Guatemalan leader says he'd consider decriminalizing drugs

Otto Perez Molina at a news conference Feb. 13, 2012
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Guatemala's new president, Otto Perez Molina, has turned heads by suggesting he'd consider decriminalizing drugs as an answer to the violence besieging his Central American nation.

Perez Molina on Monday said he planned to raise the issue for debate after earlier proposing legal consumption and transportation of drugs across Central America. He said he wanted consensus among regional leaders first.

The Guatemalan leader met with President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, who was quoted as saying he also favored legalizing drugs.

"We're bringing the issue up for debate. Today's meeting is intended to strengthen our methods of fighting organized crime. But if drug consumption isn't reduced, the problem will continue," Perez Molina said, according to the Associated Press.

It's unclear whether Perez Molina, a right-wing former general who campaigned as a tough-on-crime candidate, is playing the legalization card in order to draw more U.S. attention to the violence plaguing his nation. Guatemala has increasingly become a base for Mexican traffickers moving drugs north to the United States.

Perez Molina, who took office last month, made no calls for decriminalizing drugs during last year's presidential campaign, in which he urged a "firm hand" against drug traffickers and other criminals.

The U.S. government is sure to use its heavy sway in the region to head off the idea. The embassy in Guatemala City issued a statement Sunday, saying that sprawling criminal groups wouldn't cease their operations if drugs were made legal overnight.

"If the trafficking and use of illegal drugs were decriminalized tomorrow in Central America, transnational criminal organizations and gangs would continue to engage in illicit activity, including trafficking in persons and illegal arms, extortion and kidnapping, bank robbery, theft of intellectual property, and money laundering," the embassy said.

The presence of the violent Zetas gang from Mexico has injected a volatile new element into Guatemala's long-established drug underworld. Zetas hit men were suspected in the massacre of 27 workers at a ranch in northern Guatemala last May.

The growing presence of Mexican traffickers has stoked worry throughout Central America that the gangs could overwhelm the region's relatively weak law-enforcement systems.


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Photo: Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina speaks Monday at a news conference in Guatemala City after meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes on regional security issues and the fight against organized crime. Credit: Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press

Is bribery sometimes OK? How people answered across the Americas

Is it OK sometimes to use bribes, "given the way things are" in countries that may be grappling with corruption, crime and poverty?

People in Guyana and Haiti were roughly four times as likely to say yes as people in Brazil, Chile or Guatemala, according to a recently released survey of attitudes across Latin America and the Caribbean. The Vanderbilt University study found big differences in how bribery is viewed in different countries, based on a 2010 survey of nearly 41,000 people in 24 countries.

Researchers didn’t draw conclusions about why people in some countries were more likely to say bribery was justified. They did, however, find other factors that helped explain how people viewed bribery. People were more likely to believe that bribery was sometimes justifiable if they also believed that:

-- the national economy had taken a turn for the worse in the past year

-- crime was a threat to their future

-- corruption is rampant among government officials

The last point may help explain why the study showed that Haitian respondents were more likely than Chileans to say bribery was justifiable. In December, the group Transparency International ranked Haiti as one of the worst countries in the world for perceived corruption, placing it 175th out of 182 countries based on surveys. Chile, where people were much more likely to shun bribery, ranked 22nd.

But the corruption rankings do not explain all of the gaps between countries when it comes to bribery: Guatemala ranked only a little better than Guyana in perceived corruption, despite vast differences in their attitudes about bribery.

The study also found that men were much more likely than women to think bribery was permissible, wealthy people were more likely to think it was OK than poorer people, urbanites were more likely to condone it than people living in rural areas, and young people justified it more easily than older ones.

Curious where other countries stack up? Here is the full list of country rankings from the Vanderbilt report, sponsored by the Latin American Public Opinion Project:




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Former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt faces genocide charges

REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR -- Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala who oversaw one of the nation's bloodiest periods, will stand trial on genocide charges and other crimes stemming from a 36-year civil war.

