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Military police patrol the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, July 24, 2012. Public safety authorities say a police officer was shot and killed in this hillside favela slum that's a key symbol of the Olympic city's highly publicized slum pacification program. (Felipe Dana/AP)

Brazil is stamping out favela violence – now on to trash collection and education

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / 08.01.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Ever since pacification began in Rio de Janeiro, in November 2008, we’ve been hearing (and saying) that social needs must also be met. As the number of UPPs, or police pacification units, grow (now at 26, employing 5,000 men and women, with a goal of 40 by 2014), State Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame – and many others – repeat the mantra about the other side of the coin.

The Social UPP got off to a shaky start, with Governor Sérgio Cabral’s political needs shoving it out of the state nest in December 2010, into the municipal one, under the aegis of the Pereira Passos Institute. From day one however, it’s been run by Ricardo Henriques (who next week hands his post over to former municipal finance secretary Eduarda La Rocque, who is to keep on current director Tiago Borba) and a growing team, in partnership with the United Nations Habitat program.

Centuries of neglect and the mantra repetition have led to the general perception in Rio that police pacification is dangerously outpacing the city’s ability to meet social needs.

But the first wide-ranging examination of the impact of police pacification reveals that though it has significantly reduced violence in and around UPP communities, the project that lies at the core of Rio’s remarkable turnaround needs extensive reform itself.

Fortunately, the police are listening. Study coordinator Ignacio Cano, with a long history of research in the area of public security and human rights, is now in dialogue with the men and women in uniform. Hopefully, they’re poring over his  ‘Os donos do morrro’: uma avaliação exploratória do impacto das unidades de polícia pacificadora (UPPs) no Rio de Janeiro ['The owners of the hill': an exploratory impact evaluation of the police pacification units].

“Just a decade ago, whether in training or research, the police in general wanted little to do with the academic community and flatly rejected or refused to cooperate with researchers,” observes Liz Leeds, founder of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety and creator of the Democratic Policing Initiative when she was a Ford Foundation program officer in Rio, in the early 2000s.  ”Today that cooperation is not only possible but frequently sought after by the police,” continues Ms. Leeds.  ”Of course,  the police are not always happy with the results of independent research when the conclusions are negative.  It is a process that involves the gradual break-down of long-held mutual mistrust and prejudice between the two communities”.

Optimism

Mr. Cano’s study, funded by the Caracas-based Development Bank of Latin America by way of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, took great methodological pains in comparing crime statistics. Which makes it particularly heartening to find that statistics for UPP communities, for police stations serving them, and for their geographical surroundings, all show that UPPs significantly reduce lethal violence. Interestingly, they also increase non-lethal crime: robberies and such may be on the rise now (and/or being reported more) because the iron-fisted rule of drug traffickers is ending.

In UPP favelas alone, pacification saves an estimated 60 lives a year per 100,000 inhabitants.

At 227 pages, the study is a long read. But it’s a worthwhile investment because the numbers and analysis basically demonstrate that UPPs are pacifying the police and strengthening their institutional role in society. Because of UPPs, police killings are significantly down. Inside and near UPP favelas, this is the single most significant factor in reduced lethal violence. In addition, UPPs may lead cariocas to feel more compelled to report non-violent crime than they did before.

Another reason the study is a must-read are the excerpts from interviews carried out with favela residents, community leaders and police from a variety of levels of the hierarchy. This qualitative data provides valuable windows to the changes under way in Rio. For example, pacification has allowed some favela residents not only to come and go freely in their own communities, but also to at last visit those formerly belonging to “enemy” factions. The interviews also shed useful light on topics such as funk dances and mototaxis, both murky areas of conflict between UPP police and favela residents.

Pacification was undertaken with a reasonable amount of planning, described in this two-year-old Piauí magazine article. It has achieved so much. But, says the study, the model needs further development. From some of the police interviews and from press reports and unfolding events, it’s become clear that the program is in many respects rather slapdash. Last week the first UPP officer was shot dead, wearing a not-so-bulletproof-vest and working in a container as an operational base. Later, other officers complained that the donated rifles they used to defend themselves against the attack, allegedly undertaken by drug traffickers, had jammed.

Of course pacification is a pioneering effort, bumping up against  many unexpected challenges and outcomes, and so must be flexible. But it seems the time has come to buck the Brazilian penchant for improvisation.

Fifty years in five? Or six?

Meanwhile, the mantra about social services keeps on being repeated.

No large-scale impact study of the Social UPP has been undertaken or is under way. It’s quite a bit easier to quantify violent deaths than to measure social needs and how much they’re being met – not least of all because live people have conversations.

“Dialogue with results is possible, and is a continuous exercise,” Ricardo Henriques told RioRealblog on one of his last days on the job. Knowing how to listen critically he added, is key. Job training for youth was a top demand in one pacified favela, for example, but it turned out the area did have job training, with empty classrooms. “It’s a question of matching, of information flow. You have to have a lot of information about a community,” he says.

