Monthly Archives: July 2012

Diálogo – Operation Martillo Deemed a ‘Complete Success’ in Guatemala, Honduras

By Adam Williams

GUATEMALA CITY — The first 90 days of the multinational anti-drug initiative known as Operation Martillo were a “complete success,” Guatemalan Government Minister Héctor Mauricio López Bonilla said in the nation’s capital on July 12.

From April 14 through July 12, the Guatemalan, Honduran and U.S. anti-narcotics mission confiscated more than 2,340 kilograms of drugs and incinerated an additional 3,000 kilos along the Caribbean coastlines of Guatemala and Honduras. That’s the word from Ulises Noe Anzueto Giron, Guatemala’s defense minister, speaking at a luncheon here highlighting the mission’s accomplishments.

“I am convinced that with each day of this mission, regional security is improving,” said José Miguel Cabrie, the Honduran ambassador to Guatemala. “Drug trafficking is gravely affecting our countries, but the people involved in this mission are taking the steps to improve regional peace, justice, and above all, to reduce the fear of crime in our nations.”

In recent years, the jungle and mountainous regions of Central America’s eastern coast have become primary transport locations for drugs traveling north from South America. About 79 percent of cocaine flights that take off from South American airstrips land in Honduras, according to a U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs report published in March.

Challenge ahead is a ‘monumental task’

“The fight to restore security to this region is a monumental task,” said Anzueto. “We are very pleased with the results of this first step in the operation and consider it a first victory, though we know the threat of drug-traffic is great. The fight is only just beginning.”

In January, Southcom paired with more than 15 countries, including all seven Central American nations, to target the illicit trafficking of drugs throughout the isthmus. The effort is being assisted by Colombia, Mexico, Canada and several European nations.

In the first four months of the initiative, Operacion Martillo (Operation Hammer in English) has resulted in the confiscation of more than 32 metric tons of cocaine, and has slashed air trafficking of drugs by 60 to 70 percent, said Rear Admiral Chuck Michel, Director of the U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-S).

“The results of Operation Martillo are immediately evident,” said López Bonilla. “Within weeks it was clear that drug traffic was diverting away from patrolled areas. We were able to close drug entry points and will continue to do so in other parts of the country and region.”

Operation Martillo includes all 7 nations of Central America

The pilots that took part in Operation Martillo’s first 90-day installment were relaxed on the afternoon of July 12. Dressed in fatigues, they laughed among themselves and enjoyed a traditional Guatemalan lunch of chicken, rice, beans and plantains as officers praised them.

“While we celebrate here today that we lost no personnel or aircraft during the mission, we know that we must continue our pursuit to improve the lives of the citizens of this region,” López Bonilla said. “Central America is a drug corridor and routes are always changing.”

All seven Central American nations were included on the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Major Illicit Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing list. The report estimated that 90 percent of the 700 metric tons of cocaine shipped annually from Colombia and other producing nations pass through Central America.

While the Caribbean coasts of Honduras and Guatemala remain primary drug transit locations, Anzuelo said that Operation Martillo’s next initiative will likely incorporate amplified surveillance and patrol over Pacific waters. With most drug shipments destined for Mexico, Anzuelo said deployment of forces to the Pacific are necessary to limit northbound passageways.

“Drug trafficking networks are mobile, powerful, transnational organizations,” he said. “If it is known that the Caribbean coastline is being heavily monitored, the operation could shift to the Pacific.”

Sinaloa cartel links revealed

Operation Martillo uncovered links between Mexico’s Sinoloa cartel and drug routes in the Gulf of Honduras, he said. Given the breadth of that cartel’s regional operations, it is thought that the organization has already infiltrated Guatemala’s Pacific waters and are employing fishermen to transport drugs from sea to land.

“Unfortunately we are seeing more and more evidence that local fishermen are being incorporated in the international drug trade,” Lopez Bonilla said. “Legal, licensed fishermen are being employed by drug organizations to pick up shipments that planes drop in the water.”

Guatemalan fishermen often collect the floating drugs at specified drop points during the night and transfer the packages inland, he added, noting that “we have several reports of this activity in Pacific waters and a likely next step in our operations will be to uncover the roots of these transport networks.”

Operation Martillo “has no firm end-date,” according to RADM Michel. Members of the Guatemalan and Honduran armed forces echo that idea.

While the mission’s first stage merited large drug seizures, arrests and a reduction in clandestine flights through remote regions, they assert that the multinational collaborative effort must continue in order to improve security in Central America’s northern triangle, where murder rates are among the world’s highest.

“It’s only been three months,” Anzuelo said. “We are definitely pleased and encouraged by the results, though this is a small piece of a bigger operation. Martillo will require collaboration of all the countries of the isthmus and we must assure that we are organized, trained and prepared to continue to reduce drug operations in Central America.”

