Somewhere in their discussions of trade-facilitating measures, energy integration, and border infrastructures, the three North American leaders found time in their summit Wednesday for the butterflies.
Flanked by US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced at the conclusion of the trilateral meeting here that the countries agreed to set up a task force to devise a plan for saving the continent’s endangered migration of monarch butterflies.
“We have agreed to conserve the monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,” Mr. Peña Nieto said.
To those watching for concrete results from Wednesday’s summit, an announcement about butterfly conservation may have seemed symbolic of a meeting that offered few tangible results. If anything, the headlines out of Toluca – at least for the American press – were more about Mr. Obama’s warnings to Ukraine’s leaders about the repressive violence engulfing the country, and his swipes at Russian President Vladimir Putin over Russia’s support for anti-democratic regimes like Syria.
But for scientists and environmental advocates who have pressed for urgent action to address the continent’s precipitously dwindling monarch populations, the announcement was welcome news.
“Today’s pledge gives us renewed hope that we can save the monarch migration for centuries to come,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund, in a statement.
It is not just appropriate but necessary, scientists say, that a campaign to preserve the monarchs’ 2,500-mile-long migration from the American Midwest and parts of Canada to wintering sites in Mexico be a trilateral effort. Any successful plan for conserving the monarch migration will have to include habitat-retention plans and a change in agricultural practices in all three countries, they say.
It will also have to cover every phase of the monarch’s annual cycle, which includes migration, hibernation, feeding, and rest.
Yet despite Peña Nieto’s announcement, few details were offered about the planned task force. Moreover, the absence of the new working group from a fact sheet of summit “deliverables” the White House issued Wednesday night casts doubt on the amount of attention the US intends to put on the issue.
The White House list did include several steps taken at the summit that, if actually fulfilled, would add new elements to the gradual economic integration of the continent that began 20 years ago with the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Those steps include a plan for a North American “trusted traveler” program to allow vetted citizens to travel more easily among the three countries; an increase in student exchanges to help foster a North American “21st century workforce;” and various border infrastructure and customs initiatives to bring NAFTA up to date.
By leaving the monarchs task force off the “summit deliverables” list, the White House only raised questions about its interest in the initiative.
• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
[Yesterday's] protest and speech by Leopoldo López was covered live by television news channel Globovisión. At least in part. Globovisión split their screen so that they could transmit the opposition protest and government march at the same time and also cut away from the speech before López was done.
This, however, was a significant improvement over media coverage of the violence during the Feb.12 march (see David’s comments in the Financial Times).
That day when the student’s protests turned increasingly violent, private television stations stopped their live coverage of the incidents. Globovisión, the news channel that used to be considered the main pro-opposition media but is now owned by a business group said to be close to the government, had initially given ample – but not live – coverage to the protests. But as soon as violence erupted in the afternoon, they switched to a fashion program.
Public television channels did not cover any of the opposition protests, concentrating instead on a government organized patriotic youth march commemorating the anniversary of La Victoria battle of the war of independence.
People with access to cable television services turned to the Colombia-based news channel NTN24 for live coverage of the incidents. As violence erupted, the channel broadcasted videos reportedly filmed by protestors showing Venezuelan police officers firing on protestors. The government ordered cable providers to take NTN24 out of their grids. Viewers reported by twitter that by leaving the channel on it could still be viewed in Venezuela, but as soon as it was changed or the cable set turned off and on again, the image was lost. The web page of the channel was also blocked from access in Venezuela. But it was available live on Youtube.com.
President Nicolás Maduro justified the censuring measure declaring: “a television channel [NTN24] that is trying to compete with Telesur [Venezuelan government backed Latin American news television channel], attempted to broadcast the chaos of a coup d’état…I had to defend Venezuela’s peace.” He also scolded Agence France-Presse news service for using local reporters to “harm the truth about Venezuela.”
The president of the government’s media control agency CONATEL, William Castillo, also warned via twitter against international coverage of the protests: “We call upon the international media to respect the Venezuelan people. The promotion of violence and the lack of recognition of authorities is a crime [in Venezuela].”
