According to Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, conflict between organized criminal groups has resulted in the beheading of 1,303 people in five years, a grisly tactic becoming the hallmark of the war between the country's cartels.
El Universal reported that decapitations steadily increased during President Felipe Calderon’s term in office: Just 32 beheadings were registered in 2007, while 2011 registered 493 such deaths between January and November.
The count will likely be similarly high for 2012. Last May saw the discovery of 49 headless and dismembered bodies in Nuevo Leon state, attributed to the Zetas, who are closely associated with the tactic.
According to El Universal, the border states most affected by drug violence are also the ones that see the greatest number of victims beheaded. Chihuahua state registered 171 such killings during Calderon’s term, followed by Guerrero (149), Tamaulipas (119), Durango (115), and Sinaloa (89).
InSight Crime Analysis
Prior to 2006, decapitations – especially done en masse – were a relatively rare phenomenon in Mexico. One of the most prominent cases took place in September 2006, when the Familia Michoacana announced their existence by leaving five heads on a dance floor in Michoacan. The brutality of the tactic was meant to attract attention, terrorize the local population, and intimidate any rivals.
As the data recently released by the Attorney General’s Office shows, beheadings have only become more common since then. Decapitations are used to deliver threats to rival criminal groups or to government institutions (and even schools). 2012 has seen several mass beheadings: from Guadalaja (18 killed) to Nuevo Laredo (14 killed, with the heads placed in ice chests in several locations across the city).
This may be partly indicative of how crowded Mexico’s criminal market has become. With the large transnational organizations splintering and new generation groups emerging as the primary drivers of violence, the only way to assert themselves is by becoming more dependent on brutality and shock tactics. The state with the second-highest number of beheadings, Guerrero, is one of the areas most affected by these warring splinter groups, the remnants of the Beltran Leyva Organization. The high number of decapitations here looks like a symptom of that conflict.
The increase in beheadings – along with the mass dumping of bodies in public places – is a move away from the traditional practice of burying victims in mass, hidden graves. It also speaks to the need for criminal groups to appear ever more intimidating in these public displays of violence.
The rise in beheadings has also accompanied an overall rise in the number of massacres in Mexico. Crime analyst and National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) professor Eduardo Guerrero told El Universal that during the first three years of Calderon's term in office, Mexico registered an average of 10.3 massacres per month, while the second half of his term registered an average of 23 massacres per month.
There are other arguments for why decapitations have become more frequently seen. Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna has said that Mexico's criminal groups copied the execution style from Al Qaeda. Garcia Luna cited an incident attributed to the Zetas in December 2005, when the criminal group displayed the heads of four policemen in resort city Acapulco, as the "beginning" of Mexican groups' adoption of "terrorist" tactics. Similarly to Al Qaeda, Mexico criminal organizations have also recorded and distributed videos of beheadings online.
Security analyst Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz has argued that the tactic was popularized after the Zetas received training from Guatemalan special forces squad the Kaibiles.
Archaeologist Ernesto Vargas told Time magazine that the strategy echoes methods used by the Mayans hundreds of years ago, stating, "The Mayans cut off the heads of prisoners as a symbol of complete domination over their enemies."
Beheadings also played an important role in Aztec mythology, in which the practice was also applied to prisoners of war and was related to fertility rituals.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.
On Tuesday, Brazil's Congress is due to vote on a bill that could redistribute the country's oil royalties, reducing the share of oil-producing areas and expanding the share in other states. Officials in Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo, two of the states that benefit from the current royalties system, bitterly oppose the bill. But evidence shows that in coastal towns and cities that earn oil royalties in these states have growing cases of corruption and mismanagement, as well as high levels of inequality and little progress in human development.
A few recent examples are illustrative of the corruption and mismanagement problem in cities with large oil royalty funds.
In March, the government of Campos dos Goytacazes in Rio proudly announced the inauguration of a new Sambadrome, large enough to hold 40,000 (10 percent of the city's population). The stadium – funded entirely by oil royalties – cost 80 million reais ($39 million), going 10 million reais ($4.9 million) over budget. Campos is the city that earns the most oil royalties of any city in Brazil, receiving 9.7 billion reais ($4.8 billion) from 2000 to 2010. But over the same period, the city dropped from 17th to 42nd in Rio state's development index. Seventeen percent of the city's schools and preschools operate in rented homes. Primary education in Campos received the worst grade in the state.