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GT – Brazil pledges to help Haiti build new army

Brazil will help Haiti form a defense force that can eventually take over from the UN peacekeeping mission.

Brazilian Defense Minister Celso Amorim announced the decision during a meeting Thursday with his Haitian counterpart Jean Rodolphe Joazile. He said the Brazilian government would send a military mission to determine how Brazil could help the Caribbean country.

“Haiti’s government requested we cooperate in this manner. We are now trying to work on the ways the help can be given,” Amorim said.

Amorim said Brazil only agreed to help on condition the armed forces would not become a personal militia. He said he was assured by Joazile the new army would be a public force.

“This is not about restituting the old army, against which these accusations were made, or building a model that works as a personal militia,” he said.

Amorim said Haitian officers might study engineering in Brazil, which would help the new Haitian military build professional and institutional capacity. Military engineering could help with civil defense – an important capacity for a country prone to natural disasters such as flooding and earthquakes, he said.

Amorim said, as the new collaboration with Haiti progressed, Brazil’s participation in the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) would be reduced.

The Brazilian contingent in MINUSTAH was more than doubled after the massive earthquake which devastated the capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding regions in January 2010 and the country now has 2,000 soldiers in Haiti.

“I do not know how long this will take, but the process of reducing the contingent in MINUSTAH has already started and will continue. It is not good for Haiti, the UN, or Brazil that the forces stay there in a permanent way,” he said.

But with the reduction of the military contingent, a local force must be formed to take over some of the peacekeeping forces’ tasks, he said. In addition to security work, Haiti would also need to guard its borders and sea, as well as be able to deal with natural disasters, Amorim said.

Brazil has been in command of the military component of MINUSTAH as well as the largest military contingent in the mission since it began in 2004. The mission was supposed to end in late 2010, but was extended by the UN amid concerns about stability in Haiti. Its current mandate extends until October 2012, which is likely to be renewed.

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SFGate – No easy road to peace in Colombia

VIVIAN SEQUERA, Associated Press
Updated 01:02 p.m., Thursday, July 26, 2012

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — After negotiating the demobilization of the M-19 rebel movement he co-led, Antonio Navarro helped draft Colombia’s 1991 constitution, ran for president and became a big-city mayor and a state governor. And he did it all bearing the scars of war: a wooden leg and slurred speech from a grenade attack.

If anyone understands the bitter costs and frustrating political complexities of Colombia’s half-century-old conflict, it is Navarro. That’s why, he says, he is backing President Juan Manuel Santos‘ “Peace Framework” law, a constitutional amendment that sets a roadmap for government negotiations with leftist rebels.

“We have an obsolete war,” Navarro, 64, says of the Western Hemisphere’s last remaining ideology-rooted armed conflict, tapping on the wooden leg he has worn since surviving a 1985 assassination attempt, which also cost him control of his tongue. “Is it really necessary to keep producing new victims?”

But the law passed last month by lawmakers is meeting fierce resistance from two camps that normally share little affinity: Colombia’s right wing, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, and human rights activists. Their issue is the general amnesty that lies at the center of the law.

Uribe, who is credited with badly weakening Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas with U.S. military assistance during his 2002-2010 government, complains that the law will let rebel leaders off scot-free and make murderers eligible for public office.

“It will allow those responsible for terrible crimes to go uninvestigated,” Uribe said in a seven-point written critique expressing his concern that rebel leaders who have committed high crimes will be eligible for political office.

The Americas director of U.S.-based Human Rights WatchJose Miguel Vivanco, who rarely sees eye to eye with Uribe, sides with him on the amnesty, which would also apply to security force members.

“What’s most serious about the text is that it offers those most responsible for crimes against humanity the benefit of not serving a single day in prison,” he said.

But no rebel leader will sit down at the negotiating table without the understanding that they won’t face prison, says the 64-year-old Navarro in his Bogota apartment. Conflicts have been settled with such amnesties throughout the country’s bloody history, he said.

No official government death toll exists for Colombia’s internal conflict, but political analyst Ariel Avila of the Nuevo Arco Iris think tank ventures a calculation of about 240,000 deaths from 1985-2005. The war amounted to a slow bleeding in which hit-and-run rebel attacks on security forces were met with a dirty war of massacres, assassinations and forced disappearances in which right-wing death squads, often military-backed, played a major role.

Pro-government legislators say the new law doesn’t cover civilians nor members of the armed forces who committed crimes outside the conflict such as extrajudicial executions, espionage or corruption. If the interpretation holds, that would mean drug traffickers, far-right militias and death-squad members could still be prosecuted.

Among the FARC actions deemed criminal by Colombian courts is the 2003 bombing of the exclusive El Nogal social club in Bogota that killed 36 people. Hundreds of civilians have also been kidnapped.