On the evening of Feb. 13, Twitter users in Venezuela reported that they were unable to upload images and videos to their accounts. Social media networks such as Twitter had been used during the day to upload images of the protests. International news agencies claimed that the Venezuelan government had, through its web provider CANTV, blocked the service to the country. But in contrast to the way President Maduro assumed responsibility for censuring NTN24, CANTV quickly denied the accusations.
Commentators have compared the Feb. 12 coverage to the television blackout of April 12 - 13 of 2002. After the coup against former President Hugo Chávez on that date, Television stations chose to broadcast cartoons instead of covering live the popular protests and military realignments and movements that eventually brought Mr. Chávez back to power.
Paradoxically that 2002 case of concerted information blackout by the media has been repeatedly used by the Venezuelan government as an argument for the need to closely control private media. Furthermore, pro-government analysts have justified the recent censorship precisely in order to preclude a repetition of the 2002 coup.
Before last week’s student protests, Maduro warned that private television channels were fueling criminal violence by broadcasting programs that carried “anti-values of capitalism.” He added that the new Pacification Plan would include measures to purge that “culture of violence” from the media.
On the days before the Feb. 12 protests and the media blackout, tensions seemed to have been building up inside Globovisión. On Feb. 11 for example, a long-time lead reporter of the channel, José Vicente Antonetti, announced that his daily program Primera Plana had been canceled and that he had therefore been de facto sacked from Globovisión.
Then on Feb. 13, during the protests, the channel’s information coordinator Cecilia Colmenares quit her job because of her disagreement over the editorial line and the lack of coverage of the events. Another Globovisión reporter, Betriz Adrián, tweeted during the day: “several of the reporters asked that [Globovisión] broadcast what was happening in both events [government acts and opposition protests]. But it was impossible.” According to El Universal popular journalists and news anchors such as Leopoldo Castillo, Carla Angola, “Kiko” Bautista, Gladys Rodríguez, and Roman Lozinski have quit the channel because of changes in its editorial line.
On Feb. 15, several journalist organizations held a meeting in which they analyzed the situation and called for unity among journalists and a renewed push to provide independent coverage.
On Feb. 16 Globovisión responded to criticisms with a statement claiming objectivity and neutrality in its news coverage and adding: “We disagree with the use of broadcast media as an instrument for agitation, propaganda, or confrontation, and with its use as a weapon to attack the well being of the nation or to alter the social stability of the country.”
Pressures regarding news coverage have also affected print media. Journalists at Venezuela’s largest daily newspaper Últimas Noticias were upset on Feb. 13 when UN did not give front page coverage to the deaths of three students. However, on Sunday, Ultimas Noticias published on its web page a very detailed report describing and analyzing internet videos and pictures of the protests and the violence in downtown Caracas on Feb. 12.
The analysis seems to corroborate denunciations of police officers from the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia (SEBIN) and non-uniformed motorcyclists firing at students with hand guns. On a national cadena, broadcast that airs on all channels, on Feb. 16, Maduro acknowledged that a group of SEBIN officers did fire at protestors. He suggested that they had not remained in their barracks as ordered.
– David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
In a new move to help repair its international reputation, Argentina released a revised inflation index yesterday evening after longstanding criticism that it was fudging official statistics.
Economists welcomed the amended index. But the high figure for January – a month when the government devalued the peso by 19 percent – also triggered concern: Prices soared by 3.7 percent from the month prior, officials said, the highest rate of inflation in nearly 12 years.
“Good news,” Martín Lousteau, a former economy minister who is now an opposition politician, said on Twitter. “The government has recognized the problem. Bad news: prices are increasing at an annual rate equivalent to 55 percent.”
With the government hemorrhaging foreign currency reserves, revising this data is key to its efforts to regain access to global financial markets from which it has been locked out since a $95 billion default in 2001.
Debate over the inflation rate has long raged here, with critics of the government repeatedly attacking officials for under-reporting rising prices. Most notably, the national statistics institute, INDEC, released figures in 2012 that implied a person could eat for six pesos a day, a marker that was widely ridiculed by critics. (Back then, six pesos, or about $1.35, would have bought a couple of alfajores, a traditional Argentine sweet.)
Critics also pointed to the irony of a giant banner draped at the time from the institute’s offices in downtown Buenos Aires that read “Clarín lies,” a reference to the antigovernment Clarín media group.