In April, a Federal Police case dubbed Operation Lee Oswald led to the arrest of 28 people including the mayor of the city of Presidente Kennedy, Espirito Santo. The city government was accused of fraud in awarding government contracts, overbilling, and embezzlement, with the mayor as the ringleader. Those arrested were charged with corruption, criminal conspiracy, and money laundering, among other crimes. Presidente Kennedy earns the most money in oil royalties in the whole state; the city gets 20 percent of the total amount of royalties earned in Espirito Santo. From 2000 to 2010, the city earned 398 million reais ($195 million) in royalties. Despite a high GDP per capita, the city has the fourth-worst human development index statewide.
In September, a Rio judge decreed that the secretary of security of Mangaratiba, a Rio coastal town, would lose his job and demanded to freeze his assets. The secretary, also a policeman, was accused of earning a fortune far beyond his means, and the judge demanded he pay a fine for illegally accumulating wealth dating back to 1992. Mangaratiba earned 170 million reais ($84 million) in oil royalties from 2000 to 2010.
Uneven development in royalty-earning cities is also an issue.
A study by Macroplan as explained in an excellent EXAME article looked at 25 cities that earned the largest amount of oil royalties from 2000 to 2010. It found that despite a huge rise in GDP, cities accomplished little in terms of human development. These coastal cities in Rio, São Paulo, and Espirito Santo earned 27 billion reais ($13.2 billion) over that period. Of the 25 cities, 16 had a higher unemployment rate than the national average in 2010. Seventeen had a lower average wage than the national average of 1,200 reais ($590) per month. Twenty had higher illiteracy rates than the state average. Many cities imported workers to fill skilled jobs since the locals are unqualified. In total, 10 percent of the inhabitants in all 25 cities earn a quarter of the minimum wage. In Macaé, which earned the second most in royalties ... over a decade, nearly 10 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. By comparison, in Rio state as a whole, around 3.7 percent live below the poverty line.
Violence is also an issue. In 13 of the cities, the homicide rate is above the state average. These include Linhares (Espirito Santo), Búzios, Cabo Frio, and Paraty (idyllic beach towns in Rio state) which are among the 100 most violent cities in Brazil.
Other coastal cities in Brazil earn royalties, too – with similar results. Guamaré, a town of 12,000 in Rio Grande do Norte, earned 202 million reais ($99 million) over the past decade and had eight mayors during the same period. One was arrested for embezzlement; another is under investigation for paying over half a million reais to bands to play at Carnival last year. The current mayor spent 2 million reais ($984 thousand) on Carnival this year and 2.2 million reais ($1million) to celebrate the city's birthday with high-profile singers. Despite having the 20th highest GDP per capita in the country, as well as being home to biodiesel plants, a Petrobras refinery, and wind farms, 10 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty and a fifth of the poulation is illiterate.
So what will this mean for royalty distribution and how these funds are used? "Oil exploration has 20- to 40-year cycles, which come to an end. Brazil's cycle is just at the beginning and we need to decide how to best use these resources so that in the end, we have thriving cities, not huge favelas," Macroplan director Alexandre Mattos told EXAME.
Evidence of police corruption in northern Argentina illustrates how vulnerable the country is to organized crime, as domestic demand for cocaine rises and the country emerges as a regional trafficking hub, with one of Colombia's biggest capos captured there this week.
The case of Hugo Tognoli, former police commissioner of the northern Santa Fe province, provides a useful insight into the institutional crisis currently faced by the Argentine police. Mr. Tognoli was accused of receiving kickbacks from drug trafficking organizations based in Santa Fe. He resigned on Oct. 19, and briefly went missing before turning himself in to authorities on Oct. 21. Tognoli denies the charges against him.
Public prosecutors accuse Tognoli of organizing a scheme with local drug trafficking networks in which he took monthly payments of $150,000 in exchange for allowing them to operate in his area. The evidence against the police commissioner suggests that such arrangements were a hallmark of his leadership style. Investigators claim to have a record of a text message exchange between one of Tognoli’s subordinates and a brothel owner, in which the latter asked how much the commissioner would charge him to sell cocaine. “30,000 [pesos a month, or about $6,300] directly to Tognoli,” was the response.
