Apr 09

  • Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim is to sign a new defense agreement with the United States at the Pentagon on Monday. The agreement includes no bases or permanent U.S. military presence, but will streamline future cooperation. Colombian Trade Minister Luis Guillermo Plata joked that Venezuela might shut off its trade with Brazil in retaliation, as it did after Colombia signed a defense agreement with the United States – one which did include use of military bases – last October. After signing the accord with Brazil, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is to travel next week to Colombia, Peru and Barbados.
  • In a big upcoming arms purchase, Brazil appears likely to buy Rafale high-tech fighter jets from France, instead of F-18s made by U.S. aerospace company Boeing. The deciding factor: France is willing to allow more technology transfer to Brazil.
  • Two Colombian presidential candidates, both popular former mayors and neither a part of President Álvaro Uribe’s coalition, decided to merge their candidacy this week. Antanas Mockus and running mate Sergio Fajardo now appear in second place in a poll published Friday.
  • Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva says to forget about peace talks with the FARC until the group is militarily defeated. Silva’s predecessor, frontrunning presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos, says the door is open to dialogue, but only if the FARC demonstrate “good faith and stop being terrorists.”
  • The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a resolution (H.Res. 1224) calling on Colombia to fulfill its obligations to protect indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, and to aid the internally displaced. See a statement from the Washington Office on Latin America and a suggested action from the Latin America Working Group.
  • As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speculated that his country might sell Venezuela US$5 billion worth of weapons, the State Department questioned Venezuela’s need for these arms and expressed concern that they could end up elsewhere in the hemisphere. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s response: “Don’t be stupid, Yankees.”
  • Czech playwright and ex-president Vaclav Havel published a column condemning the arrest of Venezuelan opposition politician Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, “because it demonstrates just how far President Hugo Chávez’s regime is willing to stray from democratic norms.” The New York Times ran a harrowing account of María Lourdes Afiuni, a Venezuelan judge who, after issuing a ruling that displeased President Chávez, was jailed in a cell near more than 20 inmates whom she had sentenced. She is still there.
  • Bolivia held mayoral and gubernatorial elections last Sunday. President Evo Morales’ MAS party performed well, but not as strongly as expected. Morales called for an investigation of electoral authorities in regions where the MAS lost. Good analyses from Miguel Centellas and the Andean Information Network.
  • In Chile, the Group of Relatives of the Detained Disappeared (AFDD) put out a statement questioning some of President Sebastián Piñera’s appointments and statements for their “authoritarian overtones.”
  • In Peru, six artisanal miners have died after clashes with police. The miners were protesting government efforts to restrict unregulated gold mining. Human Rights Watch called for an investigation of the incident.
  • The publisher of the Mexican magazine Proceso has come under fire for paying a clandestine visit to top narcotrafficker Ismael Zambada, having his picture taken with him and giving him a softball interview.
  • In my considered opinion, the second episode of “Isla Presidencial” is funnier than the first.
Apr 05
U.S. and Peruvian vessels perform tactical maneuvers last week in Peruvian territorial waters. (Source)
  • Two popular former mayors turned presidential candidates, Antanas Mockus (two terms in Bogotá) and Sergio Fajardo (Medellín), will combine on the same ticket for Colombia’s May 30 presidential election, making theirs the most formidable opposition (non-uribista) candidacy.
  • In the past 24 months, Colombian authorities have intercepted more than 6,000 arms and more than 3 million rounds of ammunition that were made in China. Nearly all belonged to “new” paramilitary groups.
  • China just donated US$2.6 million in vehicles and parts to Bolivia’s armed forces. A Chinese corporation is also building Bolivia’s first telecommunications satellite, which will cost La Paz about US$300 million. Chinese President Hu Jintao, meanwhile, will visit Brazil, Chile and Venezuela in mid-April following his attendance at the nuclear summit President Obama is convening in Washington.
  • Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met in Caracas with Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He agreed to expand Russia’s energy investment and defense ties with Venezuela. Morales said he asked Putin to “increase its presence in Latin America, to return in force to Latin America.”
  • Citing the Brazilian daily O Estado de São Paulo, Spain’s El País reports on a U.S.-Brazilian plan to open a joint drug-trafficking-monitoring center in Brazil. The center, the article indicates, would be modeled on Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South, a small facility in Key West that monitors suspicious air and boat traffic in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific. According to the report, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit Brazil in the middle of this month.
  • Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) introduced legislation that would significantly change the priorities and strategies of U.S. counter-drug programs in the Americas. As Abigail Poe notes on the Just the Facts blog, this legislation bears little resemblance to the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act that the House of Representatives passed last year.
  • Thanks to stepped-up registration efforts that legalized 28,000 Colombian refugees in the past year, Ecuador now has 50,000 registered Colombian refugees in its territory (at least 100,000 more remain unregistered). Notes the BBC, “Colombia has given the UNHCR funding of US$600,000 over the past 10 years – an average 50 cents per refugee per year – to help pay for integration projects.”
  • Mexico’s army will begin gradually pulling its 6,000 troops out of violence-torn Ciudad Juárez. “This means the beginning of the end for the polemical military deploment to the zone, approved in 2006,” reported the BBC. March was the most violent month of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s more than three years in office, with 958 murders.
  • The U.S.S. Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier with more than 3,000 servicepeople on board, just spent a week in Peru carrying out joint maneuvers and other activities.
  • Costa Rica’s outgoing president, Nobel Laureate Óscar Arias, suggested in a TV interview that Uruguayan President José Mujica abolish his country’s armed forces, as Costa Rica did in 1948. Mujica said no.
