La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: terrorism

Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega dubbed 'Chavez Mini-Me' in leaked U.S. cables

Daniel ortega hugo chavez

The president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, has received almost $1 billion in aid from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela -- sometimes in "suitcases full of cash" sent from Caracas -- a relationship that prompted a U.S. diplomat to dub Ortega a "Chavez Mini-Me," leaked U.S. diplomatic cables show.

Ortega, the cables say, also funds his party's political campaigns with money from drug traffickers and once bribed a prominent Nicaraguan boxer to stump for him in public in exchange for not facing sexual assault charges -- which Ortega himself has faced, as alleged by his stepdaughter.

The batch of new cables, released by WikiLeaks and published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais and other sites, paint a deeply unflattering portrait of the ex-guerrilla leader, asking at one point of Ortega's foreign-policy ambitions: "Petulant Teen or Axis of Evil Wannabe?"

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Report: Mexico is not Colombia, here's why

Mayor mexico body reuters

Comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton comparing Mexico's drug war to a Colombia-style "insurgency" touched off a flurry of debate over the parallels between the two conflicts. Seeking out the facts, L.A. Times foreign correspondents conclude that the secretary's comments were like comparing "apples and oranges."

Here's the full story from Sunday's paper. At issue is whether the U.S. will seek to model the Merida Initiative aid package to Mexico on Plan Colombia, the deal that has supplied Colombia with more than $7 billion in aid to combat rebels and drug traffickers.

In their reporting, correspondent Ken Ellingwood, Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson and special correspondent Chris Kraul in Colombia break down the two conflicts into basic areas. Here's the La Plaza summary:

The nature of the foe: Colombia's decades-long conflict with the FARC rebel group and with powerful drug cartels is motivated, at least on the rebel side, by a Marxist ideology aimed at overthrowing the state. In Mexico, the drug war is motivated by the cartels' basic goal of moving narcotics into the U.S. without government interference, and collecting profits.

Territory: At the peak of its power, the FARC controlled a "Switzerland-size chunk" of Colombia's territory, with identifiable borders, plus other land. In contrast, Mexican drug gangs' sway over certain regions of Mexico remains fluid, and there is "no zone the Mexican army cannot reach when it wants."

Targets and tactics: Terrorist-style attacks have occurred in Mexico's drug war (a remote-controlled car bomb in Ciudad Juarez, a grenade attack on civilians in Michoacan) but they have not occurred with the frequency and scope as such tactics in Colombia. The Mexico drug war is mostly a conflict between feuding cartel groups.

State weakness: This is where the line is fuzziest. Colombia had a weakened army when the FARC began attacking the state, but a relatively strong civil society that eventually rose up and demanded solutions. Mexico sent 50,000 troops head-on to combat its drug gangs, but it has so far fallen short in pursuing desperately needed reforms in the justice system, for example, and in money laundering.

What's the proper prescription for Mexico then? One unnamed U.S. official in Mexico told The Times: "Institution building, institution building, institution building."

The U.S. recently signaled it would drastically boost funds to Mexico but held back a fraction of a previously pledged amount over doubts on progress over human rights allegations. Human rights abuses remain the darkest mark on Colombia's advances over the FARC and traffickers, as reported recently by the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America, in an extensive analysis on Plan Colombia titled "Colombia: Don't Call it a Model."

On the 10th anniversary of Plan Colombia's start, Kraul reports in The Times that the country is more secure and that the military has made advances over the FARC. Still, coca eradication efforts have not been as successful as hoped, and have pushed some cocaine production over to neighboring Peru. Kraul notes that the Colombian military is believed responsible for 3,000 extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2009.

On Thursday in New York City, U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos over the confirmed death of a major FARC leader in a military operation on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, a mayor in a town in the Monterrey metropolitan area was assassinated late last week, the fourth mayor killed by suspected drug hitmen in the last six weeks, Wilkinson reports. A mayor-elect in Chihuahua state was also shot on Friday and was in critical condition.

In another troubling and slightly Colombia-esque development here last week, a lawmaker-elect with suspected ties to the La Familia drug organization was sworn into office after evading police. The newly sworn-in federal deputy, Julio Cesar Godoy of Michoacan, now has immunity from prosecution.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The body of Prisciliano Rodriguez Salinas, mayor of the town of Doctor Gonzalez, northeast of Monterrey, Mexico, lays near his truck after gunmen assassinated him on Sept. 23, 2010. Credit: Reuters

Ciudad Juarez, other Mexican cities cancel Independence Day grito

Felipe calderon grito ap The grito, or yell, is the customary climax of Independence Day celebrations in Mexico. It is a call made by the president, governors and mayors across the country at midnight every Sept. 15, a tradition commemorating the original grito of Father Miguel Hidalgo in 1810. But this year, as Mexico struggles with soaring drug-related violence, at least 16 cities and towns in Mexico are canceling the public grito out of safety concerns, reports La Opinion, the Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles. 