Santos has pointed out that the law only sets general guidelines for a peace process that hasn’t begun, not even in a preliminary stage. In fact, the FARC has been stepping up attacks on security forces and oil installations in recent months, even after announcing in February that it was halting ransom kidnappings.

In the immediate term, the law faces a roadblock in the country’s constitution, which only allows amnesty for political crimes, not war crimes, said Carlos Gaviria, a formerConstitutional Court judge.

To get around that, the framework law specifies that legislators later define the parameters of crimes against humanity, genocide or war crimes and then allow suspended sentences.

Vivanco called the work-around “a farce” that will still let off killers. He said the International Criminal Court could ignore the amnesties, claim jurisdiction and begin prosecutions.

The framework law’s author, congressman Roy Barreras, says such criticisms ignore its intent and scope. The point is to give the president the means to negotiate peace, not to give him unlimited powers to achieve it.

“We are not giving the president a blank check, and certainly not to armed groups,” said Barreras.

Supporters of the peace framework say the amnesty is an essential concession to FARC leaders, who have been seeking a peace dialogue with Santos since he took office in August 2010. The guerrillas’ most recent negotiations with a Colombian government ended in disarray in 2002, when they continued to attack government forces and kidnap politicians even after being granted them a safe haven in the country’s south for more than three years.

A Colombian who knows the FARC’s leadership well, Communist Party weekly La Voz editor Carlos Lozano, says that neither the FARC nor the country’s far smaller No. 2 rebel band, the National Liberation Army, would seriously consider any peace offer that didn’t exempt their leaders from prosecution. Timochenko, the nom de guerre of 53-year-oldRodrigo Londono, and others on the FARC’s ruling seven-member secretariat will also likely object to the law’s requirements that they disarm and dismantle their forces, Lozano said.

“To think that Timochenko would agree to become a prisoner with no political rights: They’ll never accept that,” Lozano said.

In a late June statement, the FARC was cool to the law, calling it “cynical” and saying Santos is only interested in “a repentant, weepy guerrilla force that surrenders on its knees.”

FARC leaders, in previous peace negotiations, have been loath to disarm, saying they fear becoming targets of political assassination. They speak from experience: Some 4,000 of them disarmed and entered politics in the 1980s as members of the Patriotic Union party only to be systematically killed by right-wing death squads.

One model Colombians have studied is how El Salvador arrived in 1992 at an end to a 12-year-old conflict that claimed more than 75,000 lives.

Peace talks there led to legal guarantees for ex-combatants on both sides, including a general amnesty decreed by then-President Alfredo Cristiani.

The Rev. Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who took part in peace talks with rebels as San Salvador’s deputy Roman Catholic Bishop, said Cristiani “asked everyone to look ahead and forget the past. What did the church say? That before we look ahead, before we turn the page, we need to read it. You just can’t lay aside truth and justice.”

Yet El Salvador largely did.

No one was ever sanctioned for the security force massacre of 936 civilians in 1981 in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote, or the 1980 murder of Archbishop Arnulfo Romero.

Rosa Chavez, however, sees Colombia’s conflict as more complicated, its guerrillas less idealistic, with drug trafficking obscuring the FARC’s stated political goals of agricultural reform and a more equal distribution of wealth.

The challenge is to strike “a complicated balance” that honors international humanitarian law while being realistic enough to promote reconciliation, said Antonio Sanguino, a Bogota councilman with the Green Party.

Sanguino had belonged to a small rebel group called the Socialist Renovation Current that made peace with the government in 1994. Now, he says the time has come for all parties to end the conflict.

“In the name of justice we can’t deny Colombian society the right to peace,” he said. “And in the name of peace we can’t ignore the rights of the victims.”

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WPR – Regional Cooperation Key for Central American Security

By Jason Marczak, on 17 Jul 2012, Briefing

High levels of crime and violence have given Central America the inauspicious title of having the world’s highest homicide rate — about 10 times the world average. Reversing this trend will require collective, crossborder action and regional partnerships that include the private sector. Unfortunately, for this to be possible, the mechanisms needed to do so must be strengthened significantly.

Statistics paint a grim picture of what lies ahead if meaningful cooperation is not taken soon. Honduras, the most violent country, registered 91.6 homicides per 100,000 people in 2011 — nearly triple the rate observed in 2004, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. In El Salvador, a March 2012 truce between two notorious gangshas reportedly halved the daily death toll, which stood at 69.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2011. But the fragile accord leaves the door open for a return to high homicide rates should gang leaders decide the truce is not serving their interests. Following its southern neighbors, Guatemala — generally the last stop for illicit drugs before reaching Mexico and then the United States — registered a rate of 38.5 homicides per 100,000 people last year. Even Costa Rica, a bastion of stability and economic development in the region, saw its murder rate climb to 11.3 per 100,000 people by 2010, a 60 percent jump from 2004. By comparison, the U.S. registers 4.2 homicides per 100,000.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the violence. In El Salvador, the bulk of the insecurity is the result of criminal gangs that take advantage of high levels of inequality and scarce jobs to recruit youths with few other options. In neighboring Guatemala, the booming narcotics and weapons trade, accompanied by the arrival of notorious Mexican gangs such as the Zetas, led Guatemalans to elect President Otto Pérez Molina on the promise that he would take an iron fist (“mano dura”) approach to the narcotraffickers. In Honduras, the 2009 coup that deposed President Manuel Zelayahas exacerbated the country’s insecurity and weak rule of law.