As La Nacion notes, the arrest of Tognoli is not the only example of corruption in Santa Fe. The Buenos Aires-based daily claims that the province is a hotbed of drug trafficking, with hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit profits moving through Rosario, its largest city. Police collusion with illicit activity is widespread. Law enforcement sources consulted by La Nacion described an “anarchic” situation among police in Rosario, with lower level officers – increasingly dissatisfied with their cut of drug profits – charging traffickers of their own accord to operate in several neighborhoods in the city.
InSight Crime Analysis
Police corruption in Argentina, which has long been an issue, has taken on greater importance in light of the country’s emergence as a hub in the regional cocaine trade. Authorities are seeing a sharp rise in drug seizures, corresponding to a surge in demand for cocaine in the country. With cocaine consumption – particularly of a kind of crack cocaine known as “paco” – taking off in Argentina, it has become the second largest consumer of the drug in Latin America after Brazil, accounting for an estimated 25 percent of cocaine use in the region.
In addition to serving as a major market for cocaine, the country is increasingly used as a transit point for trafficking networks. Argentina serves as a key link to both West Africa and the European cocaine market, which has seen an uptick in demand in recent years.
This surge in cocaine traffic has accompanied growing concern among officials over the presence of powerful transnational criminal organizations in the country. The Sinaloa Cartel’s Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was rumored to have taken refuge in Argentina in mid-2011, and a former lieutenant of Colombian drug kingpin Daniel "El Loco" Barrera was killed in April while hiding out in Buenos Aires.
With police corruption rampant in Argentina, the country may be ill-prepared for the rise of powerful drug trafficking organizations. President Cristina Fernandez [de Kirchner] created a new security ministry in 2010, partly out of a wish to address the problem, appointing the reform-minded Nilda Garre at its head. Ms. Garre has proven to be an innovative figure, overseeing a shake-up of the federal police command and promising to root out police corruption at all levels. Still, as the Tognoli case illustrates, the Argentine government will be hard pressed to tackle corruption without addressing both the culture of abuse and the financial incentives that drive police officials to accept money from criminals.
– Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.
As soon as darkness fell, festive crowds streamed into the candle-lit cemeteries of this southern Mexican city and nearby towns by the thousands.
Day of the Dead falls on Nov. 2 but the celebrations in Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-ha-ca) begin days before with the creation of elaborate altars to the dead in homes. The offerings of flowers, fruit, bread, candles, and prayers rarely fail to include testaments to the more mundane aspects of the departed one’s earthly existence: playing cards and other relics of their old life such as yarn for the grandmother who loved to knit or a favorite sombrero for a father who never took off his hat.
For many across the country, the pain of a loved one’s death is fresh. More than 50,000 people have died in the six years since President Felipe Calderón deployed the military to fight the country’s brutal drug cartels and criminal organizations.
However great the collective mourning may be in Mexico, families in Oaxaca reminisced last night about their own lost loved ones in the traditional way: with music, food, tears, and laughter.
A somber celebration turns festive
After alters are built, next come the visits to the cemeteries.
Graveyards at night can seem the scariest of places – good for the setting of a horror film and little else – but in Mexico, on this Catholic holiday, the abundance of flowers, the sweet scent of candles, and low light seem romantic; when the bands strike up, the somber celebration turns festive.
Those who have lost loved ones hold all-night vigils at their tombs.
In the small town of Xoxocotlán outside Oaxaca City, locals adorn family graves with marigold-yellow xempazuchitl and magenta-colored “rooster’s crest” flowers. Here, long, flat gravestones are sometimes decorated with finely ground, colored rice and glitter to make images of saints or angels.
Last night Vicente Bautista and his brothers hovered over the grave of their father, who passed away in June. They drizzled the grains in a pattern to create an image of Santa Muerte, a skeletal representation of “saint death” widely worshiped by the poor and downtrodden in Mexico, but condemned by the Catholic Church.
“We’re holding vigil for papá until tomorrow morning,” Mr. Bautista says.
A powerful downpour in the evening left the narrow spaces between graves thick with mud, but that didn’t stop locals and tourists from winding through the dark labyrinth of tombstones to marvel at the decorations.
The Day of the Dead “is a centuries-old tradition,” says Bautista. “It’s an offering to our dead.”
Fines and suspensions for athletes behaving badly? Well, yes. But in Brazil, they get community service too.
Officials here recently ordered three high-profile soccer players to visit sick kids or pay fines to charitable institutions rather than serve sideline bans for misconduct on the field of play.
The plan is part of a scheme to make errant role models take more responsibility.
“This type of visit is educational as well as being punitive,” says Flavio Zveiter, head of the Superior Court of Sports Justice (STJD), the body that hands out suspensions.
“These guys are heroes to lots of people and this helps them reflect about their position and responsibility to society. They sometimes live in their own little world and they don’t realize that what they do has repercussions in society as a whole.”
Soccer is by far Brazil’s most popular sport. As well as being home to players such as Pelé and Ronaldo, Brazil is the only team to win the World Cup five times. It will host the next tournament in 2014.
It also has one of the most competitive leagues in the world, and when players are kicked out of a game they are automatically banned from the next match. But additional suspensions are tacked on if the player is a repeat offender or if the offense is particularly grave.
When hot-headed Corinthians striker Emerson was kicked off the field for insulting the referee earlier this season, he was banned for six games. He appealed the ban and the STJD reduced it to five games provided he spend some time with sick kids at a São Paulo hospice. He was also ordered to pay a 10,000 real (around $5,000) fine to the institution.
Always trouble, Emerson turned up two hours late for Monday's visit. But he left declaring his time there well spent.
“You can’t call this a punishment from the STJD, it’s more like a life lesson for us all,” Emerson said. “We can bring a little bit of joy to people who are going through a very tough time.”
Mr. Valdívia was ordered to spend his 10,000 real fine for insulting a referee on food and other aid to a Rio orphanage, while Luís Fabiano was told to visit a rehabilitation center for handicapped children.
Luís Fabiano thoroughly enjoyed his time with the kids, even playfully teasing a six-year-old who supported a rival team.
That attitude served as partial vindication for Mr. Zveiter of the STJD.
“It think the repercussions were positive, the player himself said he was touched by it and that was the main thing,” Zveiter says. “I intend to use this policy more.”
IN PICTURES: Brazil: Sights to see
According to a study which used Google searches to map the activity of drug cartels in Mexico, these criminal organizations are far from overrunning the whole country, being active in less than a third of the country's municipalities.
El Universal highlighted a study by a team at Harvard University which developed a method that aims to track the activities of Mexican drug traffickers using information available on the Internet. The algorithm processes data produced by Google searches to extract information on where criminal groups operate.
The authors say that one of the main benefits of their method is that it could be a way to overcome the “inherent difficulty posed by the study of illegal actors: lack of data,” especially for countries with more limited resources. They noted that the information they found on gang operations would, if it was gathered by more conventional means, require large-scale intelligence exercises.
InSight Crime Analysis
One of the main findings of the study is that, in the period between 1991 and 2010, drug cartels were present in only 29 percent of the country’s 2,441 municipalities. The authors say that this allowed them to “challenge the widespread assumption that drug traffickers control vast regions of Mexico's territory dividing the country in oligopolistic markets.” They note that the Sinaloa Cartel, for example, only appeared to be active in 14 of Sinaloa’s 18 municipalities in the period of study, while the Familia Michoacana was active in only 69 of Michoacan’s 115 municipalities.
This is an interesting way to quantify what is known about the Mexican drug trade. Unlike illegal armed groups in countries like Colombia, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have controlled vast tracts of territory, setting up permanent camps and holding many prisoners, Mexico’s criminal groups are focused on controlling drug markets and transit routes. As the report notes, criminal activity is concentrated near Mexico’s large cities, the entry points to the United States, and highways connecting illicit crops or ports to the US border.
The report also produces evidence showing the fracturing of criminal groups in Mexico. It found that the proportion of the municipalities affected by more than one criminal group was 62 percent in 2010, up from 11 percent a decade earlier.
– Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.
