• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
When an illegal gas canister exploded one morning last October at the downtown Filé Carioca restaurant, killing four and bringing down much of the building it was housed in, residents of Rio de Janeiro discovered just how spotty safety inspections are.
“The firemen aren’t equipped to inspect every building,” fire chief Sérgio Simões told the Rio newspaper O Dia. “We inspect in response to reports of irregularities”.
After that tragedy, the mayor and the fire department promised to do a better job.
This week a twenty-story building, also downtown, collapsed onto two other buildings, destroying all three. Six bodies have been recovered and 24 people are missing. So far, it appears that unreported renovations may have destabilized the tallest building according to Brazilian newspaper Terra (in Portuguese).
Social media chatter has brought to light a shocking truth: in Rio de Janeiro (and perhaps all of Brazil?), renovations are the full responsibility of the project engineer and the building owner. No government inspections are carried out – except for when the building first goes up.
“You’d need thousand of inspectors, paid with citizens’ taxes. Do you want to pay more taxes for this? Or an inspection fee?” asked one Facebook thread commenter.
An architect, in response to the same thread, said the city is responsible for keeping every new building’s original plans, for reference during renovation – but that he’s found these blueprints are often unavailable.
In many countries, inspection fees are indeed charged when renovation takes place, for everything from commercial construction to home improvement. This involves bureaucracy, but insurance companies don’t insure uninspected work. The process is meant to safeguard the public at large, and in the case of an accident, facilitates investigations, prosecution, and legal decisions regarding blame and compensation.
Who will pay for the damages and suffering in this week’s tragic case? So far, the State Social Aid Secretariat has said it will pay burial costs for the dead, and the state council of engineers mentioned that the engineer in charge of the unreported work could lose his license. Insurance hasn’t been mentioned – and neither the owner’s name nor that of the engineer in charge of the work has been made public.
Up until last month when bus corridors were instituted in Rio de Janeiro, it was a city where one could bring a municipal bus to a stop anywhere at all, simply by raising a finger. More of a village, than a city.
But the village is in fact a city of 12 million people, boasting plans for grandeur with hammers, drills, and bulldozers. As the building progresses, as investment flows in, and tourists arrive, demand for city services and oversight is mushrooming. But not being met. When you Google the words inspeção de obras Rio de Janeiro, or construction inspection Rio de Janeiro, this is what you see at the top of the page.
Click here to see the same Google results in English.
In the last year Rio has seen exploding manhole covers, trolley, ferry, and bus accidents, metro stoppages, and electrical blackouts, among other catastrophes.
Meanwhile, the city council plays almost no role in drafting public policy, and Mayor Eduardo Paes has focused on a constant “shock of order” campaign which started in 2009 to combat disorder in public spaces. This has included expanding and training the municipal guard, and prioritizing a crackdown on illegal parking and street vendors.
But it might just be time to create a task force to rethink the city’s antiquated building codes and zoning regulations– and the way they are enforced. Otherwise, the grandeur could well remain in the realm of illusion.
--- 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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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
El Salvador’s police have claimed that the country’s “maras,” or street gangs, are planning an all-out attack on security forces, despite the fact that these groups have neither the organizational structure nor motive to do so.
The deputy director of investigation for the Salvadoran National Civil Police (PNC), Howard Cotto, claims that authorities believe imprisoned gang leaders are contacting gang members on the outside and directing them to attack security forces. In remarks to El Salvador’s newspaper, Contrapunto, Cotto said that those behind this scheme refer to it as an attack on “the system.”
Deputy director of prisons, Nelson Rauda, backed the claim, saying that authorities had intercepted letters from gang leaders which contained a call to attack “members of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, the PNC, prison staff members, as well as judges and prosecutors.”
It is true that the Central American country’s gangs are a growing security threat. As InSight Crime has reported, El Salvador’s murder rate is the highest it has been in years. This rise was accompanied by an overwhelming number of disappearances in 2011, with more than 2,000 people reported missing in San Salvador alone. According to Minister of Security David Munguia Payes, 90 percent of the murders in the country are gang-related.
