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An empty police booth and police car are seen near Leme beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday. Rio police voted yesterday to end their short-lived strike that threatened Carnival, one of the world's most festive parties. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

Brazil police strike ends in Rio, Carnival saved

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / 02.14.12

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

Rio police voted yesterday to end their short-lived strike (in Portuguese), and focus on freeing 27 members of the force arrested for striking. A day earlier their Bahian colleagues did the same.

Though the imminent approach of Carnival served to pressure the state government into pay increases for security forces, the holiday may also have taken the wind out of the striking police's sails. With blocos, or Carnival street bands, already in the streets and popular focus shifting to fun (with concern over the safety and spending of Carnival-goers, both locals and tourists), the strikers found little support for additional demands.

But the strikes raised important questions about ongoing class inequality in Brazil, and the Latin American region as a whole.  Latin American history could easily be written as the story of how the elite have managed the needs and wants of the poor. Over time the identity of the elite has changed, with some socioeconomic mobility occurring, but the dynamic has largely remained the same.

Slavery was abolished late in Brazil, only in 1888, with no provision made for the newly-freed. In the 1940s and 1950s, Brazil’s strongman Getúlio Vargas coopted labor movements to keep them under his thumb, setting up a system that largely persists to this day– strangling efforts to make the Brazilian economy more agile and dynamic. In the same spirit, in 1962 Brazil instituted a paternalistic thirteenth salary, awarded to workers at year-end with the tacit idea that they are incapable of planning ahead for holiday spending.

So strict were Brazil's labor regulations, that Lula’s metalworkers’ movement was illegal back in the 1970s and 1980s under the military government. The movement turned into a political party, which during his two terms as president (2002-2010) awarded labor groups and leaders enormous access to funding.

Today, workers have greater access than ever to information and a greater ability to communicate among themselves. The world has changed: Brazil’s economy is growing, inequality is lessening and labor has the upper hand, for the first time in history.

It’s not just the police who are straining at the reins: construction workers on the remodeling of Rio’s Maracanã stadium organized a strike over work conditions last year. In the state of Rio, workers are currently in conflict in Itaguaí, where Petrobras is building a huge petrochemicals complex, Comperj.

This time around, no great rupture occurred. After only a few days of a striking, the Rio police got raises and Carnival masks will be donned. But come Ash Wednesday, all would do well to take stock of the evolving power equation in Brazil, and reflect on where it will lead us next.

--- 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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"Comrade Artemio," one of the top leaders of Peru's Shining Path guerrilla group, is seen at a camp in Huallaga valley in the Amazon jungle of Peru in this file photo taken on December 2, 2011. Artemio, the nom de guerre of Florindo Eleuterio Flores, was captured by security forces after being shot in a remote jungle rife with drug trafficking, Peru's President Ollanta Humala said on Sunday. (IDL Reporteros/REUTERS)

Peru captures rebel leader. Is this the end of the Shining Path?

By Hannah StoneGuest blogger / 02.13.12

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

The capture of “Comrade Artemio,” one of the last of the Shining Path rebels’ old guard to remain at large, is a security success for Peru’s government, but is unlikely to affect the country’s burgeoning drug trade.

On Thursday, the news emerged that Artemio, whose real name is Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala, had been seriously wounded in the early hours of the morning. Some reports (most links are in Spanish) said he was shot by his own bodyguards, who were working for the authorities, though others said he was hit in a confrontation with the police.

He was found on Sunday morning by a military patrol, lying gravely wounded in a hut near the river Misholla, in Tocache province, San Martin region. Later that day he was flown by military helicopter to Lima. As the veteran guerrilla fighter was carried on a stretcher into a police hospital, his hands heavily bandaged, he shouted some unintelligible words and raised a fist to the watching press.

Peruvian authorities had declared in advance that Artemio would be captured alive, so that he could give information about his group and its activities. This is in contrast to the fate of another recently-fallen rebel leader, “Alfonso Cano” (in English) of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who was shot dead while resisting capture, according to the account of the Colombian Army.

Peru’s politicians hailed the news as the definitive end of the Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso in Spanish, which they say is now finished politically and militarily. President Ollanta Humala declared that the group was no longer a threat, and that “those that remain are tiny remnants, who it will not take us long to capture.” He called on Artemio’s followers to surrender, and made a triumphant visit to the hospital to see the new captive.