Mar 27
El Tiempo’s website has very detailed results of the Datexco presidential-election poll in a PowerPoint file.
  • If all goes according to plan, Brazilian helicopters will pick up two soldiers who have been held by the FARC for years. The guerrillas are releasing Josué Daniel Calvo Marín on Sunday and Pablo Emilio Moncayo. Moncayo, whose father has become famous in Colombia for his campaign to free him, has been a FARC hostage since late 1997. He was 18 when the guerrillas took him after a battle in Patascoy, Putumayo; he is 30 now.
  • The head of Colombia’s armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla, told reporters that according to “high-quality intelligence,” the FARC are planning a campaign of high-profile attacks between now and the May 30 presidential election. This week saw several FARC attacks in southwestern Colombia: Cauca, Huila, a car bombing in downtown Buenaventura believed to be the work of the FARC, and a package bomb unwittingly delivered by a 12-year-old boy in Nariño.
  • Meanwhile violence attributed to “emerging” paramilitary groups escalated in the northwestern department of Córdoba. Seven people, among them three teenagers, were massacred in a bar in Puerto Libertador. Radio journalist Clodomiro Castillo, a critic of politicians tied to paramilitary groups, was gunned down on the front porch of his house in Montería.
  • The two pro-Uribe candidates lead the polling for the May 30 elections.
    • Gallup March 20-22: Juan Manuel Santos 34.2%; Noemí Sanín 23.3%; Antanas Mockus 10.4%; Gustavo Petro 6.4%; Germán Vargas Lleras 6.2%; Sergio Fajardo 6.1%; Rafael Pardo 5.1%
    • Datexco March 20-23: Juan Manuel Santos 34.1%; Noemí Sanín 21.7%; Antanas Mockus 8.9%; Gustavo Petro 7.1%; Germán Vargas Lleras 6.6%; Rafael Pardo 5.5%; Sergio Fajardo 4.4%
    • Both polls were taken before the first televised presidential debate, which took place the evening of March 23.
  • In Venezuela, you can now be arrested for offending the president, as Guillermo Zuloaga, the owner of opposition-oriented television network Globovisión, found this week. Zuloaga was arrested (and later released pending trial) for comments he made at the Inter-American Press Association mid-year meeting a week earlier. The arrest came days after the detention of opposition politician Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, a former governor of the western state of Zulia, for comments he made on Globovisión alleging that President Hugo Chávez’s government is aiding narcotraffickers and guerrillas.
  • A week after Cuban police roughly dispersed a protest by the Ladies in White dissident group, tens of thousands gathered in Miami for a demonstration led by musician Gloria Estefan. President Obama released a strong statement about the human rights situation in Cuba.
  • The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes of the FMLN party, apologized on behalf of the Salvadoran state for the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by an assassin linked to pro-government death squads 30 years ago March 24.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton headed a delegation to Mexico March 23 that included the secretaries of defense and homeland security, among other officials. The “Mérida High-Level Consultative Group” meeting made official some changes to the framework that has guided about $1.4 billion in U.S. aid to Mexico since 2008. From now on, the “Mérida Initiative” will be far less military in nature, reports Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations: “most of the requested $330 million for the program’s 2011 budget will be targeted to Mexico’s judicial reforms and programs on good governance.”
  • “Mexico is only one part, though probably the most important one, of a theater of operations that stretches from the Venezuelan-Cuban-Iranian alliance and the Andean Ridge, through Columbia and the FARC, up the cartel-controlled drug routes through Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico, and into the United States,” writes Col. Bob Killebrew of the influential Center for a New American Security, on the Foreign Policy blog of former Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks. “The Venezuelan alliance is almost a classic geopolitical attempt to deny the US access to Latin America — probably including Mexico — and to gain access to our southern border.”
  • José Miguel Insulza was reelected to a second five-year term as secretary-general of the Organization of American States. He faced no opponent.
Mar 19

  • The Commander of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Douglas Fraser, presented his annual “Posture Statement” to the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, a week after doing the same in the Senate. This document (PDF), presented to the oversight committees every year, explains how the regional unified command views threats in the region, and how it plans to address them. This was the first such testimony for Gen. Fraser, who assumed command in July. (Video of his House testimony is here, and video of his Senate testimony is here.)
  • The two testimonies were most notable for conflicting responses on Venezuela — a country that is only mentioned in 2 paragraphs in Gen. Fraser’s entire 42-page Posture Statement. Asked about Venezuelan support for Colombia’s FARC guerrillas in the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 11, the general responded that there was no solid evidence indicating that Caracas is, as a matter of official policy, supporting the group.

    “We have continued to watch very closely for any connections between illicit and terrorist organization activity within the region. We are concerned about it. I’m skeptical. I continue to watch for it. … But I don’t see that evidence. I can’t tell you specifically whether that continues or not.”Yesterday, however, according to Reuters, “Fraser said Venezuela continues to provide the FARC a safe haven and ‘financial logistical support’ based on information found on a laptop computer of a FARC commander seized by Colombian soldiers during a raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador in 2008.”

  • More than his predecessors, the general’s statement directly links organized-crime activity with a potential terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland: “the same routes and networks by which illicit traffickers smuggle 1,250-1,500 metric tons of cocaine per year around the region could be used wittingly or unwittingly to smuggle weapons, cash, fissile material or terrorists.” This quote is also notable because it clashes strongly with State Department estimates, presented in the March 1 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, that the entire region produced only 705 tons of cocaine in 2008.