Despite the threat they pose to citizen security, the non-hierarchical nature of El Salvador’s maras suggests that a concerted attack on security forces would be nearly impossible to orchestrate. While the main street gangs active in the country -- groups like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Barrio 18 and the Texis Cartel -- do have networks spread throughout the country, they lack the firm chain of command of more structured organized crime groups, like Mexico’s Zetas. Relations between gang cells, more so than within cartels, vary according to complex local identities and variations in criminal interests. As such, the idea of a gang like MS-13 declaring a widespread campaign against state forces is highly suspect.
What’s more, the lack of details released by both Cotto and Rauda make their claims difficult to take seriously. For one thing, neither official made mention of which particular street gang was behind this strategy. It could be that this omission was due to security considerations, but it casts the authenticity of the claim into question.
Ultimately, the remark could have more to do with politics than with the reality of gang violence in the country. The PNC is currently in the middle of a major anti-corruption purge which has resulted in the investigation of more than 1,600 officers for misconduct. As such, the claims may simply be designed to garner public sympathy for the police, in an attempt to cast the police force as the “good guys.”
Mara attacks on police officials are more likely to take place on an individual basis, and to come in response to direct interference with the gangs’ activities. Ironically, such interference does not always come in the form of justice or strict law enforcement, a point which could backfire for the PNC. It is just as likely that a gang would target police in retaliation for a crackdown as it is that they would target them for charging too much for a “cut” of the action, or for entering into an alliance with a rival gang.
--- 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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A much-awaited appeal hearing on the case of an Ecuadorian newspaper sued by the country's president was suspended today amid growing charges that President Rafael Correa is squashing free speech in this Andean nation.
The newspaper El Universo faces $40 million in damages and jail time, after they lost a libel suit brought by President Correa.
Correa, who has sued other journalists and created new media laws while greatly expanding the state media apparatus, has defended his moves to put a check on a sensational private industry with a political agenda. But his moves have been condemned by press groups inside the country and out, including American newspapers from coast to coast
Correa has drawn similar rebukes from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times in recent days. Perhaps the Washington Post in a Jan. 11 editorial put it most bluntly, blaming Correa for “ the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western Hemisphere.”
The libel case was brought by Correa last year after a column in the opposition publication questioned the events of a 2010 police protest that turned deadly, and that Correa has called a coup attempt.
Correa, attempting to address police protesting regarding pay issues, took refuge in a hospital and was finally rescued by the army. The newspaper, however, questioned the events of the army rescue, saying the president ordered authorities to fire on the hospital where there were civilians.
The author of the story, Emilio Palacio, along with the owners of the newspaper, were handed three years in jail. The paper faces an additional $40 million in fines.
Amid international criticism, Ecuador has sought to defend itself. The new ambassador to the US, Nathalie Cely, wrote in an op-ed in the Miami Herald, “To be very clear, no journalist in Ecuador has gone to jail, been kidnapped or paid a significant fine in the five years of the Correa presidency, even though El Universo, the newspaper owned by the Pérez family that these media watchdogs defend, published a scurrilous column about the president and an attempted coup against him that was factually untrue and far beyond any reasonable norm for criticism.”
But this case does not stand alone. Others journalists have been sued, including two investigative reporters who wrote a book called “Big Brother” about the business deals of Correa’s brother.
Tomorrow, the Organization of American States (OAS) meets for a reform vote pushed by Ecuador, to strip the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of some of her powers. She has been critical of Correa, who, in return, has accused the rapporteur of serving the interests of big media.
A Reporters Without Borders piece condemns the proposed reforms: “Far from being a organizational tweak, the proposed overhaul of the way the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) functions would ratify a disgraceful political offensive by certain member states against one of its components, an important mechanism in the defense of civil liberties in the western hemisphere – the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.”
And earlier this month, Ecuador’s national assembly approved changes to a media law that restricts what journalists can cover about candidates. Correa again defends it on grounds that it prevents major media companies, which often align with powerful candidates, from having too much political sway. But critics say it is to his benefit, as he likely runs for re-election in 2013.
Other countries in Latin America have seen a decline in press freedom in recent years. In Mexico and Central America, for example, drug gangs have greatly reduced freedom of the press. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is often singled out for curtailing press freedom, specifically for not renewing licenses of opposition outlets. But in Ecuador, where the state media apparatus has grown from a single radio station when Correa took office five years ago to over 15 today, it is the rate of change that is alarming, media groups say. “The pace at which the climate has deteriorated is really unprecedented,” says Lauria.