Still, while country-specific solutions are needed, the region must also find better ways to develop and implement crossborder strategies. Without a comprehensive approach, one country’s success will likely mean greater violence for its neighbors.

The only regional institution currently set up to encourage dialogue and joint action is the Central American Integration System (SICA). The group is often maligned, and its recent presidential summit — which included the heads of state of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic — shows why.

Despite meeting under the slogan “Everyone’s Fight: The New Security Approach in Central America,” the eight leaders made little progress with regard to the 20-plus citizen security and law enforcement projects agreed to at the July 2011 summit. (They did manage to sign a comprehensive association agreement with the European Union.) Instead, according to El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, the leaders agreed to be “more expeditious, more aggressive in acquiring funds in order to succeed in financing the regional strategy” to fight crime.

Funding has been a major challenge for SICA since its creation in 1991. Nevertheless, multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and efforts by individual governments, such as the United States’ Central America Regional Security Initiative, stand ready to support regional security plans. Already, a combined $2.5 billion has been offered to help finance the projects agreed to last year. While securing pledged funds is always a challenge, the larger question is how to set up a regional mechanism to manage project implementation. Once that happens, the money will likely be there.

SICA is the logical choice for this role. But its history of inaction and infighting — not to mention its weak organizational structure — casts doubt on whether in its current form SICA has the institutional legitimacy to effectively manage a regional security plan.

That problematic history of infighting was yet again demonstrated following this year’s presidential summit, when Costa Rica announced it would not participate in “some political forums” while Nicaragua holds SICA’s rotating six-month presidency. The decision — made in protest of a border ruling by the Central American Court of Justice  — was the latest volley in the two countries’ still-simmering conflict over the disputed San Juan River region. But Costa Rica’s action further weakens SICA and indirectly undermines the region’s growing — and much-welcome — sentiment that a more multilateral response to crime is needed.

Rather than get sidetracked by intraregional conflicts, the focus should be on developing a stronger regional partnership that harnesses national-level security and violence-prevention efforts. This must involve both political leaders and the growing number of reform-minded, progressive business leaders who are ready and willing to develop public-private partnerships that address some of the root causes of crime: inequality, worker training, unemployment and unstable home environments, among others. Unlike governments, businesses see no borders. But they do recognize that creating a more secure environment is fundamental to foreign investment.

Cooperation won’t be easy. Given SICA’s tainted reputation, stakeholders are understandably wary about working with it. But for Central America to move forward in reducing insecurity, governments can no longer be content with issuing grand regional plans at regional summits and expecting them to move forward through pure inertia.

Instead, the door should be open to the business community — and civil society — to participate at a regional level in developing and implementing business-relevant security plans. Security is of course a public-sector responsibility. But addressing the underlying challenges that give rise to violence means working with business leaders through a formal mechanism during regional meetings. The private sector may not hold SICA in high regard, but for now it is the only game in town, and their participation in its meetings may just produce the concrete results that Central America requires.

Not only will private sector participation add greater transparency and credibility and put more pressure on governments to act, it will facilitate the crossborder solutions the region needs.

Jason Marczak is director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas and senior editor of Americas Quarterly.

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COHA – Bolivia Dares Western Globalization

This  analysis was prepared by Roberta Bruno, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

July 2, 2012

On May 1, Bolivian President Evo Morales ordered the military to seize the Transportadora de Electricidad S.A. (TDE), a private firm that controls 74 percent of the total electrical transmission lines in the country. A subsidiary of a Spanish firm, Red Eléctrica Internacional (REI), owned an estimated 99.4 percent of TDE’s shares before the nationalization. This move is meant to advance the Bolivian government’s economic independence, protecting critical production from foreign influence.

Exerting control over natural resources is nothing new in Latin America, particularly in Bolivia. Since his election in 2006, President Morales has nationalized a number of industries, such as those related to hydrocarbon operations and telecommunications, in order to generate public revenues. However, Morales’ nationalization policy appears to be just another component of the populist approach that has defined his presidency. Many analysts agree that the May 1 announcement was necessary for Morales to restore his declining popularity, underscored by continued protests against his latest project, the Amazon highway through the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory. Morales’ support of the highway, which indigenous groups claim will cause irreversible environmental and social damage, has caused many to question his convictions.

In May 2010 alone, Morales expropriated four energy utilities. TDE spent $81 million USD over a 16-year period, only to be accused by the Bolivian government of not investing enough money in the grid. Even though REE represents only 1.5 percent of the market, the symbolic move to nationalize this industry has tainted Bolivia’s reputation among financial investors.

While it seems logical to assume that Morales’ expropriation of energy utilities is meant to secure his presidential reelection in 2014, there are other motivations to consider.

Bolivian Electrical Market: Privatization and Deregulation

In 1994, the Bolivian Plurinational Legislative Assembly approved the Ley de Electricidad, privatizing the state-owned electrical utility managed by Empresa Nacional de Electricidad (ENDE), with the main purpose of stimulating competition. The legislation unbundled production, transmission, and distribution responsibilities by forbidding any single entity to operate in more than one of these areas. After deregulation, TDE was immediately purchased by REI, a subsidiary of the Spanish Red Electrica Española conglomerate.   According to research conducted by Observatorio de Multinacionales en América Latina, liberalization of the sector has been characterized by three noteworthy flaws. Firstly, the regulatory body monitoring incipient electrical companies in Bolivia has fined TDE several times, accusing them of “acting with carelessness, abandonment, [and] neglect … ignoring warnings or precautions in their management of transmission lines.[1] Secondly, Morales has publicly approved of TDE as private owner/operator of transmission lines in Bolivia only as a transitional phase, planning to exploit private investment for a determined time before carrying on with nationalization.[2] Lastly, public funds have played a key role in the extension and development of the power grid in Bolivia, while private investment promised by corporations has failed. Contrary to the desires of those who composed the Ley de Electricidad, privatization was unable to stimulate the level of competition necessary to yield universal access to electricity at affordable prices, and thus interventions by the Bolivian state were necessary to sustain power’s generation and transmission.[3]

A Global Perspective: Inversion of Economic Orthodoxy

The nationalization of TDE fits into the global trend of growing concerns about the capitalist financial system. It is no coincidence that a Spanish company was targeted for takeover. While European countries are struggling to stay afloat under the onerous burdens of austerity, and emerging economies are vying to take advantage of the precariousness of the situation, the global economic equilibrium is in flux. The financial crisis has diminished confidence in capitalist formulations as a consequence of financial crisis, opening the door for Latin America’s brand of hybrid model, known as social capitalism. Argentina’s nationalization of YPF is a concrete example of this. Like Argentina, Bolivia is well aware of its abundance of natural resources, and maintains what could amount to an enormous competitive advantage in the face of the depressed economies of the West.

With every passing year, Latin American countries become more self-confident as their leaders strike new paths and shirk old ones by proposing a kind of hybrid model, halfway between free-market and state-owned enterprise. Latin American countries are showing a willingness to exert pressure on the economic and political order, while in the past they showed more caution and hesitancy. However, while regional responses to the current global economic crisis lean towards a rejection of orthodox economic models, is protectionism expected to rise again?

The nationalization of TDE should be considered from two different perspectives: first, the domestic micro-level impact of the policies enacted by the Morales’ administration. Morales is a charismatic leader, but he has consistently resorted to populist moves to maintain his popularity. While this element was likely part of Morales’ calculation, the nationalization of TDE could also be read as a strategic move against calls for increased deregulation and austerity coming from Western financial institutions.

From the second perspective, boom-and-bust cycles plague commodity and labor markets. Developed economies try to leverage comparative advantages through economic integration and by exploiting human and natural resources of poorer countries. But developing countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, are becoming increasingly aware of their potential for growth and their evolving status as major competitors in international markets. It is unclear if TDE’s nationalization means Bolivia has chosen to follow a new road to economic recovery through an economic development based on natural resources, or whether they are merely snubbing Western investors. However, Morales’ policy provides important insights into current developments within Latin America’s economic and political institutions.

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COHA – Urban Violence in Venezuela

This analysis was prepared by Sarah Slater, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

July 6, 2012

Over the past thirteen years the number of crimes in Venezuela has grown at an astounding rate, making the Bolivarian Republic one of the most violent and dangerous places in the world. The U.S. State Department and Venezuela’s interior minister estimate that murders occur at a rate of approximately 65 per 100,000 people, while some independent calculations suggest that the figure actually approaches 70.(1,2) Venezuela now claims the unfortunate distinction of having the third highest murder rate in the Americas, following Honduras and El Salvador.(3) Just within the past year, according to Interior Minister Tareck el Aissami, the number of homicides increased from 14,500 to almost 19,000.(4) Firearms constitute the weapon of choice in about 90 percent of the murders, a figure suggestive of both the illegal proliferation of firearms and the culture of violence that has developed.(5) The Economist reports that Venezuela’s kidnapping rates surpass both México and Colombia with over 3,000 incidents each year.(6) This statistic, though, likely does not reflect the reality of the situation as many homicides and kidnappings are never reported. Venezuelan authorities struggle to control the violence, largely centered in the nation’s capital and on the Colombian border, while many government officials have engaged in criminal activities.