The institute became discredited in early 2007 (a time when President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, was still in power) after Guillermo Moreno, the gruff former domestic trade secretary, overhauled its senior staff and meddled with the inflation index.
INDEC said inflation was just 10.9 percent last year. But a separate index published by opposition politicians said the rate exceeded 28 percent. This alternative index also put the January 2014 rate at 4.6 percent, considerably higher than the government’s 3.7 percent. The higher rate was branded a “joke” yesterday by Jorge Capitanich, the cabinet chief.
The International Monetary Fund has called on Argentina to improve its data and even censured the country a year ago for failing to comply. A spokesman for the IMF said it had taken note of the new index. Argentina is also due to revise its growth figures next month. A recession is likely to occur this year, according to Vladimir Werning, an economist at JP Morgan.
In other moves to clean up its image, Argentina has made an offer to compensate Spain’s Repsol for the 2012 expropriation of its shares in the oil company YPF; settled investment disputes at the World Bank; and re-opened negotiations with the informal Paris Club of nations over a $10 billion debt.
With prices spiking after the devaluation last month, and inflation estimated to be 45 percent this year, according to Mr. Werning, the government is also trying to confront what it calls “speculative attacks” by retailers and suppliers. It is investing large amounts of political capital in a campaign for its latest round of supermarket price freezes.
Posters were even pasted across Buenos Aires by a pro-government umbrella organization, showing pictures of the heads of leading supermarket and electronic chains. They read: “These are the ones that steal your salary.”
After over a year adrift at sea, castaway José Salvador Alvarenga returned home to El Salvador this week.
The man who says he drifted some 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean landed last night at an airport outside San Salvador, where he was brought off the plane in a wheel chair and met by family, reporters, and fanfare. Weak, and seemingly overwhelmed, Mr. Alvarenga grasped a microphone but was unable to speak, putting his hands over his face.
“I’m so happy to know he’s alive, that he returned. I want to give him a hug,” Emma Alvarenga, an aunt, told the National Post.
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Alvarenga washed ashore on an atoll in the Marhsall Islands late last month, and his story of survival has raised eyebrows. He said he survived on raw fish, turtles, and sometimes his own urine for 13 months. So far, some details of his story have been corroborated by reports from Mexican civil defense officials, who described a fishing boat having gone missing around the same time Alvarenga said he left from a coastal village in southern Chiapas. Though Salvadoran, Alvarenga had been living in Mexico as a fisherman for years.
Alvarenga and a companion, Ezequiel Cordoba, set out fishing and were swept away by bad weather, he said. The engines on their boat died and the radio broke.
Despite the attention this story has garnered internationally, it’s not the first time a Mexican fishing boat has gone missing for months – and delivered an incredible tale of survival.
In 2005, five men on a shark-fishing expedition went missing at sea for nine months. The three survivors were picked up by a Taiwanese tuna trawler that had set out from the Marshall Islands two weeks prior.
“When the panga [small fishing boat] and the trawler converged, they were six hundred miles from Majuro [the capital of the Marshall Islands], twenty-seven hundred miles northeast of Australia, and five thousand miles from San Blas, [Mexico],” Mark Singer reported in the New Yorker.
The men left the fishing town of San Blas in southern Mexico on Oct. 28, 2005. Unexpectedly strong winds and high waves threw a wrench into their plans to catch sharks, and sent them instead searching for an expensive bait-line that had detached from the boat. The men ran out of fuel during their search, and what was supposed to be an overnight fishing trip turned into nine months. The men had no radio, cell phone, map, or GPS.
Similar to Alvarenga, the men survived on birds, fish, and sea turtles. Mr. Singer writes:
When they had consumed no food, only water, for thirteen days, a sea turtle weighing about thirty pounds showed up, swimming just off the bow. [One of the fishermen] Salvador [Ordóñez] jumped on its back and gripped its shell, which he’d learned to do in Oaxaca in his teens. The turtle suddenly dove deep, and he went along for the ride, wrestling until he had turned it toward the surface. Lucio and Jesús [two other castaways] helped him hoist the turtle into the panga. They severed a flipper; Salvador sucked its blood and passed it around. Lucio took the knife, cut off the head, and drained a dense stream of blood into a bucket for drinking. After he had removed the meat from the shell, Jesús rinsed it, and Salvador filleted it.