  • Colombia’s Supreme Court has refused to extradite Daniel Rendón, alias “Don Mario,” to the United States to face narcotrafficking charges. Rendón is the brother of Freddy Rendón (alias “El Alemán”), former head of the AUC’s Élmer Cárdenas Bloc, and is widely accused of being a chief sponsor of the new generation of “paras” that is proliferating throughout the country. The court denied the extradition because it determined that “Don Mario” is cooperating with prosecutors in the “Justice and Peace” process, which was designed for paramilitaries who demobilized willingly.
  • Two FARC hostages, Pablo Emilio Moncayo and Josue Daniel Calvo, could be released by the FARC sometime this week. Moncayo has been a guerrilla hostage since 1998. Brazilian helicopters are standing by near the Colombian border as they await coordinates for the handover.
  • Days after the murders of 3 people linked to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, the State Department announced that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to Mexico City on March 23rd for the “Mérida U.S.-Mexico High Level Consultative Group.” A long list of top Obama administration officials will join the Secretary. The Washington Post editorial board, however, writes that the United States is not doing enough to help Mexico, calling on the Obama administration and Congress to expand funding for the Merida Initiative and to make “stabilizing a neighbor and major trading partner” a higher priority.
  • At the behest of President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s armed forces are adopting a new coat of arms incorporating the wiphala, the checkered-rainbow flag used by the country’s indigenous groups. The new shield also includes the slogan “patria o muerte, venceremos” (“fatherland or death, we shall overcome”), a saying most frequently associated with Fidel Castro.
  • The Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing Thursday on “Next Steps for Honduras.”
  • Just days before the 30th anniversary of the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, the “Latin Americanist” blog shares a video from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show depicting the Texas School Board’s recent decision not to include Romero in its history textbooks. Apparently Romero was not “famous” enough to make the cut.
Mar 06

  • On her six-country visit to Latin America this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed support for Argentine-British dialogue over oil drilling in the Falkland Islands (a step Great Britain has resisted); failed to convince Brazil to cast a Security Council vote in favor of sanctions on Iran; and “un-froze” all remaining aid to Honduras, including military aid, that was held up after the country’s June 28 coup. The un-freezing occurred even though, as Human Rights Watch noted, violent attacks on coup opponents continued in the month of February.
  • A handful of articles about Chile’s devastating earthquake explore the meaning of sending out the Army on its biggest internal-security mission since Gen. Augusto Pinochet left power.
  • Spanish judge Eloy Velasco is accusing Venezuela of facilitating collaboration between Colombia’s FARC guerrillas and Spain’s ETA separatist group — both on the U.S. and EU terror lists — on a range of activities including plots to assassinate Colombian presidents on visits to Spain. The judge’s indictment (PDF) focuses on a suspected ETA member living in Venezuela since 1989, Arturo Cubillas, who as of 2005 was an employee of the Venezuelan government’s Agriculture Ministry. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez rejected the charges. The indictment, which relies heavily on files recovered from the computer of deceased FARC leader Raúl Reyes, isn’t clear about whether the Venezuelan government knew about Cubillas’ alleged activities. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe cautioned on Thursday against jumping to conclusions: “The fact that it’s necessary to investigate a government official for participating in terrorism does not mean that that government or that state, are terrorist, or that they are participating in terrorism.”
  • The State Department’s International Narcotics Control bureau released its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. The report only includes 2009 coca-growing data for Bolivia; Colombia and Peru will have to wait until later in the year. The report is strongly critical of Bolivia for an apparent 50% increase in coca-growing from 2007 to 2009. The blog of the Cochabamaba-based Democracy Center offers a succinct analysis. The report also criticized Colombia, but praised Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. Praise for Mexico was tempered by concerns about cartels’ continued strength and the likelihood that narco-crime is moving increasingly south into Central America.
  • “The Obama administration’s newly released 2010 trade agenda gives little indication that the White House will quickly advance long-stalled pacts with Panama, Colombia or South Korea,” says CQ Politics.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, released her full report on the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia (PDF). She wrote that she is “deeply concerned about the widespread phenomenon of threats being made against human rights defenders and their families.”
  • After more than 11 years in captivity, FARC hostage Corporal Pablo Moncayo may finally be freed between the 12th and 14th of March. Colombia holds legislative elections on the 14th, though, and Defense Minister Gabriel Silva says that the military will not cease activities in any part of Colombian territory while electoral activities are occurring. So Moncayo may have to wait at least a few days more.
  • Thanks for Foreign Policy for publishing on Thursday a piece I wrote about Colombian politics now that President Uribe cannot run for a third term.
  • A little-noticed constitutional change last year could be interpreted as prohibiting former members of guerrilla or other armed groups from running for public office. The National Electoral Council must decide next week whether Gustavo Petro, the former M-19 guerrilla leader running a distant second in a February 27 opinion poll (PDF), can continue his campaign.
  • The Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV) found that only 9 people were arrested for every 100 murders committed in Venezuela between 2007 and 2009.
  • Ecuador’s El Comercio ran a very interesting analysis of how drug-trafficking corridors are shifting along the violent border between Putumayo, Colombia and Sucumbíos, Ecuador.
  • The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere will hold a March 10 hearing on  ”U.S. Policy Toward the Americas in 2010 and Beyond.” The commander of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Douglas Fraser, will give his annual “Posture Statement” before the congressional Armed Services Committees next week; he will be in the Senate on the morning of the 11th.