Artemio was one of the last commanders from the rebels’ heyday to remain at large. After leaving the army in 1980, he joined the Shining Path and was sent to the Huallaga region to set up a new branch of the group and seize control of the area from drug traffickers. He rose up the ranks, and became a member of the Shining Path’s Central Committee in 1989.

He left no clear successor. Gustavo Gorriti, of IDL-Reporteros, told El Comercio that most of Artemio’s comrades are much younger than the commander, who claims to be 47 year old, and that he was the only one with the authority and experience to lead the group.

The arrest very likely does mean the end for Artemio’s faction of the Shining Path, which is based in the Upper Huallaga region of northern Peru. This group, directly descended from, and still loyal to, founder Abimael Guzman, was already weak before Artemio fell. In December the commander gave interviews to the media in which he admitted that the Shining Path had been militarily defeated, and that, though the group’s political aims remained the same, armed struggle was no longer possible. He called for talks with the government, with the aim of his faction demobilizing and “disabling” their weapons.

The other remaining faction, based in the the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE) region further south, operates independently, and some analysts say (in English) it has completely transformed into a drug trafficking organization. The Huallaga-based faction perpetuated this idea. Artemio said he rejected and condemned the rival group, and his forces handed out leaflets accusing them of being anti-Maoists and anti-revolutionaries. Shining Path founder Guzman has also repudiated the VRAE faction, calling them mercenaries.

However, it would be a mistake to completely discard the ideological element of the VRAE-based faction. There are still reports of them carrying out political indoctrination of their recruits, and doing political work and propaganda. Víctor Quispe Palomino, alias “Comrade Jose,” who leads the faction along with his brother, was a member of the Shining Path from a young age, and came from a family that was connected closely to the group. Far from abandoning the Maoist rhetoric, they claim to be the true exponents of the Shining Path’s struggle, and have turned against Guzman, declaring him an enemy of the people.

The VRAE are far stronger militarily than the Huallaga group and have been putting up a tougher fight against the armed forces; they have not asked the government for any truce.

One possibility, then, is that Artemio’s followers could decide to join the VRAE-based group. Another possibility is that the VRAE “senderistas” could move north to take over the drug trafficking grounds of the Huallaga group. This is certainly important territory for the cocaine trade. The Huallaga Valley, where Artemio was based, is home to around a quarter of the country’s coca crops, according to 2010 figures from the UN. Although this has gone down by about a third since 2006, Huallaga remains a significant cultivation region.

Artemio has categorically denied making money from drug traffickers, admitting only to charging taxes from coca growers. He claimed in December that “my army has never been lent to guard maceration pits [to process cocaine], to guard the transport of merchandise … I have never allowed it.” However, many say differently, including the US State Department, which asserts (in English) that Artemio not only charges taxes from traffickers for exactly those services, but that he himself “repeatedly invests his own and/or Sendero money in drug trafficking ventures with local drug traffickers.”

Either way, it seems likely that the absence of Artemio’s forces will leave a power gap in the cocaine trade in the Huallaga region, and the VRAE faction may be in line to fill it. Even before Artemio’s capture, when the news of his injuries was made known, ex-commander of the armed forces Jorge Montoya said that the military must increase security on the route between the two areas, to stop the VRAE group moving in. Indeed, there were reports in 2010 that Artemio was fighting to expel VRAE members from his territory, after a band of 10 men sent by the Quispe Palomino brothers pitched up in the region of Tocache, trying to win the confidence of local people.

It is less likely that Artemio’s fall will make any difference at all to Peru’s drug trade. The “balloon effect” of security efforts in different parts of the country have been well-documented by the UN -- as coca production has fallen in the Huallaga region over the past few years, it has risen in the country overall and particularly in the VRAE. Another factor is that the government will now turn its attention more forcefully on the VRAE faction. Artemio pointed out in his interview in December that the armed forces had decided to go after the Huallaga group first, saying “They consider it a priority to destroy me."  With this achieved, it could now be the turn of the Quispe brothers.

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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Opposition frontrunner presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski speaks to the foreign media in Caracas, Venezuela February 7. (Jorge Silva/REUTERS)

Venezuela's opposition unites around Capriles. Can he beat Chavez?

