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Former hostage army sergeant Luis Alfredo Moreno, second from right, waves a Colombian flag upon his arrival at the airport after being released by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Villavicencio, Colombia, Monday. At left, is an unidentified former hostage. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

FARC hostage release: Peace agreement ahead in Colombia? (+video)

By Staff writer / 04.03.12

For mothers and sons, husbands and wives, and young children and their fathers – including one teenager who has not seen his father since he was four years old – the release of 10 hostages by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Monday has brought a sense of jubilation to Colombia.

"I shouted! I jumped up and down!" said one mother, Olivia Solarte, to the Associated Press, upon hearing that her son, one of six police officers and four soldiers – the last remaining “security” hostages held by the FARC for more than a decade – was set free Monday.

But the sense of joy felt by individual families might not translate into a national sigh of relief, for a nation that has suffered decades as the home base for the region's oldest and most dangerous guerrilla group.

As our correspondent Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogota writes, the move, which was announced in February along with the promise by the FARC to end kidnappings of civilians for ransom, does not mean that prospects for peace are clear.

Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, said there was a “measure of wishful thinking” among those who see this as a first step toward peace talks, adding that there is still a “long way to go” before the FARC and the government are ready to sit down at opposite sides of a negotiations table.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos seemed to capture that cautious optimism as the hostages were released, calling it "a step in the right direction, a very important step" but underlining that peace dialogues were not imminent. He said first the government needs proof that the FARC is serious about ending kidnappings as a source of revenue stream.

There are no reliable figures on how many civilian hostages remain. And this is not the first time the government and the FARC have set out on a road to peace. The last attempt collapsed in 2002, after the FARC hijacked a domestic passenger flight.

“The FARC is trying to enhance [its] legitimacy but they are doing it from a weakened position,” says Mr. Shifter. “The government is being extremely careful in not giving in to the enormous temptation to pursue peace because of the skepticism in the ruling coalition.” 

“It’s a dance we see a lot of in Colombia,” says Shifter.

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Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina speaks in a news conference after a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield, in the Presidential House of Guatemala City on March 27, 2012. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

Guatemala's president surprises critics by renewing UN commission on impunity

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger / 03.30.12

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

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has begun the process of renewing the mandate of a valuable United Nations-backed anti-impunity organization, easing fears about his commitment to judicial reform in the country.

President Perez made good on his promise to support the two-year renewal of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) yesterday, meeting with CICIG head Francisco Dall’Anese in the presidential palace in order to outline the renewal process (link in Spanish). According to Perez, renewing the mandate isn’t very complicated, and only consists of exchanging a few letters with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The CICIG’s current mandate expires in September 2013, but the renewal will add two more years to this deadline. Apart from the extension, Perez told local press that the administration will develop a “road map” of the Commission’s objectives for the next several years, which will be presented to the countries funding the project.

InSight Crime Analysis

As InSight Crime has noted previously, the CICIG has proved to be extremely effective in the struggle to fix Guatemala’s broken justice system. Because of its importance to the prospect of judicial reform in the country, Perez raised eyebrows during his presidential campaign last summer after he dodged questions about renewing the Commission’s mandate. He further fueled concerns about his dedication to cleaning up the judicial branch when he distanced himself (link in Spanish) from the work of the country’s ambitious Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz.

However, it seems Perez has decided to keep on both the CICIG as well as Paz y Paz, which have continued their active pursuit of government corruption cases, as a series of recent high-level prosecutions illustrate.

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.

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Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd as he arrives to celebrate a mass at Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday. (Courtesy of Osservatore Romano/Reuters)

The pope in Cuba: a reporter's notebook

By Girish GuptaContributor / 03.29.12

The views expressed are the author's own.

Havana's Nacional hotel has long had a romantic air: It was the haunt of journalists and spies in Graham Greene novels, the honeymoon destination of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, and a hangout for prohibition-era mobsters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.

Every night this past week, the world's press gathered at the hotel's backyard patio, which spills out onto a well trimmed lawn and down toward the turquoise sea. Amid the many languages, the reporters all have one thing in common: A list of Cuban dissidents, their addresses and cellphone numbers.

As phone lines are often blocked and internet access difficult – and closely monitored when it can be accessed, claim activists – journalists in Cuba must embark on a tour of dissidents' homes, hoping they will be in and available to talk. This isn't always the case.