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The phrase “exercise in futility” can easily be applied to the United States' half-century old embargo of Cuba. But lately there is an even more disconcerting trend among US policymakers, which can best be described as conducting our fruitless policy toward Cuba with “eyes wide shut.”
The critique was published in The Miami Herald by Fulton Armstrong, a former senior staff member to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry. USAID's Mark Feierstein and State's Michael Posner responded to the criticism, which they have the right and responsibility to do, but their response is another disappointing indication that this administration remains inexplicably committed to a policy of willful ignorance when it comes to Cuba.
Exactly why is an insider battle over US programs in Cuba being waged outside, on the pages of The Miami Herald? At the heart of this debate is the continuing imprisonment of an American citizen, Alan Gross, who was working on an USAID subcontract when Cuban authorities apprehended him two years ago, and after a long investigation, convicted him of crimes against the Cuban state.
Armstrong and other critics of the USAID program point out that it amounts to a semi-covert regime change program that should never be carried out by an aid agency and that it ill-equipped Gross for the risk he was taking. The program is authorized under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act which seeks to help hasten a “transition” in Cuba.
It's not that Cuba is a dangerous place for Americans – on the contrary, it's one of the safest places we could visit. But when an American visits Cuba five times in one year on a tourist visa, but actually on a US government subcontract and with high-tech communications equipment in tow, he isn't just violating Cuban immigration law, he's violating its national security laws as well. That's because when the US Passed the Helms-Burton Act the Cuban government, which viewed the Act as a threat to its national security, responded with a law of its own which criminalized dissemination or receipt of materials or funds, or taking direction from, the US Government under Helms-Burton.
It's not clear whether Mr. Gross, who has said he was “duped” (by whom he hasn't said), was adequately warned about this law. Judy Gross, Alan Gross's wife, has said that her husband at one point wanted to inform Cuban authorities of his work but that his employer, Development Alternatives Inc., told him not to, and that even if he were picked up, he'd be questioned and then released. If true, they were wrong.
Ordinarily, the State Department warns all American travelers abroad, “when you are in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws.” (Whether we like them or not.) But, in the defense of USAID's Cuba program, and with an American citizen's freedom on the line, Feierstein and Posner are forced to break from this most obvious truism. They continue to insist that Mr. Gross broke no law in Cuba, intimating that we can ignore Cuban law, and to demand Gross's release as if the Cubans are actually listening. But he did, we can't, and they're not.
It's one thing for US officials, surrounded by unsatisfiable critics on all sides, to quietly grumble about Armstrong's tough and public critique of a program that doesn't work but can't be dumped. But it's intellectually dishonest – and diplomatically counterproductive to achieving Gross's release – to come strutting out with a defense that so willfully ignores reality.
Bottomline, don't travel to Cuba on a tourist visa unless you're actually a tourist, and definitely don't accept a US government contract to work in Cuba.
Thousands of people, one after the other, climbed to the top of a dormant volcano in Guatemala over the weekend, ascending the 12,352-foot slope of the Volcan de Agua (Volcano of Water).
They weren’t on an adventure excursion though. It was a mega protest against domestic violence, which included 12,000 women, children, and men (including Guatemala’s new president Otto Perez Molina).
Look at the photos here.
SEE ALSO: Seven women who shaped the world in 2011
Violence has dogged Central America, and while it is gang killings and drug trafficking violence that dominates headlines, violence against women is rising.
The march in Guatemala is one of several actions organized by human rights defenders in recent years. We reported about a creative effort in Suchito, a colonial town outside of San Salvador, where centuries-old whitewashed homes were adorned with permanent wording that read: “In this house we want a life without violence towards women.”
The stencils, including a bird and flower, are the work of the Feminist Collective for Local Development to “elevate societal rejection of domestic violence, and make it a subject we should all be worried about,” local feminist activist Morena Herrera told me.
And this week the Nobel Women’s Initiative, begun by women laureates in 2006, is in Mexico, and heading to Honduras and Guatemala, from Jan. 22 to the 31, to talk to defenders of human rights for women, and to focus on the unsolved killing of women in the region.