There have recently been a number of high-profile criminal cases in Brazil that have caused some to proclaim that a culture of impunity is finally giving way to a culture of accountability where criminals face justice. These cases include the current trials coming to a close associated with the Mensalão scandal, in which around 40 elected and appointed officials are being tried for their involvement in an elaborate Congressional vote-buying scheme that funneled public funds for political gain during the first Lula administration, and the recent conviction of two police officers for the 1996 massacre of 19 landless activists. Historically, few people have faced serious prison time for involvement in political corruption scandals in Brazil, but the Mensalão trials have shown that this trend may be coming to an end. Similarly, killings by the police in Brazil are much higher than in other countries; it is rare that officers who kill civilians while on duty are charged or convicted of wrong-doing, so the conviction against the two police officers for the 1996 massacre is a welcome change.
Yet while these are welcome challenges to Brazil’s culture of impunity, a decisive change has not yet been fully realized. To date, not a single person has been convicted for the hundreds of cases of forced disappearance, torture, and political murder committed during the military dictatorship in Brazil, largely due to the 1978 Amnesty Law that continues to prevent anyone from being tried for these crimes. Nevertheless, there are signs that Brazil may be approaching a tipping point toward accountability and, for the first time, seriously confront its history of human rights violations. In the past few months, federal prosecutors have opened five criminal cases against former members of the Brazilian military and police for their role in forced disappearances during the 1970s military dictatorship. These cases are still in the initial stages, but if they move forward to conviction, it would indeed signal a definitive shift away from impunity toward justice and accountability in Brazil.
In November 2010, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruled that Brazil was responsible for the disappearance of 62 members of the Araguaia guerrilla group during the 1970s, and ruled that Brazil had to investigate these cases and criminally prosecute those responsible. Since then, federal prosecutors have attempted to open several cases against those accused of participating in these and other forced disappearances committed during the military dictatorship in Brazil, but until recently, all of these cases were thrown out for violating the Amnesty Law. This changed in August when a federal judge in the state of Para accepted a case against two former members of the military for their role in the forced disappearance of several members of the Araguaia guerrilla group during the 1970s. The judge based her decision on the argument that these were ongoing cases of kidnapping because the bodies have never been found, thus they do not fall within the time frame covered by the Amnesty Law, nor are they bound by the 20-year statute of limitations for murder. As this case has advanced, prosecutors in other states have been encouraged to pursue similar cases.
In September, the Brazilian Supreme Court approved the extradition of a former member of the Argentine Navy School of Mechanics (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada Argentina, ESMA) accused of participating in torture and forced disappearance carried out during the Argentine Dirty War. The conditions of the extradition to Argentina stipulate that he only be tried for kidnapping because the statute of limitations for the other crimes has already passed in Brazil. As this ruling was issued by the highest court in Brazil, it further opened the door for other similar cases to move forward. Following this precedent, on October 23, a federal judge in Sao Paulo accepted a case against a former member of the military, a former member of the police, and a current member of the police for their roles in the 1971 forced disappearance of a man who defected from the military after it assumed control of the government. Using the “on-going” crime argument, a series of forced disappearance cases dating back to the military dictatorship may finally make their way to Brazilian courts in the coming months.
Unfortunately, the argument that forced disappearance is an ongoing crime and thus not bound by the Amnesty Law or any statute of limitations is inapplicable in the hundreds of cases of torture and extrajudicial executions committed during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Although torturers are not explicitly protected by the Amnesty Law, the Brazilian Supreme Court and other legal bodies in Brazil have at various times stated that these acts are covered under the political crimes umbrella of the law, in defiance of international human rights conventions. Thus, cases of torture and political murder (where the body was found) committed during the military dictatorship have continued to go unpunished. Convictions for torture and murder would carry a much longer sentence than the two-to-eight years for kidnapping, but would be much less feasible while the Amnesty Law remains intact, so federal prosecutors seem to be opting to go for what is achievable.
In May 2012, the Brazilian Truth Commission began the two-year process of compiling information on human rights violations committed by the State during the military dictatorship, and many hoped that this body would be another tool for those seeking justice for human rights violations committed during the dirty war. So far, the Commission has held several hearings and received testimony from a number of witnesses, victims, and those accused of human rights violations, and has been aided by the landmark Freedom of Information Law passed in late 2011. While the law creating the Commission expressly denies it prosecutorial power, some have suggested that the information revealed by the Commission could create the necessary momentum to overturn the Amnesty Law, much like the public outrage that fed into the trials surrounding the Mensalão scandal.