On top of this, many journalists enter Cuba on tourist visas, unable to obtain the necessary press visa, and if caught reporting they face deportation.
Indeed, one interview I carried out in the streets of central Havana was interrupted by police who interrogated both me and the interviewee as to what had been asked and why. In wriggling out by pretending to be practicing my tourist-sounding Spanish, it was a worrying reminder of the nature of the authorities here.
The day of the pope's arrival, the police followed me through central Havana as I asked Cubans what they thought about the pope's call for more freedom here. Very few were willing to offer anything other than the official line.
"The pope wasn't speaking about Cuba. He was talking about the entire world needing to find its freedom," says hot-dog vendor Margarita Florez. "I feel free here. I can do what I like."
Security in Havana was noticeably ramped up upon the pope's arrival and during his mass in Revolution Square. Many streets were closed with no explanation from police, which resulted in many journalists traveling here to report with little to show for it.
But beyond reporter's frustrations lies the real story: Cuba, for all its romance and beauty, remains an authoritarian state. Jammed phones, closed streets and painfully slow internet, when available, do nothing but exacerbate the challenges of free reporting and the ability of citizens to voice their opinion, or opposition groups to co-ordinate their activities.

The repression also extends to the economy. Sitting on a bench in a leafy park opposite Havana's capital building, a man named Ulises, who did not want his surname published, says he earns the equivalent of $10 a month working as a security guard.
"The pope might be able to help a little," he says despondently, showing off a patterned black t-shirt which he says cost the equivalent of $20 – paid for on credit over six months. "We fight for our lives. Us Cubans are fighters."

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Indicted: US soldiers offer to serve as hired guns for Mexican gangs

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger / 03.29.12

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

United States drug enforcement agents have broken up a ring involving former and current US military personnel attempting to work for Mexico’s brutal Zetas drug cartel, illustrating the group's alarming potential to penetrate the US military.

On March 24, First Lt. Kevin Corley allegedly arrived with a three-man team at a warehouse in the border city of Laredo, Texas, armed with two semiautomatic rifles, a combat knife and a .300-caliber bolt-action rifle equipped with a scope. The men believed they had been hired by the Zetas to carry out a contracted killing and raid of a rival drug trafficking group’s storehouse, and had been called to receive the final details of the assignment.  What they didn’t know, however, was that they were targets of an elaborate sting operation organized by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

For the past six months, Corley had been speaking with DEA agents posing as Zetas representatives, and had promised both to carry out “wet work” (a military euphemism for assassinations) for the cartel as well as equip and train Zetas members in military tactics. According to a federal indictment (.pdf), Corley claimed that his status as an active duty soldier made it easy for him to pilfer weaponry from his post in Colorado, and demonstrated this by providing the agents with bulletproof vests, training manuals and other stolen military equipment.

However, after receiving phony instructions from the undercover operatives in the warehouse, the four men found themselves surrounded by federal law enforcement officers. Although agents killed one of the suspects while attempting to make an arrest, the remaining three were taken into custody. Two other accomplices based in South Carolina were arrested in conjunction with the sting operation.

While the fact that six US citizens were so completely willing to work for the Zetas is disturbing, the most worrisome aspect of this case is the fact that all four members of the would-be “kill team” (with the exception of the individual killed by federal agents, who was a cousin of Corley’s) were either current or former members of the US military.

This is a troubling reminder that US military personnel are not immune to the kinds of incentives that lure their military counterparts in Mexico into joining the Zetas. The Zetas’ links to the Mexican military have been a trademark of the group since their early days working as the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel. Their original 31 founders were all ex-members of the Mexican special forces, and today the group is thought to have deeply penetrated the military in the states of Hidalgo, Chihuahua and Tabasco, as well as other parts of the country. As the drug gang’s trafficking networks have grown, they have expanded their recruitment pool to include members of security forces in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Until now, however, there was no hard proof evidence that the cartel was capable of hiring US-trained military professionals to carry out its work.  These arrests show that there is a very real possibility of such a trend, no doubt sounding alarm bells for US drug enforcement agents already concerned about the prospect of “spillover violence” in the American southwest.