Feb 21
  • Take half an hour and watch “Colombia’s Cocaine Trail,” Matthew Bristow’s remarkable video about the drug war in Colombia, posted in 3 sections on the website of the British newspaper The Guardian. Over the course of two years, Bristow talked to everyone, from coca producers to FARC guerrillas to manual eradicators to members of the security forces. The Guardian doesn’t allow its videos to be embedded, so visit each link separately:
    • Part 1: The Farmers – In the first of three films, he meets the farmers, and looks at their battle with a government determined to eradicate the crop
    • Part 2: The Labs – Farmers often have little choice who they sell their coca paste to. The buyers take it to labs deep in the jungle to turn into cocaine, but anti-narcotics police are on the trail
    • Part 3: Patrolling the Coast – Colombian coastguards use intelligence to catch smugglers as they attempt to get cocaine out of the country and on to Mexico. It’s a risky business for all involved, especially the informants
  • Several compelling videos accompany the online presentation of Human Rights Watch’s recent report on Colombia’s “new” paramilitary groups.
  • Journalist Felipe Zuleta’s twenty-minute inquiry into the Colombian military’s “false positives” scandal, in which soldiers killed civilians and presented their bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat, in order to reap rewards.
    • Part One
    • Part Two
  • Noticias Uno has chilling video about a memo from the Colombian presidency’s intelligence service (the DAS) giving instructions for how exactly to make a phone threat to journalist Claudia Julieta Duque and her 10-year-old daughter.
  • Independent journalist Hollman Morris talks with María Elvira Samper about the sudden closure of Cambio, a Colombian newsmagazine that had been carrying out some aggressive investigative reporting. Samper says she believes that the closure owed to heavy pressure from Álvaro Uribe’s government.
    • Part 1
    • Part 2
    • Part 3
    • Part 4
    • Part 5
  • Added 7:00 AM February 22: A campaign ad from Conservative Party presidential candidate Andrés Felipe Arias, President Uribe’s former minister of agriculture, presenting leftist opposition senators as FARC guerrilla supporters.
Feb 13
Presenting his cabinet, many of them business leaders, Chilean President-Elect Sebastián Pinera hung a thumbdrive containing policy plans around the neck of each minister-to-be. (Article and photo source.)
  • Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva visited a snowbound Washington this week and was told that the Obama administration remains firm about cutting 2011 military aid, and that 2010 ratification of the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement is unlikely. “A high-ranking State Department official had assured him the reduction in aid was part of across-the-board belt-tightening in President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal,” Reuters reported. Democratic Senator Chris Dodd told Silva that the free-trade deal’s approval must wait because “this is a complex electoral year with a very heavy domestic agenda.” Meanwhile President Obama, interviewed by Bloomberg, “said he would press for passage this year of free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, though he cautioned that ‘different glitches’ must first be negotiated with each country.”
  • Eight years is too little time for a country that has had only 47 years of peace in 200 years,” Colombian President Álvaro Uribe said Friday. But Semana magazine looks at what remains to be done to legalize Uribe’s candidacy for a third consecutive term, and concludes that he has run out of time, that “it doesn’t fit in the electoral calendar.” A Centro Nacional de Consultoría poll found 54 percent of Colombians now opposed to a third term for Uribe; this is the first poll to show a majority against re-election. Politically, the president has had a tough two weeks; Semana documents seven threats to Uribe’s continued popularity.
  • The VoteBien website is doing a solid job of documenting organized-crime influence and other irregularities in the campaign for Colombia’s March 14 legislative elections. Its latest report outs a Conservative Party senator whose office marked World Press Freedom Day by giving envelopes containing 150,000 pesos (~US$75) to twenty reporters in Meta department.
  • A group of prominent Medellín citizens, working with government authorization, brokered a truce between factions of the “Envigado Office,” the network of drug-running gangs responsible for a recent upsurge of violence in the city. The “La Silla Vacía” website worries that while the pact may reduce violence in Medellín, it may signal a return to the time when the government tolerated organized crime in exchange for social peace, as occurred in the mid-2000s when since-extradited paramilitary boss “Don Berna” ran the Envigado Office. It is unclear what the gangsters got in return for agreeing to the new pact, though El Tiempo notes that the group’s jailed top hitman was abruptly moved from prison to house arrest.
  • Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica’s current vice president and a former security minister, was elected president Sunday with nearly 47 percent of the vote, more than 20 percent ahead of her nearest rival. Her party, the PLN, controls only 23 of 57 seats in the Congress, which means her political agenda may end up being modest.
Feb 05
Jorge Noguera, President Uribe’s former intelligence director now standing trial for murder, testified that he gave information about labor union activity directly to the president.
  • We have added a podcast to the “Just the Facts” website. The first episode discusses the debate in Colombia over President Álvaro Uribe’s apparent desire to run for a third term in office, which just suffered a setback in the justice system. Download or listen to the 12-and-a-half-minute .mp3 file here or at our podcast page. Keep in mind that we’re new at this. They will get better.
  • Cambio, one of Colombia’s two main newsmagazines, is going to stop publishing on a weekly basis. Instead, it will be a monthly devoted to lifestyle issues. This is a loss for Colombia; in 2009 Cambio broke two big stories: the existence of military-base talks between the U.S. and Colombian governments, and the use of an agricultural subsidy program to give cash to some of the country’s biggest landholders. The “La Silla Vacía” website speculates that the magazine’s abrupt retreat owes to indirect pressure from Álvaro Uribe’s government.
  • The recently formed Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) will meet in Quito on Tuesday the 9th to discuss responses to the earthquake in Haiti. Colombia’s President Uribe, who doesn’t always attend these meetings, plans to go to this one. He is not expected to meet bilaterally with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, even though Colombia and Ecuador appear to be nearing the end of a two-year break in diplomatic relations. Though they’re unlikely to have a bilateral meeting, this will be the first time in many very tense months that Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will be in the same room.
  • Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told a congressional panel that the Obama administration would “absolutely” work with Congress to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2010. He was quickly contradicted, however. Reuters reports: “Both the Treasury Department and U.S. Trade Representative’s office later issued statements clarifying Geithner’s comment. They said U.S. trade officials still had to resolve outstanding issues with the three countries before Obama would send the FTAs to Congress for a vote.”
  • Columbia University Colombia expert Aldo Cívico interviewed Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) for Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper. English here, Spanish here.
  • Colombian police trained counterparts from 23 countries last year, including 4,500 Mexicans.
  • Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, spent three days in Honduras. At the end of his trip he told reporters he disagreed with the Obama administration’s call for the Honduran government to nominate a “Truth Commission,” which would investigate crimes committed since the June 2009 coup. It’s better to “close the book,” Rohrabacher concluded.
  • President Obama called Chilean President-Elect Sebastián Piñera to congratulate him on his recent election win. Piñera asked Obama for a bilateral meeting.
  • Ecuadorian authorities seized 63 tons of cocaine in 2009. That is by far a record, showing the country’s increasing use as a narcotrafficking corridor. By comparison, Colombia seized 203 tons in 2009 (Excel file).
  • Costa Ricans go to the polls Sunday for a presidential election. Laura Chinchilla of President Oscar Arias’s PLN party has a comfortable lead in the polls, though it is not clear whether she will beat the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
Jan 29
Para-politicians and their “avatars,” from Pequeño Tirano
  • Colombia’s biggest political controversy of the week came from President Uribe’s proposal, apparently unconsulted with Medellín authorities, to fight gang violence by paying the city’s students who serve as informants passing intelligence to the authorities.
  • President Obama’s brief “State of the Union” mention of trade with Colombia raised hopes in Bogotá that the White House might seek congressional ratification of the free-trade agreement signed in 2006, even though U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield warned a week ago that trade agreements never win approval in legislative election years. Colombian Ambassador to the United States Carolina Barco counseled patience, and former Bush Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega noted that Obama’s language did not state clearly that he intends to act for the agreement’s ratification.
  • The Colombian non-governmental organization CODHES reported its estimate of the number of Colombians newly displaced by violence in 2009: 286,389 people. That number, while shockingly high, is actually lower than the group’s 2008 estimate of 380,863 newly displaced people.
  • A very strange story in El Tiempo covers an event the armed forces held for the accused Soacha “false positives” defendants, who were recently released from jail as they await trial for killing Colombian civilians. The 46 soldiers participated in aromatherapy and psycho-social workshops, while their visiting family members were entertained: clowns for the children and massages and makeovers for the women.
  • Of every 100 guerrillas that the Colombian government has taken out of commission, estimates José Fernando Isaza, the FARC manages to recruit 83 new ones.
  • The VerdadAbierta.com website has a long and disturbing interview with “Jorge Pirata,” one of the leaders of the paramilitaries who dominated Colombia’s eastern plains in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In text and video, he tells the history of the AUC’s brutal rise in the region south and east of Bogotá.
  • The “Pequeño Tirano” cartoon is back, this time mocking the relatives, or “avatars,” of jailed para-politicians who are running for office in Colombia’s March congressional elections.
  • As Porfirio Lobo takes over the presidency of Honduras and Manuel Zelaya leaves for exile in the Dominican Republic, the Tegucigalpa government’s treasury is down to its last US$50 million. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela warned yesterday that Washington will not support Honduras’ return to the OAS until President Lobo takes steps foreseen in the San José Accord, like forming a “unity government” and establishing a “truth commission” for crimes committed after the June 2009 coup.
  • “Bloggings by Boz” excerpts all references to Latin America in the draft Quadrennial Defense Review that leaked this week. It’s definitely not too much to read in one sitting.
  • Recently re-inaugurated President Evo Morales just named a new high command and now wants to change the Bolivian armed forces’ doctrine. “My great dream, my great desire,” he said, “is that our armed forces be internationally recognized as anti-capitalist.”
  • Chile is buying 18 F-16 fighter planes from the United States for $270 million. “We don’t want to go out and hit anybody” with the country’s fleet of 44 F-16s, said Chile’s armed forces chief, Ricardo Ortega. But “everyone who is watching us, everyone around us, now knows that we have the capacity to hit hard, that is, it’s best that they leave us alone.”
  • A USA Today/Gallup poll finds 63% of Americans favoring a longer-term U.S. military presence in Haiti, going beyond the emergency phase until “basic services are restored.” Meanwhile U.S. military logistics authorities estimate that most troops will pull out of Haiti within three to six months.
  • In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez’s vice president and defense minister, Ramón Carrizález, abruptly quit on Monday, citing “personal reasons.” Some Venezuelan analysts speculate that he quit over disagreement with the role of Cuban officers in the Venezuelan military’s high command, or that it was part of a “loyalty test” amid rising internal discontent within the armed forces.
  • New America Media reports on Latin American militaries’ increasing use of unmanned drone aircraft, most of them purchased from Israel.
Jan 22
The Colombian Army is carrying out an offensive against the FARC’s powerful 48th front in Putumayo this week. (Colombian Army photo)
  • Of Colombian officers and soldiers facing trial for the 2008 murder of young men in the Bogotá suburb of Soacha, the number now freed from preventive detention because of lapsed prosecution deadlines now stands at 38. The men are accused of presenting their victims’ bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat, an alarmingly frequent practice that has come to be known in Colombia as “false positives.” Mothers of the victims — whether in Soacha or in other cases — are furious. “We want truth. They let them go so they can go and kill more boys,” said one.
  • The La Silla Vacía website has a very useful – and troubling – interactive timeline of the judicial delays and procedural maneuvers that caused the accused soldiers’ legal processes to drag on so long that, under the rules of Colombia’s new oral justice system, they had to be set free pending trial.