Unlike the examples of the Mensalão scandal and the 1997 police massacre, which seem to signal that impunity is giving way to justice in Brazil, there have still been no cases of human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship that have reached conviction, and the current cases are still in the initial stages and could be thrown out in an appeals court even if they do reach a conviction. Until now, no one has gone to jail for the hundreds of cases of torture committed by Brazil’s security forces from 1964-1985. Because of this complete lack of justice, it is probably still too early to say that Brazil has completely left a culture of impunity behind and has transitioned fully to a just, accountable society. In order to fully claim an end to a legacy of impunity, Brazil needs to not just punish those responsible for current crimes and corruption, although this is an important and positive step forward. It also must prosecute those responsible for torture and forced disappearance in past decades as well, as these crimes helped create the legacy of impunity that is felt today. Thankfully, there are signs that this process is underway.
– Joe Bateman is WOLA's Program Officer for Brazil
Happiness is serious business in Venezuela.
At 38 percent of the current budget, spending on what the government refers to as "supreme happiness" has taken precedence over everything including military and energy spending for Hugo Chávez's fourth term as president.
It seems that Venezuela is just as wrapped up in attaining this elusive emotional state as the rest of the Western world, which dedicates billions of dollars to everything from self-help books to vitamin supplements to serious research on happiness. There have been a number of recent studies ranking countries by happiness level – with one called the Happy Planet Index placing Venezuela 9th in terms of happiness out of 151 countries. (Nearby Central America was ranked one of the happiest regions on earth.)
But Chavez’s focus on national bliss hasn’t necessarily made a lot of people “happy.”
The new $92 billion budget, announced by Finance Minister Jorge Giordani last week, has drawn widespread criticism for its vague language and alarmingly low estimates of inflation and oil prices. Meanwhile, expenditure on "happiness" has increased since last year and continues to be the budgetary centerpiece.
But what brings about happiness in Venezuela?
"I understand [happiness] to be associated with social spending," says Francisco Ibarra, a director of the Venezuelan think tank Econométrica, on his interpretation of the government’s definition.
This spending includes some of President Chávez's signature social programs like the Bolivarian Missions, which provide Venezuelans with everything from free housing and medical services to government-subsidized food stores. After his victory in the early October presidential election, Chávez announced such programs would be increased in his upcoming term.
Overshadowing the budget’s central pursuit of happiness, however, is the fact that the budget itself remains opaque.
"Since 2006, the government has stopped announcing the budget like it had done historically, which showed the total cost of programs in [the] public sector,” says Mr. Ibarra. “[N]ow we see much of [the] budget in parallel funds, like Fonden."
Fonden, or the National Development Fund Inc., is the largest of various such funds over which the president has discretion.
Thanks to legislation passed in recent years, oil revenue exceeding the finance minister's new estimate of $55 per barrel can be funneled into the president's development funds.
Currently, oil prices are averaging more than $100 dollars per barrel, but because the budget estimates oil to cost a low $55 per barrel, most of the surplus – in this case $45 per barrel – in oil revenue could be used for programs as the government sees fit. Use of the funds does not require congress's approval.
Despite the disparity in oil prices, other discrepancies exist within the budget as well.
"The minister is assigning a budget that is less than what the government has spent this year," says Mercedes de Freitas, director of the anticorruption NGO Transparencia Venezuela. This could be attributed to a lack of planning for things like public-sector wage increases and infrastructure improvements, according to Transparencia Venezuela’s website.
While the government's budget on paper was $92 billion, it has already spent more than $97 billion this year.
In Venezuela, a country that boasts one of the world's highest inflation rates, this has led some to joke that, when the Chávez administration says it seeks a nation of “happiness,” it really means a nation of “blissful ignorance.”
IN PICTURES: Hugo Chavez, the showman
With the FARC seemingly deepening their involvement in illegal mining, InSight Crime takes a look at what could happen to the Colombian guerrilla group’s stake in the industry should the peace talks see success.
