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Soldiers maintain their blockade of the state legislative building, where up to 300 striking police officers and their families are holed up, in Salvador, Brazil, Tuesday. (Felipe Dana/AP)

Could police strikes spread in Brazil?

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / 02.07.12

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

Carnival starts in less than two weeks, with 250 percent more porta-potties.  And possibly a dearth of police.

Rio de Janeiro’s military (street) and civil (investigative) police forces, and its firemen are threatening to strike starting on Friday.

The moment couldn’t be better – or worse. The military police of the northeastern state of Bahia are currently on strike, with army troops surrounding strikers holed up with their families in the state legislative building. The US consulate has advised putting off travel to Bahia, a prime spot for Afro-Brazilian Carnival celebrations, and Globo TV reported today that tour operators have seen a ten percent cancellation rate.

In Rio, police are posting frenetically on Facebook and in blogs (most links in Portuguese), with not much mainstream coverage on the possibility of a strike (or on demands or the politics involved).

Governor Sérgio Cabral has increased salaries and improved compensation in other ways, but the police are still poorly paid – with many themselves living in favelas – and, perhaps, most important, fully aware of their importance in the new Rio. Crime is down and real estate values and tourism are up, largely due to the police pacification program, which started in 2008. The security program places high concentrations of police in select favelas to root out armed drug traffickers (in English), reports the Monitor.  The program now extends to 19 favelas.

“We work so you can live safely in the South Zone” a shock troop officer in the recently-occupied Vidigal favela boasted to RioRealblog, just a couple of weeks back. But the cops aren’t only protecting the upper classes. In Rio’s pacified favelas  many people have let down their guard and developed new habits and behaviors; without enough police, criminals could easily start to retake territories and start a wave of revenge on those they consider to be traitors.

Rio’s security forces have a meeting scheduled with Cabral tomorrow. A demonstration is planned for Thursday in Cinelândia, with the strike tentatively set for Friday.

--- 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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Josefina Vazquez Mota waves the National Action Party (PAN) flag after winning the primary election to be the National Action Party’s candidate for president, in Mexico city Sunday. Voters from Mexico's ruling conservative party selected Vazquez Mota as their first woman presidential candidate on Sunday, choosing a former education minister to battle the opposition's nominee, who has a big lead in the polls, ahead of the July 1 general election. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Woman to head major party ticket in Mexico

By Staff writer / 02.06.12

“I am going to be the first female Mexican president.”

Those are the words of Josefina Vazquez Mota, who was just selected by Mexico’s ruling National Action Party (PAN) to be their candidate in the upcoming July 1 race. This is the first time a woman in Mexico is heading a major party ticket as a presidential candidate.

In many ways she is tapping into the fervor that has seen the Latin American electorate choose women to head Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile, and beyond.

But beyond changing gender roles in the region, the former education minister is hoping to appeal to women – young university students, working mothers, the poor – where her male counterparts have sometimes seemed aloof and out of touch with the realities faced by families in Mexico.

Within the PAN, Ms. Vazquez Mota challenged former finance minister Ernesto Cordero, who came in second during the weekend vote, and former senator Santiago Creel, who came in distant third. Mr. Cordero was unable to shake off criticism from his time as finance minister, when he said that 6,000 pesos a month, or about $475, was a salary that offered the accoutrements of middle class life, including a car and private school for kids. The comment spread across Twitter.

PAN was the last of three major parties to select their candidate, and Vazquez Mota will now face former Mexico State Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held onto power for 71 years before being defeated by the PAN in 2000; and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the Democratic Revolution Party (PDR). Mr. Lopez Obrador narrowly lost to President Felipe Calderon in 2006, declared fraud, and shut down central Mexico City for six weeks in protest.  

Mr. Peña Nieto has been the clear frontrunner of the race thus far. According to a poll carried out by Consulta Mitofsky in Mexico City late last year, Peña Nieto was ahead with 42 percent support, compared to 21 percent for Vazquez Mota, and 17 percent for Lopez Obrador.

But Peña Nieto has stumbled in recent months. Most notable was his gaffe at a book fair in Guadalajara, in which he could not name three books that most inspired him, earning him ridicule across newspaper columns and social media.