“The United Nations recently named Honduras the most violent place on earth, and Mexico has the dubious distinction of being home to five of the world’s ten most deadly cities," they wrote on their website.
Their work comes as crime against women has increased across Mexico and Central America. InSight Crime reported last year that the Salvadoran Women for Peace (Organizacion de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz - ORMUSA), which tracks violence against women, says there has been a five-fold increase in “femicides” over the last decade, outstripping the murder rate.
In Guatemala, the BBC reports that some 600 women were murdered in the nation last year.
Nowhere are femicides more notorious than in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, where women began disappearing in the 1990s. InSight Crime says that some 1,500 females have been reported missing since 2008, according to Mexico's special task force on violence against women.
In all of these countries, violence against women has increased alongside organized crime. But as InSight Crime notes:
“The kind of ultra-violence associated with the killings of women may be an indicator less of organized crime, than of the culture of violence that comes in the wake of organized crime.”
Domestic violence has many roots, but the one that analaysts often point to is a cultural of machismo that runs throughout Latin America.
In Guatemala, the march was an attempt to forge a culture without violence, particularly against women. "We're trying to get young leaders to start a generational change in attitudes where people say - until now we've sort of accepted that there is this culture of violence, but no more," said British ambassador Julie Chappell to the BBC.
Ten years ago, family-run paladar restaurants were the (shrinking) bastion of cuentapropismo in Cuba: tiny, over-regulated oases of creativity and the-customer-knows-best level service. More than one government official, Havanatur van, or state-owned taxi in those days discouraged patronage, and a few even declined to take me and groups with which I traveled to paladars. Those days are clearly gone – and good riddance.
On my way to one paladar last week, our taxi driver fielded a few questions about the changing Cuban economy and his role in it. He pays 31 CUC a day to rent his taxi from the state, and after paying for gas and maintenance, he still clears about 15-20 CUC a day. That means he makes in one day what the average Cuban without access to hard currency (or to CUCs) makes in a whole month. We asked what he thinks about the changes afoot in Cuba, and whether he feels hopeful, or perhaps that change has come too little, too late to the island. He expressed optimism, offering this candid response: “Yo creo en Raul. Nunca creia en Fidel.” (I believe in Raul. I never believed in Fidel.)
That comment was followed by one even more ubiquitous: “If I work hard, I'll make more money.”
When discussing the economic changes under way, government officials and academic scholars make this same point. Some may call it an updated version of socialism, but there is broad support for an increasingly free market on the island. So it was more than a little ironic – and awkward – for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come to Havana and declare that capitalism is in "decay" precisely when it's just getting started in Cuba. It's not happening without reservation or restriction, but systemic change has arrived.
As for Yoani Sanchez's more bleak outlook on the changes in Cuba, she's not alone in her criticisms, obviously. Many Cubans have grown tired of waiting for change, and now that it is arriving, one change (or two or three) at a time, it can certainly be hard to believe Cubans will ever arrive where they're going. For many, the answer is still to simply emigrate, because both the United States and Spain make it very easy for Cubans to do so. One economist I talked to told me that things probably won't truly get better until maybe five years down the road, and so naturally many Cubans will continue to leave in the meantime.
But for those who have the wherewithal and the patience to remain, the future is slowly becoming whatever they will make of it.
Globo newspaper reported recently that new policies might soon open the door to fast-track visas for skilled workers. With recessions dimming prospects for professionals in both the US and Europe, it is not impossible that Brazil may be about to experience a second golden age of immigration.
Current visa and immigration restrictions reflect the sort of "Brazil for Brazilians" policies emblematic of the last dictatorship (1964-85), during which time authorities drafted the current Statute on Foreigners.
A team within the president’s office, the Secretary of Strategic Affairs, has been assigned to consider alternative visa and immigration policies. The coordinator of that team, Ricardo Paes de Barros, ventures: “now that Brazil is an island of prosperity in the world, there are a lot of good quality people who want to come here.” Paes admits that Canada and Australia are the models that Brazil seeks to emulate.
From January to September of 2011 – President Rousseff’s first year in office – the number of visas issued increased by a full third. There were 51,353 visas issued last year.