  • For similar reasons, ten soldiers implicated in the 2005 San José de Apartadó massacre could be freed in February.
  • The “false positives” scandal was among the topics in a debate Wednesday between two opposition presidential candidates, Rafael Pardo of the center-left Liberal Party and Gustavo Petro of the leftist Democratic Pole party. Interestingly Pardo, a former defense minister, took a harder line against soldiers found guilty of committing extrajudicial executions, calling for “severe punishment,” while Petro said he would favor reduced sentences for those who “collaborate with truth.”
  • Francisco Leal of the National and Andes Universities published a concise but thorough evaluation of the Uribe government’s “Democratic Security” policy on the “Razón Pública” website.
  • Colombia’s Army found a cache of brand-new weapons in southeastern Córdoba department, which it believes to be part of an arms-for-cocaine barter arrangement between the FARC and “new” paramilitary groups in the region.
  • Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation released an interesting report [PDF] on emerging paramilitary groups and “the consolidation of a third generation of paramilitaries.”
  • Colombia’s Constitutional Court is reviewing the legality of scheduling a congressionally approved referendum on whether to change the Constitution to allow President Álvaro Uribe to run for a third straight term. The court’s new chief justice — a one-year rotating position — served as President Uribe’s legal secretary until 2007.
  • If you had invested $100 in Colombia’s stock market index on December 31, 1999, it would be worth $1,529 today.
  • The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission released an extensive report on the human rights situation in Honduras since the June 28 coup d’état.
    • “The report states that along with the loss of institutional legitimacy caused by the coup d’état, serious human rights violations have occurred. These include deaths; the arbitrary declaration of a state of exception; the repression of public demonstrations through the disproportionate use of force; the criminalization of social protest; the arbitrary detention of thousands of individuals; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and poor detention conditions; the militarization of the territory; an increase in situations of racial discrimination; violations of women’s rights, arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of expression; and serious infringements of political rights.”
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa accepting his invitation for eventual dialogues between the United States and UNASUR, the recently formed Union of South American Nations. Correa said that U.S. use of bases in Colombia must be part of any such dialogue’s agenda.
  • Chilean President-Elect Sebastián Piñera promised that his government will “collaborate” with judicial investigations of past human rights abuses, and said he will seek to do away with the Pinochet-era provision that gives the armed forces 10 percent of the state copper company’s revenues.
  • The Mexico-based Consulta Mitofsky took a “poll of polls” of Latin America’s leaders’ approval ratings, coming up with this ranking. The list does not include Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
    • Ricardo Martinelli, Panama: 91%
    • Mauricio Funes, El Salvador: 88%
    • Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil: 83%
    • Michelle Bachelet, Chile: 81%
    • Álvaro Uribe, Colombia: 64%
    • Tabaré Vázquez, Uruguay: 61%
    • Evo Morales, Bolivia: 60%
    • Felipe Calderón, Mexico: 55%
    • Fernando Lugo, Paraguay: 50%
    • Barack Obama, USA: 48%
    • Álvaro Colom, Guatemala: 46%
    • Óscar Arias, Costa Rica: 44%
    • Rafael Correa, Ecuador: 42%
    • Stephen Harper, Canada: 32%
    • Alan García, Peru: 29%
    • Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua: 25%
    • Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina: 19%
Jan 15

  • A small sampling of some of the Haiti coverage we’ve found worth linking to is here. There is much we’ve missed. The New York Times Haiti Twitter list is worth a follow as well.
  • Twenty-nine Colombian soldiers and officers standing trial for the 2008 Soacha “false positives” murders have been freed from preventive detention in the past week. Meanwhile the mother of one of the victims tells El Espectador’s Cecilia Orozco about the threats, and the lack of government support, that she and other mothers are receiving.
  • “My admiration is personal and institutional for the Honduran people, who stoically withstood international pressures, foreign meddling and every kind of assault against their sovereignty in order to keep an anachronistic model from implanting itself in their country.” – Colombia’s vice president, Francisco Santos
  • Colombian President Álvaro Uribe received two delegations of U.S. visitors to his ranch in Córdoba department: a congressional delegation led by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, and James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state and number-two official in the State Department.
  • “I have received information about an extremely worrying situation of violence and other crimes against indigenous peoples.” – James Anaya, UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples, who issued a new report this week.
  • The Associated Press published a long, gripping story about a bend in the Cauca river where the bodies of the murdered tend to wash up, and about a woman who for years has tried to retrieve them.
  • The La Silla Vacía website presents an excellent list of twelve changes Colombia has gone through during the 16 months that the country’s political class has been distracted by the debate over whether President Uribe can run for reelection.
  • Chileans vote in a presidential runoff election on Sunday. Polls give a razor-thin advantage to conservative businessman Sebastián Piñera over center-left former President Eduardo Frei.
  • Chile is eliminating a constitutional provision, inherited from the Pinochet regime, that gave the armed forces a fixed percentage of copper profits to use for weapons purchases. Bolivia, on the other hand, is considering adding such a provision.
  • Last May, days before he was murdered, Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg recorded a video stating that if he were to be killed, it would be the fault of Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom. This week, UN investigators announced a bizarre finding: Rosenberg in fact planned his own assassination. (See this PDF presentation.)
  • Reuters published a lengthy piece about the aerial narcotrafficking route between South America and Africa, alleging that it is being plied by a rogue air fleet with links to Al Qaeda.
  • The U.S. NGO Freedom House released its annual “Freedom in the World” report, contending that several countries in Latin America – Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic – were less free in 2009 than they were in 2008.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales, on his third-ever visit to a movie theater, saw Avatar and declared it to be “a profound example of resistance against capitalism and the struggle to defend nature.”