As Mr. Henriques spoke, Gustavo Ferreira, responsible for the Social UPP’s Fast Participatory Mapping of UPP Favelas, swiveled a computer screen and brought up a Google Map-based product of the program’s 11 field teams in 20 territories. Work began a year ago, with the help of consultant Francesco di Villarosa. The teams take photographs, make observations and interview residents, leaders, NGO agents, and public service providers. Results change constantly and are analyzed so as to pass on demands to agencies who can and should be meeting them. The Social UPP also works with NGOs and the private sector.

Among other data, the maps show which parts of favelas are at risk for mudslides and the like. Most impressive are the photos of contemporary housing that looks like something out of the film Black Orpheus. Not all favela homes today are made of brick and cement.

If all the mapped data were to be posted on the Internet it could clear up a great deal of doubt about life in pacified favelas and the challenges they present to the city of Rio – for people who live in them and for those who don’t, as well. Making this data available to researchers would also open the door to an impact study.

When President Juscelino Kubitschek got it into his head to build Brasília in the 1950s, he spoke about pushing the country ahead fifty years, in only five. What Rio is doing to prepare for its growing list of megaevents is a comparable task: police manpower has grown exponentially over the last few years, with shortcuts in preparation that they themselves fault. The Military Police force for all of Rio state, including 5,000 pacification police, totals 40,000-plus today and is set to grow to 60,000 by 2014.

Setting up police pacification units (guys with guns in snappy uniforms, who’ve had six months’ training) looks a great deal easier than mapping and meeting needs for trash collection, health care, public lighting, education, day care, legal aid, and so much else. But it may well turn out that both sides of the coin are equally challenging.

RELATED: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

Perhaps it’s time for a new mantra? Here are the UPP impact study’s recommendations to Rio’s pacification police force:

1. Include local homicide rates in the criteria for selecting new UPP areas. This could have a systemic effect, sending a message to organized crime to bring down the violence level or “lose” their territories.

2. Systematize working criteria and procedures. Police and residents need to know how disturbances of the peace, mototaxis, and funk dances are to be dealt with, for example. Police need to know what to do when children describe drug use at home, and what types of performance will be rewarded.

3. Improve work facilities and reformulate pay bonuses. Current pay delays damage morale.

4. Intensify and improve training. One or two weeks of proximity policing techniques cannot undo pre-formed values and behaviors.

5. Take measures to legitimate police pacification within the Military Police.  Police lethality reduction goals, linked to bonuses, would help to mitigate the rejection of UPP police by the rest of the force.

6. Rethink police response to drug crime. The change in focus from drugs to weapons should be more complete and even-handed, and the police should no longer repress drug-use-related cultural manifestations such as funk dances as if these were enemy territory. In doing so they will gain the trust of young people, who now often consider their actions arbitrary and unjust.

7. Deepen the community component of UPPs. There should be more interaction between police and residents, at all levels. This will increase police identification with the project. 

8. Promote mechanisms for community decision-making. This should help fill the authority vacuum left by drug traffickers, which police have been stepping into in an irregular and controversial manner.

9. Promote community representation and political participation. The study points out this missing element in the pacification equation, adding that a police role is questionable for this item, though it should be taken into consideration as other issues are sorted out.

Stay tuned for more on this subject, once RioRealblog has had a chance to speak with pacification police officials on their reaction to the study and what they’re doing to develop the program further.

Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

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Gang truce in El Salvador: An opportunity the region can't afford to miss

By Mike AllisonGuest blogger / 08.01.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, centralamericanpolitics.blogspot.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Luis Rodriguez has a piece on Gang Peace in El Salvador: The Opportunity We Can't Afford To Miss up on Fox News Latino. He has been involved in studying gangs for nearly the last two decades in El Salvador and elsewhere and recently traveled to El Salvador as part of an 11-member delegation of US-based urban peace advocates, gang prevention/intervention specialists, and researchers from Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York City, and San Francisco.
 
His take is somewhat similar to what many of us have been arguing. The gang peace in El Salvador provides a once in a lifetime opportunity for the people of El Salvador (the US, and the region) to bring crime levels under control. However, it won't be easy – much needs to be done in both the short – and longterm to ensure success. He doesn't sugarcoat the challenges.

There is a need for short and long-range actions and policies. Gang leaders in El Salvador have asked for humane prison conditions, medical care, jobs, and training and rehabilitation programs. There is a need for businesses to provide jobs and a livable income in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. The country needs an expansion of educational opportunities as well as vocational and other training. What about full mental health and drug treatment programs?

There is deep trauma to address, as well as orphans and broken families. How about the arts that in my experience has been instrumental in expanding the imaginations of the most troubled communities and allowing creativity to accompany any healing process?

Fortunately, Rodriguez appears to be somewhat optimistic that the gangs, government, and society are ready to tackle the challenge head on.

This time I found a more open and caring attitude from everyone we met in El Salvador, including government officials in the ministries of health, education, and public safety as well as among the heads of the penal system. The gang leaders were sincere and quite clear about their commitment to the peace. A meeting of the minds and hearts of the Salvadoran people would help make this process sustainable and significant, even beyond its borders.