By Staff writer / 02.13.12

The results of Venezuela’s opposition-party presidential primary, the first of its kind, was no great surprise. Youthful state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski was ahead in the polls, and won by a landslide with about two thirds of all votes.

What was surprising, however, was how many Venezuelans showed up to vote – almost 3 million people, or about one-fifth of the electorate, reports Venezuelan guest blogger Miguel Octavio. (Mr. Octavio also ran a series of photos on of Venezuelans voting abroad, from Miami to Milan, Austria to Australia.)

Mr. Capriles said last week that he hoped for at least two million voters. This larger-than-expected turnout buoys his bid to unseat President Hugo Chavez in the Oct. 7 presidential elections.  

The turnout is a sign that the historically divided opposition – which boycotted legislative elections in 2005, leaving President Chavez with vast powers – has finally come together in an effort to unseat 13 years of Chavez-style socialism in the country.

"Today, the future of Venezuela won and, as we said, we repeat to everyone: there is a path, there is a path for progress, for the future, to make Venezuela a greater country,” Capriles said upon his victory last night.

Many analysts say Chavez is as vulnerable as ever. He has been in office since 1999, which means he is blamed (largely by the upper and middle classes) for many of the country's most intractable problems: high crime, inflation, and spending on social welfare programs to woo voters, while ignoring the fundamental economic problems in the country.

Still Capriles now faces his biggest challenge yet. He was favored in the primary because he was seen as the most capable of drawing votes from the poor in Venezuela, a group that forms the base of Chavez’s support. But few have the charisma of Chavez, or his stamina. Reuters reports that he recently gave a record breaking speech for 9.5 hours to Venezuela's congress – while simultaneously recuperating from surgery.

In an interview with the Monitor in January, Capriles said it was possible to focus on the poor, as Chavez did after the perception of years of neglect on the part of previous governments, while putting the economy back on track. “I'm in a process of constructing a political change,” he said.

Despite the large turnout for the opposition primaries, Chavez retains wide support in the country, and polls put him as the favorite in the October race. He controls the nation’s coffers and institutions, including a vast media network, and after yesterday's opposition primary, those outlets painting Capriles as “right wing” last night, reports Reuters.

The five contenders in Venezuela’s opposition were united in their desire to beat Chavez but their politics were nuanced. Chavez dismissed all, however, as the candidates of “imperialism.” Those messages might resonate among many of his supporters who fear a return of the past, when they say they were excluded as politicians favored the country's elite.

But Capriles is now trying to turn the exclusion argument on its head, saying that he will be the one to unite the nation.  “The message is very clear: Venezuelans are fed up with confrontation and divisions,” he said last night.

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Guatemala's new President Otto Perez Molina (c.), a former general of the Guatemalan Army, attends a celebration to mark the founding anniversary of the Guatemalan Navy in the naval base of Puerto Quetzal, about 68 miles from Guatemala City, January 20. (Jorge Dan Lopez/REUTERS)

Legalizing drugs gains ground in Latin America

By Mike AllisonGuest blogger / 02.13.12

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

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has repeated his suggestion that Guatemala and the other nations of Central America should consider decriminalizing drugs in order to help reduce violence.

The Guatemalan president said he will propose legalizing drugs in Central America in an upcoming meeting with the region's leaders. President Perez Molina said in a radio interview that legalization would include decriminalizing the transportation of drugs through the area. The Guatemalan president said the war on drugs, and all the money and technology received from the US, has not diminished drug trafficking in the area. While the details would have to be worked out, he would also consider setting up legal mechanisms to sell drugs (link in Spanish).

Some effort at decriminalization would be beneficial both to the people of Central America and the United States. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that the US government and regional governments could design some sort of effective policy. They would include too many loopholes and restrictions that would still make it highly profitable to operate on the black market.
It's also interesting that it is the Colombian and Guatemalan presidents who are suggesting this policy change. They are the leaders of two countries that have recently succeeded in reducing violence, at least when measured in terms of their murder rates.
Finally, maybe Otto Perez Molina does not believe that decriminalization is a viable option. but instead is raising the stakes of the game in order to get the US's attention and action (i.e. lifting the current military restrictions which limit US cooperation with their Guatemalan counterparts, and getting the US to contribute more resources to battling narcotrafficking in Central America). This is just his way of negotiating, and now the US will have to deal, or call his bluff.