Lucio: “I remember we said, ‘How are we going to eat that meat?’ It’s not like a normal meal. All you can see is the meat. Pure red. I was thinking, How is it possible that I’m going to eat that? In November, we ate only two times. I’d never been hungry like that, with a desperateness that can’t be expressed. I don’t know how to explain that this is something that one feels. It’s desperateness, hunger, thirst, cold.”
When the men eventually returned to Mexico, they didn’t necessarily receive a heroes’ welcome. McClatchy reports that upon their return, "some Mexicans voiced suspicions that the fishermen were drug traffickers and had disappeared for months to avoid criminal charges.”
The accusations didn’t quiet down until the Roman Catholic Episcopal Council of bishops dubbed the survivors “examples of faith.”
There were few public accusations that Alvarenga and his fishing companion were mixed up in drug trafficking, and there was no trace of drugs in the boat, reports The Telegraph.
However, as Erik Vance wrote in Slate in December, it is quite common for fishermen to get looped into drug trafficking.
“In this area [Sonora, Mexico], it’s not blood in, blood out. Cartels have porous edges, where people drop in when they need the money and get out as fast as possible. And we are not talking about characters from Breaking Bad here – these are poor fishermen with no other choice. And mostly they hate it,” wrote Mr. Vance, a science journalist who went to Sonora to research the demise of a number of important ocean creatures.
I was in a relatively quiet part of Mexico in terms of violence but one that is nonetheless a crucial stopover for drugs going north. To states like California, where I’m from. My reporting partner—a photographer named Dominic Bracco who’s spent his share of time amid drug violence—and I always thought it was funny that people in the area seemed incredulous that we were actually reporting about fish. Oh right, sure, “fish.” We have a lot of “fish” here....
Fishermen are great mules because they know the waters and they don’t draw attention. And if you have to chuck your haul overboard to avoid the military, other fishermen can dive to retrieve it.
Alvarenga is expected to arrive in his hometown after he gets an OK from his doctors. In the fishing village of Garita Palmera, 60 miles west of the capital San Salvador, his parents and daughter – whom he hasn’t seen for 13 years – are anticipating his arrival.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.
Flamengo is a picturesque middle-class neighborhood in Rio that sits on the Guanabara Bay with tree-lined streets and upscale apartment buildings. There's a big park on the water filled with joggers and bikers, and soccer games going on at all hours of the day and night. In this area, you can catch breathtaking views of the bay and Sugarloaf Mountain, and Corovado looming above the water. But on Jan. 31, a Flamengo resident came upon a completely unexpected sight in this neighborhood – a sight that sparked national furor. It was a young black man stripped naked, beaten, and chained to a post with a bike lock around his neck.
It wasn't only shocking, but it brought to mind the type of scene you'd see during the slavery age. And like the rolezinhos, the incident represents a perfect storm related to issues of race, class, and security.
Slowly, details emerged about the incident. The young man is only 15 years old. According to Folha, he said that a group of 30 men, some of whom were on motorcycles and one of whom was armed, surrounded him and three other young men. Two [of the young men] got away, but he and the other man were beaten; he said the men threatened to kill him. The young man is from an impoverished part of the city's West Zone, and claims he was kicked out of his house, where he was living with his mother, by the militias, or armed paramilitary-like groups that emerged as vigilantes and as criminals in their own right. He said he's been homeless and has been living on the streets and in a shelter. He's been arrested three times for robbery, reports G1.
The woman who found him, who happens to work with at-risk kids, called the fire department to have the young man freed; he was later taken to the hospital. She took a photo of the young man and shared it on Facebook to denounce the incident. But some of the reactions were undeniable: they praised the people who did this, saying the man deserved it. And some people directed their wrath toward her, leading her to close her personal Facebook account.
Reports emerged about a group of middle-class vigilantes who were responsible for the incident. Around 14 people were detained by police. They denied being part of the "Justiceiros," a vigilante group operating in Flamengo and other middle class neighborhoods in the city to "take justice into their own hands." The group is also suspected of beating two young men in another part of the city. The suspects were all freed by police.