However, he's not naive to the financial challenges needed to sustain the peace and argues there is money to be saved by changing the way the country approaches gang violence.
 
2012 is looking to be another important year in El Salvador. I'm just not sure which way it's going to go. The gang truce has achieved more than anyone could have expected five months ago although it remains fragile. And the conflict between the legislative and judicial branches remains unresolved with the possible outcome of strengthened rule of law or political system that heeds court decisions only when it suits their interests.

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.

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Uruguay: A laboratory for controversial drug policies?

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 07.31.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

I can think of a lot of problems Uruguay's marijuana legalization/nationalization proposal. Creating a giant state-run bureaucracy to manage the growth and sale of marijuana is going to be complex and rife with potential corruption, especially given the huge market demand in Brazil. The proposal is still going to have artificial limits on the quantity and quality of marijuana, which will create a parallel black market. Drug-related crime in Uruguay is less centered around weed than it is cocaine, meth, and various other harder drugs, meaning this proposal is unlikely to impact crime.
 
 Yet, in spite of those criticisms, why not? Given its small size, stable economy, and relative security, Uruguay seems like the perfect laboratory for the hemisphere to try out a legalization experiment. Being that Uruguay already has a de facto decriminalization for personal use, the proposal is unlikely to increase drug use rates by any significant amount. Secondary effects might hit Brazil and Argentina, but those markets are so big that Uruguay can't be a major supplier for them. Even the most unlikely worst case scenarios that a drug warrior can imagine (narco-state!) could be contained by Uruguay's neighbors. The far more likely outcomes are a mixed bag of good and bad from which we can all learn while debating reforms in other countries.

Uruguay's biggest challenge is going to be the need to adapt its proposal once it hits problems. The government seems certain that it can manage this market with the right planning effort. I give them credit for discussing the specific details of their proposal, but they should plan for continuous (and potentially reversible) reform rather than try to get all the details correct on the first shot.

James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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5 things to watch for in Venezuelan kingpin Walid Makled's trial

By Elyssa PachicoInSight Crime / 07.31.12

Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Elyssa Pachico’s work here.

Venezuelan drug lord Walid Makled claims to have damning evidence of the military and government elite's ties to the drug trade. Three months in, his trial has offered few explosive revelations, but there are several ticking time bombs to watch out for.

Mr. Makled went into hiding when the security forces raided his farm in 2008 and arrested three of his brothers. After he was arrested in Colombia in 2010, he claimed that he had kept many high-ranking military officials and several governors on his payroll, including the head of the anti-narcotics office and the commander of the armed forces.

Instead of extraditing Makled to the US, where he is wanted for drug trafficking, and where he would presumably have shared intelligence with the authorities, Colombia sent him to Venezuela. His closed-door trial for drug trafficking, money laundering, and two counts of homicide began April 9.

It will likely be a long one. One of Makled’s defense attorneys told EFE that proceedings will probably take a year or more, as the defense has presented 180 pieces of evidence, while the prosecution has presented 400. Seven weeks into the trial, the defense had only gone through 25. Three of Makled’s brothers and nine of his employees, arrested during the 2009 farm raid, are also facing charges.

Related: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

While the trial, closed to the press, has not offered up new details about Makled’s alleged links to the government and military, there have been several intriguing developments. Below are five factors that may prove to be influential in how the trial plays out:

1. Makled’s silence may speak louder than words.

Makled’s decision not to testify is one that he could reverse at a later point in the trial, according to Venezuela’s Organic Penal Procedures Code (COPP). One of Makled’s defense attorneys has said that Makled’s choice is a “very personal decision,” and added, somewhat ominously, “he will know what things to guard and what he should say.”

After former Supreme Court Judge Eladio Aponte left the country and became a informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), state television released footage of Makled, in handcuffs and accompanied by police, calling Aponte the primary associate in his airline business, which is suspected of smuggling tons of cocaine outside the country. While it is not clear when the footage was recorded, its release was clearly intended to cast further doubt on Aponte’s allegations of corruption within the Venezuelan government, by emphasizing his links to Makled. The release of the video footage was one indication that state media, at least, is willing to manipulate Makled’s allegations to achieve its own political ends. Critics of President Hugo Chavez’s administration have been doing the same, pointing to Makled’s claims as evidence that Venezuela is a “narco-state.”

Makled knows that his information is worth a great deal to both the government and the opposition, for different reasons. By not saying everything he knows – or by using the threat of his testimony as leverage – he can make a play to influence the outcome of the trial.

2. The judge has been accused of being too close to the government.

Judge Ali Paredes also handled the high-profile trial of Judge Maria Afiuni, a case heavily criticized by human rights groups. Ms. Afiuni was jailed in 2009 after she issued a ruling in a corruption case that infuriated Chavez. Her case is often cited as an example of the undue influence of the executive branch over the judiciary.