But it was another of his stumbles that Vazquez Mota, a working mother with three daughters, was specifically able to use to her advantage: in an interview, he was unable to name the price for a kilo of tortillas, a staple in Mexico, and defended himself by quipping, “I am not the lady of the house."

On a radio program afterwards, Vazquez Mota was asked if she was the “lady of the house."  She responded, "I am a woman, and as a woman I am a housewife, I am a government official, I've been twice a government secretary, I've been leader of a parliamentary group, I am an economist," reports the LA Times. "And indeed, all of that along with being a housewife, a housewife who knows what happens every day at the dining table and in the kitchen … And although we may not be there for many hours, as is my case, and I'm sure your case and many others of us, every night we return to that space of the kitchen, return to check the refrigerator and see if everything is ready or what needs to be bought the next day," she said.

While PAN is saddled with overseeing a violent crackdown against organized crime that has taken some 50,000 lives in nearly six years, and has been criticized for not doing enough to buoy the poor, Vazquez Mota can tout herself as the candidate with the capacity to care.

“Today I’m committed to take care of your families like I’ve taken care of mine,” she said Sunday. “I want to make Mexico the best country to live in.”

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El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes speaks at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that ended the war between a right-wing dictatorship and guerrillas of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, in El Mozote, El Salvador, Jan. 16. (Luis Romero/AP)

El Salvador gets 'tough' amid worsening crime

By Hannah StoneGuest blogger / 02.06.12

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

El Salvador’s government says it is taking a radical stance on crime, using the military to police the country's most violent areas and now appointing military men to top security posts. But the changes sound more like a return to the failed “iron fist” policies of the past.

In November, Mauricio Funes -- the first president elected under the banner of guerrilla group-turned-political party FMLN since the civil war ended in 1992 -- named David Munguia Payes, a retired general and former defense minister, as security minister. On January 23, Funes selected Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivers as head of the police (PNC) (in Spanish), a former army general who had handed in his resignation just days before.

Since he took power two and a half years ago, Funes has also expanded the army by some 57 percent to more than 17,000 people, and has periodically deployed the military onto El Salvador’s streets to share policing duties.

The trend began prior to Funes' term. As El Faro reports (in Spanish), the defense budget has risen 32 percent in the last 10 years. And Funes is also following a region-wide pattern. Former General Otto Perez was elected Guatemala's president last year, while HondurasPresident Porfirio Lobo has given policing powers to the armed forces in Honduras.

But putting ex-military men at the head of both the police and the security cabinet struck opponents as a dangerous move to militarize the country’s security. And in a stinging rebuke over the Munguia appointment, members of Funes' own FMLN party said it appeared to be “a decision that was made somewhere in the U.S. capital.”

Funes’ justification for the move is simple: The country’s deteriorating security situation requires a "more forceful" approach (in Spanish). His work to strengthen the armed forces seems to be inspired by the desire to take, and to be seen taking, decisive action.

“What society asks and demands from us is results, and the president seeks results, not sterile debates or discussions," he declared recently (in Spanish).

It’s not hard to understand why the president wants to act decisively. Last year, El Salvador had a homicide rate of around 70 per 100,000 (depending on the figures you use), placing it among the most dangerous countries in the world.

However, the “more forceful” security strategies that have begun to emerge from Funes’ new militarized security cabinet sound less like innovations than a return to the failed policies of the past. Since the end of the civil war, each successive government has moved to take a tougher stance on crime by trying to roll back the protection of suspects’ civil rights. The three presidencies that preceded Funes each worked for reforms to give the police and legal system greater powers, “arguing that the laws as they stood benefited criminals more than society,” as IPS details.

In 2003, the Francisco Flores government rolled out the Plan Mano Dura (the Iron Fist Plan), a hardline security strategy that allowed suspected gang members to be arrested and imprisoned on the basis of their appearance (not difficult, given the popularity of tattoos to pledge allegiance). Over the next four years the number of gang members locked up doubled from 4,000 to 8,000.

The overcrowded jails provided a fertile ground for converting young people into hardened criminals, and being thrown together allowed the gangs to organize and regroup. It also galvanized the development of sophisticated extortion networks. Critics say the policy failed, and homicide rates have doubled since it was instituted.

