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Tuesday.
In the Washington-based organization's podcast, WOLA Gimena Sanchez expressed to be positive that "the labor situation has gotten more attention ... in the recent history of Colombia" and "the creation of the Labor Ministry" which has focused more on rights abuses in sectors wher workers have been most vulnerable.
"However, up until now, the Labor Action Plan has only led to cosmetic changes and not to major results," said Sanchez, "The situation in Colombia needs requires many years for there to be the structural changes needed for that plan to be implemented"
"Sadly, since the plan was put in place in April 2011 we've seen that over 30 trade unionists have been killed and another 480 have received death threats," the human rights advocate said.
Additionally, "since [United States President Barack] Obama was in [the Colombian city of] Cartagena in April announcing that the FTA was moving forward we've seen some big reprisals against the sectors in the Labor Action Plan."
"For example, we have seen mass firings of workers in the port sector who were trying to organize and who basically put their belief in the Labor Action Plan as the way forward for them," Sanchez said, stressing that a prominent union leader was among unionists killed and there had been a "crack down" against workers for oil company Pacific Rubiales who had demanded improved labor rights.
Western Andean Region [contents]
Ecuador upbeat about deal to end Assange standoff
Eduardo Garcia. Reuters. August 30, 2012
(Reuters) - Talks have resumed between Ecuador and Britain over the fate of WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, and Ecuador's government said on Wednesday it was optimistic of a deal that would prevent him being extradited to the United States.
Assange has been in hiding at Ecuador's embassy in London for more than two months, seeking to avoid being sent to Sweden for questioning over rape and sexual assault allegations -- and triggering a diplomatic stand-off that now looks to be easing.
"I'm convinced we'll find a way out ... I'm hopeful because the global mood that the Julian Assange case is generating will help us to find a way out," Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told Reuters in an interview in Quito, confirming talks resumed in London on Wednesday.
Britain has said it is determined to extradite the former computer hacker to Sweden, and that the 41-year-old Australian will be arrested if sets foot outside the embassy building.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has granted Assange asylum and says he shares Assange's fears that he might be sent from Sweden to the United States to face charges over WikiLeaks' publication in 2010 of secret U.S. cables.
Correa fumed at a veiled British threat to enter the embassy to arrest him but said over the weekend that the threat had been lifted and he considered the "unfortunate incident" over.
Assange remains trapped in the embassy, but both sides have said they want to talk. In a sign of thawing tensions, Ecuador's Vice President Lenin Moreno met Foreign Secretary William Hague on Wednesday during a visit to London for the Paralympic Games. Both governments said they discussed the situation with Assange.
ECUADOR SEEKS GUARANTEES
Patino told Reuters he was optimistic that Britain would agree to compromise on Ecuador's demand that Assange be given written guarantees he would not be extradited from Sweden to any third country.
"It's possible that Great Britain could seek to move forward with the guarantees, because they have repeatedly said that they don't want to provide the safe-passage (so Assange could leave the embassy and fly to Ecuador)," Patino said.
"The option of the guarantees is possibly more feasible ... We should get clear, written guarantees from the countries with which we're negotiating."
In an interview last week, Correa told Reuters he was skeptical the British and Swedish governments would shift their stance on Assange, but that it would be "perfectly possible", in theory, for them to grant Assange the assurances he wanted.
Correa said that if Britain and Sweden agree not to extradite Assange to the United States, he would decline the asylum offer and hand himself over to Swedish prosecutors.
U.S. and European government sources say the United States has issued no criminal charges against Assange and that Washington has launched no attempt to extradite him.
Despite the resumption of talks, Patino cautioned that there were unlikely to be any quick results from Wednesday's meeting.
The vice president, Patino said, was merely accepting a "friendly invitation" from Hague. "He's going to listen to what he has to say, but no more, because it's not the responsibility of the vice president to carry out these kind of negotiations."
In a short statement, the Foreign Office said Hague and Moreno had discussed Assange's case. "They confirmed the UK and Ecuador's commitment to dialogue to find a diplomatic solution to the matter."
(Additional reporting by Michael Holden in London; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman)
Ecuador court refuses to extradite Belarussian dissident
AP. August 29, 2012
A judge from Ecuador's highest court has rejected an extradition request for a former police investigator from Belarus who has been jailed since June, and ordered that he be freed immediately.
Aliaksandr Barankov's case attracted attention after Ecuador granted political asylum to the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, earlier this month.
Judge Carlos Ramirez of the national court of justice found the political refugee status granted to Barankov to be justified, according to a court official.
Barankov, 30, had argued he could be killed if sent back to his former Soviet bloc homeland, where President Alexander Lukashenko has been nicknamed "Europe's last dictator".
Barankov says he fled Belarus after uncovering an oil-smuggling ring involving senior government officials, including relatives of Lukashenko.
"I'm happy. They saved my life," an overjoyed Barankov said by phone from jail. His Ecuadorean girlfriend had notified him just moments earlier.
He was expected to be released on Wednesday.
Tuesday's ruling was the second by Ramirez to reject an extradition request from Belarus. The first was in October of last year, when Ramirez found the evidence presented against him to be inadequate.
Barankov blamed his imprisonment in early June on pressure from Belarus ahead of an official visit later that month by Lukashenko, who has ruled his homeland for 18 years by fixing elections, quashing free speech, jailing dissidents and keeping most industry in state hands.
The extradition request, under which he was arrested and jailed on 7 June, accused him of fraud and extortion.