At the time, Afiuni refused to appear before Paredes in court on the grounds that she wouldn’t receive a fair trial. In December 2011, Paredes ruled that she must remain under house arrest for two years.

Paredes’ involvement in the Afiuni case raises the question of whether he will give Makled a fair trial, or whether he will issue his rulings with an eye on the government’s interests.

3. Makled’s brothers are sitting on intelligence of their own.

Walid’s three brothers, arrested during the farm raid in 2008, are also on trial for drug trafficking. While they have not spoken as openly as Walid about their alleged knowledge of the drug trade, they are also receiving closed door trials, suggesting that there are interests who do not want their testimony made public. One brother has been placed under house arrest due to a reported medical condition. Another one, Abdla, has his own political future at stake. At the time of his arrest, he was running for political office and was considered a challenge to the rule of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), raising suspicions about the timing of the farm raid.

4. Makled’s employees say they know nothing.

Statements from several of Makled’s detained employees suggest that, in the government’s eagerness to show that they were striking a blow against drug trafficking, they may have arrested Makled’s farm employees simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. According to a report by El Nacional, among nine employees detained at the farm are the maid, the gardener, the cook, and two farm hands, one of whom is 72 years old and has prostrate cancer. All deny knowing that the farm was used a storehouse for cocaine – during the raid, security forces found 400 kilos of the drug on the premises. These denials would be routine, except for the fact that one employee has already pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and testified that neither the employees (nor Makled) knew that he was storing cocaine in the house. If it turns out that these employees were held on scant evidence, it could cast further doubt on the efficiency of Venezuela’s judiciary in handling the Makled case.

5. The defense is playing hardball.

Makled’s team of attorneys are working hard to find loopholes or irregularities that could result in the judge ruling certain evidence inadmissible. So far much of this involves casting doubt on whether the raid on Makled’s farm was carried out according to procedure. According to Venezuelan law, such police raids must be conducted in the presence of at least three witnesses. The defense won a minor victory in one court session, when a National Guard officer admitted that the witnesses were not present when the security forces collected vital evidence at a landing strip found on the farm grounds.

  Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Elyssa Pachico’s work here.

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Supersized Brazil: Obesity a growing health threat

By Rachel GlickhouseGuest blogger / 07.30.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

While the United States may reign supreme as one of the world's fattest countries, epidemiologists warn that the obesity epidemic is growing in developing countries and represents a new public health threat in countries like Brazil. Given a burgeoning middle class, an expanding food industry, and rising sedentarism, Brazil is experiencing an epidemic that has the potential to worsen in the coming years.

First, given the strength of the economy and a growing population of consumers – particularly the new middle class – fast food restaurants and food conglomerates are moving in or expanding in Brazil. Brazil already has nearly 700 McDonald's restaurants, along with chains like Burger King and KFC. In the past few months, several fast food companies announced they're entering the Brazilian market, including Johnny Rockets, due to open 30 restaurants, and Carl's Jr., due to open 100 restaurants. Coca Cola, which is hugely popular in Brazil, sold R$17.7 billion ($8.7 billion USD) worth of 10.6 billion liters of soft drinks there in 2010. Coca Cola Brasil grew by 6 percent in the second quarter of 2012. The company plans to invest over R$14 billion ($6.9 billion USD) in Brazil over the next five years. Pepsi – which also produces snack food – doubled its Brazil business from 2006 to 2010. The company plans to do a major investment push in Brazil's northeast, which has an important portion of Brazil's growing consumer class.

Brazil's obesity problem is something of a taboo topic. Larry Rohter was one of the first to cover the issue in the international media back in 2005, causing an outcry due to the fact that a foreign publication covered a sensitive issue, as well as the fact that the accompanying photo had mistakenly featured two European women. But since then, obesity become an increasingly salient problem. By 2010, a government-run survey showed that obesity had reached epidemic proportions in Brazil, indicating that 48 percent of adult women and 50 percent of adult men were overweight. An April 2012 study revealed that 15 percent of Brazilian adults are obese, while 52.6 percent of men and 44.7 percent of women are overweight. The University of the State of Rio de Janeiro released a report yesterday showing that obesity-related diseases cost the Brazilian government R$3.57 billion ($1.77 billion) per year.

One of the sources of the epidemic is the growth of the new middle class and the economic boom of recent years. With an all-time low unemployment rate and rising salaries, there's less time for exercise and more demand for fast food. Like in the United States, healthier foods tend to be more expensive. Access to places for exercise can be problematic; safe public spaces may not be accessible to poorer communities, while those who can afford to often join gyms. Government programs have done little to address obesity, and some believe that government anti-hunger programs may have actually helped feed the epidemic, as recipients of state funding have bought cheaper, unhealthier foods.