Funes himself had initially moved away from these hardline measures, favoring more holistic, community-based anti-gang policies. But the statements of Munguia, his new security minister, sound worryingly familiar.

In an interview with El Faro (in Spanish) last week, Muguia called for legal reform to make the system less liberal: “Our system of laws, which has very high guarantees of civil liberties, would be ideal for a society which had normal behavior, but it can’t process the entire quantity of crimes that are being committed.”

His task, he added, would be to remove bottlenecks in the system, “to put the criminals where they should be, and take them off the streets.” If necessary, Munguia told El Faro, he is prepared to lock up an additional 10,000 gang members.

This is one of Munguia's many dangerous ideas. According to police figures (in Spanish), there are just under 18,000 gang members in the country, and another 10,000 already locked up. The addition of another 10,000, quite aside from its social consequences, would have a disastrous impact on the country’s overcrowded penal facilities.

For Munguia, though, gangs are not only the biggest security challenge in El Salvador, they are the only one. He claims that groups like the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 are responsible for 90 percent of all murders. But this is far from clear. The government forensic institute (IML) says gangs are responsible for 10 percent all the murders; the police say they are responsible for 20 percent.

What's more, Munguia's approach ignores the presence of groups like the Perrones and the Texis Cartel, which organize much of the transport of drugs, weapons and migrants through the country, acting as go-betweens for larger groups based in Mexico and Colombia. And although the Salvadoran groups are far less violent then their counterparts in these countries, the fact remains that blaming El Salvador’s entire security crisis on gangs is not only inaccurate but means the government will not focus on tackling these other types of violence.

In the end, the military men at the helm of El Salvador’s security strategy do not seem to be bringing any innovative ideas with them. Instead, they are appealing to a well-rehearsed narrative in which wild gangs terrorize the country, and can only be tamed by ever-stronger shows of might and higher rates of incarceration, two policies that have already failed to give the results Funes says he wants.

–– 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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Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez (r.) greets supporters as he arrives at a ceremony marking the 13th anniversary of his inauguration in Caracas on Thursday. (Miraflores Palace/Reuters)

Chávez celebrates failed coup that propelled him into office

By Girish GuptaContributor / 02.04.12

"We have failed, for now," were the immortal words of Hugo Chávez back in 1992, a young lieutenant colonel announcing to his soldiers on live television that the coup he organized against President Carlos Andrés Peréz had failed.

Mr. Chávez was unable to create a regime change that year, but his concession left little doubt he would try again.

Today, Feb.4, marks the 20-year anniversary of Chávez’s now infamous address on state television. Though he failed in his coup that year, the speech propelled the young soldier into the nation's psyche. It both led him to prison for organizing the coup and, six years later, to Venezuela's presidential palace.  He won the presidency through free and fair elections, and has remained in office since.

The government has referred to the anniversary ­– abbreviated as 4F, for the date the coup took place – as “one of the most important sociopolitical events of contemporary history in Venezuela,” and huge celebrations are planned all over the country in honor of it.

His coup attempt in 1992 came at a time when there was much dissatisfaction with the Venezuelan government, mired by deadly riots over economic reform and broken campaign promises that reinforced the image of a corrupt government serving only the country’s elite.

As Chávez’s Socialist government plays up the inspiration his words instilled 20 years ago, buoying support today, opposition party candidates are preparing to choose a presidential candidate in next weekend’s primary election.  The winner will face Chávez, who has been in power for the past 13 years, in elections in October. The opponent expected to win the primaries is Henrique Capriles Radonski, a charismatic state governor who, for the first time in Chávez's long tenure, has unified the opposition to put up a good fight.

But Chávez is a formidable foe for the country’s political opposition, reports the Monitor, and aside from running popular social programs funded by oil profits, he is still believed to have strong support from the country’s military.  His journey to power began by rallying support in Venezuela’s military academy. One young soldier, Jesús Urdaneta Hernández, now living in a wealthy Caracas suburb, was a good friend of Chávez at the academy and helped mastermind and run the coup attempt.

"I could never have imagined the reaction of the population," Mr. Urdaneta says in an interview with the Monitor.  "We were like the saviors of the people." 