O Dia reports that these kind of vigilante incidents have become "routine" and cited two other incidents of alleged thieves getting chased and beaten in Copacabana and Centro in the last two weeks. In Centro, a policeman told the paper, it's common for suspects to be apprehended by civilians before they're turned over to police.*
The reactions were divided among those who denounced the incident and those who defended the vigilantes. "The first victim of a vigilante is the democratic idea of justice. Any justifiable pretense is an inherent shortcut to barbarity," wrote the Rio state attorney general on Twitter.
Similarly, Átila Roque, the executive director of Amnesty International Brasil, said that Rio cannot tolerate vigilantes at the risk of creating more violence. "It's another sign of how much we can sink as a society when public institutions are unable to respond to the state of social emergency in which we live," he said.
On the other hand, there were those who came to the defense of the vigilantes. Controversial pundit Rachel Sheherazade initially praised the vigilantes, saying they acted in "legitimate collective defense" against "an endless state of violence." Later, facing criticism, she backpedaled, saying she is against violence. But her supporters continued to stand up for her, including infamous evangelical pastor Pastor Silas Malafaia, who wrote on Twitter that Sherazade "defends Christian values."
The incident also saw support from some in the Flamengo area. After a shoot-out in neighboring Botafogo this week, passers-by who saw suspects getting arrested shouted "Chain them up!"
What does it mean?
It's important to understand both views on the incident, because it encompasses a much larger issue about vigilantism in a country that continues to struggle with crime, impunity, and rule of law.
Let's start on the local level. In Flamengo, muggings more than doubled from 2012 to 2013. Just last week, a cyclist was stabbed during a mugging in Flamengo's Aterro park, even though it was full of people. In Rio, crime is on the rise after a period of improvements. In the first nine months of 2013, muggings went up 15 percent, and after three years of a decline in homicides, murders are on the uptick. In the first ten months of last year, the number of shooting victims rose 27 percent. This week, a man was executed in broad daylight in Rio's gritty Belford Roxo area, and in the city's working class North Zone, a hospital experienced a mass mugging as ten armed gunmen robbed patients and staff alike. And believe it or not, it's the second time in a month that this hospital has been robbed in this manner.
There's also the anger that comes from getting robbed in a country where the tax burden is over 36 percent of GDP, where taxes mean many consumer goods are prohibitively expensive, and where a rising cost of living continues to erode salaries both for the working and middle classes. In a country where a professional can spend a month's salary on a smartphone, it's no wonder there's a lot to lose in a mugging.
Finally, there's the issue of the criminal and judicial system. With tenuous rule of law, an inefficient and corrupt police force, and a slow and problematic criminal justice system, some Brazilians just want to see swift results because they've come to expect failures by the state. Also, because minors under 18 cannot be tried as adults, they won't go to prison even if they commit serious crimes like murder. And even if an adult commits murder, he's unlikely to go to prison: less than 10 percent of homicides in Brazil end in an arrest. Impunity is too often the rule rather than the exception, and when crimes do get solved, the court cases can drag on for years, even a decade.
If you ask Brazilians if they've experienced vigilantism, they may be cautious in revealing details, but it's an issue that touches people across the socioeconomic spectrum and across the country, whether they have seen it, heard about it, or even been a part of it. Whether it's chasing after a thief, hunting down a suspect, or seeing a criminal nearly getting lynched by a crowd, you'll find examples even in the country's biggest cities. In fact, an erroneous report was circulating on social media this week of a second incident of a youth getting stripped and chained to a post, this time in Botafogo. This event actually took place in 2010, so this week's incident isn't a first. And while the Flamengo ocurrence may not be rate, it was exceptionally brazen and unusually cruel.
Beyond these factors, Brazil has a long history of vigilantes, particularly in the country's Northeast, an area traditionally run by strongmen in a feudalistic manner. It was something of the Wild West, and outlaws like Lampião and Maria Bonita who robbed and killed in defiance of the powerful landowners have become folk heroes. Where there is a lack of authority and a strong state presence, Brazilians have created their own form of justice. Even today, Rio's criminal groups, be it the drug traffickers or militias, continue to fill a power vacuum, acting as judge and executioner in the areas they control.