Another problem is the high level of sedentarism in Brazil. Only 15 percent of Brazilian adults are active in their free time. The Economist revealed a study this week that showed that Brazilians are among the most sedentary in the world – even more than Americans. Over 40 percent of Brazilian men and over 50 percent of Brazilian women get insufficient exercise, the study says. With record sales of cars, TVs, and computers, it's getting easier to avoid exercise. It's cruel irony, but the successes of Brazil's new middle class – including greater access to jobs, technology, and rising purchasing power – could also be the source of Brazilians' declining health.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com.

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (C) sings during an election rally in the low income neighborhood of Petare in Caracas July 28. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS)

Does oil giant Chevron want Chavez to win reelection in Venezuela?

By Steven BodzinGuest blogger / 07.30.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

A couple days ago, Raúl Gallegos published a decent little column about how Chevron is, if not betting on a Hugo Chávez reelection, at least setting itself up for a long, happy relationship with the Bolivarian Republic.

Chevron has no illusions about how Venezuela works. It first set up shop there in the 1920s, when strongmen showed heavier hands than Chavez. Scores of populist governments and two oil-industry nationalizations later Chevron is still pumping crude. And when PDVSA asked for a couple of billion to invest in Boscan, a jointly-run field Chevron first came across in the 1940s, the oil major obliged. The 13-year loan is costing PDVSA Libor plus 4.5 percent, far less than the 11 percent that its 2027 bonds pay.

I quibble with a bit of the column, but basically, he’s right. Chevron in Venezuela is now too big to nationalize.

RELATED: How much do you know about Hugo Chavez? Take our quiz!

I had thought Repsol fell into the same category. But maybe not. Check out this article from last night.

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez warned Repsol SA (REP) to “think carefully” about taking action against Argentina after it nationalized its YPF SA (YPFD) unit, indicating the Spanish company may face ramifications in Venezuela.

“They have a lot of investment here in Venezuela,” Chavez said on state television after holding a meeting with Argentine Planning Minister Julio De Vido in Caracas. “What happens there in Argentina affects what happens here.”

What jumps out here is that Chávez has never made any similar threats against Chevron over its $18 billion debt to ostensible ally Ecuador. If you haven’t followed that whole story, here’s an article, the plaintiff’s version and the company’s version, but long story short, Chevron was sued in the US for polluting Ecuador. It got the case moved to Ecuador, apparently thinking courts there would be friendlier. Courts there ruled against the company and ordered a huge amount of compensation. Chevron insists that the rulings were flawed by corruption, though I think it’s fair to ask, if they were worried about corruption, why did they get the case moved to Ecuador? The whole thing is a mess.

If Chávez were ideological, you’d think that the anti-Chevron campaigners would find open ears in Venezuela, and would even now be auctioning off the Boscan oilfield to pay the Ecuador debts. Instead, I don’t think Chávez has ever mentioned the case. And Chevron is piling in ever more billions of dollars.

Those of you who think politics has anything to do with ideas might be surprised by this. Please learn.

– Steven Bodzin is the Santiago, Chile correspondent for the Monitor. He also blogs at Setty's Notebook.

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A pigeon lands on a wire to join the group of them in Frackville, Pa., in this July 12 photo. (Jacqueline Dormer/Republican-Herald/AP)

Honduras: Contraceptive may be handed out at Catholic church...to pigeons

By Russell SheptakGuest blogger / 07.27.12

There's a legal battle brewing in Tegucigalpa between the Catholic Diocese and pigeon lovers from La Casa de Noé.
 
The historic cathedral in Tegucigalpa was renovated in 2009.  At that time the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), as part of its mission to protect the national patrimony, installed nets designed to keep pigeons from roosting on the historic structure. Their nests damage the building, and their excrement is corrosive.
 
Now, La Casa de Noé [The House of Noah] claims that the nets are killing hundreds of pigeons, and that constitutes animal cruelty.
 
It's not just the Catholic Diocese and IHAH that want to keep the pigeons out.  The city has cut down all of the trees near the cathedral, removing nesting sites for pigeons.
 
In a solomonic decision, the director of SERNA, the natural resources and environmental ministry of the Honduran government, in decree 686-2012, ordered that the netting on the right-hand side of the cathedral be removed because it was hurting the pigeons and their decomposing bodies damaged the environment.

The problem appears to be that the mesh is too big. Pigeons can become trapped in the holes in the mesh and die there, or so the spokesperson for La Casa de Noé, Silvia Alfaro, claims.
 
When she complained to the Environmental commission and the Institute for Forestry Conservation, (ICF) they informed her that pigeons were not endangered in Honduras.
 
Why only the net covering the right hand side of the building needs to be removed is not clear, but a possible solution is: install netting with a smaller mesh, so that the pigeons cannot become trapped in the mesh. The ICF has proposed to begin feeding the existing pigeon population with contraceptive feed.
 
That would allow both the cathedral and the pigeons to peacefully co-exist. But will it satisfy La Casa de Noé?

– Russell Sheptak, the co-author of the blog Honduras Culture and Politics, specializes in the study of colonial history and economic anthropology in this little-reported corner of Central America.