Chávez gained huge support from both the middle classes and the poor in the years following 4F, as he came to personify the struggle against the old oligarchy.  Six years after the attempted coup, Chávez was elected president in a landslide victory.
 
But Urdaneta fell out with Chávez when the socialist came to power in 1999. Now a staunch member of the opposition, he is currently campaigning for governor of Guárico, a state just south of Caracas.  Urdaneta is not a unique case: many of Chavez’s original supporters, like those in the middle class, have tired of the high inflation and crime rates that ballooned under his leadership.
 
The celebrations surrounding 4F this weekend will coincide with the summit of Alba, the regional Bolivarian alliance setup by Chávez, which includes countries sympathetic to his mission like Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
 
"The rebellion of Feb. 4 was a historical necessity," Chávez said on Thursday, celebrating 13 years in power.  "Only by way of the revolution could we emerge from the abyss."

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Children armed with assault weapons spark controversy in Venezuela

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger / 02.03.12

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

Images of children armed with what look like assault weapons have sparked a heated debate in Venezuela over President Hugo Chavez’s support for armed militias in the country.

Colectivo La Piedrita is a pro-Chavez group based in western Caracas which bills itself as a community political organization but which Chavez himself has previously denounced (in Spanish). On January 23, La Piedrita celebrated the anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958.

This week, photos emerged which appear to have been taken at the event and posted on the group’s Facebook page, showing children carrying M-16 assault rifles. The children are wearing bandanas and seated in front of a mural depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary holding Kalashnikovs. Other photos, seemingly from the same event, suggest that Venezuelan congressman Robert Serra was present, indicating some level of official support for the display.

The release of the photos caused something of a political firestorm in Venezuela. Potential presidential opposition politician Pablo Perez (in Spanish) criticized the photos, saying: "Instead of guns, these children should have a computer, a book, a bat, a ball, a glove, or a musical instrument."

The Chavez administration itself has condemned the images, with Interior Minister Tarek El-Aissami calling them “morally reprehensible" (in Spanish).

Diego Arria, another strong opponent of Chavez, criticized the president via Twitter, claiming that the President only distanced himself from the photos because they were distributed so widely.

For his part, Serra has said that the photos taken of the children were taken at a separate event in November, which he did not attend. Meanwhile, Colectivo La Piedrita claims that the rifles were made of plastic (in Spanish), and were part of a skit meant to commemorate the demobilization of guerrilla groups in the country during the 1960s. The children allegedly handed over toy rifles in exchange for copies of the Constitution.

InSight Crime Analysis

The incident draws attention to the highly politicized nature of Venezuelan society. Ever since Chavez took office, the discourse used by his supporters and detractors has become extremely polarized. Chavez has not helped this issue by arming civilian militias for political purposes, which may have contributed to the rise in street violence in the country.

The sight of small children with guns in their hand, real or not, touches on the broader issue of youth violence in Venezuela. As InSight Crime has reported, guns are widely available among poor youths in the country, and gun violence disproportionately affects those between 15 and 29 years old.

--- 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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Chief executive of the Brazilian airline Gol, Constantino Oliveira Jr., is shown at the company's headquarters in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in this 2005 file photo. (Alexandre Meneghini/AP/File)

Another casualty of Brazil's rise: cheap airfare

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent / 02.03.12

• A version of this post ran on regular contributor Andrew Downie's blog, andrewdownie.wordpress.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

When I interviewed the head of Gol Airlines for the Monitor in 2005, I was hugely impressed by his ethos of wanting to create a low cost, low fare airline for Brazil and take on the legacy carriers whose model he so disliked.

Constantino de Oliveira Jr. did exactly what he set out to do and his cut-price but high quality service – combined with an economic boom that brought millions of consumers into the Brazilian market – helped Gol bankrupt Varig, the country’s flagship carrier. Today, Gol vies with Tam for the position as Brazil’s No.1 airline.

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The problem is that somewhere along the line de Oliveira Jr. dumped all that progressive talk of creating an alternative airline for the discerning and less well-off traveler and turned Gol into the kind of airline he was so keen to replace.

Gol now charges prices that are ridiculously high even for Brazil, a country that is now among the most expensive in the world.