Dec 07
Evo Morales was re-elected yesterday. (Photo source unknown, it came in our email.)
  • Recent articles in Time, the Wall Street Journal, and Reuters discuss Latin American disenchantment with the Obama administration following its handling of the coup in Honduras.
  • Citing poll data gathered in July and September, however, Gallup finds Latin Americans’ approval of U.S. leadership hitting a median of 51%, way up from 35% in 2008.
  • Evo Morales was overwhelmingly re-elected to another term on Sunday. The best overview we’ve seen is the 3-part series and wrap-up on the Democracy Center’s “Blog from Bolivia.”
  • The Government Accountability Office, the independent auditing arm of the U.S. Congress, issued a report [PDF] last week documenting very slow delivery of U.S. aid to Mexico under the “Mérida Initiative.” As the “Just the Facts” blog points out, the report bears some resemblance to a 2003 GAO report [PDF] documenting slow delivery of U.S. aid to Colombia under “Plan Colombia.”
  • The Fellowship of Reconciliation shares [PDF], and analyzes, the latest list of Colombian military and police units vetted and cleared to receive U.S. assistance.
  • Those involved in efforts to facilitate the next FARC unilateral hostage release in Colombia – which is to include Corporal Pablo Emilio Moncayo, whose father is a leading advocate of negotiations – say that they have entered the “logistical” phase. A good sign.
  • Two excellent discussions of Colombia’s agrarian “counter-reform,” and the central role of narcotrafficking and forced displacement, appear on the websites of Semana magazine and the CINEP think-tank.
  • Semana profiles the Colombian Army’s inspector-general, whose work on the “false positives” scandal is revealing strong divisions in the armed forces on the issue of human rights.
  • Colombia’s Supreme Court handed a 40-year jail term to one of the most prominent “para-politicians,” former Sucre governor and ambassador to Chile Salvador Arana. He was found guilty of helping form paramilitary groups and conspiring to murder the mayor of the town of El Roble, Eudaldo Díaz (the subject of a recent edition of the Contravía television program).
  • Sucre is one of several places where El Tiempo found that the relatives of convicted “para-politicians” are running to fill their loved ones’ former positions in the 2010 congressional elections.
  • Captured paramilitary leader and narcotrafficker “Don Mario” testified last week that Vicente Castaño, one of the most powerful paramilitary leaders long believed to be a fugitive, committed suicide in March 2007.
  • Citing multiple sources, Colombia’s INDEPAZ think-tank publishes a list [PDF] of 278 municipalities (counties, of which Colombia has about 1,100) that registered a presence of “new” or “emerging” paramilitary groups in 2009.
  • Hard-right Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady is the latest conservative U.S. voice calling on Colombian President Álvaro Uribe not to run for another term in 2010.
  • As Hugo Chávez moves drastically to cut off trade with Colombia, Venezuela in October ceased to be Colombia’s number-two trading partner (after the United States). China now occupies Colombia’s number-two position.
Nov 27

Happy Thanksgiving to our U.S. readers.

  • Colombia will not send any cabinet ministers to today’s meeting of UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, in Quito, Ecuador. The meeting sought to reduce tensions between Colombia and Venezuela, which remain very high following Colombia’s signing of a military agreement with the United States, warlike rhetoric from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and a series of incidents on the two countries’ common border. According to the Colombian Foreign Ministry’s statement, Colombia’s government will skip the UNASUR meeting because “the attitude and recent escalation of insults that the Colombian government and people have received do not allow us to foresee that the discussions at tomorrow’s meeting will take place with the tone of respect, objectivity and balance that this forum demands.” El Tiempo contends that the decision not to attend was triggered by a recent statement from Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva calling on Uribe and Chávez “to understand that war is not constructive, that the insane dispute is not constructive.” In the Colombian government’s view, Lula failed to credit Colombia for its recent policy of refusing to respond to Chávez’s provocations.
  • The Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a Bogotá-based think-tank, has published its annual overview of Colombia’s conflict. They find increases in all armed groups’ activity during 2009, with the “new” paramilitary groups responsible for the largest share of violence. They conclude that President Álvaro Uribe’s security policies, which reduced many violence measures since 2002, have “reached the ceiling” of what they were capable of doing.
  • Semana magazine and El Tiempo have more bad security news: Medellín will surpass 2,000 murders this year, a 76 percent increase over 2008 and the worst level of violence since 2003. According to El Tiempo, 70 percent of those being killed are members of over 160 gangs active in the city.
  • More than 12 years after paramilitaries killed up to 49 people in the village of Mapiripán, Meta, the army general who refused to respond to the town’s pleas for help has been found guilty by a civilian court of murder, kidnapping and falsifying public documents. Gen. Jaime Uscátegui has been sentenced to 40 years in prison. The paramilitaries’ first major operation in southern Colombia, Mapiripán occurred with evident support of the local security forces. Still, Gen. Uscátegui remains defiant, telling El Espectador that he is the victim of a smear campaign by human rights NGOs “because the head of a general is profitable.”
  • Cartagena will host the Second Review Conference of the International Treaty to Ban Land Mines. Due to the guerrillas’ use of these devices, Colombia – a signatory of the treaty – has one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises caused by land mines. The United States is not a signatory of the landmine treaty; earlier this week, the Obama administration announced that it would continue the Bush administration’s policy of refusing to sign on. The sudden announcement earned a very sharp rebuke from Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D). On Wednesday the State Department clarified that the decision was not final, and the landmine policy remained under “comprehensive review.”