The case is especially relevant in light of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s recent warnings that the US military is facing "significant criminal threat" from gangs within its ranks. In the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment released in October, the FBI names some 50 criminal organizations that count both current and ex-soldiers among their members. The list includes the Zetas, as well as a handful of transnational street gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Barrio 18 and Barrio Azteca. Although they represent only a tiny fraction of veterans and servicemen, the FBI cautions that many gang members enlist in order to “receive weapons and combat training that they may transfer back to their gang.” The report also notes an uptick in gang-related graffiti in military bases overseas.

This phenomenon is a threat not only to the US, but to other countries in the hemisphere as well. If enough members of transnational criminal organizations acquire military expertise in the US, there is a chance that they will share these skills with affiliate cells in other countries in the region, potentially giving them a leg up against local officials. As InSight Crime has pointed out, many gangs already have the organizational infrastructure in place to do so. Both of El Salvador’s largest “maras” (street gangs) got their start in US prisons, and still maintain a strong presence in major cities like Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

Despite these concerns, the US military is a long way from seeing the kind of criminal penetration that plagues the Mexican army. That all six members of the “Zetas” plot had been under surveillance for months and eventually apprehended is a testament to the success that US law enforcement has had in foiling such criminal endeavors. Even still, with the Zetas growing more and more sophisticated, the risk of infiltration grows greater, and the US military may need to step up its internal monitoring to prevent this.

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.

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Pope Benedict XVI arrives to celebrate a mass at Revolution Square in Havana March 28. Pope Benedict, speaking from Cuba's biggest stage, urged Cubans on Wednesday to search for "authentic freedom" as their country changes and pressed the island's communist government to give the Catholic Church more liberties, including the right to teach religion in schools and run universities. (Osservatore Romano/REUTERS)

Pope in Cuba: Trip shows how church playing balancing act (+video)

By Anya Landau FrenchGuest blogger / 03.29.12

Whereas Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba nearly 15 years ago was in itself a historic moment – coming as it did at the end of a dark period for church-state relations in Cuba – Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island this week was more about consolidating spaces the Cuban Catholic Church has won in society, and about gaining more such space.  Those who hoped this pope’s trip would have profound impact on the broader political and human rights context on the island were surely disappointed by the pope’s decision not to meet with Cuban dissidents who asked to see him. 

To some extent, it’s hard to imagine what prominent figure really could sway Cuba’s leaders off of their course to rebuild the economy and leave the one-party political system in place. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I tend to think the Cuban people themselves will be the protagonists of that evolution, even if it takes much longer than some, or many, wish.

But given the ground the Cuban Catholic Church lost decades ago, the ground it has recovered in the past decade, and its priorities for the future near and far, creating more space for those goals must have been the driving factors in the pope’s trip. And perhaps that increased space in society – whether it is the Cuba Catholic Church’s publication of unvarnished criticisms of Raul Castro’s halting economic reforms, or the hoped-for reopening of private Catholic schools in Cuba one day, or Pope Benedict’s request to add Good Friday to the Cuban State’s official calendar – perhaps these advances, and reaches, by the Catholic Church and its offices and members in Cuban society at a crucial time of generational change may help usher in other social and political openings.

That is the road the church has chosen for itself in modern-day Cuba.  Rather than serve as a force for opposition, it looks for opportunities for constructive engagement with the government in ways that it feels can benefit the Cuban people. 

Many observers were aghast when, just before the pope’s visit, Cuban Catholic Church leaders requested that government authorities remove 13 dissidents who had been “occupying” a Havana church for several days. (Accounts differ about how peaceably they were evicted from the church.)  I’m certainly no expert in religious affairs, but many saw this action as the church siding with the oppressor and refusing sanctuary to these dissidents (as houses of worship often do, though usually in situations when someone is fleeing armed conflict). Considering the positive role Cuba’s Catholic Church has played specifically on human rights in Cuba in the past several years, I thought there might be more nuanced views of the cardinal’s decision than I’ve read so far. 

Whatever the Cuban Catholic Church’s failings, let’s remember that it was one of Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s letters to Raul Castro seeking an end to harassment of a peaceful protest group, the Ladies in White, that helped reinstate the group's weekly marches, which had been suspended by the government, and led to a face to face ongoing dialogue with Raul Castro, and the release of all of Cuba’s political prisoners in the following months.