Barankov was backed by human rights activists in Belarus
Barankov's case came under scrutiny when Ecuador announced it was granting Assange asylum, deeming that he ran the risk of being unfairly tried if extradited to the US, where he could face the death penalty.
The Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa, said he would not comment on the Barankov case until the court ruled. But his deputy foreign minister said the government would treat the case with the same respect for human rights that guided it in considering Assange's asylum request.
Barankov's lawyer, Fernando Lara, said that while he welcomed the ruling it came "82 days late" because his client never should have been jailed.
Barankov was granted refugee status in 2010, with merit found in his claim of political persecution, after he had been jailed 55 days for overstaying his visa.
Ecuador finance minister sees 2013 economic growth above 4 pct
Jose Llangari. Reuters. August 28, 2012
QUITO, Aug 28 (Reuters) - Ecuador's economy is expected to grow by more than 4 percent in 2013, driven by growth in the construction sector, Finance Minister Patricio Rivera told Reuters on Tuesday.
High oil revenues and increased tax collection have allowed Ecuador to ramp up government spending on roads, hospitals and schools in recent years, which has fueled economic growth.
"This and next year we'll be above the average for Latin America ... which is at around 4 percent, according to several forecasts," Rivera told Reuters in the sidelines of a meeting with business leaders in Quito.
High government spending will continue being the key to economic growth next year, Rivera said. "The construction sector is being fueled by the government's economic program."
Ecuador's central bank last month lowered its 2012 forecast to 4.8 percent, from 5.4 percent previously. The bank did not give a reason for the cut, but the government has warned that Ecuador's economy could suffer if oil prices were to fall.
Ecuador's economy expanded 7.8 percent in 2011, more than double the 2010 growth rate of 3.6 percent and a paltry 0.4 percent in 2009.
In the first three months of the year the OPEC-member nation posted its lowest quarter-on-quarter growth rate since the first quarter of 2010. The economy grew by 0.7 percent in the quarter versus the last quarter of 2011.
Central bank data showed that crude oil exports decreased 0.6 percent in value in the first quarter versus the last three months of 2011, but prices paid for Ecuadorean oil have picked up in recent weeks.
The government of leftist President Rafael Correa has vowed to continue spending heavily in the months leading to a presidential election scheduled for February 2013.
Correa is expected to run for re-election but has yet to make an official announcement. Last week he said the decision depends on his family and the ruling Alianza Pais political coalition.
The country's healthy economy led Standard & Poor's to upgrade Ecuador's long-term sovereign debt rating to B from B-minus in early June.
Peru may give environment ministry more power over new mines
Reuters. August 29, 2012
(Reuters) - President Ollanta Humala has sent a bill to Congress that would give the environment ministry more power to approve or reject new mines in Peru, an overhaul that critics say is long overdue.
Peru, a top global metals exporter, has a pipeline of new mining projects worth $50 billion.
Local communities who say new mines would cause pollution or hurt water supplies have complained for years that the existing model for approving mines was flawed: the mining ministry alone is tasked with both promoting mining investment and approving the environmental impact studies for new mines.
The proposed law would change that, putting the environment ministry, which has only existed for a few years, in charge of a new commission to approve mitigation plans. The commission will include representatives from several ministries.
"This is important advancement for environmental management by the public sector," Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar Vidal said on RPP radio.
Humala, while backing foreign investments, has struggled to defuse hundreds of social conflicts nationwide over mining and oil projects since he took office a year ago.
Many communities say they have been left behind by the country's decade-long boom and have not seen direct economic benefits from new mines.
Humala has vowed to ensure environmental standards are met and to cut rural poverty.
"This will help create what the president has called a 'new relationship' with extractive industries," Prime Minister Juan Jimenez said of the bill.
(Reporting By Terry Wade and Omar Mariluz; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)
For Peru farmers, water and mining don't mix
AP. August 29, 2012
LA ENCANADA, Peru -- The farmers who live downstream of what would become Peru's biggest open-pit gold mine oppose the project, known as Conga, for one simple reason: Water.
"Everything would dry up," says German Sangay, the mayor of Combayo, if Congas is not halted.
The project on 11.5 square miles (more than 3,000 hectares) of highlands in the northern state of Cajamarca would destroy four mountain lakes in order to extract more than 200 tons of gold.
The consortium that runs it, and whose majority owner is U.S.-based Newmont Mining Co., says it will build four reservoirs to replace the lakes.
But local elected officials including Sangay aren't persuaded. Combayo's nearly 4,000 peasant farmers draw on 30 different springs to grow corn and potatoes and raise cattle and sheep and fear Conga would taint and diminish them, he says.
Resistance to the project has been fierce, with five people killed early last month when police and troops opened fire on anti-mining protesters. The government called a state of emergency after the violence, suspending civil liberties.
Last week, Peru's prime minister said Conga would be suspended while the Yanacocha consortium deals with concerns over water.
A Newmont spokesman, meanwhile, said the $5 billion project was advancing "on a very measured basis," focused on the building of the new reservoirs and the mining camp. Further development will occur only with local and national support, said spokesman Omar Jabara.
The chief of Buenaventura, the Peruvian partner in Yanacocha, said the project's employees had been reduced by 4,500 employees to 1,500.
Many people in Cajamarca distrust Yanacocha, whose eponymous gold mine in the same region is Latin America's largest began operations in 1993 and is entering the end of its productive life.