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A gang member gestures during a visit of members of The Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador to the prison of Quezaltepeque, El Salvador, Sunday, July 22. (Luis Romero/AP)

Ending gang violence and creating peace: Colombia's lessons for El Salvador

By Hannah StoneInSight Crime / 07.27.12

InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Hannah Stone's research here.

As the El Salvadoran gang truce offers hope that it could tranform into something more lasting, InSight Crime looks at the lessons from Colombia’s peace process a decade earlier with paramilitary army the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

On March 12, Salvadoran media reported that the country had experienced its most peaceful 24 hours in the last three years with only two murders, compared to the daily average of 13. The trend continued over the next few days, with violence at exceptionally low levels in a country which has become one of the world’s most dangerous. Soon, investigative site El Faro reported that the government had offered concessions to jailed gang members in exchange for a reduction in violence and within days the church stepped forward to say it had brokered a truce between rival gangs the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. From the outset, the government was quick to deny it was involved in any way. However, with the security gains from the truce now having lasted for four months, and murders down about 60 percent from pre-truce levels, the government is looking to turn the truce into a lasting peace deal.

The gang leaders have met with the Organization of American States head Jose Miguel Insulza, presented a list of their demands, and even put the question of disarmament on the table, handing over a “symbolic” delivery of weapons. The government has responded, with President Mauricio Funes declaring that “the truce has created a different scenario that allows the government to consider a national agreement.” Neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala, impressed by the solid drop in violence, have expressed interest in putting a similar model into place to tackle their own gang violence. It is starting to seem possible that the truce will turn into a lasting peace.

At this delicate moment for El Salvador, it is worth looking at the lessons offered by Colombia, which set out on its own program to demobilize the paramilitary armies nearly 10 years ago.

Peace with the Paramilitaries

In December 2002, four months after Alvaro Uribe became president of Colombia, the AUC declared a unilateral ceasefire. The roots of the organization were in groups formed in the 1980s to protect landowners from guerrillas, but over the next two decades it morphed into a drug trafficking federation responsible for massacres and systematic human rights abuses. In July 2003 the government and the AUC announced an agreement to carry out a full demobilization of all paramilitary forces by 2006. More than 31,000 supposed combatants went through demobilization ceremonies, handing over weapons and equipment, and many joined government programs to reintegrate them back into society. The AUC is no longer a force in Colombia; its top leaders are dead or imprisoned, many of them in the US.

The country has been more peaceful since then. Murder statistics from the Colombian police, quoted by the·United Nations, show a sharp drop in the national murder rate at the time that negotiations began. From 1995 to 2002 the rate varied between 60 and 71 per 100,000 – one of the highest in the world. In 2003 it dropped to 56, and has kept steadily falling, down to the low thirties today. One 2007 paper found a 13 percent drop in killings, on average, in areas where the paramilitaries had demobilized, and calculated that up to 2,800 deaths had been averted by the peace process. The improved security situation is of course due to many factors, particularly the government’s assault on the guerrilla groups, but the paramilitary demobilization played its part. At the very least, it cut the large scale massacres which were a trademark of the AUC.

The impact of the Salvadoran gang truce could be far greater than that of Colombia’s demobilization. Since the truce began four months ago, murders have dropped from 13 a day to around five, meaning that nearly 1,000 lives have already been saved – and this in a country with a sixth of the population Colombia had at the time of the paramilitary peace process.

In both cases, there is the potential of taking out the biggest contributors to violence. In El Salvador, the government had accused gangs of being responsible for 90 percent of murders in the country – a claim that has been criticized, but which began to seem more plausible after murders dropped 60 percent on the say-so of their leaders. Likewise the AUC is estimated to have been the single biggest contributor to violence in Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

A Cautionary Tale

More can be learned from the shortcomings of Colombia’s peace process than its limited successes. Colombia’s demobilization is widely considered to have been a failure, with a large number of combatants joining paramilitary successor groups or drug cartels which took over many of the old criminal structures of the AUC. The government insists on calling these “criminal groups” (BACRIM) and asserting that they have no relation to the paramilitaries, though many of their leaders were mid-level commanders in the AUC. They have taken over many of the same criminal activities, using the same networks, and carry out attacks on civilians in areas they control.

As a 2010 Human Rights Watch report sets out, the rise of the BACRIM was in large part due to the failures of Colombia’s demobilization process to “dismantle the AUC’s criminal networks and financial and political support structures.”

Salvadoran maras do not have anything like the same kind of political and financial networks as the paramilitaries, and do not engage in organized crime on the same level. The MS-13 and Barrio 18 have evolved over the last decade from their beginnings as neighborhood gangs only loosely connected on the national level, but they remain street gangs which get the majority of their funding from extortion. They are involved in the drug trade as street-level vendors, and do not usually control the wholesale distribution of the product, much less deal with international trafficking organizations.