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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Henrique Capriles Radonski, Venezuela's main opposition candidate, speaks to reporters last week. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Another 'Lula' on the rise in Venezuela?

By Staff writer / 02.12.12

Venezuelans are at the polls today voting to select an opposition candidate to face off against President Hugo Chavez in Oct. 7 elections.

To many observers, the upcoming race is the best chance that the historically divided opposition has of defeating the popular President Chavez, who has been in office for 13 years.

Polls have the charismatic state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who rides motorbikes into the poor barrios of the capital, as the frontrunner in today's primary – and the challenger that Chavez should most fear.

In an interview with the Monitor earlier this year,  Mr. Capriles said a new political model is possible in Venezuela – one that blends a commitment to helping the poor while still focusing on economic growth.  “I'm in a process of constructing a political change,” he said. “I don't represent the old establishment.”

“If you don't understand the social reality of this country, you're dead,” Capriles went on to say. And like many Latin American leaders seeking office, he is attempting to capitalize on the popularity of the policies of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.  “I 100 percent follow the model of Lula,” said Capriles.

Chavez has been in office since 1999, voted in with the help of the middle class and the poor who were sick of the old elite. With a windfall from high oil prices in the OPEC county, Chavez was able to invest billions in social programs for the poor. He has remained wildly popular, pushing through constitutional changes and winning office in landslides.

But the weariness that comes with any long-time rule has started to impact his popularity. He has also been accused of focusing on the poor for electoral support while the economy suffers, with the highest inflation rate in the region. Caracas has also become exceedingly dangerous. The nation was stunned last year when he announced that he had cancer. Though he says he is better, his illness might impact the image of “invincibility” that once surrounded him.

More than anything, the opposition, which has languished amid internal squabbling and accusations of being out of touch with regular Venezuelans, has finally come together.

While Capriles has led the primary race, his greatest challenger today is Pablo Perez, another state governor from Zulia. The other three candidates in the race are congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, Diego Arria, a former UN official, and Pablo Medina, a former Chavez ally.

See this Reuters “facts” page for full background on all five candidates. 

No matter who wins today, he or she will face an uphill battle to the highest office in Venezuela – but perhaps for the first time in over a decade Venezuela will have a race this October without a foregone conclusion.

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez (l.) and Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega embrace during the welcoming ceremony for the eight-nation Bolivarian Alliance bloc (ALBA) summit at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, last week. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

No credit, no problem: Nicaragua's Ortega pitches 'socialist' bank

By Tim RogersCorrespondent / 02.10.12

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

Bad credit? No credit? No problem!

President Daniel Ortega is putting on his banker’s visor and taking time off from denouncing the evils of savage capitalism to try to raise startup capital for the newly announced Bank of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), or BALBA.

The president-turned banking booster told citizens last night that he’d feel a lot better if Nicaragua took some of its $1.7 billion in international reserves out of established banks around the world and put it the trusted care of BALBA, which is almost one week old.  

The birth of BALBA was celebrated in Venezuela last weekend during a summit of ALBA nations, a leftist trade bloc founded in 2004 by Cuba and Venezuela as an alternative to US free-trade agreements. The idea behind BALBA is that each member country - Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines - support the bank to the tune of what each economy can afford.

In Nicaragua’s case, the country is expected to cough up 1 percent of its international reserves, whose purse strings are controlled exclusively by the autonomous Central Bank. Ortega is also asking the Sandinista-controlled National Assembly to pony up $4 million for the ALBA bank.

Ortega said Nicaragua’s international reserves are currently just sitting in banks and not being put to good use through loans. “The most we can say about the reserve banks is that they return us our money, but we can’t make loans,” he said.

Ortega said BALBA will give loans to member states without any conditions to pay for development and social projects - a lending practice that the president thinks will make the bank solid and viable.

“The Bank of ALBA gives us a lot of security because we are talking about a bank that is socialist and just, where we can go to ask for money for productive activities, for social projects, for land titling,” said the self-styled banking lobbyist.  

“This will allow us to have a bank that will not put any conditions [on lending]… this is good news because it will allow us to be in better conditions to confront this crisis,” Ortega said.

Ortega said BALBA will also try to attract funds from wealthier nations, to give the bank even more liquidity.