Spaniards are currently the largest demographic of skilled workers with visas. They experience greater ease in learning the language, adapting to the culture, and suffer from a woeful dearth of opportunities at home. Unemployment in Spain hovers at an untenable 25 percent. When asked about his experience settling down to work in Brazil, one Brazil-based Spaniard said to Globo, “the bureaucracy is more complicated than I imagined.”
For someone from a Latin country to admit that the Brazilian bureaucracy is complicated signals the inexplicable and unnecessary complexity of dealing with the Brazilian state. It certainly validates my own excruciating experience. Visa requirements – filling-out an application and certifying qualifications in the Brazilian consulate (at a cost) – are only the beginning of what it can mean to work in Brazil.
My own experience
In my own case, a long, grinding bureaucratic process to validate my Ph.D. – in order to teach – caused me such heart-wrenching desperation that I had to give my feelings regular pep-talks.
The first step I had to take was to FedEx my UT diploma, signed by the university, to the “closest Brazilian consulate” – Houston. The cost of the FedEx aside, authentication ran me about US$25 for an official-looking seal on the back of my diploma. The remaining "validation" of my Ph.D. took over 10 months. I required costly “official” (juramentado) translations, a heap of paperwork, certified records of everything I have ever done academic-related, a dissertation assessment committee required to vet my work, and multiple visits to notaries, federal university offices, and even an appeal to the dean of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The entire process cost me about US $2,000 and much premature aging. I do not wish this experience on anyone.
The implication of my own Kafkaesque journey through the Brazilian bureaucracy suggests that liberalizing the issuance of visas is not enough. The ‘validation’ of qualifications will also have to be streamlined if Brazil wishes to attract and keep talent. The Globo article that inspired this post provides the example of Technip, a Brazilian engineering company. In order to avoid the vagaries of the Brazilian visa process, Technip opened up an office in Portugal.
Just one day in office, Guatemalan President Perez Molina met with his military commanders and issued a new top priority for the military: "Achieve an interdiction of external threats and neutralize illegal armed groups, through the use of military power, by regaining and maintaining control of the air, maritime, and land domains."
None of this is a surprise. Perez had promised to use the military to improve internal security throughout the current and previous campaign. Perez also promised to provide the military with the technology and equipment to meet that objective including surveillance systems, radars, speedboats, and combat aircraft.
The use of the military isn't unprecedented. Former President Colom used the military in combating the Zetas and other Latin American militaries are deployed internally to fight crime. However, it appears that Perez went a step further, symbolically and perhaps legally, in making the mission to fight illegal armed groups the primary focus of the Guatemalan military.
Several key questions come from this statement. First, will this have a real impact on how the Guatemalan military trains, equips, and deploys or was it just symbolic? Second, where is the money? Is Perez going to pass any new taxes, reform the budget, or appeal for new international aid? Third, what is the long term strategy and goal? Is there a defined end state, perhaps including a return to a reformed, more capable, and less corrupt civilian police force? How will Perez know when Guatemala has won? Like too many other Latin American presidents, it appears Perez is sending in the military to fight the bad guys before he has a strategy to win or a vision for what he wants to achieve.
I'm disappointed to see that "protect the population" wasn't in the main mission statement, at least as far as I can tell from the reporting. Protect the population and measure the results is a good general recommendation for Latin American countries trying to fight crime. Going on the offensive and fighting the illegal armed groups can lead to the wrong measures of success. Declaring protection of the population as the mission means the government must judge success based on less violence. Declaring the offensive fight as the mission generally leads to more violence, though I'd be glad to be proven wrong.
By starting with the military offensive, not focusing on protection of the population and not placing the military actions in the framework of a full government strategy, Perez threatens to make the same mistakes as his neighbor to the north. Perez should have a more comprehensive strategy in place before he deploys the military.
--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.
Reports that San Pedro Sula, Honduras, has taken the place of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as the most violent city in the hemisphere are a result of shifts in trafficking patterns that are putting Central America at the heart of the drug trade.
According to a new report by Mexico’s Civic Council on Public Security and Criminal Justice, San Pedro Sula saw 159 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, topping the nonprofit organization’s list of the most violent cities in the hemisphere. Ciudad Juarez has topped the list for the past three years.