However, their networks go deep into the communities where they are located. In many areas they exert social control, substituting for the government, charging “taxes” to street vendors and preventing rivals from entering. It will be important for the Salvadoran government to break this hold, and bring state presence to areas the gangs currently control. If this is not done, then new criminal structures will rise to take the place of the maras, should they demobilize. Human Rights Watch said that the Colombian government failed to take advantage of the demobilization process to “thoroughly question demobilizing paramilitaries about their knowledge of the groups’ assets, contacts, and criminal operations, to investigate the groups’ criminal networks and sources of support, and to take them apart.” Salvadoran authorities should take note, and use the opportunity to push for a dismantling of the gangs’ extortion and other criminal networks.

The Colombian demobilization process also failed to bring AUC members to justice for even the most serious crimes. The agreement was that the rank and file would go free, while those convicted of serious human rights abuses would get a maximum of eight years in prison, in exchange for compensating their victims and giving testimony about their actions. So far, seven years since the Justice and Peace law meant to govern the process was implemented, there have been only seven convictions. Most of the top AUC leaders are now serving far longer sentences, after being extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges, but this means that many have ceased to cooperate with Colombian justice.

If Salvador moves towards a full peace process, the government should ensure that those gang members responsible for serious abuses are brought to justice. As Crisis Group pointed out at the beginning of the Colombian peace process, “It would be disastrous to allow the men with guns to believe that they could engage in terrible brutalities today and be pardoned tomorrow.” It has indeed proved disastrous, with members of one BACRIM, known as the ERPAC, being allowed to “demobilize” last year, despite the fact that their group is itself a successor to the paramilitaries. While every peace process has to strike a balance between peace (ending the conflict) and justice (making sure the guilty are punished), allowing impunity for serious crimes will not ensure lasting peace.

Two Conflicts

The differences between Salvador’s “maras” and Colombia’s paramilitaries are of course enormous. The AUC was a party to an ongoing civil conflict which involved other actors, including the guerrilla groups who are still fighting today. It had deep ties to the political and military establishment, which the maras do not, and carried out brutal acts and massacres on a far greater scale. Meanwhile El Salvador presents its own distinct set of problems, including historical enmity between the two gangs that are party to the truce.

Indeed, the effect of a peace deal in El Salvador could be the reverse of that in Colombia. Through the demobilization process, Colombia’s paramilitaries shed much of their ideological posturing and morphed into the BACRIM, who have dropped the political rhetoric and exert less social control in their territory, focusing instead on drug trafficking, illegal gold mining, and extortion. According to analyst Douglas Farah, who has been interviewing jailed gang members in Salvador since the truce was declared, the "pandilleros" (gang members) are readying themselves for a shift into politics. In an report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he predicted that the result of the truce “is likely to be a short-term drop in activity as gangs morph into political actors,” and reported that gang members are already putting plans into place to back political candidates in exchange for protection and control of their policies.

In Colombia, though the AUC is gone, the drug trade continues unabated. In El Salvador, even if every member of the gangs demobilizes, the factors that cause young people to join gangs, like social exclusion and unemployment, will remain.

–  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.

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Rumored Zetas split: Would this bring more violence or peace for Mexico?

By Patrick CorcoranInSight Crime / 07.26.12

InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.

Reports of a split between the two leaders of Mexico’s notorious Zetas drug gang suggest that a violent power struggle may be brewing in the group's northeastern home turf, a conflict which could shake the established order in the country's criminal underworld.

According to a new report from Proceso, the partnership of the Zetas' two main leaders – Heriberto Lazcano, alias “Z-3”, and Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, alias “Z-40” – has come under strain, and the two appear to be headed for an open confrontation.

In recent months, a series of public banners (known as “mantas”) and videos uploaded to the internet have made reference to the two Zeta leaders’ capacity for betrayal. One manta, which appeared both in Monterrey and Zacatecas on June 1, placed a photo of Lazcano amid several former Zeta leaders who have been killed or arrested over the past several years, implying that Mr. Lazcano arranged their downfalls so as to secure control of the group. However, the manta also alleges that Mr. Treviño was involved in the betrayals and asks, “Are we better off with Lazca or Z-40?”, which suggests that the authors were either disgruntled lower-level Zetas or a rival group passing themselves off as such. A series of videos was posted online over the following days which referred to Treviño as the “New Judas” and accused him of using federal troops to have his fellow Zetas commanders picked off one by one.

The Proceso report points to Treviño as the more powerful of the two leaders today, with Lazcano evidently spending much of his time in recent years in foreign countries, among them Germany and Costa Rica. But the tangle of accusations and apparent betrayals, which are far more numerous than those outlined above, suggests a breakdown in organizational structure that goes beyond the two principal leaders. As InSight Crime has noted in the past, this hypothesis is supported by the numerous incidents of disobedience in the ranks of the Zetas.

Proceso describes the 49 dead bodies left in along a highway in Nuevo Leon in May as another example of this phenomenon. According to the magazine, the local boss charged with carrying out the crime disobeyed Treviño in not tossing the bodies in a nearby town plaza, because of his worries about the backlash of such a provocation. Instead, he dumped the bodies along a comparatively remote stretch of highway, where they were subsequently discovered by authorities.