The Sucre cometh

The push to form a joint banking venture is part of a greater plan for ALBA’s financial integration, which will soon include the incorporation of a common currency for commercial exchange known as the Sucre, or more slightly more cumbersome, the Unified System for Regional Compensation.

Last weekend in Caracas, Ortega promised that Nicaragua would approve use of the Sucre in the coming weeks, now that he controls a supermajority in the National Assembly.

The Sucre is intended to replace the US dollar as the currency for commercial exchanges between ALBA nations.

While Nicaragua’s incorporation of the Sucre is just around the corner, few understand how it will work or what that will mean for the country’s economy. The Sucre has already been used as a virtual currency in transactions between Ecuador and Venezuela, but questions remain in Nicaragua.

“I don’t think that this will free exporting agencies from paying Nicaraguan exporters in dollars,” says former Central Bank president Mario Arana. “But it could be used to facilitate buying and selling between agencies that so far are monopolizing commercial transactions” between Venezuela and Nicaragua.

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Brazilian police, firefighters and prison guards protest during a rally in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Feb. 9. Police agreed to strike last night, just days ahead of the world's most famous carnival celebration. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

Will Brazil's Carnival be canceled?

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / 02.10.12

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

A crowd of boisterous men gathered in Rio’s Cinelândia square last night, setting off firecrackers, chanting and punching the air with their fists. And then they, the police, voted to strike.

What this translates to, in terms of safety for greater Rio de Janeiro’s population of twelve million, especially as Carnival approaches, is the question of the hour.

How many really won’t work? Reports early Friday say the city isn’t lacking for police (in Portuguese).

The civil police homicide division seems to be working. More than a month after a young passinho dancer from a North Zone favela was found beaten to death, civil police reportedly arrested two suspects today.

In the 1960s, Brazil’s military put a lid on demands from the poor, with a coup that kept an authoritarian government in power until 1985. The return to democracy was gradual, with elites carefully managing the process. Though former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva carried on with old political and economic practices, his 2002-2010 government marked the return to center stage of those long-repressed demands.

Managing them is no easy task, as Rio Governor Sérgio Cabral and TV Globo are finding out. Large pay raises were given, but aren’t considered to be enough by angry security forces who are now feeling their muscle. A fireman was arrested for inciting the practice of crimes against military law, on the basis of a wiretapped phone conversation aired strategically on Globo, and his colleagues want him freed. A gubernatorial election is coming up in a couple of years, and at least some of the action stems from preparation by ex-governor Anthony Garotinho, who has sided with the strikers.

No one in the mainstream media has brought up the question of safety in the 19 favelas where pacification police work. “May God protect the residents of Rio,” Rene Silva Santos, the young journalist who lives in Complexo do Alemão, tweeted last night. “Especially those who live in communities pacified by military police.” Complexo do Alemão is still occupied by the Brazilian army, not police.

See original blog to read an English translation of a very complete description of the situation, from O Dia newspaper.

– 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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Cars travel on a road in Havana as the 'Boudicca' cruise ship enters the city port on Wednesday. The 50th anniversary of the US trade embargo against Cuba was met with little fanfare on the island, where most Cubans said it was a failed policy that had succeeded only in making their lives more difficult. (Desmond Boylan/Reuters)

Cuba embargo turns 50: is this what JFK intended?

By Anya Landau FrenchGuest blogger / 02.09.12

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

The US embargo turned 50 years old this week. It probably won't surprise most folks to learn that the night before President John F. Kennedy signed a total US embargo of Cuba into force, he asked an aide to buy 1,000 Cuban cigars (just to be safe, the aide got 1,200).

Surely Kennedy would have been shocked to learn that his massive stockpile would run out long before his embargo would; just days before his assassination, Kennedy had approved a secret meeting to take place in Havana between a senior US diplomat and Castro. But the meeting never took place, and Kennedy's embargo has remained a fixture now for half a century. Over at the Daily Mail, Lee Moran offers perspective on this week's milestone:

"When the embargo began, American teenagers were doing The Twist, the US had yet to put a man into orbit around the Earth and a first-class US postage stamp cost just 4 cents."