The Catholic Church in Cuba has for several years been working two fronts, trying to increase its ministry to Cubans’ spiritual and physical needs on a daily and individual level, and trying to increase space for dialogue, tolerance, and reconciliation.  And while it has eschewed a more overtly political role, it’s been known to speak out on human rights and governance issues that affect the welfare of the population. It has succeeded in influencing the Cuban government into not merely ceding the increased space, but proudly celebrating that new space. For example, Raul Castro attended the opening of the church’s new seminary in Havana last year. What other nongovernmental group has such influence in Cuba?

In some cases, the church’s effort has meant getting directly involved in specific human rights cases, whether it concerned the increased harassment of the Ladies in White two years ago, or the release of Cuban political prisoners in 2010 and 2011 which church leaders helped negotiate.  Many have criticized Ortega for his role in the releases, since dozens of prisoners and their families were first just offered freedom in exile (in Spain).  Perhaps some of those dissidents didn’t believe that the government would truly let them go free in Cuba and surely others wanted to leave a country – the government sweetened the deal by letting them bring their entire extended families with them – that offered them little but bad memories.  But about a dozen others refused that first offer and though they were the last to be released, they were all released and allowed to remain in Cuba, keeping to the agreement the church said it had with the Cuban government.

When it comes to drawing the church into politics, just how mighty is its influence with Cuba’s leaders?  And where is the line between seeking refuge in a church and seeking political leverage at the expense of one?   These are not easy questions, and they should not negate the very valid societal concerns that the group of dissidents wished to raise when they chose to occupy the church.  The dissidents presented a list of improvements in rights and living conditions that surely every Cuban wants, but which the church could not possibly be expected to deliver (nor could Pope Benedict, with whom the group demanded an audience). The aim of the group, then, was to put the church in an impossible situation just days before the most important occasion for the Catholic Church in Cuba in over a decade. That – and, to be fair, to at least raise these concerns publicly, as news of a church occupation days before the pope’s arrival would surely do.

But the archdiocese felt it was being drawn into a political tug of war.  “Nobody has the right to turn temples into political trenches,” said the Havana Archdiocese’s spokesman, Orlando Marquez.   And even other Cuban dissidents were quick to distance themselves from the tactic of using a house of worship to achieve political aims.  But they were just as, if not more, critical of the decision to turn the occupiers out.  So if the tactic of occupying a house of worship was inappropriate, but eviction was not an appropriate response, how else might the situation have been resolved?   I, for one, haven’t got the answer, and I haven’t heard any of the cardinal’s numerous critics come up with one, either.

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Crowds gather on Monday for Papal Mass by Pope Benedict XVI in the Plaza de la Revolución Antonio Maceo in Santiago, Cuba. Many are watching to see if the Pope will mention Alan Gross, an imprisoned US aid worker, accused of spying. (Patrick Farrell/The Miami Herald/AP)

Pope in Cuba: Will he raise case of jailed American?

By Girish GuptaCorrespondent / 03.27.12

Washington will be watching Cuba carefully this week, as Pope Benedict XVI walks a diplomatic tightrope between his church, the government-proclaimed atheist Cuban state, and dissidents on the island. The Catholic Church has already described the US embargo as useless and Washington will be keen for attention to be deflected away from US policy on Cuba.
Diplomats will also be watching for any mention of Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development arrested here in December 2009, accused of spying. His wife, Judy Gross, has called for the pope to help at least allow her husband to travel to the United States to visit his elderly mother, who is suffering from inoperable lung cancer.
Ultimately, she would like his release from prison, and return to the United States. "I have one hope left, and that’s, of course, the pope,” she told The Washington Post. “If that doesn’t work, I think he’ll probably die in Cuban prison.”

The Cuban government accused Mr. Gross of attempting to "destroy the revolution through the use of communications systems out of the control of authorities," according to a Cuban court statement. He entered Cuba on a tourist visa and was caught with a satellite phone.  Gross said he was trying to help the country's Jewish community find better access to the internet.

Havana is keen to use Gross as a bargaining chip in return for the Cuban Five, whose faces adorn billboards here in Havana. They were arrested by US authorities in 1998 and convicted in 2001 for spying on anti-Castro exiles in Miami.

The pope has an incredibly difficult task ahead of him as he lands in Havana today from the eastern city of Santiago.  He said last week during his visit to Mexico that the "Marxist ideology" in Cuba "no longer corresponds to reality." However, Benedict XVI has refused to meet with dissidents. It is unlikely he will want to mention Gross, or even allude to him, given the already delicate situation the pope faces in Cuba.