Locals wary of the company were particularly upset with its handling of a 2000 spill of 307 pounds (152 kilograms) of mercury in a town called Choropampa. Hundreds of residents were sickened.
An Ipsos-Apyo poll this month of Cajamarca residents found 78 percent oppose the mine, with just 15 percent in favor. The poll had an error margin of 5 percentage points.
Associated Press writer Franklin Briceno contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean [contents]
Mexico's electoral court set to confirm Pena Nieto victory
Michael O'Boyle. Reuters. August 28, 2012
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's electoral court is poised to confirm President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto's victory in the July 1 ballot, despite allegations of vote buying and money laundering during the campaign, electoral officials and legal experts said.
Leftist runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who lost the presidential election by 3.3 million votes, challenged the result, alleging that Pena Nieto's party used slush funds to buy votes and breached spending limits.
Lopez Obrador demanded that the electoral court void the result and the suit has left Mexico in political limbo for weeks, denying Pena Nieto a head start in building consensus on economic reforms in Congress, where his centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) failed to win enough seats for an outright majority.
Electoral officials told Reuters the ruling is due by Thursday or Friday, although the court has until September 6 to decide on Lopez Obrador's charges. Officials have told Reuters privately they do not expect Pena Nieto's win to be overturned.
The court said in a statement it had distributed a draft ruling to its seven member judges, but gave no details.
Lopez Obrador has accused the PRI of buying some 5 million votes, and has publicly presented receipts and tax documents to allege that the PRI used shell companies to fund the fraud.
Urban voters were showered with supermarket gift cards and mobile phone minutes while rural voters were plied with presents of fertilizer, cement and livestock, Lopez Obrador said.
Pena Nieto, who is due to take office on December 1, has rejected the claims, which election experts say are nearly impossible to prove unless someone is caught in the act.
Showing that a party handed out gifts does not prove that they coerced voters into casting a ballot for them, they noted. Parties can distribute gifts as part of their propaganda.
Legal experts are adamant that Lopez Obrador, who also unsuccessfully challenged the result of the 2006 presidential election, which he lost by less than one percentage point, has failed to prove that irregularities occurred on a big enough scale to justify throwing out the result.
"The issue is if it altered the general will, and what we have here are isolated cases," said Jose Vargas, the former top prosecutor for electoral crimes in Mexico.
The accusations revived memories of vote-rigging and corruption when the PRI ruled Mexico between 1929 and 2000. The PRI won a return to power partly thanks to higher support among the poor, who critics say are a soft target for vote-buying.
In the poorest towns of Chiapas, Mexico's most impoverished and southernmost state, the PRI's coalition partner, the Green Party, was accused of orchestrating the drive to buy votes.
In the poor mountain village of Santiago el Pinar, the Greens won the local elections held on July 1 even though they had never received a single vote there before.
"The night before the election, they came in offering people money. That is how they won," said Lorenzo Gomez, a local resident.
The Greens deny the accusations.
Turnout was unusually strong in Chiapas during the election, surging 18 percentage points from the 2006 contest. In Santiago el Pinar, 93 percent of registered locals took part in the vote, about 30 points higher than the nationwide figure.
Chiapas was among the states Lopez Obrador said had suffered the worst voter fraud by the PRI and its allies. But experts say he has not presented enough evidence to make his case stick.
"The evidence is really weak," said Luis Ugalde, who led the Federal Electoral Institute in 2006. He, like many analysts, say Lopez Obrador is trying to distract from the loss and defend his position as the leader of Mexico's political left.
LOW QUALITY DEMOCRACY
Still, analysts agree that the allegations underscore Mexico's slow political development, where few officials are convicted, or even face charges, in corruption scandals.
"We have a low-quality democracy," Ugalde said. "Political impunity continues to be the same as before."
President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) has also said there were signs the PRI used suspect funds and bought votes, but it has not demanded that judges invalidate the election. Instead, they are calling for electoral reform.
Luis Alberto Villareal, the PAN leader in Mexico's lower house, said that his party would push legislation that would make breaking campaign spending limits grounds for annulling an election.
Both Lopez Obrador and the PAN have alleged the PRI spent between 4 billion and 5 billion pesos (around $300 million to $380 million) -- or about 13 times the legal limit -- on the presidential campaign.
Parties are often accused of securing funds via illegal private donations and siphoning funds from local governments. While the federal government has improved transparency, state and local finances remain opaque and corruption is widespread.
The problems are aggravated by weak legal provisions to prosecute alleged financial crimes, said Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on money laundering at Columbia University in New York.
"Electoral violations are obscene (but) there is no institutional framework to detect before or after the election what is really going on," he said. "There is no way to find out, judicially speaking, where the money comes from."
The PRI was long dogged by accusations of vote-buying and corruption during its decades-long grip on power.
In 2000, officials were accused of funneling over $100 million from state oil firm Pemex to fund the PRI's unsuccessful presidential bid. Electoral authorities fined the PRI but prosecutors failed to convict officials linked to the crime.
Lopez Obrador's allies have been accused of using similar tactics. In 2004, a close aide of Lopez Obrador was caught on camera stuffing wads of cash into a suitcase.
Under current law, Lopez Obrador's charges of overspending are likely to only result in fines for the PRI, experts said.