A Guatemalan judge ruled Thursday night that Rios Montt, now 85, will be confined to house arrest while the investigation and judicial proceedings run their course (link in Spanish, with video).

Judge Carol Patricia Lopez determined that Rios Montt and other top military leaders bore ultimate responsibility for acts that troops "were committing against the unarmed, helpless noncombatant civilian population, which meant multiple human rights violations, deaths, disappearances and sexual abuse, and persecution of the Mayan Ixil ethnic group."

The rulings came in a daylong hearing in a Guatemala City courthouse crowded with survivors and relatives of those killed during Rios Montt's rule in 1982-83. He had little to say, telling the judge he chose to "remain silent." In the past, he has maintained that all that happened was in the context of war.

An estimated 200,000 people were killed or went missing in the conflict, the majority indigenous men, women and children.


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Photo: Relatives of massacre victims from the Mayan Ixil ethnic group gather in a Guatemala City courthouse on Thursday to hear charges against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Credit: Moises Castillo / Associated Press. 

Another military official replaces civilian in El Salvador

El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, has named a newly retired military man to head the National Civilian Police, stoking protests from opponents who say such an appointment violates the spirit of peace accords that ended the nation’s civil war.

REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR -- El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, has named a newly retired military man to head the National Civilian Police, stoking protests from opponents who say such an appointment violates the spirit of peace accords that ended the nation's civil war 20 years ago this month.

The naming of Gen. Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivera, who retired from the army last week, follows a similar decision by Funes to name a former military officer as minister of justice and public security, a position that also had been held by a civilian (link in Spanish).

Funes said his new police director has the right credentials to confront a spiraling wave of violence engulfing the nation, fueled by the twin forces of drug traffickers and deeply entrenched street gangs.

"Mr. Salinas Rivera has had an outstanding role within the government's security, shown a great professionalism, and has a profound knowledge of the problems related to delinquency," Funes said.

Funes was elected president as the candidate of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political faction made up of former guerrillas.

Continue reading »

Former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt may face genocide trial

REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR -- Former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt will appear in a civilian court Thursday to face possible prosecution on genocide charges stemming from the army's "scorched earth" civil war campaign of the 1980s.
"El General," as Rios Montt is known in Guatemala, faces accusations that include torture, genocide, forced disappearances, state terrorism and crimes against humanity. Now 85 years old, Rios Montt has always denied such charges, claiming that he was never in the battlefield during the war.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala has also accused Rios Montt of burning the Spanish Embassy in 1980. Protesters against the army's killings of Mayan Indians were holed up inside the diplomatic post and 31 were killed in the blaze -- including Menchu's father, Vicente.
About 200,000 people were killed or went missing during the 36-year war against small groups of leftist guerrillas. The military razed entire villages, slaughtering civilians. Rios Montt's 17-month rule, from 1982-83, was one of the most brutal periods.
Human rights officials praised the fact that the Guatemalan justice system has finally started to take on such cases, especially given the impunity that top military officials have long enjoyed. Praise has also come for new Atty. Gen. Claudia Paz y Paz, appointed in 2010, who has appeared determined to take on the atrocities of the past. 
But the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, warned that the Guatemalan Defense Ministry and some government agencies "lack transparency ... [and demonstrate] unwillingness to provide still-classified information from the military archives that could be relevant for these trials."
Still, WOLA said, forcing Rios Montt to appear in court "is historic, and this trial could bring about justice for those who suffered during his regime."
Until this month, Rios Montt was immune from prosecution because he was a member of the Guatemalan Congress. He lost his immunity Jan. 17, when his term expired. In Thursday's court appearance, a judge will decide if there is enough evidence against him to warrant a trial.
A trial of Rios Montt could also prove uncomfortable for new President Otto Perez Molina, himself a former military man who served under Rios Montt.
In a ground-breaking case last August, four members of the Guatemalan Special Forces, known as the Kaibiles, were sentenced to 6,000 years in prison for their role in the 1982 "Dos Erres Massacre" of more than 200 people. The verdict paved the way for other high-level military officials, like Rios Montt, to be tried for alleged involvement in genocide.
"We do not want revenge,"  Eduardo de Leon Barrios, director of the Menchu Foundation, told The Times. "What we want is to set a precedent so that genocidal massacres never happen again."
In a 1995 interview with The Times, when he ran unsuccessfully for president, Rios Montt acknowledged that he was "the one responsible" for much of what happened in those dark years "but not the guilty party."
"I do not justify anything," he said. "I found a government that was destroyed, a state that was destroyed, a state that had been looted, a state without law. I put it in order."
-- Alex Renderos
Photo: Retired army Gen. Efrain Rios Montt arrives at the Guatemala City Human Rights office in December. Credit: Saul Martinez / EPA