Later today, the pope will fly to Havana to meet President Raul Castro. There is much speculation as to whether older brother Fidel Castro will speak with the pope as well.  The former president was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, after the 1959 Revolution expelled priests and
nuns, seized church property, and banned religious believers from the Communist party.  In 1976, Cuba declared itself an atheist state and only reinstated Christmas as a national holiday in preparation for Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is also in Cuba this week for radiotherapy. He has invoked Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church throughout his presidency and will no doubt be eager for a photo opportunity with the pope.

• The views expressed are the author's own.

RELATED: Catholicism in Latin America: 5 key facts

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A view from the top of the Dona Marta slum, one of several pacified slums, of the southern area of the city in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in this March 3, 2011 file photo. (Rodrigo Abd/AP/File)

Problem in securing Rio slums? Announcing police arrival ahead of time.

By Elyssa PachicoGuest blogger / 03.27.12

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

More than a year after the military launched a raid to drive drug traffickers out of Complexo do Alemao, a complex of favelas, or slums, in Rio de Janeiro, the neighborhood is set to receive two elite police units.

Military forces invaded Complexo do Alemao in November 2010, in an operation intended to remove the area from criminal rule.

Now, the military says they are again stepping up security measures inside Alemao in anticipation of the arrival of two police pacification units (UPPs) to the neighborhood. The elite military police squad, known as the BOPE, is supposed to lead another security sweep in Alemao starting March 27, in order to clear the area for the UPPs' arrival.

The UPPs are elite police units, set up to bring community policing to Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods that had previously been lawless [See Monitor coverage on UPPs here].

There are currently 19 UPP units in place in the city.

InSight Crime Analysis

During the November 2010 invasion of Alemao, many drug traffickers reportedly escaped the favela complex, fleeing through underground sewers or slipping across a nearby mountain, the Serra da Misericordia. The military told O Globo (in Portuguese) that this year the security forces have prioritized sealing off the Serra, to discourage any remaining drug trafficking gangs from using the same escape route.

However, this does call attention to one of the main shortcomings of Rio de Janeiro's approach to "clearing" and "pacifying" its favelas. When announced ahead of time, it gives powerful drug traffickers the chance to leave the area before the security forces arrive. This means that the authorities can enter a neighborhood with minimum violence, but that the criminals are not apprehended and may simply relocate, or wait for military presence to die down.

Complexo de Alemao is set to receive a total of 12 UPP units, O Globo reports.

– Elyssa Pachico 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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Pope Benedict XVI waves to crowds in Leon, Mexico from the popemobile. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

Mexicans host Pope Benedict XVI, but say he's no Juan Pablo

By Staff writer / 03.25.12

There is really no better place to measure the pulse of a country than in a beauty salon. And in Mexico City, in Vanessa Gonzalez's salon, the trip of Pope Benedict XVI to Mexico measures at, she pauses, approximately zero. “I have not heard one client talking about it,” she says.

But during the last papal visit to this country ten years ago – by the late Pope John Paul II – the swirling chairs and shampoo stalls were abuzz. “People adore Juan Pablo,” she says.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Mexico on Friday, and today celebrates an open mass in a park in Silao, Guanajuato, a deeply Catholic state in central Mexico, before heading on to Cuba tomorrow.

His trip has not been without controversy. He comes amid gruesome drug violence that has claimed 50,000 lives, and while most victims are rival traffickers, anyone can end up a target, including a public figure. He is bypassing Mexico City altogether, leaving some residents feeling snubbed and others speculating that he is avoiding the capital's embrace of gay marriage and abortion (the Vatican says the altitude is what's keeping him away). And Guanajuato state happens to be run by the ruling, Catholic-friendly National Action Party (PAN), which some see as a political message. They say it's no coincidence that the pope is visiting the country as it is about to kick off its presidential race.

But away from the political chatter, regular Mexicans are hardly paying attention. Mexico is devoutly Catholic, home to the second-largest Catholic population in the world behind Brazil. But the current pope has done little to move Mexican Catholics the way his predecessor did – John Paul II often brought the faithful to tears.

Ms. Gonzalez says even her father, a man not easily moved, broke down crying upon passing a caravan carrying John Paul II on his first-ever trip to the nation in 1979. He would visit Mexico five times in total.