Pena Nieto himself has sought to dispel doubts about his probity by pushing anti-corruption reform plans to the top of his agenda. He is promising to extend transparency laws to the state and local level after he takes office. ($1 = 13.1865 Mexican pesos)
(Additional reporting by Liz Diaz and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Dave Graham and Simon Gardner; desking by Christopher Wilson)
Americans Shot in Mexico Were C.I.A. Operatives Aiding in Drug War
RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD and ERIC SCHMITT. New York Times. August 28, 2012
MEXICO CITY — The two Americans who were wounded when gunmen fired on an American Embassy vehicle last week were Central Intelligence Agency employees sent as part of a multiagency effort to bolster Mexican efforts to fight drug traffickers, officials said on Tuesday.
The two operatives, who were hurt on Friday, were participating in a training program that involved the Mexican Navy. They were traveling with a Mexican Navy captain in an embassy sport utility vehicle that had diplomatic license plates, heading toward a military shooting range 35 miles south of the capital when gunmen, some or all of them from the Federal Police, attacked the vehicle, Mexican officials have said.
The Mexican Navy said Tuesday in a statement that an American was driving the vehicle and that during the attack the captain, who was handling logistics and translating for the men, remained in the back seat calling for help on his cellphone.
The men were wounded, the Navy said, when the rain of bullets managed to tear through the car’s protective armor. It was unclear if the Americans, who officials said were unarmed, were specifically targeted, if the shooting was a case of mistaken identity or if there was some other reason that the vehicle was ambushed. Mexican prosecutors have detained 12 federal police officers and have said no theory can be ruled out.
The C.I.A. declined to comment. But American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information, said no evidence had emerged so far that the Americans were targeted because of their affiliation.
American investigators are working with Mexican authorities to determine what happened and whether the police officers involved were corrupt.
The notion that a squad of federal police officers would attack an embassy car could be another blow to the developing trust and cooperation between American counternarcotics personnel and their Mexican partners.
Through programs like the $1.6-billion Merida Initiative, the United States has spent millions of dollars on training and equipping the federal police.
Eric Olson, an expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute in Washington, said the shooting could only sow some doubts about the police, and at best pointed to a lack of communication among Mexico’s military and the police.
“This seems to suggest there isn’t better communication between the various elements of the Mexican government,” he said. “One fundamental issue is the lack of trust.”
In his first public comments on the shooting, President Felipe Calderón, speaking Tuesday at a security forum attended by the American ambassador, Anthony Wayne, promised a thorough investigation.
“Be it from negligence, lack of training, lack of trust, complicity, these acts cannot be permitted and they are being investigated absolutely rigorously,” Mr. Calderón said.
The presence of C.I.A. employees, and indeed all American operatives, on Mexican soil has long been a prickly subject here.
In his nearly six years in office, Mr. Calderón has allowed a much larger role for American counternarcotics operations, including the use of unarmed American drones deep in Mexican territory. C.I.A. operatives and retired American military personnel have also worked with American law enforcement agencies and the Mexican military on training and intelligence-gathering.But Mexico has ruled out allowing the Americans to carry out arrests or deploy troops on its soil, and even their limited role has provoked a political outcry over whether the nation’s sovereignty has been put in jeopardy.
Lawmakers, instigated by the left, have hauled Mexican government officials before Congress for sometimes testy hearings and after the newspaper La Jornada first reported the C.I.A. involvement on Tuesday, some politicians said they would ask for a thorough explanation of the American role here.
“It’s is time to speak clearly and for us to know what institutions are intervening in what specific way in our country in regard to security,’ said Iris Vianey Mendoza, a senator from the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution.
The office of Enrique Peña-Nieto, who won Mexico’s presidential election in July and has promised to maintain close ties with American law enforcement agencies, declined to comment.
The shooting was reminiscent of an attack on American immigration and customs agents last year in which one was fatally shot and another wounded when their embassy sport utility vehicle was ambushed on a highway north of Mexico City. A Mexican man was extradited and is awaiting trial on murder charges in Washington.
This latest episode has caused Mexicans to reflect on the quality of the federal police force, which had achieved growing respect but which has been tarnished by recent corruption scandals.
“The thing that really worries me,” said Gabriel Guerra, a political analyst who has worked with the three major parties here, “is that we are seeing the unraveling of what was supposed to be the main achievement in the fight against organized crime, which was the creation of a trustworthy national police.”
Randal C. Archbold reported from Mexico City and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Karla Zabludovsky contributed from Mexico City.
200 US Marines join anti-drug effort in Guatemala
ROMINA RUIZ-GOIRIENA and MARTHA MENDOZA. AP. August 29, 2012
GUATEMALA CITY -- A team of 200 U.S. Marines began patrolling Guatemala's western coast this week in an unprecedented operation to beat drug traffickers in the Central America region, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.
The Marines are deployed as part of Operation Martillo, a broader effort started last Jan. 15 to stop drug trafficking along the Central American coast. Focused exclusively on drug dealers in airplanes or boats, the U.S.-led operation involves troops or law enforcement agents from Belize, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama and Spain.
"This is the first Marine deployment that directly supports countering transnational crime in this area, and it's certainly the largest footprint we've had in that area in quite some time," said Marine Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes at the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.
It was 50 years ago when the U.S. military last sent any significant aid and equipment into Guatemala, establishing a base to support counter-insurgency efforts during a guerrilla uprising. That movement led to 36 years of war that left 200,000 dead, mostly indigent Maya farmers. The U.S. pulled out in 1978.