Nov 20
Human rights defender Carmelo Agámez has been in jail for a year (photo source).
  • The Wall Street Journal editorial page is perhaps the most conservative of any major U.S. daily. Today’s editorial sings the praises of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. But it also urges him not to seek a third term.
  • In a joint statement, the presidents of Brazil and Argentina “expressed their concern about the presence in the region of military forces from an extra-regional power,” a direct rebuke of the U.S.-Colombia military agreement signed last month.
  • Carmelo Agámez, a leader of the Movement of Victims of State Crimes in Sucre, Colombia, has been an outspoken critic of the paramilitary groups who dominated his home region. Agámez has now been in jail for a year awaiting trial on charges of collaborating with… paramilitary groups. “Agámez’s unjust detention is just one emblematic example of a much bigger problem: the extensive use of malicious criminal investigations and trumped-up charges to silence human rights activists in Colombia,” writes Andrew Hudson of Human Rights First.
  • The webcast of yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Cuba travel ban is worthwhile viewing for the impassioned, but often incredibly simplistic, statements from the members of Congress in attendance. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-California, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee) jointly published an op-ed Tuesday in the Miami Herald calling for an end to the travel ban. Human Rights Watch meanwhile released an extensive report contending that the human rights situation in Cuba is not improving.
  • Cuba is the reason why a Florida senator has put a hold on Thomas Shannon’s nomination to be ambassador to Brazil. The lack of ambassadorial representation, Bloomberg reports, may have cost U.S. aerospace company Boeing a huge arms sale to Brazil.
  • As the Obama administration moves to recognize the result of November 29 elections in coup-governed Honduras (read the incredibly tortured exchange on this subject in Wednesday’s State Department briefing), the “May I Speak Freely” website, which closely monitors Honduras, explains why this is a bad idea.
  • With elections just a few weeks away, President Evo Morales leads polls by a wide margin in Bolivia, and center-right candidate Sebastián Piñera leads by a narrow margin in Chile.
  • The Bush administration’s chief of Customs and Border Protection called publicly for a reinstatement of the U.S. assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, in order to limit the flow of weapons to drug cartels in Mexico.
  • The Pan-American Health Organization reports that 43.4 percent of Guatemalan children under 6 suffer from chronic malnutrition. The percentage approaches 70 percent in rural areas. Child malnutrition is as severe in Guatemala as it is in Nigeria, Yemen, Ethiopia and Madagascar.
  • “A big watch and cool knife get you only so far. Once they´re convinced you’re serious about their concerns (social, environmental and political) they take you seriously.” – from a Southern Command article about U.S. riverine training in Ecuador’s Amazon basin region.
Nov 13
Photos found on a computer recovered from a FARC commander include this shot of a very young girl holding a rifle. (Source)
  • In a surprise decision, Colombia’s National Electoral Commission last night declared invalid the signatures on petitions to allow President Álvaro Uribe to run for a third term. The signatures were needed for Colombia’s Congress to consider legislation to schedule a constitutional amendment referendum. That legislation was approved in September, and the referendum was expected to be held early next year. The Electoral Commission threw out the signatures, and potentially the referendum, arguing that the amount of money spent on the petition drive was illegal. The commission’s decision is appealable, and Uribe’s reelection backers are expected to do so.
  • The latest bimonthly Invamer-Gallup poll gives President Uribe a 64 percent favorability rating, “the lowest favorability level the President has had in his seven years of government.” The Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal gets much blame.
  • If you speak Spanish and have a sense of humor, don’t miss the two-part “Pequeño Tirano” cartoon about the Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal.
  • The Obama administration finally has its own assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Arturo Valenzuela was approved in a Senate vote last Friday and sworn in on Tuesday.
  • Trade agreements with Colombia and Panama “are going to have to wait,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke this week, citing a backlogged agenda of higher legislative priorities.
  • The FARC launched its biggest attack of the year early this week. 200 guerrillas overran a contingent of soldiers guarding communications antennas in Corinto, Cauca, killing 9. The government has responded by deploying 2,500 soldiers and police to the zone.
  • Colombia’s Semana magazine published a long and disturbing story about efforts to torpedo official investigations into illegal surveillance and wiretaps by the presidential intelligence service (DAS): “Threats against investigators, hidden microphones to follow them, prosecutors fired by [acting Prosecutor-General] Guillermo Mendoza, and great distrust of the detectives charged with gathering evidence.”
  • “As I look across our hemisphere at our security challenges, the recurring and growing challenge remains illicit trafficking,” Southern Command Commander Gen. Douglas Fraser said in a speech (PDF) in Miami this week.
  • Key congressional Democrats joined a growing chorus of dismay about the State Department’s decision to change position and recognize the Honduran elections even without a reversal of the June 28 coup. A spokesman for Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) told the Washington Post: “The State Department’s abrupt change of policy towards Honduras last week — recognizing the elections scheduled for Nov. 29 even if the coup regime does not meet its commitments under the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord — caused the collapse of an accord it helped negotiate.”
  • U.S. and Ecuadorian diplomats held a U.S.-Ecuador Bilateral Dialogue to seek improved relations. However, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, warned that Ecuador is in danger of losing trade benefits under the Andean Trade Preference and Drug Elimination Act: “Ecuador is sticky. It’s difficult. It’s not easy … Ecuador is not helping itself. It’s a word to the wise. If they want to continue, a lot of that is in their hands too.”
  • Forbes magazine’s list of “The World’s Most Powerful People,” published this week, puts Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of the largest branch of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, at number 41. Forbes ranks Guzmán ahead of Dmitri Medvedev, Nicolas Sarkozy, and even Oprah Winfrey.