The cheapest flight found yesterday for a flight today between Rio and Sao Paulo, the country’s two main cities, on Gol’s website was $832. In comparison, flights between New York and Washington DC on Delta start at $319. A trip between London and Edinburgh on British Airways comes in at a minimum 210 pounds (around $332).

In the best example of how Gol comprehensively betrayed its starting ethos, it is charging three times what Webjet is charging for the same route, according to Wednesday’s Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.

The curious detail here is that Gol bought Webjet last year, which was a low cost, low fare airline that set out to provide an alternative to the exorbitant prices charged by Gol and Tam. (The report is in Portuguese and available to subscribers only but says Gol sold tickets that cost three times those advertised on the Webjet site, even though it owns both companies and operated the same flight).

Gol told Folha it wasn’t breaking any laws, and Gol surely isn’t alone in taking the mickey. Everything in Brazil is expensive. But the abusive fares are particularly egregious given Gol's initial, laudable, and sadly abandoned, goal.

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The Baker River - fed by glacier melt - is the center of controversy over hydroelectric dams that the government wants to build in this pristine area in Chile’s Patagonia, in this December 2009 file photo. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File)

Man arrested in Chile for stealing a glacier

By Staff writer / 02.02.12

When my dear friend and colleague, photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman, and I traveled to the remote town of Cochrane in Chile’s Patagonia to do a story about a proposed hydroelectric dam, residents were most angered by the fact that the majority of electricity generated from the rivers of Patagonia was intended not for them but for the capital city, Santiago, and nearby industry.

Now once again, it seems, the capital is "stealing" another of Patagonia's greatest resources: its glaciers.

This week, a man was arrested in Cochrane for transporting via truck 11,453 pounds of ice illegally removed from the Jorge Montt glacier.

Why would one steal a glacier? News reports say it was destined for the upper classes of Santiago, where “glacier” ice in drinks is considered a luxury (although our correspondent in Santiago tells me he has never seen “glacier” ice marketed at any bars – apart from being illegal, it would likely be as shunned, at least among the environmental set, as fur coats).

Ice might seem a more innocuous good to illegally trade than, say, drugs or people. But this operation is probably even more challenging to pull off.

The authorities say the man was spotted transporting ice in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, according to the wire service EFE.  The glacier is only accessed by water via a four-hour trip from Caleta Tortel, a coastal village where houses are built on stilts and there are no roads, just wooden walkways.

And getting from there, back to Santiago, is no easy feat.

Melanie and I flew into Balmaceda and headed south for hours. And days. Down the Austral highway to the farthest point south, Caleta Tortel. The roads are rough, windy, all dirt, and so narrow that in most places one car has to pull over while the other passes. That makes for slow traveling, and several near accidents (like my almost head-on collision with a gas truck).

Upon our return a week later, as we neared Balmaceda where the road is paved once again, we got out of our four-wheel-drive and hugged, crying tears of relief. We survived!

Stealing ice is no laughing matter on the environmental-front either. Scientists say that out of all the glaciers in Chile, the Jorge Montt glacier is retreating the fastest, reports the BBC.

Rory Carroll of the Guardian notes that while some dispute whether global warming is playing a role in glacial retreat, this is one case in which both sides can agree on the role of human action.

The driver is being accused of theft – the ice in the back of his truck, reportedly found in large plastic sacks, is worth at least $6,000 (though that is based on the going price for ice; for 1,000-year-old ice, plus the risks involved in stealing it, it could be much higher). The driver could face charges under the national monuments act, according to the Chilean daily El Mercurio (in Spanish).

I had been eager to visit the glacier from Caleta Tortel, but the trip was too time-consuming. We had too much reporting to do. How angry I would have been to have forked out the money and committed the time to take a trip, only to see the glacier chipped away.

At least the ice seized will be going to good use. EFE reports that it is being given to farmers associations which will use it to irrigate crops in Cochrane to offset a drought that has been impacting agriculture in Chile.

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Honduras calls in the police - from Chile

By Jackie BriskiGuest blogger / 02.01.12

A version of this post appeared on the blog jbriski.wordpress.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

A delegation of three Carabineros de Chile – Inspector General Samuel Cabezas, Colonel Juan Carlos Castro, and Lieutenant Colonel Sergio Alarcón – arrived in Honduras on Sunday. They will remain in Honduras for a week, visiting training centers and consulting with top officials of the Honduran national police force, members of Parliament, and Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.