Guatemalan authorities say they signed a treaty allowing the U.S. military to conduct the operations on July 16. Less than a month later an Air Force C-5 transport plane flew into Guatemala City from North Carolina loaded with the Marines and four UH-1 "Huey" helicopters.
After two weeks of setting up camp, establishing computer connections and training at the Guatemalan air base at Retalhuleu, the Marines ran through rehearsal exercises, Barnes said. Last week, their commander "gave us the thumbs up" to begin active operations, he said.
This week the Marines have been patrolling waterways and the coastline, looking for fast power boats and self-propelled "narco-submarines" used to smuggle drugs along Central America's Pacific Coast. U.S. officials say the "drug subs" can carry up to 11 tons of illegal cargo up to 5,000 miles.
Col. Erick Escobedo, spokesman for Guatemalan Military Forces and Defense Ministry, said that so far the Marines have brought about the seizure of one small-engine aircraft and a car, but made no arrests. He said he expected the Marines to in Guatemala for about two months.
If the Marines find suspected boats, Barnes said, they will contact their Guatemalan counterparts in a special operations unit from the Guatemalan navy that will move in for the bust. Barnes said the Marines will not go along on arrest missions, but they do have the right to defend themselves if fired on.
Eighty percent of cocaine smoked, snorted and swallowed in the U.S. passes through Central America, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Eight out of every 10 tons of that cocaine are loaded on vessels known as "go fasts," which are open hulled boats 20 to 50 feet long with as many as four engines, according to the Defense Department.
In a recent congressional briefing in Washington, Rear Adm. Charles Michel said the boats, carrying anywhere from 300 kilograms to 3.5 metric tons of cocaine, typically leave Colombia and follow the western Caribbean coastline of Central America to make landfall, principally in Honduras. In the Pacific, the same type of vessels will leave Colombia or Ecuador and travel to Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica or Mexico, Michel said.
"We fight a highly mobile, disciplined and well-funded adversary that threatens democratic governments, terrorizes populations, impedes economic development and creates regional instability," he said, noting that authorities are able to stop only one out of every four suspected traffickers they spot.
Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Jeffrey Todd Scott said that although the agency has supported Operation Martillo, it has no agents working in Guatemala beyond its normal in-country presence.
This month's Guatemala operation by the Marines comes soon after raids under an aggressive enforcement strategy that has sharply increased the interception of illegal drug flights in Honduras resulted in the death of one person in June and four in May.
U.S. officials said a DEA agent fatally shot a suspected drug trafficker in late June as he reached for his gun in a holster during a raid in a remote northern part of Honduras. That operation resulted in the seizure of 792 pounds (360 kilograms) of cocaine, the officials said.
A raid on May 11 killed four people, whom locals claimed were innocent civilians traveling a river in Honduras at night. Honduran police said the victims were in a boat that fired on authorities. The DEA said none of its agents fired their guns in that incident.
Both Honduras and Guatemala are struggling with widespread corruption that weakens their rule of law, according to recent State Department reports.
"We're concerned about the impact on Guatemalan civilians, many indigent, who are stuck in the middle of this conflict between drug traffickers and a Guatemalan military known to associate with criminals," said Kelsey Alford-Jones, director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA in Washington.
Guatemala has widespread institutional corruption, "including unlawful killings, drug trafficking, and extortion; and widespread societal violence, including violence against women and numerous killings, many related to drug trafficking," according to a recent State Department report.
The Marine operation is the largest in Guatemala since U.S. military aid was first eliminated in 1978, halfway through the civil war. Over the years, the U.S. Congress has approved limited funding for training Guatemala's military response team for natural disasters.
U.S. law says Guatemala can regain aid once Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifies Guatemala's military is "respecting internationally recognized human rights" and cooperating with judicial investigations of former military personnel and with the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.
Associated Press writer Romina Ruiz-Goiriena reported this story in Guatemala City and Martha Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, Calif.
Honduras policeman apologizes to journalists
AP. August 30, 2012
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- An officer in a special forces team of Honduras' National Police has apologized to a journalist and paid for breaking her camera during a 2011 protest. It's an unusual gesture in a country where journalists face some of the worst violence in the world.
Reporter Sandra Sanchez says she hopes the apology from officer Jhonny Alexander Carrasco will set a precedent.
The leader for Honduras' Committee for Free Expression calls the apology "historic." But Hector Becerra adds that the problem goes far beyond Carrasco, who broke Sanchez's camera while trying to keep her from taking pictures of tear gas being used against a bus.
U.N. agencies say 23 journalists have been killed in Honduras since 2006. The Honduran government human rights prosecutor puts the figure at 31.
Authorities bust cocaine lab in remote Honduras
FREDDY CUEVAS and MARTHA MENDOZA. AP. August 30, 2012
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Honduran authorities announced Wednesday that the National Police have busted a rare, makeshift cocaine laboratory hidden in a remote, mountainous region near the Atlantic coast as part of their U.S.-backed anti-drug efforts in Central America.
Honduran Minister of Public Safety Ivan Mejia said a six-month investigation led agents Tuesday to the lab, where they found 500 kilograms of cocaine and the paste used to make cocaine. Mejia said authorities also seized barrels containing toxic chemicals used to make the drug, including hydrogen peroxide, potassium permanganate and activated carbon.
The lab was set up in an ordinary, two-story home, but the operations were sophisticated. Below ground were tanks used to hide money and drugs. Above ground were dryers, stoves and other laboratory equipment. No one arrested.