Her mother, meanwhile, is devoutly Catholic and easily moved, praying a full hour each morning and another hour each night. But she hasn't even talked about Benedict XVI's visit – Gonzalez didn't even exactly know when he was scheduled to arrive. If it were John Paul II, she says, she'd probably know his entire itinerary.

In fact, mention the current pope and the first words out of everyone's mouth is “seco,” meaning dry. That's usually followed by “serio,” or serious. Some say he seems harsh, and most of all, he's not “charismatic.”

“He doesn't have charm,” says Julio Valdez, a parking valet outside a local Catholic parish.

“I don't know anything about this pope,” says Elizabeth, who makes tortillas outside the same church and says she's too shy to share her last name. “Everything that John Paul did and said was good, just good,” she says, her face lighting up. “You just say his name, and I am full of emotion.”

Their feelings are reflected in a survey by Demotecnia, which showed that 77 percent of Catholics surveyed said that if they are moved at all by the pope's visit, it doesn't compare to how they felt ahead of John Paul II's visits. Only 20 percent of Catholics polled said they were “very excited” about the trip.

A good portion of those must live in Guanajuato. The state hosting Benedict this weekend is among the most religious in Mexico, with 94 percent calling themselves Catholic, according to the Mexican census. It may be a coincidence but when the Monitor was recently in Guanajuato to write about the pope's visit, the first three people interviewed were named in order: Jesus, Magdalena, and Moises.

Moises Silva, leaving the main basilica of the state capital Guanajuato on Ash Wednesday, said he was planning on battling the mobs to capture a glimpse of the pope. “It is a blessing that he is going to visit,” said Mr. Silva.

Magdalena Vargas, a city accountant, said her feelings of joy were “infinite.” “One can hardly believe that the highest representative is coming here,” she said. “We are overjoyed.”

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Guatemala's President Otto Perez (L) and his Panamanian counterpart Ricardo Martinelli chat during the 30th Expocomer International Trade Fair opening ceremony at the Atlapa Convention Center in Panama City March 21. (Carlos Jasso/REUTERS)

Guatemala's Perez lowers expectations for drug legalization

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 03.22.12

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

Some analysts got excited when President Otto Perez Molina announced several weeks ago that the Central American presidents would meet in Guatemala to agree to a decriminalization proposal prior to the Summit of the Americas. It was never going to be that easy.
 Several of the region's leaders, most recently Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, have rejected Perez's proposal outright. Others, like Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, were initially receptive but have backed away after seeing the political and public opinion reaction at home.

Perez is now pushing for this Saturday's meeting to be about a coordinated strategy on drug policy and security issues, but does not believe that the region will agree on a decriminalization proposal given the differences. The expectations are lowered to something a bit less radical and a bit more realistic. Hopefully the region's presidents can deliver on that agenda and not disappoint.
 That said, Guatemala's president continues to push for other alternatives. He met with the business community in his country yesterday and asked them to think of alternatives because a pure military strategy doesn't bring the necessary results. Again, it's good to hear the former military leader acknowledge that the military isn't the solution.
 Perez still isn't even 100 days into his term in office. Once the "shock and awe" of his decriminalization suggestion wears off, it will be important to see whether he can sustain the dialogue for some policy changes over the coming years and accept realistic compromises that still move the ball forward.

– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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Support for crime boss 'Dudas' Coke still strong in Jamaica

By Hannah StoneGuest blogger / 03.21.12

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

As the case against Christopher "Dudus" Coke drags on, with his sentencing delayed for the fourth time, reactions from Jamaica give an insight into the complex nature of the power wielded by him and other crime dons.

After a long struggle to capture "Dudus" Coke, the Jamaican drug boss was extradited to the US in June 2010. He made a deal with the authorities, pleading guilty to drug trafficking and assault charges in August, avoiding a possible life sentence. The prosecution asked for him to be given the maximum sentence of 23 years, arguing that he had committed horrifically violent acts, including cutting one victim to pieces with a chainsaw. On Friday, however, a New York judge ruled that prosecutors needed to produce more evidence to back their claims. There will be another hearing in May, with sentencing to follow on a later date, reported Reuters.

The news was greeted with euphoria by Coke supporters outside the court, according to the Jamaica Gleaner, with relatives and friends telling reporters that the delay was due to divine intervention.