La Prensa reports that the Congress of Honduras has proposed an initiative to create a similar police unit (in Spanish), la Policía de Carabineros de Honduras. While los Carabineros de Honduras would not replace the current police force, it could help strengthen the fight against crime in the murder capital of the world.

Upon their return to Chile, the delegation will prepare a report for President Lobo, detailing their observations and providing policy recommendations. This is an important step in the on-going process of cleaning up the Honduran police force as part of a more comprehensive plan to help promote security and stability, which is discussed more thoroughly by Christopher Looft at InSight Crime.

Of all of the national police forces in Latin America, los Carabineros de Chile are probably the best choice for this mission. They aren’t perfect (what group comprised of human beings is?), but los Carabineros are well known for beating the stereotypes of Latin America. Many people from Chile consider los Carabineros to be incorruptibles, or impossible to corrupt, because los Carabineros are adamant about enforcing the rule of law.

For instance, bribing los Carabineros is almost unheard of in Chile, in part because the general perception is that you would be arrested immediately. A 2008 report by AmericasBarometer Insights at Vanderbilt University, “Corruption Victimization by the Police”, indicated Chile had the lowest level of police corruption in Latin America.

A more recent report by the Vanderbilt team, "The Political Culture of Democracy in Chile, 2010″ (in Spanish), states that, at the time of the study, los Carabineros were one of the most trusted institutions in Chile.

In contrast, Elyssa Pachico reports for InSight Crime on popular perception of police corruption in Honduras. "According to one poll by the Central American University, over two-thirds of Hondurans believe the police are corrupt, and 77 percent percent blame President Porfirio Lobo for the current crisis," Pachico writes.

It’s worth noting that los Carabineros de Chile have been criticized recently for several incidents of police brutality related to the various popular protests. They have lost a measure of public trust and respect for their use of force in shutting down protesters – including the death of a protester in August 2011.

While police brutality (defined here as undue or unprovoked violence toward citizens) is never justifiable, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Edward Fox explains the unique dynamics that define the Honduran challenge.

"In both Brazil and Honduras, the police are deeply embedded in the very criminal structures they are tasked with dismantling," Mr. Fox writes. "But while Brazil has taken on a hugely ambitious (and to some degree, successful) project at police reform, Honduras is smaller, poorer, more politically troubled, and far more important as a transit country for the shipment of cocaine. All this will make police reform in Honduras a far more difficult task."

The specific areas in which los Carabineros de Chile will be advising President Lobo include drug trafficking, organized crime, extortion, killings, kidnappings, and car theft. Despite the previously mentioned critiques, los Carabineros de Chile are a good choice to help Honduras in these areas.

Because at this point, police handling of popular protests would probably be the least of Honduras’ worries.

--- Jackie Briski is a Latin Americanist and author of the blog cuando asi no sea.

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks with the media after a meeting with Peru's Defense Minister Alberto Otalora at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday. (Fernando Llano/AP)

Is Venezuela's military playing role in drug trafficking?

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger, Jeremy McDermottGuest blogger / 01.31.12

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

Allegations that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez knew of drug trafficking charges against his new defense minister not only suggest institutional corruption in the security forces, but that the president is unwilling, or unable, to take action.

In 2008, the US Treasury included Henry Rangel Silva on its list of Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers (SDNT), claiming that the general helped the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) smuggle cocaine into Venezuela. When Chavez appointed Rangel as minister of defense, the Bolivarian leader laughed off the accusations, saying that attacks against Rangel were propaganda designed to delegitimize the Venezuelan military.

As evidence, US officials had pointed to files found on computers and disks belonging to FARC commander Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes” after Colombian forces assassinated him in 2008. Rangel is mentioned by name in the files, allegedly meeting with Rodrigo Londoño, alias "Timochenko," among others. Timochenko is now commander-in-chief of the FARC, after taking over the leadership of the Colombian rebel group in November last year when his predecessor Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias "Alfonso Cano," was killed by troops.