In March 2011, Honduran police busted a cocaine lab in what the U.S. State Department described as the "first of its kind" in Central America in recent years. The labs process relatively cheap cocaine paste from South America into higher priced, more pure cocaine destined for the U.S.
While Honduras is a major transit point for drugs heading from South America, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Jeffrey Todd Scott in Washington said Wednesday that such labs are rare.
"While this is one of the first labs we've identified in Honduras, we're always concerned when we find any operational lab," he said. "We'll continue working with our counterparts to investigate and dismantle such sites as they are discovered."
Political analyst Robert Naiman, who studies drug policy in the region, said Honduras offers an "attractive location" for traffickers because its law enforcement agencies are plagued with corruption.
"Unfortunately, I fear this development will be used to justify further militarization of U.S. drug policy in Honduras," he said.
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas reported this story in Tegucigalpa and Martha Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, Calif.
Militarizing the Police and Killing Natives: How the US Drug War Is Ripping Honduras Apart
Annie Bird. AlterNet. August 29, 2012
Since the Central American peace processes began 25 years ago, a tremendous effort has been made to remove militaries from policing, an effort now apparently being reversed in the US’s increasingly militarized and multinational war against drugs.
On May 11, the US Drug Enforcement Administration led an operation that ended in the deaths of four indigenous Miskitu villagers on the Patuca River near the town of Ahuas, Gracias a Dios, Honduras. US and Honduran officials claimed the boat that came under fire was part of a trafficking operation. Neighbors, local authorities and human rights organizations claimed they were innocent bystanders.
Though the US Embassy provided technical assistance for the Public Prosecutors’ investigation, little probing occurred. In the weeks following the shooting US and Honduran officials made statements criminalizing the victims, Miskitu communities and local authorities.
In response, the Miskitu indigenous federation, MASTA, requested that two Washington-based organizations undertake an independent investigation. Through witness testimony, and interviews with Honduran and US Embassy officials, Rights Action and the Center for Economic and Policy Research brought into focus a disturbing picture of a peaceful indigenous community ripped apart by the US drug war. This disturbing picture has been created by the transfer of counter-insurgency strategies used in Afghanistan to Central America and a regional push to create militarized police forces.
The report was released August 15. Then, on August 27, Honduran Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio, highly criticized for his role in the June 2009 military coup and coverup of abuses that followed, announced that his commission had also completed its investigation and intends to request that the US House and Senate Judiciary Committees investigate the shootings.
Gracias a Dios is Honduras’ largest region, and the country's most peaceful. While Honduras suffers from the highest reported murder rate in the world, 86 per 100,000 residents, courts in Gracias a Dios, with a population of 76,000, registered six murders in 2011 and two in 2010. The last violent death in Ahuas occurred in 2004; it hardly seems like a hotbed of drug trafficking.
Survivors of the shooting explained that the boat had taken lobster divers to a commercial fishing boat in Barra Patuca, about six hours away. They brought passengers on the return trip, including two families moving to Ahuas from Roatan, a diver who had been treated for decompression sickness and family members of divers.
Just moments before arriving in Ahuas, the boat driver saw an apparently unmanned boat float by, and the passengers were awakened by low flying helicopters that soon opened fire on them. Survivors and the wounded explain they struggled to get to shore while two helicopters dropped security forces just 20 meters away at the town’s boat landing. Hilder Lezama got a call from a survivor who had swam to shore and borrowed a neighbors’ telephone to tell him that his mother, the 53-year-old boat owner, was wounded in the river. He hurried to the landing, just as the helicopters descended.
The first helicopter dropped what appeared to be Honduran police, though some spoke mostly English, and were described as “gringos.” A second helicopter landed, and stayed on the ground for over two hours. All on board were white English-speaking men--even the door gunner and pilots. All wore tan camouflage with American flags on their shoulders. To one resident who had studied near the Soto Cano Airforce base where the US Army Joint Task Force Bravo is stationed, the outfits looked like US army uniforms.
The white, English-speaking men forced Lezama to wait at gunpoint for what seemed an hour, and then ferried cocaine from a stranded boat downriver that held two gringo “soldiers” already onboard. He was not allowed to look for his mother who lay wounded on a log in the river. Security agents on shore also prevented neighbors from assisting those in the river.
US and Honduran officials, in contradictory statements, say that security forces fired in self-defense after the passenger boat rammed into and then fired upon a drug boat that had been seized by two Hondurans and one US agent. Honduran and US officials agree that only Hondurans controlled the helicopters’ mounted guns, and that the pilots were Guatemalan military and contractors. At least two of the helicopters were titled to the US State Department.
It is still unclear exactly what security forces were present. The Honduran Human Rights Commissioner says a DEA FAST team participated in the May 11 operation. FAST teams are a military policing model developed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Colombia that operate with the logistical support of the US military to interdict drug shipments. It appears that DEA agents permanently assigned to Honduras may have also participated.
What is clear is that Honduran and US officials claim it was the Honduran police that pulled the trigger. DEA and embassy officials explained that the DEA officers in Honduras work beside a special unit of the Honduran police, the Tactical Response Team (TRT), which was created by and reports directly to the DEA. In the past, the US military joint task force in Honduras had piloted helicopters for the teams, but claim they did not participate on May 11.
In early August, the State Department issued a report explaining it was “carefully limiting assistance to special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by Leahy-vetted Honduran personnel who receive training, guidance and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement and are not under [Juan Carlos] Bonilla’s direct supervision,” while it investigates allegations that the current director of Honduran police had directed a death squad in 2002.