Effects of the Violence

As a result of the alarmingly high number of homicides, Venezuela has fallen into what the United Nations calls the “violence trap” evidenced by public loss of trust in state police forces, proliferation of private security, and an overwhelmed and inefficient judicial system. An extraordinary murder rate of 108 per 100,000 has rendered Caracas, the nation’s capital, an extremely violent and dangerous city.(7,8) As a result of widespread perception of citizen insecurity, the private security industry has exploded as Venezuelans increasingly take personal safety into their own hands. Correspondingly, gun sales have grown exponentially over the past several years. The constant threat of violence is taking a devastating toll on civil society. Venezuelans have lost public space in which they can debate, express concerns, or even gather recreationally.(9)

In poorer neighborhoods, where most of the violence occurs, the problem becomes self-perpetuating. As crime occurs, ill-equipped Venezuelan security forces respond, leading to more clashes. Over time the government inevitably loses control and criminals face no liability for their actions. Libertador, a municipality within the capital presents a perfect example of this tragic phenomenon. The number of homicides in Libertador, the most violent area of Caracas, jumped by 64 percent in just a year, closing out 2011 with a rate of 133 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.(10) Insight Crime reports that Enero 23, one of Libertador’s most violent neighborhoods, in effect has become a “micro-state” run by about 300 armed paramilitaries who operate entirely outside of the government’s purview.(11) These bands of heavily armed men (also known as colectivos) take over impoverished neighborhoods like Enero 23 and attack opposition groups, often with the complicity and financial support of the government.

The dismal state of the Venezuelan penal systems further undermines any potential legitimacy of the police and the judicial system. The Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP), reports that over 48,600 inmates have overwhelmed the nation’s prison system, which operates with capacity of only 15,000.(12) What results is a situation not unlike that of Enero 23. According to the State Department’s Human Rights Report for 2011, the severe overcrowding has led to “harsh conditions due to poorly trained and allegedly corrupt prison staff as well as violence and alleged extortion by guards and inmates, some gang-related and fueled by trafficking in arms and drugs.”(13) The panes, or gang leaders, oversee drug and firearms exchanges, making prisons among the most dangerous locations in the country. In 2011 alone, over 560 prisoners died as a result of unsanitary conditions, violence, and riots.(14)

The infamous Rodeo de la planta, a conflict that started with a fight between two heavily armed prison gangs, quickly erupted into a 27-day battle between police and the inmates of the La Planta prison last June. At one point, 4,000 members of the National Guard attempted to storm the prison, but only managed to remove about 2,500 inmates while the remaining 2,000 locked themselves inside.(15) In the end 34 inmates died and 87 escaped, including one of the gang leaders and 26 of his closest followers.(16)

Probable Causes

Obviously, there is no single answer to why crime has become so pervasive in Venezuelan society; however, one can point to number of structural, institutional, and political sources of instability. With 93 percent of Venezuelans living in cities and a sizable proportion of that population residing in the few largest metropolitan areas, a number of infrastructural and social problems inevitably arise, particularly in poor and overcrowded sectors.(17) Vast differences in wealth magnify these issues and create tension. Structural analysis, however, only goes so far. As Roberto Briceño-Leon, a sociologist at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, notes, traditional economic indicators that tend to mirror crime rates do not reflect the situation in Venezuela. The country’s, literacy and employment rates have risen while its Gini coefficient (a common measure income distribution) has fallen, demonstrating growing equality.(18) Yet, in spite of these improvements, violent crime has grown exponentially in the past several years, suggesting that the roots of the problem reside elsewhere.

The condition of state institutions, especially in the judicial system and the police force, tells quite a different story. Generally speaking, police salaries are small and they have limited presence in critical areas, especially those governed by the opposition party.(19) Moreover, unbridled corruption plagues the police and armed forces. Even the government admits that officers may commit up to one fifth of all crimes. Unofficially, however, many sources report much higher rates.(20) Often, these crimes go unpunished, especially when high-ranking officials are the perpetrators. PROVEA, an organization dedicated to protecting human rights in Venezuela, reports that from 2010 to 2011 there were 173 deaths resulting from abuses by security forces. Very few of these instances were even reported.(21)