But while Chavez dismisses these allegations, recent evidence suggests that officials in his government notified him of them long before the US government added Rangel to its list of international drug traffickers. According to El Nuevo Herald, Chavez promoted him several times despite having been informed about his alleged links to drug trafficking. The Herald cites an “internal government report” dating back to 2007 which voices concern over Rangel’s connection to an earlier incident in which army officials were arrested while transporting 2.2 tons of cocaine. The document claims there was sufficient evidence linking Rangel to the case, and recommended that officials open an investigation into the matter, including an audit of his income.

It is likely that Rangel was promoted despite these claims due to his unquestioning loyalty to Chavez and the “Bolivarian Revolution.” In late 2010 the general declared that the armed forces were “married to the socialist political project,” (in Spanish) adding that the military would not accept an opposition victory in this year’s presidential elections, “much less the people.”

Rangel is not the only Venezuelan official that the US has accused of drug trafficking ties. Two other officials were put on the SDNT list in 2008, and four more were added to the list in September. One of the most recent additions is General Cliver Alcala Cordones, who is in charge of the military’s 4th Armored Division. According to the Treasury’s press release, he used his position to establish a drugs-for-guns trade with the rebels, suggesting high-level complicity with the illicit narcotics trade on the part of the Venezuelan military.

InSight Crime spoke to senior international intelligence officials and contacts on the ground about the Venezuela situation. There have long been elements in the military that have facilitated the trafficking of drugs, the so-called Cartel de los Soles (Cartel of the Suns), so named after the gold stars that Venezuela generals wear on their epaulettes. The military is not only present along the border with Venezuela, but controls many of the departure points like Caracas' international airport Maiquetia and the port of Puerto Cabello, thus putting it in a perfect position to move drug shipments.

While the role of the Cartel de los Soles as a facilitating organization appears clear, thanks to testimony from drug trafficker Walid Makled, there are indications that it is shifting from simply facilitating the passage of drugs to actually taking direct control of shipments and routes.

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While Venezuela has an impressive record in capturing and extraditing top drug traffickers, like Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," arrested in November 2011, there have been allegations that some elements of the military have located these capos, or drug czars, and extorted money from them, and then once they have been bled dry, they are arrested and their routes taken over.

While Colombian groups have traditionally controlled drug trafficking in Venezuela, there are indications that corrupt elements of the military are now becoming players and developing their own contacts with Mexican cartels.

Much of Chavez's regime relies on active or former military personnel, not just in the armed forces but throughout the organs of the state. It may be that while he is well aware of the allegations of drug trafficking in the military, the president is unable to challenge such powerful interest without undermining his own power base.

The promotions of both Rangel and Timochenko to the top of their respective organizations prompts one to consider where this relationship between the two men, if still intact, could go, with serious implications not just for the trafficking of drugs through Venezuela, but the future of Colombia's 48-year civil conflict.

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

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Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff waves during an official visit to Cuba after arriving at Havana's Jose Marti airport on Tuesday. (Enrique de la Osa/Reuters)

Follow the money: Brazilian president travels to Cuba and Haiti

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 01.31.12

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

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is traveling to Cuba and Haiti this week, her first official trip to both Caribbean countries.
 
Certainly much of the Cuba focus will be on symbolic questions. Will Rousseff raise human rights and democracy issues publicly? Will she pressure the Cuban government to give pro-democracy blogger Yoani Sanchez an exit visa to visit Brazil?

But BBC notes the more important point of her trip: "Ms. Rousseff will visit the port of Mariel, where Brazilian company Odebrecht is carrying out a multi-million dollar modernization of the harbor," with money from the Brazilian national development bank, BNDES.

Brazil's economic expansion across Latin America is improving regional infrastructure, building long term influence, and making the country money today.

As I wrote in the recent Southern Pulse book, Brazil's economic projects are placing it in increasing competition with China for regional influence.
 
The same will be true in Haiti. Rousseff will visit the Brazilian-led peacekeepers and certainly make some aid announcements to help Haiti rebuild, but there is a significant economic role for Brazil in that country as well.
 
Watch the diplomatic symbolism, because it certainly matters. But follow the money, because that is how Brazil is really making its play for regional influence.

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

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