The cancellations are especially disheartening, the head of a mayors group told the paper, because this year is Mexico's independence bicentennial.

Most cancellations have been announced in Tamaulipas state, site of ruthless violence between authorities and drug-trafficking groups, but also in the bloodied border city of Ciudad Juarez, as the El Paso Times reports. Nine municipalities have canceled public Independence Day festivities in Tamaulipas, reports Action 4 News in South Texas. Among them is San Fernando, the town near where 72 migrants were massacred late last month.

Violence erupted during a previous Independence Day celebration. During the 2008 grito  in Morelia, the state capital of Michoacan and President Felipe Calderon's home town, assailants threw grenades into the gathered crowd, killing eight people and wounding 100.

Independence Day is less than a week away. Preparations are frantic in Mexico City for the official grito, which also means street closures, an increased police presence, and of course, more traffic. President Calderon is expected to deliver two gritos this year in honor of the bicentennial, one at the National Palace on Mexico City's Zocalo square and another shortly thereafter in the town of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, where the original grito took place 200 years ago (link in Spanish). 

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Mexican President Felipe Calderon delivering the traditional grito at the National Palace in Mexico City,  Independence Day, 2007. Credit: Associated Press

Shining Path founders marry in prison

Shining path leaders sendero luminoso afp

The founder of Peru's violent Shining Path guerrilla movement married his long-time partner and former second-in-command at a maximum security naval prison in Peru on Friday. Abimael Guzman, 75, married Elena Iparraguirre, 62, in a 15-minute civil ceremony that was permitted after President Alan Garcia affirmed that even "the most despicable criminal" has the right to wed.

Guzman and Iparraguirre, who are serving life sentences in separate prisons for terrorism and treason, had not seen each other since their last trials in 2006. Their lawyers said they will be allowed to see each other every one or two months as a married couple.

Nearly 70,000 people -- an estimated half of them rebels -- were killed in the 20 years that the Maoist group, Sendero Luminoso in Spanish, was active, beginning in 1980.

In a related development in Peru this week, American Lori Berenson, who acknowledged collaborating with another guerrilla group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, was sent back to prison after losing a parole bid.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Elena Iparraguirre and Abimael Guzman during a trial in 2004. Credit: AFP

Colombia court rules against U.S. military agreement

Juan manuel santos hugo chavez

A high court in Colombia has voided an accord with the United States that would allow an increased U.S. presence on seven Colombian military bases. The ruling on Tuesday by the Constitutional Court declared the agreement signed by outgoing President Alvaro Uribe unconstitutional because it bypassed approval of the Congress.

The agreement was signed in October and faced intense criticism from Colombia's more left-leaning neighbors, including Venezuela and Bolivia. President Juan Manuel Santos (pictured above right), who was inaugurated on Aug. 7, enjoys a wide political majority in Colombia's Congress and told reporters Wednesday that the ruling would have no effect on cooperation between the U.S. and its closest ally in Latin America.

It remains unclear whether Santos will seek ratification of the pact by lawmakers, says the website Colombia Reports.

"What's important is the cooperation is going to continue. The fight against drug runners, the fight against terrorism does not let up," Santos said, according to Reuters. "And this decision by the court is not going to affect what we've been receiving from the United States."

Colombia has received more than $7.3 billion in U.S. aid since former President Clinton signed the Plan Colombia pact in 2000. The funds have helped Colombia disrupt the FARC rebel group and narco-trafficking operations, primarily cocaine production. But there have also been increasing human rights claims against Colombia's military and 21,000 combat-related deaths since Uribe took office in 2002, according to a recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America.

The entire report is here. It cites human rights groups' estimates of an additional 14,000 deaths of non-combatants and a rise in so-called "parapolitics," or the elections of leaders with known or alleged ties to paramilitaries or drug traffickers.

Santos, a former defense minister, was elected in a vote for continuity after eight years of Uribe's get-tough approach against the FARC and other rebel groups. The new president is seeking to restore deeply strained ties with Venezuela while also maintaining Uribe's strategy for the country's security challenges, Times special correspondent Chris Kraul reports from Bogota, the Colombian capital.