Inadequate staffing and funding plague the judicial system, making it difficult for prosecutors to process crimes and indict perpetrators. A shortage of judges also leads to trial delays and an overwhelmed judicial system, the ramifications of which obviously extend to the penal system. According to testimonies given before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, of the nearly 2,000 criminal complaints that an average prosecutor receives, fifty are investigated, twenty go to court, and two end in convictions.(22) Operating such constraints and pressures, the judges and prosecutors often only pursue the cases from which they can derive the most profit, leaving due process by the wayside

The violence, perhaps, also has roots in the chavista program and reflects much of the current political zeitgeist. Violent imagery and language forms an integral part of Hugo Chavez’s regime building. Chavistas, in a reflection of values, regularly portray and encourage forms violence as an essential element of the political struggle. Even a glance at Chavez’s Twitter account, which reaches over 3 million followers, reveals repeated use of impassioned and aggressive rhetoric. Therefore, though not it does not explicitly sanction this violent culture which is hardly conducive to democracy, the Chavez administration does little to prevent it. Meanwhile, the government often refrains from enforcing stricter policing methods because active use of the police and military still carries the stigma of right-wing governments. With elections fast approaching, politics increasingly polarizes the citizenry, leading to more clashes in the past year than ever before. Studies indicate that political instability has risen while rule of law, government effectiveness, voice, and accountability have decreased significantly.(23) These indicators echo the findings of the 2011 UN global study on homicide, which states, “the biggest changes in homicide rates occur in countries with a relatively weak rule of law.”(24) The connection between chavista politics and violence becomes even more difficult to ignore considering that the largest increases in crime have occurred over the past thirteen years, roughly the length of Chavez’s presidency.

Corrective Action

While the Chavez government has begun to publicly recognize the problem, its corrective measures have taken the form of words more often than action. Iris Varela, the head of a newly established ministry of penitentiary services, announced proposals to alleviate overcrowding and violence in prisons last year.(25) These reforms, however, never came to full fruition. More recently, the government instituted a new round of reforms, the effectiveness of which should become clear in the next several months. These included restrictions on arms, limitations on the number available to police forces and a ban on privately owned guns with the aim of disarming citizens. Now, only pre-approved groups can purchase firearms through the government vendor.(26) Chavez has also made several efforts at judicial reform by adapting the Penal Processing Code to Venezuela’s “current reality.” His alterations, he explained, will involve the installation of various municipal tribunals.(27) The success or failure of such amendments, of course, hinges on Chavez’s health and the results of the upcoming election.

Electoral Implications

As the November elections approach, violence and crime have inevitably become subjects of public debate and a central issue for both candidates’ campaign platforms. Each campaign manipulates the problem to capture votes.] On one hand, the government plays violence off as the opposition’s attempts at destabilization. Meanwhile, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the formidable opposition candidate, claims that the president has patronizingly deceived the public by portraying the violence as a global issue rather than an exclusively Venezuelan one.

Both candidates, in order to demonstrate their commitment to addressing the problem, recently released their respective plans to eradicate the violence. The opposition’s Plan de Seguridad, supposedly the collaboration of 100 experts, includes the decentralization of prisons, development of respect for the autonomy of the public ministries and judicial power, and fostering education and employment opportunities. The plan will have four “bases:” increased efforts at prevention, improvements in policing, reform of the judicial system, and reform of prisons. Each “base” will have a coordinator working to address the issues within his or her category.(28) This strategy, with its emphasis on educational reform and increasing employment, has the potential to address fundamental societal problems in Venezuela in the long term if effectively executed. However, considering the extent of the institutional engagement in corruption and crime, any successful strategy must first address the pervasive culture of violence and lack of integrity within the Venezuelan State.

A Toda Vida Venezuela, Chavez’s plan, hinges on six key initiatives laid out in sometimes vague language, including the: “integrated prevention with the coexistence of solidarity,” strengthening of organizations dedicated to citizen security, creation of alternative mechanisms for conflict resolution, transformation of the penal and judicial systems, and the creation of a national system for the attention to and compensation of victims of crime. According to Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami, under these categories fall 117 programmatic actions, thirty of which the government plans to implement immediately. These reforms include the financial compensation and registration of victims as well as the creation of tribunal courts in 79 “strategic locations.”(29) Setting aside the plan’s decidedly unclear language, at this point success seems rather unlikely given the government’s role in cultivating a culture of violence. Additionally, the deplorable state of government institutions such as the police and the judiciary, both of which are characterized by pervasive corruption, undermines any notion that the government has the capability of instituting its plan. As one commentator in El Universal, a conservative news source from Caracas writes:

How could one possibly believe those who have subjected justice to plans for power? How could one believe those who tolerate a police force that presents itself uniformed in the color of a political party? … But, more than anything, how could one believe those who have permitted and tolerated that…the most grievous crimes, like homicide, go without punishment?(30)

A Toda Vida, however, addresses the results of the violence more than the causes. Some of the provisions in the plan, particularly when it comes to the financial compensation of victims, arouse suspicion and seem like an effort to buy silence and votes in anticipation of the election. And, if the distribution of the planned municipal tribunals is at all similar to that of the police, it is unlikely that opposition party strongholds will see many of those courts. Additionally, that this plan comes as the latest in a series of failed government strategies further undermines any potential legitimacy, especially because the problem has only worsened as the government has taken steps toward corrective action.