This shift in ranking reflects major changes that have occurred within the regional drug trade over the past decade, in which Mexican drug traffickers have deepened their influence in Central America. There they have established connections to local crime bosses, known as “transportistas,” who facilitate drug shipments between South America and Mexico. The rise of these transportistas has been accompanied by a surge of violence in the region, which is exacerbated by a growing local market for drugs, weak state institutions, and government corruption.
By contrast, Mexico has seen some success in its own struggle with organized crime, apprehending or killing several top drug traffickers in recent years. And while recently released government statistics show that homicides linked to organized crime increased 11 percent in 2011, the 2010 figure was 70 percent higher than in 2009, suggesting that the wave of violence in the country may be abating. It should also be noted that although Mexico's violence dominates headlines in the US, it pales by comparison to the situation in Central America. According to the United Nations’ 2011 Global Study on Homicide, the average homicide rate in the six biggest countries of Central America is 43 per 100,000, which is more than twice that of Mexico.
Honduras leads the UN list with 82.1 homicides per 100,000, making it the most dangerous country in the world in terms of murders. This prompted the US to pull its Peace Corps volunteers from the country due to safety concerns. As InSight Crime has reported, Honduras has been particularly affected by the growth of transnational drug trafficking in Central America. In September 2011, Honduran Defense Minister Marlon Pascua claimed that 87 percent of cocaine which is sent from South America to the United States passes through Honduras. If this is accurate, then, taken with the United Nations’ latest estimates of the size of the US cocaine market, it suggests that an incredible 143.55 tons of the drug pass through Honduras annually.
But despite Honduras’ status as a major drug transit nation, relatively little is known about the major criminal players in the country. According to security analyst James Bosworth, the process is mostly overseen by three of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico: the Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Gulf Cartel. In a December 2010 working paper on crime in Honduras for the Wilson Center, he claimed that US drug-enforcement officials believe “a large portion of the management” of these drug trafficking networks are Mexican, and are mostly affiliated with one of these three major groups.
These groups also appear to have different preferred methods of transporting their goods northward. Bosworth writes that “in general, according to experts who track the shipments, the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels move more cocaine by land across the Honduras-Guatemala border while the Zetas move more by sea.” Their exact areas of influence are unknown, but the government has acknowledged their presence in at least four provinces along the western border with Guatemala and the northern coast.
These organizations do not work alone. As mentioned above, Mexican drug-trafficking groups frequently depend on local transportistas to supply them with their product from South America. In Honduras, the most high profile transportistas are Nelson and Javier Rivera, brothers who turned a mid-level car and cattle theft operation into an extensive drug-running venture with ties to government officials, known as the Cachiros gang. The Cachiros’ influence stretches all along the northern coast, as well as the eastern provinces of Gracias a Dios and Olancho. Other smaller transportista networks, such as the El Salvador-based Perrones, also operate in the country.
On the street level, Honduras is also home to the gangs that have sprung up throughout the region; Barrio 18 and their rivals, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Street gangs like these two groups are likely responsible for a majority of the violence in San Pedro Sula. As a series on the city by La Prensa reveals, at least 10 entire neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city are completely in the hands of these gangs, and police are unable to even enter them. Extortion, sometimes referred to as a “war tax,” is common in San Pedro Sula, especially targeting transport workers such as bus and taxi cab drivers. To make matters worse, small-scale drug trafficking is on the rise in the city, which could lead to more violent turf wars.
There appears to be no evidence that the violence in San Pedro Sula is caused by any kind of overarching conflict between Mexican cartels, as is taking place in the border cities in the north of Mexico like Juarez or Tijuana. However, it is likely that the Mexican groups active in the country are at least present in the Honduran city, if not major contributors to the violence.
San Pedro Sula is an economic powerhouse, producing two-thirds of Honduras’ GDP. Because the flow of capital there is far greater than in any other city in the country, it is an ideal place to launder money. It is also located relatively close to both the border with Guatemala and Puerto Cortes, Honduras’ main port, making it strategically situated to direct smuggling networks.
--- 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.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Former Guatemalan Gen. Otto Perez Molina will be inaugurated today as the first military official to lead the country since its return to democracy 26 years ago.
Topping Mr. Perez’s list of priorities as he takes office is overturning a longstanding ban on US military aid to Guatemala, which he aims to use to contain and deter drug-related violence in the country. Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the Western hemisphere and is increasingly plagued by high crime and violence linked to drug trafficking in Mexico, reports the Guardian. Many citizens voted for Mr. Perez based on his “iron fist” campaign that promised to crack down on crime.
Yet his hopes of overturning the ban worry observers who are critical of his involvement in Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war. Perez garnered international attention during his run for office due to accusations of his involvement in massacres, kidnappings, and other human rights abuses during the civil war, which has strong ties to US military training and funding.
During Guatemala's long civil war, violence primarily targeted rural areas where family members were killed, children kidnapped, and crops destroyed. Further military training my not be the appropriate answer for a country still struggling with impunity and justice reforms, writes Tim Padgett in an op-ed for Time magazine.
“[T]he fear is that Pérez, despite all his talk of a mano dura, or “iron fist,” isn’t the man to bring rule of law to Guatemala, which is one of the world’s most lawless countries today. Guatemala, along with El Salvador and Honduras, is part of Central America’s northern triangle – which U.S. military leaders call “the deadliest zone in the world” outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Guatemala’s murder rate is more than eight times the U.S.’s, largely because violent drug and extortion gangs have overrun the country.
“But equally troubling is the notion among Guatemala’s political and business elite that the military is the answer. Armies don’t fight crime, professional police do – and like Mexico, which has also had to employ its military against drug cartels because it can’t rely on its cops, Guatemala is paying for centuries of unpardonable neglect of public security.”
The US Congress ended military aid to Guatemala in 1990 after the death of a US citizen at the hands of the Guatemalan Army and years of ongoing concern over military-led human rights abuses. The US played an active role in the conflict, first backing a military coup in 1954 to overthrow the democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, who was viewed as a communist threat. Fear of the Central American country falling to communism continued as left-wing guerrilla groups began fighting for land reform, battling military forces. Guatemala’s indigenous populations bore the brunt of the nearly four decades of violence, largely because they lived in rural communities where leftist groups were believed to seek refuge.
A 1995 US press report revealed that although overt US military aid to Guatemala was halted in the early 1990s, millions of dollars in CIA funding continued to enter the country and support Guatemalan armed forces during the next five years, according to the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The US has approved limited aid over the years for training Guatemala’s military response team for natural disasters.
Today, Mexican drug traffickers have taken over regions of Guatemala bordering Mexico, and Perez is says he is seeking military equipment such as helicopters and training to battle the drug trade which is increasingly carving routes through Central America.
But whether the US will entertain the request is unclear. Some believe the US is taking a “wait-and-see” approach, given Perez's military past. President Obama took two weeks to congratulate Perez on his election victory last fall, a decision some read as a “chilly sign," reports the Associated Press.
Guatemala must meet a number of US stipulations in order for US defense funding to resume, such as guaranteeing that the military is “respecting internationally recognized human rights.” Several former Guatemalan presidents have attempted to get the US to resume defense aid, including outgoing leader Alvaro Colom, who met with the US to outline six conditions that must be met before the partial resumption of US military aid would be considered, reports Prensa Libre (Spanish).
Greater military transparency is among the conditions, reports Insight Crime, an organization that conducts research and analysis on organized crime in Latin America.
“The condition which might prove the most difficult for Perez's government requires the release of all military documents related to Guatemala's civil war,” reports Insight. “There is little chance that Perez will prove willing to do so, considering his level of support from the military. He has also faced accusations of committing human rights violations during the conflict.”
Other steps include renewed support for a United Nations anticorruption team, CICIG, which has not always received full cooperation from the Guatemalan government in the past, as well as reforming the weak justice system. A UN-sponsored truth commission following the civil war found that state forces and paramilitary groups were responsible for the majority of the conflict’s killings. Few of those responsible, however, have been tried and brought to justice, reports the AP.
In December, Perez told the leading Guatemalan newspaper, Prensa Libre, that the issues surrounding US military funding have become exaggerated. “This has become more of a myth than anything else. We have not relied on the US for weapons these last 30 years, and it seems that in this country many have realized that the Guatemalan Army has changed a lot in every way,” he said.
If the US government does not provide the assistance needed by Guatemala to improve its law enforcement efforts, the Guatemalan government will seek military aid from other countries, a Perez adviser told the AP. “This may be a subtle reference to the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is set to attend Perez's swearing in ceremony,” reports Insight.