The first round of negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government in more than a decade officially began on Oct. 18. While many were taken aback by the FARC’s use of fiery rhetoric in a subsequent press conference, there is reason to believe that Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict can come to an end. As analyst Adam Isacson has pointed out, the guerrillas have so far participated in the talks “with seriousness and discipline,” demonstrating an encouraging commitment to the peace process.
But if the talks do go well, potentially resulting in the FARC’s demobilization, what will remain of the illicit finance networks is unclear. The group’s involvement in the drug trade is one of the five pillars up for discussion with the government, with Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon estimating earlier this week that the rebel group earns from $2.4 – $3.5 billion annually from the drug trade. But this is only one of many sources of funding for the rebels. As InSight Crime has reported, illegal mining – and gold mining in particular – is fast becoming a central resource for the FARC. Indeed, a study released in September by the Toledo International Center for Peace (CITpax) found that illegal gold mining had overtaken coca production as the main source of income for the FARC and other armed groups in eight of Colombia’s 32 provinces.
A recent investigation by El Colombiano supports this claim, finding that in the province of Antioquia, rebels charge the equivalent of between $1,600 and $2,750 for each piece of heavy equipment that illegal mining ventures bring in to their areas of control. On top of this, they also charge for the entrance of gasoline, and demand a 10 percent cut of all profits. As El Colombiano notes, this is somewhat ironic given that the head of the FARC’s negotiating team, Luciano Marin, alias “Ivan Marquez,” devoted much of his public remarks in the post-talk press conference to denouncing the “exploitative” practices of large scale mining companies in the country.
InSight Crime Analysis
In many ways the issue of what will become of the FARC’s mining activities is linked to the broader question of the government’s approach to regulating the entire mining sector. Since 2002 the government has encouraged the mining sector, drastically increasing the distribution of mining permits in the country. Despite this, some estimate that nearly half of all mining in Colombia is illegal, or conducted by small scale mines without formal permits.
The government has promised to make it easier for mining ventures to acquire legal permits, but there are still at least 6,000 mines in the country that are currently considered illegal. This measure could be vital to weakening the FARC’s hold on mining. If these reforms were more strongly embraced by the state, it would grant miners the means to report extortion without fearing legal consequences.
Still, the rising price of minerals like gold gives guerrillas an incentive to hang on to their investments. Even if the FARC were to demobilize at the conclusion of peace talks, many cells currently profiting from mining would likely continue their activities despite the wishes of their commanders. Some analysts fear that a FARC demobilization would mirror the failed 2003-2006 demobilization of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), in which a number of mid-level commanders and those under them turned in their arms only to return to their criminal past.
There is also evidence that guerrillas in some areas of the country are deepening their involvement in the mining process itself. The CITpax report found that in the central province of Tolima, the FARC’s Central Joint Command had reportedly purchased mining machinery, presumably to rent it out at a profit to miners in the area.
Since the “end” of the conflict would likely fuel further investment in Colombia’s already booming mining sector, it could put elements of the FARC hanging on to their mining operations at odds with large-scale, permitted mining companies in the country. Extortion and the kidnapping of mining employees, which guerrillas have committed in the past, may increase and become more targeted as remnants of the group find themselves competing for resources and land. As such, any expansion of mining will likely require the Colombian military to prioritize security for multinational and domestic mining projects.
– Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.
IN PICTURES: Colombia: Living with the FARC
“Brazil has 16,000 kilometers of dry borders, a totally vulnerable area, plus 9,000 kilometers of territorial ocean, and a river 4,000 kilometers long,” State Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame told a panel audience last week at the annual Global Economy Symposium, held this year in Rio de Janeiro by the German Bertelsmann Foundation and the Kiehl Institute for the World Economy.
“It’s very difficult,” he went on. “Arms, drugs, and mass munition aren’t produced in Brazil, much less in Rio… The country must have a very clear national policy to protect its borders… this problem isn’t being dealt with in a visible manner and with results that citizens can evaluate. It ends up in the hands of the states.”
Mr. Beltrame then shifted his sights from the Brazilian federal government, to other countries.
“Our number one enemy is the automatic rifle, but we don’t have Brazilian automatic rifles; this equipment comes from abroad, mostly from the United States. The producer country should keep track of these transactions. Worse than the weapon is the munition, because munition you buy over and over. There are mechanisms for finding these weapons. Countries have the capability to do this,” Beltrame said.