Though the crime rate has become the primary issue at stake in the Venezuelan elections, it is not yet clear how the violence and the candidates’ plans to address it will ultimately affect the results, especially with Hugo Chavez’s health in question. Citizen perceptions of government measures to eradicate the problem, and their effectiveness, fall primarily along previously drawn party lines. Chavistas align strongly in favor of the government while the opposition views the government program with suspicion. Currently unaligned voters, then, will inevitably constitute the deciding bloc in the election.

The election notwithstanding, controlling the crime rate at present obviously constitutes the single greatest challenge to Venezuelan civil society. Even though the government has made some positive strides forward–particularly with the recent bans on private arms sales that, if enforced, could eliminate the weapon of choice in most homicides–the task of making Venezuela safe again requires strong corrective action and reform in politics, police forces, the judiciary, and the penal system. The Venezuelan state must make an effort to eliminate corruption and increase accountability among officials. These changes depend on a shift in culture, both within the judiciary and throughout society, such that neither group accepts violence and extortion as tools for conflict resolution. To avoid more issues like Rodeo de la planta and Enero 23, the government must improve police training, although neither candidate includes this measure in his plan.

Hanging in the balance are development, innovation, and the possibility for the economic and social advancement of everyday Venezuelans whose potential is stymied by the torrent of violence that invades their daily lives. More importantly, the current institutional state of affairs and rampant crime that corrodes all aspects of society constitutes a grievous, though less numerically quantifiable, human rights crisis. Citizens can no longer peacefully go about their business with the simple assurance that they will live to see the days end. Leaving the house becomes a leap of faith and the only people able to ensure their personal safety are those who can afford private security. Some of Chevez’s foes insist that politicization of the violence and fear of reprisal for speaking out inevitably curbs free speech and assembly as people, trying to protect themselves and their families, avoid expressing themselves openly and reporting crimes. Corruption and inefficiency on the part of the state, meanwhile, leaves law-abiding citizens with no recourse for addressing grievances, be they petty crimes or homicide. Most importantly, each homicide and kidnapping indicates a violation of the most fundamental component of human rights: the right to life.

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This analysis was supported by the Clough Center for Constitutional Democracy, Boston College.

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La Nacion – Brasileño PSDB irá a la justicia contra suspensión de Paraguay del Mercosur

El opositor Partido de la Social Democracia Brasileña (PSDB) presentará ante la justicia de su país una acción legal contra la decisión del Mercosur de suspender a Paraguay y aceptar el ingreso de Venezuela, dijo el viernes el senador Alvaro Dias, ex gobernador del Estado de Paraná, fronterizo con Paraguay.

“Fue una decisión ilegal y el PSDB planteará a la Suprema Corte Federal de Brasil una inconstitucionalidad”, dijo Dias a periodistas poco después de entrevistarse con las autoridades paraguayas en Asunción. Dias se entrevistó con el presidente Federico Franco y con los líderes de las distintas bancadas de senadores del Congreso, a quienes llevó el reconocimiento de su partido, en tanto manifestó que la destitución del presidente Fernando Lugo el 22 de junio vía juicio político por el Congreso “se ajustó estrictamente a la constitución”. “El parlamento adoptó sus normas para el juicio político. Las circunstancias exigieron la celeridad para el juicio y eso tenemos que respetar”, dijo el senador brasileño. “Es más”, agregó. “El mismo presidente destituido aceptó entregar el poder y la Corte Suprema de Justicia de Paraguay validó el proceso de juicio, que fue transparente. Por eso nosotros creemos que la represalia en el Mercosur es una afrenta a la soberanía paraguaya” enfatizó. “Cada nación debe decidir sobre su destino y el Congreso es su representación más popular”, precisó el parlamentario. Los socios de Paraguay en el Mercosur (Argentina, Brasil y Uruguay) resolvieron hace una semana suspender a este país del bloque regional hasta las elecciones de abril de 2013, en respuesta a la destitución de Lugo. Simultáneamente, aprobaron el ingreso de Venezuela como miembro pleno, que estaba impedido debido a que el Congreso paraguayo era el único que aun no lo había ratificado. La Unión Suramericana de Naciones (Unasur) también suspendió a Paraguay del mecanismo regional hasta las elecciones de abril del año que viene. De acuerdo con el Tratado de Asunción, fundacional del Mercosur, el ingreso de nuevos miembros debe ser aprobado por los cuatro socios.

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