Treviño’s relative strength doesn’t assure that he’ll emerge victorious or (even less likely) strengthened by the internal strife. Indeed, the reports of internal decay make it likely that whatever the result of the recent tensions, the victorious capo will be heading a weaker organization.

Continuing degradation in the Zetas' command structure would likely be a source of violence in the group’s territories in the northeast, especially Veracruz, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas. Certainly, internal strife within a group typically leads to a sharp uptick in murders. Such has been the case in Mexico’s northeast for years: the 2010 conflict between erstwhile allies the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas has driven a sharp increase in murder rates in the state's named above. A similar dynamic was at play in 2008, when the Beltran Leyva Organization split from the Sinaloa Cartel, which drove an outbreak in violence across wide swaths of western and southern Mexico. Or, further back, the split between the Carrillo Fuentes family and the Sinaloa Cartel following the latter’s murder of Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes in 2004 eventually precipitated the fight over Juarez that has turned the border town into Mexico’s most violent city for the past four years.

In such cases, the subsequent fighting may be initially motivated by revenge or personal hatreds, but the dispute for territorial control is often not far from the surface, and helps sustain the conflict for years to come. For instance, Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes’ murder may have helped spark the tension that led to the fight for Juarez, but it was control of the border town itself, one of the busiest along the US-Mexico border, that turned a blood feud into something like a war zone.

However, a prolonged spiral of violence isn’t inevitable; the division between the Familia Michoacana and Caballeros Templarios, which followed the 2010 death of Familia boss Nazario Moreno, provoked a relatively mild increase in violence in Michoacan. Indeed, the state’s murder rate in 2011 (a little more than 17) remained below the national average (just shy of 21), and the rate through six months of 2012 is virtually identical.

A weakening of the Zetas in their home turf may also discourage the group’s forays into far-flung regions of Mexico, such as Jalisco or Sinaloa. The organization’s presence in such areas has led to a great deal of violence, and has helped cement the Zetas’ reputation as the most expansionist, destabilizing gang in Mexico. Should fighting at home lead bosses to call their gunmen deployed elsewhere back into the state’s northeastern home, this could lead to a lessening of tensions elsewhere.

Furthermore, reports that a significant chunk of the Zetas could align with the Gulf Cartel could be a key factor in determining the impact of the split. If a resulting alliance is capable of overwhelming the divisions between the Gulf Cartel and Zetas bosses – i.e., if the Zetas resisting collaboration with other groups are eliminated from the industry – then it could ultimately turn into a driver of a more peaceful interaction between the various gangs in Mexico’s northeast.

That’s the most optimistic scenario, and while not implausible, unfortunately recent history suggests that it is not a particularly likely outcome.

– Patrick Corcoran 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.

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez unveils a photograph-like portrait of Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar on the 229th anniversary of Bolivar's birth at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, July 24, 2012. A team of researchers produced the image based on studies of Bolivar's remains. (AP Photo/ (Fernando Llano/AP)

Venezuela's liberation hero Simon Bolivar turns 229

By Gustavo Hernandez AcevedoGuest blogger / 07.25.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Caracas Chronicles. The views expressed are the author's own.

S-Bol’s [Simon Bolivar] 229th birthday won’t be an ordinary one. Right in the middle of the presidential campaign, the Chavernment [Chavez government] will use it to push its electoral narrative while continuing the adaptation of our history to its ideological purposes.

First, a new state-of-the-art computer reconstruction of Bolivar’s face has just been unveiled. Turns out the Libertador was, let’s say, lucky to live before the invention of photography.

I guess what we saw during our lifetimes in paintings and banknotes was, to put it politely, “artistically” kind. The final 3D version is unmistakably creepy. “Los Amos del Uncanny Valley” indeed.

After that presentation, some findings of the investigation about Bolivar’s death were given, based on the exhumation of his remains two years ago. The tests (carried out in the UK) indicate that neither syphilis or tuberculosis were responsible of his death but cerebral edemas, probably produced by a pulmonary infection. Symptoms are, it seems, easy to mistake for tuberculosis.

RELATED: What do you know Hugo Chavez? Take our quiz!

[Today], the cult of Bolivarianism will finally have a temple of its own as the new personal mausoleum of Simon Bolivar (located behind the National Pantheon) will be formally opened, even if some people doubt it will be ready. According to press reports, Bolivar’s remains have already been moved there.

The construction was accelerated to the point that one worker died in a labor accident days ago. The project was marked by constant delays and it went way over budget. Almost half of the entire Culture Ministry’s budget for 2012 was committed to finish this mausoleum.

These new developments unfold while Chavez has made “independence” the main theme of his electoral platform, in order to avoid taking about his 14-year record. However, it looks like he will cling once again to the past glories of our history, as his own version of independence has brought more harm than good to Venezuelans.

– Gustavo Hernandez Acevedo is a writer for Caracas Chronicles, the place for opposition-leaning-but-not-insane analysis of the Venezuelan political scene since 2002

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