A place where Guatemalan day laborers are survivors of war

Octopus Still Yoshua Okon

REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- A day laborer outside a Home Depot hardware store in northeast Los Angeles is riding in a bright orange shopping cart in the store's parking lot, peering through imaginary binoculars, as if he were on patrol in a dangerous jungle.

Others are crawling under parked vehicles as if squeezing below barbed wire, or diving and body-rolling as if evading gunfire. Before a sale display for storage sheds, two men lie still on the asphalt, their legs spread, as if dead.

The laborers are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, and in an unsettling video installation by Mexican artist Yoshua Okon on view at a university gallery in Mexico City, they are war survivors playing themselves.

Before Okon's cameras, the migrants are reenacting their days fighting in Guatemala's long and catastrophic civil war.

The four-channel video piece, called "Octopus," is Okon's latest and possibly most provocative video in a career in which he frequently pushes against viewers' comfort zones with the use of improvising non-actors.

A native of Mexico City, Okon has also lived part-time in Los Angeles. He bought a house in L.A. and came to participate in a rite of passage for many new U.S. homeowners in the last decade -- hiring day workers.

Continue reading »

Elections in Nicaragua, Guatemala underscore threats to democracy


REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Voters on Sunday were choosing presidents in Guatemala and Nicaragua, two Central American countries where democracy has been dramatically weakened by violence and political abuse.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega, a onetime Sandinista revolutionary who now professes to be a born-again Christian, looks set to be reelected, though he had to eviscerate the constitution to do it [link in Spanish].

In Guatemala, Mexican drug cartels have besieged the government, rendering a virtual failed state that neither presidential candidate -- retired army Gen. Otto Perez Molina nor Manuel Baldizon, a lawmaker and businessman -- appears equipped to reverse. Perez had the edge going into Sunday’s vote.

Pessimism runs deep in both nations.

Continue reading »

Floods kill scores in El Salvador, other parts of Central America



REPORTING FROM SAN SALVADOR -- Heavy rains across Central America have swollen rivers, flooded towns and farmland and killed nearly 100 people. Tens of thousands have been forced to evacuate and seek shelter, and the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua have declared national disasters.

Hardest hit was El Salvador (link in Spanish), where authorities said more rain fell in the last eight days than during the devastating 1998 Hurricane Mitch. The Lempa River washed over its banks and flooded more than 18,000 homes.

"It is a rain unprecedented in the history of El Salvador," Environmental Minister Herman Rosa Chavez said.

An estimated $2 million in Salvadoran coffee crops and production were also lost, La Prensa Grafica reported (link in Spanish).

Angel Arnaiz Quintana, a priest living in the badly flooded Usulutan region, said damage was extensive, hundreds of people in his community were stranded without food, and disease was spreading. "This was a rush of water that no one could stop," he told The Times by telephone. "Almost a tsunami."

International aid from the U.S., Mexico, Europe and elsewhere has already been pledged.


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Photo: A couple outside their flooded home on Oct. 17, 2011, in Marcovia, Honduras. Credit: Reuters






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