Incidents like this one may be shocking, but they''ll continue to happen until Brazilians not only trust the police to do their job, but also trust the country's institutions to bring criminals to justice.
Guatemala has had an extraordinary string of incompetent, bungling attorney generals who had turned a near blind eye to rampant corruption.
So when Claudia Paz y Paz came to office at the end of 2010, hopes were muted. Paz y Paz, who is the nation’s first female attorney general, far surpassed those hopes. Civic and human rights advocates around the hemisphere have hailed the strides she’s made on fighting organized crime, political corruption, and human rights abuses.
Precisely because of those strides, a decision by the nation’s Constitutional Court to cut short Paz y Paz’s four-year mandate by nearly six months has triggered some alarm bells. If the decision is carried out, Paz y Paz would leave office in May – seven months early – and ongoing criminal investigations could be disrupted, perhaps even terminated. It’s not hard to see a dark hand behind the move.
After all, look back only a few years to see the sinister figure who became attorney general for 17 days in 2010, apparently with the support of top politicians.
Both the US State Department and the UN-organized Anti-Impunity Commission have issued statements on Paz y Paz’s possible early departure.
Here’s what an spokesperson at the State Department, who asked to remain unnamed, issued:
We have enjoyed unprecedented cooperation with Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz in Guatemala and are disappointed to learn the Constitutional Court has ruled that her term should end in May of this year. The U.S. government looks forward to continuing our excellent cooperation with her through the end of her term.
As attorney general, Paz y Paz has made incredible progress in combating corruption and organized crime, and prosecuting human rights violations in Guatemala. To make this type of substantial progress, Paz y Paz directly confronted some of the toughest issues, focusing on building a culture of lawfulness and strengthening domestic institutions, especially the Attorney General’s Office.
We will follow the upcoming attorney general nomination and selection process extremely closely. We are hopeful that, regardless if Paz y Paz decides to seek another term, whoever is selected as attorney general embodies the honesty, courage, independence, and commitment to fighting impunity that Paz y Paz has demonstrated.
The commission voiced concern that turmoil around the Constitutional Court’s ruling could impede its own lawyers’ work in helping Guatemalan prosecutors “to identify, prosecute and dismantle criminal structures.”
The views of Mexico’s economy by ordinary citizens and those living outside the country these days could hardly be more different.
Mexicans are now feeling the impact of a tax overhaul enacted late last year, and it has put them in a grumpy mood. Consumer confidence, as measured by a government index, has fallen to its lowest level in four years.
In January alone, the confidence index fell 6.2 percent and is down 15.5 percent from a year earlier.
Everyone feels the pinch of the new taxes – from the consumer buying a soft drink at the corner kiosk to the millions of Mexicans living near the US border who suddenly saw a 5 percent increase in the value-added tax.
Economists say the sour mood will have a short-term impact on sales of appliances and other durable goods as Mexicans, feeling poorer, rein in their purchases.
But over at Los Pinos and at the Finance Secretariat, government officials are giving each other high fives over a decision by Moody’s to upgrade Mexico to a coveted "A" grade sovereign rating, making Mexico only the second country in Latin America after Chile to earn such a rating.
This will help lower the country’s borrowing costs, and make Mexico more attractive to investors. Moody’s said a gamut of reforms ushered through last year by President Enrique Pena Nieto “will strengthen the country's potential growth prospects…”
“Confidence in Mexico in the world is growing and widening,” Pena Nieto said yesterday.
Now, if only confidence in Mexico by Mexicans themselves would also grow.
El Salvador's left-wing candidate, current Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, overwhelmingly beat his right-wing rival in elections yesterday, but fell a few points shy of the more than 50 percent support needed to avoid a runoff.
Mr. Sánchez Cerén, of the ruling Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN), will face his main opponent again in a March 9 runoff after winning 49 percent of votes Sunday. Norman Quijano, the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party candidate and mayor of San Salvador, came in second with 39 percent of the vote, a much wider gap than polls previously predicted.
The social programs FMLN has instituted over its five years in power, including giving milk and school supplies to children, appeared to have resonated with voters, even as the country is gripped by gang violence and high levels of insecurity, and a sluggish economy.
“This is a government that is doing something for us,” says Sara Silvia Calles, an FMLN supporter in Soyapango, outside San Salvador. “We have seen how they help the poor.”
Yet Sánchez Cerén, a former guerilla commander, is not assured a victory in the runoff election against Mr. Quijano. A third party candidate, former President Antonio Saca, may have been siphoning off votes from the right in the election yesterday.
Mr. Saca, a former president and ARENA member who ran under his newly founded Unity party, came in a distant third with just over 11 percent support. But his 300,000 voters could be crucial in a runoff, which Sánchez Cerén acknowledged during a speech to supporters late last night.
“I say to Tony Saca and to Unity,” Sánchez Cerén said, “[that] in this second round we are going to work with you ... and we are going to keep widening our alliances.”
Though Saca called Sánchez Cerén to congratulate him on his victory, it is uncertain how many of his followers would vote for the FMLN.
A tense, mud-slinging campaign gave way to organized and peaceful elections Sunday. In Soyapango, a crowded working class district east of the capital, one sports complex turned voting center had a downright festive atmosphere. Lines of voters moved briskly as music blared and a scout troop worked the crowd peddling pupusas, traditional Salvadoran stuffed tortillas.
Police and soldiers, meanwhile, kept a close eye on the site. Soyapango has long been contested territory for the country’s two largest and most dangerous gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18.
Soyapango is where these gangs took root about 20 years ago and where their presence continues to be felt heavily. Several of those voting Sunday had stories of being threatened by members of one or both groups in recent years.
But – perhaps representative of the broader electorate – voters were divided on which party offered the right solution.
Ana Luisa Mendoza, a mother of two girls who has lived in Soyapango for 35 years, says she has received hand-written notes placed under her door demanding specific sums of money and late-night phone calls.
“The terrible thing is you can't even move,” Ms. Mendoza says. “When you get to the next neighborhood the maras are there and want to know who’s in your family, where you come from."
Teresa Martinez, a 75-year-old resident, says that one of the gangs “asked me for $800 and demanded it the next day. Thank god they never came to collect it.”
Both Ms. Martinez and Mendoza say they were voting for ARENA’s Mr. Quijano, who spent much of his campaign bashing the FMLN for its role in a controversial gang truce, and has promised to deploy the army against street gangs.
Quijano’s weaker-than-expected showing on Sunday, however, suggests that focusing solely on security issues may not be enough to win him the runoff.
Martinez’s husband, construction worker Misail Mendoza, says that he, for one, is not convinced by ARENA’s stance.
An FMLN supporter, he says a Sánchez Cerén government would respond to the gangs by putting more police on the streets, and that the hardline policies of past ARENA governments are not a solution.
"As a Christian, I believe in forgiveness,” Mr. Mendoza says, “and people deserve a second chance.”
• A version of this story ran on the author's site, nicaraguadispatch.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Nicaragua’s 25 opposition lawmakers walked out on the National Assembly Tuesday after failing to stop the Sandinista supermajority from steamrolling their new Constitution into law, clearing the way for President Daniel Ortega’s indefinite reelection.
The Sandinista reforms were passed in the second round of voting, with 64 “yeas” and 25 “nays.” The voting was along strict party lines.
The two dozen opposition lawmakers belonging to the minority Independent Liberal Party Alliance (BAPLI) abandoned the legislative chamber after casting their protest vote. The opposition claims the new Sandinista reforms were passed without any meaningful consultation of the public, and will serve only to weaken Nicaragua’s democracy and strengthen President Ortega’s grip on power.
Opposition congresswoman María Eugenia Sequeira, second vice-president of the National Assembly, said the people of Nicaragua “gain nothing” from the new Constitution because it will not improve unemployment, education, healthcare, or housing problems. Instead, the congresswoman says, the Sandinista Constitution focuses primarily on foisting its partisan ideology upon the rest of the country.
“What do the Nicaraguan people gain from the indefinite reelection of the president, when we already know from past experiences the consequences that brings?” Ms. Sequiera said.