How is it that 10 presidents and a Cold War ago, the United States cut off nearly all trade, financial, and aid transactions with 11 million people 90 miles away? Never-ending presidentially declared sanctions such as Kennedy’s Cuba embargo had a way of piling up in decades past, long past their utility or relevance. This eventually prompted Congress to reform the authority under which a president could use his emergency international economic (sanctions) powers. After that law passed in 1977, any new sanctions would require oversight and could not just continue in perpetuity. Except the Cuba embargo was grandfathered in with the new law, so, as long as the president declared, every year, the pressing national security interest in continuing it (or, rather, his authority to maintain it), the embargo hung on.     

President Obama last signed that declaration in September. But seriously, where’s the emergency? Fifty years ago, in October 1962, the world came as close to nuclear war as it ever has, when the United States discovered nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, initiated a naval blockade, and managed to negotiate an agreement with the Soviets for the missiles’ withdrawal. That was clearly an emergency, and a definite threat to the United States. 

And 50 later? There’s not exactly any national interest or emergency compelling the president (well, except for his own re-election fortunes in swing-state Florida) to continue this fossilized policy. If there were one, the just-released “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” failed to mention it. The only threat in Cuba, according to the report, is the internet and its potential for undermining the Cuban government’s grip on power.

On the contrary, our compelling interests surely lie in dismantling the embargo: it harms the Cuban people (and certainly doesn’t help them at all), who would be quick to flood the US in the face of any real destabilization on the island. It invites Havana to embrace countries – Venezuela, Iran, China - that really do more materially threaten or at least challenge our interests. It locks us out of the incipient reform process in Cuba, and could also be hindering its progress as it offers Havana hardliners an easy excuse to maintain tight control. And, most directly counter to our national interest, the embargo hampers swift, routine, effective cooperation on shared interests with a willing partner, whether in fighting drug smuggling, human trafficking, or disaster prevention and mitigation.

--- Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

5 countries with the longest ongoing US sanctions

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An Argentina's flag which reads 'British, get away from Malvinas (Falklands),' hangs outside the Government Palace, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Feb. 7. In a national address Tuesday, President Cristina Fernández said she will formally complain to the UN Security Council about Britain sending one of its most modern warships to the Falkland Islands and accused Britain of militarizing their long dispute over the islands in the South Atlantic. (Eduardo Di Baia/AP)

Falklands: more international support for Argentina after 'militarization' claim? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.08.12

In the simmering dispute over the British-run Falkland Islands, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner urged Britain to “give peace a chance,” adding a new argument to the dispute that could resonate more widely with other nations.

She said Tuesday she will formally take her complaint to the UN Security Council – saying that the modern warship sent by Britain dangerously ups the ante.

"We have suffered too much violence already to be attracted to military games and wars," President Fernández said on Tuesday in a national broadcast. "No land should end up being a trophy of war."

Britain announced recently it was sending among its most modern warships, the HMS Dauntless, to the islands, to coincide with a six-week deployment of Prince William there. Britain has called both announcements routine.

Focusing on British militarization could win Argentina more broad support, says Pablo Ava, a political consultant in Buenos Aires. “This is not a military issue for Argentina, we have a very poor military system, it is 100 percent diplomatic,” he says. "On the British side, there is a military response to every Argentine position. I think that might help Argentina in the international scenario.”

Argentines have been clear in their support for a diplomatic solution but one that does not include a military response. According to a poll by Ibarometro in Buenos Aires, 70 percent of Argentines surveyed said it is important to regain sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Only three in ten were for a military solution, however.

Argentina invaded the islands in 1982 under its military dictatorship, leading to a brief but deadly war with over 900 casualties. The 30th  anniversary of that invasion is this April.

Argentina has been in a diplomatic row with London over the sovereignty of the islands, which escalated in 2010 as Britain began searching for oil in the waters off the Islands. Kirchner has gained the support of Latin America, which most recently banned Falkland Island boats from entering the ports ofMercosur countries.

The British Foreign Office issued a statement in response to Fernández's most recent charge, saying "The people of the Falkland Islands are British out of choice. They are free to determine their own future and there will be no negotiations with Argentina over sovereignty unless the islanders wish it."

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Colombia's chief of police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, talks to reporters at a news conference in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday. Naranjo said that the warlord known as 'Martin Llanos' was captured Saturday, along with his brother in the eastern Venezuelan town of El Tigre. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

Is it the end of paramilitarism in Colombia?