There is still support and sympathy for Coke from some in Tivoli Gardens, the territory in west Kingston where his Shower Posse gang is based. A Jamaica Gleaner video report before the sentencing shows residents professing support for the jailed gang boss and calling on the judge for leniency, arguing that he had done good things for people in the community. One resident said that Coke had only committed his crimes in order to get money to help local people. The newspaper reported that many Coke supporters did not wish to be filmed, fearing reprisals from the police.

The Associated Press spoke to Kingston locals who said the area was far less safe than when the drug lord ruled over it, and called for his return. A group of residents signed a petition that was submitted to the judge, listing Coke’s good deeds in the community and appealing for leniency.

One of the arguments made by the prosecution was that public demonstrations in Kingston in support of Coke showed that there was a danger he would return to Jamaica and continue his criminal activities if he was not given the longest possible sentence. There were fears that the sentencing could spark protests in the city, and on Friday police imposed tight security measures in west Kingston, including curfews in some areas.

In another sign of the popular support for Coke, one of Jamaica's most popular singers, Kingston-based reggae artist Horace Andy, wrote a laudatory song about Coke for his forthcoming album, referring to the crime boss by his nickname of "Presi," for president, reports the Gleaner:

Dudus we know a you rule
Presi yeah
Presi we miss you
Things no calm since you gone
The people them nah live right
Every day them a fuss an' fight ...

These responses to Coke’s case are a sign of the complex nature of the power he wielded, which is closely tied to politics. As a recent Center on International Cooperation report sets out, Jamaican “dons” like Coke are used by the political class to exert control over poor neighborhoods. They receive protection and funds from the government in exchange for making sure the area votes the right way in elections. In some areas these gang bosses take over the functions of the state, holding a monopoly over violence, and providing security and services to local people.

Coke reportedly helped poor people in his Tivoli Gardens neighborhood to pay for food and school fees, throwing Christmas parties and keeping streets clean, while keeping the authorities out. Prosecutors in the case asserted that "Because Coke's heavily armed soldiers patrolled the Tivoli Gardens community, it was largely closed to Jamaican law enforcement.” The US indictment against Coke, meanwhile, described the area as a "garrison" community, "a barricaded neighborhood guarded by a group of armed gunmen."

When the police and army were sent in to Tivoli Gardens in May 2010, they did little to win over the population. The government forces faced massive resistance from Coke’s troops, with days of fighting which the Brookings Institute said “resembled urban warfare.” Seventy-three people died in the clashes, with claims that some were executed in cold blood by the police. More than 1,000 complaints of civil rights violations were submitted to the public defender after the incident.

Coke’s political power is one of the things that made it so hard for Bruce Golding – Jamaica's prime minister at the time of the extradition request – to hand him over to the US. Tivoli Gardens was in the constituency of Golding, and he resisted the extradition for nine months, even hiring a law firm to help fight it, as InSight Crime has reported. When the prime minister resigned last year he cited the Coke affair as one of the main reasons for his departure.

The case contributed to the heavy defeat of Golding’s Labour Party in December’s elections, with the rival People's National Party candidate Portia Simpson Miller winning. Coke’s lawyers asserted that political deal-making is to blame for his plight, telling reporters after the sentencing delay; "He left Jamaica; the ruling party was thrown out of office, and the Government hand-picked by the United States … There was a lot of politics by the US to have him extradited. He's never been charged with one crime in his own country." Indeed, the change of government may have brought better relations with the US. On a visit earlier this month, State Department officials expressed the US’s commitment to giving security aid to Jamaica, and announced plans to send a team of prosecutors to help the government build its capacity in the fight against organized crime.

Murders dropped sharply in the wake of Coke’s arrest in June 2010, falling in 2011 to their lowest rate in eight years, at around 41 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. In April of that year, the government attributed the drop to their policy of saturating gang territories with the security forces. However, NGO Jamaicans for Justice reported a rise in human rights violations following the arrest, warning that since the operation the security forces felt that they could disregard the rights of citizens without consequences.

After Coke’s capture, Golding promised to clean up Tivoli Gardens, bringing security to the population and breaking the control of the gangs. However, the continued expressions of support for Coke show how much work remains to be done for the authorities to bring the rule of law to areas like Tivoli Gardens, and win the trust of residents.

– 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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