This description appears to fit the TRT and a new security force being created as the State Department issued the report, the Intelligence and Special Security Response Groups Unit (TIGRES). Though it's unclear whether the force has received training, guidance and advice directly from the US government, the team’s mandate closely matches US strategic interests in the region.
According to Honduran press, the TIGRES will live in military barracks, be commanded by military and police officers, and report directly to the Minister of Security, though they will report to the Minister of Defense in times of war. The force will focus on intelligence, information and communications technology; areal and maritime combat; control of population and territory; and combating organized crime, drug trafficking, and illicit association. The TIGRES will operate with “embedded” justice officials, public prosecutors and judges.
The day the law to establish the new force was presented, July 26, Honduran officials announced the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) would fund the force with a $57 million loan. Two hundred TIGRE agents were already in training, scheduled to be completed in August.
The IDB loan is one of 22 planned for Central America within the framework of the Central American Regional Security Strategy of the Central American System for Regional Integration [SICA], an initiative spearheaded by the Inter American Development Bank and the US Department of State. A group of friends was created to promote the strategy, including Chile, Colombia, the US, Canada, the OAS, the United Nations and others.
Chile, Colombia and the US are playing a hands-on role in implementing the strategy, which clearly promotes the use of the military in policing. Chile’s Carabineros--a militarized police force renowned for forming death squads and reprimanded by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights in October 2011 for excessive use of force in recent student protests-- are working closely with SICA and the OAS to reform the region's police forces. The US has partnered with Colombian police who are training Central American police and military in a new center located in Panama.
Despite the international partnerships it’s clear that the US is leading the implementation of the drug war in Central America. This year the US is partnering with Central American security forces in Operation Anvil, a Central America wide anti-drug operation involving the US military, DEA and Central American police forces and militaries. The May 11 massacre was just one of several Operation Anvil interdictions which stirred up controversy.
One interesting example is the June 13 operation in which a drug plane crashed, killing both pilots. Though US and Honduran officials claimed the plane crashed while under pursuit, Honduran newspapers reported it had been shot down. On August 25 the Honduran daily La Tribuna reported that the head of the Honduran air force was forced to resign after an US investigation uncovered that a Honduran Tucano fighter plane had shot down the drug plane, and that one of the pilots was a DEA agent. US officials denied a DEA agent was on board.
Amidst the complexities of undercover DEA operations and corrupt police and military forces that make it difficult to distinguish the trafficker from law enforcement; the introduction of counter insurgency tactics to a region without a war; and multinational coordination of security efforts, one resident of Ahuas proposed a solution: the US must find a way to solve its drug problem that does not turn indigenous communities into battlefields.
Annie Bird is Co-Director of Rights Action, and has worked for seventeen years documenting human rights abuses with community based organizations in Central America.
Gangs’ Truce Buys El Salvador a Tenuous Peace
RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD. New York Times. August 27, 2012
SAN SALVADOR — They had faced off many times before, on the streets, with guns in their hands. But when top leaders of two of the hemisphere’s most violent street gangs sat across from one another in the stifling air of a maximum security prison here this year, the encounter had a very different aim: peace.
With a military chaplain and a former lawmaker officiating, the imprisoned gang leaders held a moment of silence for the thousands of people their street armies had killed. After a few more meetings — and the government’s concession to transfer 30 of the leaders to less-restrictive conditions — they shook hands on a pact to put an end to the killings.
“We said we have to talk because things are getting out of hand,” said Carlos Tiberio Valladares, a leader serving time for murder who has tattoos of his gang etched across his face. “No one is going to tell you they want their kids to continue on this path.”
Five months later, the truce endures in El Salvador, long one of the most violent countries in the Americas. With 30,000 to 50,000 members and weaponry that includes assault-style rifles and grenades, the two gangs are virtual armies that have the power to affect the security of the entire region — and they have used it to terrorize populations still weary from years of civil war and instability.
Now the truce is moving this country in the opposite direction, the authorities contend, leading to a precipitous drop in violence. But others question whether the government should have essentially made what some consider a pact with the devil for the public good.
“This is a historic moment in El Salvador,” said Alex Sanchez, a former Salvadoran gang member who directs Homies Unidos, an antiviolence program in Los Angeles. “If we lose this moment, we lose the moment of a lifetime.”
Homicides in this country of six million people are down 32 percent in the first half of this year; kidnappings have fallen 50 percent; and extortion has declined nearly 10 percent, according to the Salvadoran security ministry, which attributes the drop largely to the truce.
The peace talks involved the region’s two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, which trace their roots to Los Angeles. Their ranks mushroomed in the United States after young men fled Central America’s civil strife in the 1980s. When many were later deported for crimes in the United States, the gangs formed large affiliates in El Salvador and neighboring countries.
In a string of attacks two years ago that killed more than 16 people, gang members held up passengers on city buses and burned one bus while it was filled with riders. One of the gang leaders brokering the truce was part of a gang that kidnapped and killed the young son of a businessman. Some gang members have served as foot soldiers for drug trafficking organizations based in Mexico.
At the first truce meeting, hot stares fed the tension, according to those present. About 200 soldiers stood nearby in case the sit-down dissolved into bloodshed and ignited the thousands of gang members that the leaders command from behind prison walls.