By Jeremy McDermottGuest blogger / 02.08.12

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

Venezuelan authorities have captured the last of Colombia's paramilitary chieftains, marking the end of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which dominated the drug trade for over a decade and penetrated all facets of the state.

Hector German Buitrago, better known by his alias of "Martin Llanos," was arrested along with his brother, Nelson Orlando Buitrago, alias "Caballo," in the Venezuelan state of Anzoategui. Martin Llanos headed the Self Defense Forces of Casanare (ACC), a powerful paramilitary faction with over 1,000 fighters in the Colombian provinces of Casanare, Meta and parts of Boyaca and Vichada. The group was founded in the 1980s by the men's father, Hector Jose Buitrago, as a response to guerrilla extortion and kidnapping in Casanare. Hector Jose was arrested in April 2010 in Colombia, while his sons left the country, living in Ecuador and Bolivia before moving to Venezuela. The ACC founder had previously been arrested in 1996, but was rescued from prison by his sons.

Both of the Buitrago sons are wanted in Colombia in connection with murders, forced disappearances, and drug trafficking. Martin Llanos has at least 11 arrest warrants pending, including charges of murder and kidnapping. He has already been condemned to 40 years in prison in absentia. He and the ACC are blamed for the deaths of at least 10,000 Colombians.

The Colombian chief of police, General Oscar Naranjo, said that the arrest of the brothers marked "the end of paramilitarism."

In one of the bloodiest wars between rival paramilitary groups, the ACC and the Centaurs Bloc of the AUC fought each other between 2002 and 2004 for domination of Colombia's Eastern Plains and the lucrative drug trade that moves across them. It is estimated that at least 2,000 fighters on both sides were killed, and hundreds more "disappeared" in that struggle.

I met all three Buitragos in 2003 and 2004, interviewing them in their mountain stronghold in the municipality of Monterrey in Casanare, in the center-east of Colombia. Unlike many leaders of the AUC, who preferred the high life in the cities or luxury haciendas in the countryside, the Buitragos spent much of their time in the mountains, living like the guerrillas they fought. They had strong support from ranchers and local businessmen throughout Casanare, and it was this support, as well as their mountain lifestyle, that allowed them to survive the onslaught by the far stronger Centaurs Bloc, which attacked them with the support of corrupt elements in the security forces.

While most of the AUC surrendered to the government during the peace process from 2003 to 2006, the ACC refused to demobilize, preferring to continue running their criminal empire. This is believed to involve drug trafficking not only on Colombia's Eastern Plains, but into Venezuela and Bolivia. In June last year, Carlos Noel Buitrago, alias "Porre Macho" (in Spanish), was arrested in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, where he was charged with running a drug smuggling network linked to his cousin Martin Llanos.

The ACC also got involved in local politics. In the so-called "Pact of Casanare," mayors in the province of Casanare received paramilitary backing during the elections, and in return delivered to the ACC half of their municipal budgets. Six mayors have already been imprisoned as part of the case, as well as a former governor of Casanare, Miguel Angel Perez.

The arrest of the two Buitrago brothers was a result of a joint Colombian-Venezuelan operation. Colombian police had been tracking the two since 2010, discovering that they were residents in Venezuela. They had been following the ex-wife of Nelson Buitrago, which led them to him in to the town of El Tigre, Anzoategui, where the men were arrested. Initially they arrested Nelson, with another man who claimed to be his driver. However the physical similarity between the two men was obvious and authorities suspected they had netted Martin Llanos, which was confirmed after his fingerprint details were sent from Colombia.

These captures are just the latest in a long series of arrests of Colombian drug traffickers in Venezuela. Under pressure from Colombian and US law enforcement, many Colombian drug traffickers have sought refuge in the neighboring country, although the arrest of senior figures like Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," in November 2011, as well as the Buitrago brothers, reveal it is no longer any kind of sanctuary.

However, it is clear that Venezuela is still home to large numbers of Colombian rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). The Venezuelan authorities seem a little more reticent about capturing and deporting guerrilla leaders. Venezuelan authorities arrested FARC commander Guillermo Enrique Torres, alias "Julian Conrado," in May last year, but have been reluctant to send him back to Colombia to face charges. The Colombian government has stated that the FARC commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Londoño, alias "Timochenko," is in the Venezuelan province of Zulia, but he remains at large.

– Jeremy McDermott is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.

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