Sandinista lawmakers approved in line-item vote 26 of the 51 articles of the new Constitution on Tuesday and the rest are scheduled to be rubber-stamped today, without the participation of the opposition.
“We don’t need, and never will need, a Somoza or an Ortega perpetuating himself in power forever,” said opposition lawmaker Alberto Lacayo.
- A version of this story ran on the author's website, www.nicaraguadispatch.com
• InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas.
As reported by El Universal, agents of the two groups met in Mexico City in January, and were arrested by Mexican Marines. The meetings were aimed at consolidating an agreement in which the BLO would help the Knights remain in control of Michoacán.
The meetings come at a particularly dangerous moment for the Knights. Their ongoing conflict with local self-defense groups, in which the Knights have resorted to insurgent-style attacks, has turned the group into the principal public security focus in the country. The federal government has flooded the area with troops, both in an effort to reverse the state decay that led to the self-defense groups and to crack down on the Knights' operations.
A move into Michoacán would mark a shift in the pattern of operations of the BLO. Since its 2008 split from the Sinaloa Cartel, the group has built an archipelago of territories in Mexico's southern and western regions. But while it has remained active in Morelos, Guerrero, and parts of Sinaloa, Michoacán represents a new frontier.
The Knights' willingness to reach out to an organization from outside Michoacán – when the Knights' basic ethos is based on them being a gang of and for Michoacan – suggests that the recent occurrences in their home region have rattled them. This conclusion fits with the idea that the group has resorted to bombing power stations and essentially attacking the quality of life of the population en masse only because it finds itself in desperate straits. That is, extreme measures that have no direct profit motive are the mark of a gang lurching around without a clear strategic purpose.
InSight Crime Analysis
As noted above, Mexican authorities report that, for the Knights, the aim of the agreement is to import enough manpower to allow them to maintain some semblance of control over Michoacán, where they are coming under pressure from both the vigilante groups and the influx of federal troops. If this is a correct assessment of the group's aims, it is a dubious enterprise for two related reasons. First, the BLO is not a major holder of territory, nor is it known for a huge cadre of foot soldiers. If the Knights see an influx of manpower as a way out of their current predicament, they could have picked a better ally.
Second, regardless of any new ally, the numbers are aligned against the Knights. As self-defense leader Jose Manuel Mireles recently said in an interview, "[The locals in an unnamed town] figured that 25,000 residents of the city could confront 90 well-armed narcos that held them under their thumb." The numerical superiority is so overwhelming that whether the figure is 90 or 200, it doesn't matter all that much; the key factor is that the locals have decided to confront the criminal group en masse using force.
That is, any citizenry united with the government and determined to push out criminal elements is essentially capable of doing so. The agents of organized crime are always a numerical minority who trade on fear (of the civilian population) and corruption (of the state) to impose their will. A few extra gunmen may make a marginal difference in helping the Knights hold on to their fiefdoms, but any alliance is unlikely to, on its own, change the current calculus and push back against the forces arrayed against them.
The latest report is also interesting in what it demonstrates about the BLO's modus operandi over the past several years, in the aftermath of its split with the Sinaloa Cartel and the 2009 death of its longtime leader, Arturo Beltran Leyva. These events have eaten into the group's strength, and caused a seemingly endless number of splinter groups to break off from the BLO.
However, under the leadership of Arturo's brother, Hector Beltran Levya, alias "el H," the group has retained relevance in much of the country. It has often done so by allying itself with other groups that are either on the ropes, or enemies of the Sinaloa Cartel, or both. It is partially as a result of this strategy that the gang retains a presence in so many valuable regions of the country. Most notably, their alliance with the Zetas and the Juarez Cartel has allowed the BLO to operate in and even control significant portions of Sinaloa, despite this being the home state of their principal rival. Indeed, according to a recent report from the US government, the BLO is not only surviving, but is actually growing.
It's worth noting that the BLO strategy is available to any gang that is facing a period of decline; indeed, it is precisely what the Knights Templar are doing now, and what other gangs have done in the past. This helps explain why the final extinction of any powerful group, even with the steadfast opposition of their various enemies in the government and in the criminal underworld, is so difficult. As long as a group has connections, arms, money, and some manpower, it can find a lifeline somewhere.
– Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.