These prisoners, some branded head to toe with gang tattoos, now speak of a new day. They raise the prospect of working instead of stealing to make ends meet. They liken the truce, however fragile, to the peace accords that halted the 12-year civil war here in 1992.
“We have shown good will,” said Victor Antonio García, a Barrio 18 leader deported from Los Angeles. “But now the government has to get involved. We need, like, an affirmative action law here for gang members who quit and need jobs.”
The truce has made for some head-spinning moments.
Gang leaders sat down last month with José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, who, as if at a summit meeting of regional leaders, called the truce a promising turn in stemming the tide of violence in Central America. Later, six masked men symbolically laid down high-powered weapons at his feet.
“If the presence of the O.A.S. secretary general helps in this peace proposal, I will be here,” Mr. Insulza said.
Many remain skeptical that the truce will stick, noting the lack of alternatives for young men in poor neighborhoods. After a sizable drop, the number of homicides rose again early this month, and reports of extortion and disappearances remain high, leading the chief medical examiner to warn that the pact “may be in danger of fracturing.”
The truce did not halt all members’ ruthless ways. Some who have violated the truce have been killed themselves, according to gang leaders and a social worker involved in the talks. Gang leaders say they cannot control all their members.
That some violence continues was evident this month at the morgue, where Wendy Maritza Rodríguez wailed “Oh, my love! My love!” as workers removed a white sheet from the corpse of her nephew, who was a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. He was killed, she surmised, for trying to quit.
“If you try to do something else with your life, they kill you,” she said, wiping away tears.
The government at first denied any involvement with the truce, and then announced it was accommodating a peace effort pushed by Roman Catholic Church leaders, social workers and gang members. The prison agency acknowledged it had agreed to move the gang leaders out of maximum security, provide televisions and make other concessions, like increased visiting rights, to encourage the truce.
“What I don’t see as viable is basing a state policy on a nonaggression agreement between criminal bands,” the columnist Luis Laínez wrote in La Prensa Gráfica, a leading newspaper.
Officials in neighboring Honduras, themselves wrestling with out-of-control violence, call the truce worthy of study. But American officials have kept their distance.
“We think that, yes, it has reduced crime, but long-range, sustainably, we feel that we have to address the root causes in order to be effective and for any reduction to be sustainable,” said Mari Carmen Aponte, the American ambassador.
She said the embassy had recently stepped up efforts to improve after-school programs and community policing. Government officials in Guatemala, where gang leaders are said to be considering a truce, have dismissed the idea of participating in any way.
Raúl Mijango, a former lawmaker who is a chief mediator in the Salvadoran effort, said the security minister, David Munguía Payés, whom he befriended after the civil war, broached the idea of getting the gangs talking last fall, without specifically mentioning a truce or offering government help.
Mr. Mijango said he later enlisted Msgr. Fabio Colindres, the military chaplain, and began serious discussions with the gangs in January that ultimately led to the idea of a truce.
Mr. Munguía, the security minister, said he doubted he would personally sit down with the gang leaders, citing the government’s official position that it would not negotiate with criminals. But he also spoke of the truce as part of a “new strategy” toward stemming violence.
“Many thought it would last a month, and now it’s been five months,” he said.
Behind bars, the hopeful talk of peace is tempered with a growing impatience.
“This peace process is hard to maintain,” said Mr. García, the Barrio 18 leader.
Ludwig Rivera, 28, a Barrio 18 leader with tattoos nearly covering his face, said: “It’s not that the truce is weak. We feel it is strong. But the lack of involvement of the authorities and the public could make it weak. They all think we are animals, but we have rights and we are taking a step, so they should take a step” by investing in rehabilitation programs.
The rival gangs are still kept in separate prisons, lest they go after each other. “We are not there yet,” Mr. Rivera said of the idea of sharing a cell with a Mara Salvatrucha member. “The feelings are still too strong.”
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration [contents]
Nelson Renteria. Reuters. August 29, 2012
(Reuters) - Latin America and the Caribbean will expand less than expected this year due to softening internal demand and weaker demand for exports, a United Nations agency said on Tuesday.
Alicia Barcena, head of the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), said the body now sees regional growth of 3.2 percent to 3.3 percent this year, down from the previous forecast of 3.7 percent, confirmed in June.
The revision marks a steeper slowdown from the 4.3 percent growth the region achieved in 2011, amid worries about the euro zone debt crisis and a slowdown in China, a major trade partner for many Latin American countries.
"We have reduced (the forecast) a bit, especially because there has been a very marked deceleration most of all in internal demand, of demand in general in Europe and in the United States," Barcena told Reuters on the sidelines of ECLAC's biennial meetings.
"This has meant that trade figures have decreased and that tells us that the deceleration will be a bit stronger."
Brazil, Latin America's biggest economy, would not reach the 2.7 percent growth ECLAC had forecast for this year, Barcena said, without giving a specific number.
Data due on Friday is expected to show Brazil's economy struggled to gain momentum in the second quarter despite massive government stimulus and better farming conditions. Economists in a Reuters poll tipped year-on-year growth of 0.7 percent.
ECLAC also saw lower-than-expected growth in Argentina at 2.5 percent this year, Barcena said, down from the previous forecast of 3.5 percent.
But in Mexico, the region's number two economy, growth could even exceed the 4 percent ECLAC forecasts due to a brighter outlook in the United States, its main trading partner.
(Writing by Krista Hughes; Editing by James Dalgleish)