One plus one equals…
It’s impossible to hear this and not imagine a member of some angry splinter group, sect, or ethnic minority popping over to Rio for the Olympics, easily picking up a weapon, getting him or herself to the top of a building and doing a Lee Harvey Oswald at a delegation en route to some competition.
Which would not exactly be a boon for tourism in Rio de Janeiro.
The state and city governments of Rio de Janeiro are politically allied with [the capital city of] Brasília, but Beltrame’s plaint indicates cracks. And these, plus longtime neglect, have led to a situation, RioRealblog has heard, where the country has a spotty national crime database, crime prevention based more on static police presence than patrols, intelligence based on wiretaps and cellphone monitoring, border patrols that use cellphones (antennae-permitting) for long range communications and position mapping, and almost zero vessel monitoring in Guanabara Bay. Fuel is also short, for waterway monitoring in much of the country.
Just last year, Brazil experienced its worst natural disaster ever, with 800 deaths from flooding in the mountains of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Six months later, a state attorney general who volunteered to help there told an OsteRio debate audience of her experience. “There were several secretaries, lots of people, federal, state, and city officials, each with his own set of priorities, everyone defending his territory,” said Denise Muniz de Tarin. “Things got better only when a general showed up. He put a map on the table.”
The map, Muniz de Tarin added, dated from 1975.
Equipment: How to use it? Who uses it? In conjunction with whom? Communicating how?
In August, Beltrame said he was “all ears” to hear how much the state of Rio could expect budget-wise from the federal government for public safety during the Roman Catholic World Youth Day and papal visit in 2013, the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics.
At the time, O Globo newspaper reported on this during a meeting in Brasília to discuss mega-event security and policy.
The paper said that according to the justice ministry’s special secretariat for large events, the 2012-14 national budget for equipment and training is equivalent to $585 million. Special Secretary Valdinho Caetano was quoted as saying that the federal government would buy equipment for state public safety providers. One assumes the lion’s share will go to Rio, but it’s not clear just how it will be spent.
“We want a new more integrated way of providing public safety, with interfaces between federal agencies such as [the intelligence agency] Abin and state agencies, with an exchange of information,” he told O Globo. “Those who come to Rio for the events will find tranquility, as we saw in London. And Rio’s citizenry can be sure that public safety is here to stay, that there’ll be a legacy.”
Since that August meeting of state public safety secretaries and federal officials, the only news (with a couple of exceptions) is that in early September the federal government increased Rio state’s borrowing capacity by US$ 3.5 billion equivalent, partly to pay for public safety equipment. No further public mention has been made of interfaces – or joint agency training, planning, or coordination.
“The negotiation with the [federal government] was important, because now we have guarantees that the military police will be modernized, from vehicles to uniforms and the revision of the police academy curriculum,” a police spokesperson told RioRealblog. Mega-event security per se, the spokesperson noted, is constitutionally Brasília’s responsibility, with local public safety forces taking on the rest of the city.
Whatever the money is spent on, there’s clearly much to be done within and across agencies. Brazil’s Federal Police, responsible under Justice Ministry jurisdiction for the country’s borders, struck for over two months this year for pay raises and other demands; O Globo called it the largest strike in the agency’s union history. Rio’s military police and firemen struck earlier this year.
Federal Police say they’re overworked and that a new institution ought to be created to relieve them of immigration duties, which have mushroomed in the last few years above all because of the petroleum industry’s need for foreign staff – mostly in Rio.
Rio de Janeiro has made enormous strides to improve public safety, leading the way for the country’s other 26 states. This is partly why the city is now viewed as a suitable location for mega-events.
Proud of their warm friendships, both personal and diplomatic, Brazilians are loathe to imagine the kind of attack that took place during the 1972 Olympics, when Palestinians killed Israelis on German soil. And people here rarely worry about shoe bombs. This is obvious when you zip fully shod through security in any airport, as inspectors chat, smile, and wish you a wonderful journey.
Worry is low on the cultural totem pole. Brazilians dallied about fifteen years before adopting seat belts, ultimately strapped in by high fines. Backseat use is still iffy.
But about national security, Mr. Beltrame is one worried man. Which can only be a good thing for Rio de Janeiro.