Uribe's government frequently accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of harboring FARC rebels in his country's territory, a charge Venezuela's government has denied. Colombia remains the world's biggest supplier of cocaine, but Peru may soon overtake the distinction as coca leaf production rises in the neighboring Andean nation.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez meets Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos days after Santos assumed office. Credit: Reuters via The Christian Science Monitor.

Colombian journalist denied visa for Harvard fellowship

A prominent and controversial Colombian journalist has been denied a visa to enter the U.S. to participate in a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University. The U.S. Embassy ruled journalist Hollman Morris ineligible to enter the United States under the "Terrorist Activities" section of the USA Patriot Act, reports the Associated Press.

Morris is known for his reports on human rights abuses by right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia, at the independent news outlet Contravia, but has been accused of allegiance to the FARC guerrilla group by Colombia's president. Morris had been awarded the Nieman Fellowship, a mid-career program at Harvard for experienced reporters from around the world, for his work investigating little-known abuses at the hands of far-right armed groups who fight the FARC in Colombia's isolated rural regions.

Reports in Colombia have tied paramilitaries to relatives of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, coining a new term for such relationships, "parapolitics." Far-right paramilitary groups in Colombia are believed to be responsible for as many as 20,000 deaths or disappearances, according to some reports.

Uribe, a strong U.S. ally, has singled out Morris for criticism, the AP says: "On Feb. 3, 2009, Uribe called Morris 'an accomplice of terrorism' posing as a journalist after Morris showed up with FARC rebels to cover the insurgents' liberation of four Colombian security force members."

In the video embedded above, via the Center for Investigative Reporting, Morris and his brother Juan Pablo Morris explain their efforts.

"We believe the country needs to know this story," Hollman Morris says in the video. "These documents, these archives, these programs will be the story that nourishes the next generation of Colombians. My children must know this. My children's children. If we want and believe that we shouldn't repeat that tragic history in our country."

The Nieman Fellowship is hoping that the U.S. State Department reverses its decision on Morris' visa. From the Nieman Lab blog:

Obviously, we’re hoping this can be resolved. For decades, the Nieman Fellowships have brought journalists from around the world to Harvard to study and learn from one another in an atmosphere of open exchange. My boss, curator Bob Giles, has written to the State Department asking it to change its decision, and other forces are rallying in his support. I don’t know that we have many readers in Foggy Bottom, but if we do, we sincerely hope this won’t be the first time an American political decision has prevented a foreign journalist from studying with us.

The news site Colombia Reports has more on documents that discuss government surveillance on Morris.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: Center for Investigative Reporting

Santos wins: A vote for continuity in Colombia

Juan manuel santos colombia The presidency of Colombia for the next four years is in the hands of Juan Manuel Santos. The former defense minister defeated Antanas Mockus by a margin of more than 40% in Colombia's presidential runoff on Sunday, Chris Kraul reports in The Times.

Santos' landslide win is a vote for continuity. The former military chief under current two-term incumbent President Alvaro Uribe promised in his campaign to extend Uribe's get-tough approach to guerrilla groups and to cocaine production. Analysts said the rescue of three hostages in rebel captivity announced a week before the voting also boosted the candidate's margin of victory.

Santos, who has never held elected office, assumes the presidency on Aug. 7. More from Kraul:

Santos is expected to continue Uribe's good relations with the United States, which regards Colombia's current leader as its chief Latin American ally and which over the last decade has delivered more than $6 billion in military and development aid to help the country fight drugs and terrorism.

His win also maintains the current ideological polarity in Latin America, between the United States-aligned right led by Colombia and the left led by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Uribe frequently clashed with Chavez, and as Uribe's defense minister, Santos led a 2008 incursion into Ecuador's territory against FARC rebels that heightened regional tensions.

But Santos received congratulations on Monday from both the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador, suggesting better relations with Colombia are possible under a Santos presidency. Santos told an interviewer that he would like to invite Chavez to his inauguration. Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, is ready to attend if invited (link is in Spanish).

The runoff was marked by less violence than previous Colombian elections but was not entirely peaceful. Rebel forces seeking to disrupt the vote killed seven police officers and three soldiers on Sunday, reports said.

A United Nations report released Tuesday notes that coca leaf production in Colombia dropped between 2008 and 2009, and that the world's leader of coca growth is now Peru.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's president-elect. Credit: Semana.com

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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson