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Guatemala Dismantles Ring of Policemen Moonlighting as Hitmen

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A series of arrests in Guatemala has brought down a criminal group, known as Los Patrones, made up of police officers working as drug dealers and hitmen, showing how the country has not been spared from the growing crisis of police criminality across the region. The network of Los Patrones operated across southern and western Guatemala, supported by local policemen. “Each [member] controlled their own drug distribution point, while the police agents facilitated the transportation of the illicit substances in exchange for economic benefit,” read a statement by the Attorney General’s Office. Among the 15 group members captured in Saturday’s operation were the group’s leaders,  Miguel Antonio Solán Solis and Sonia Haydee Lainez Aguilar de Salán, a married couple known as “El Patrón” and “La Patrona.” Donil Vinicio Orozco López, alias “El Más Chingón” (“The Most Awesome”), who headed up the group’s network of police collaborators was also arrested. 300 members of the National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) participated in the operation, which included 30 raids in the departments of Guatemala, San Marcos, Huehuetenango and Escuintla. InSight Crime Analysis The dismantling of Los Patrones is the latest operation to reveal the extent of police collaboration with criminal networks in Guatemala. In August 2018, eight policemen were arrested for participation in the “Comando Silencioso” network, which carried out illegal raids in order to steal cash and valuables. The network was associated with the criminal group “Los Marrocos,” which had previously recruited police officers to seize and resell drug shipment. The alarming incidence of police criminality in Guatemala reflects structural failures within the PNC that appear to have worsened over the last year. Low pay and a lack of opportunities for professional advancement make it ever more tempting for officers to supplement their earnings with criminal activities, a problem exacerbated by corruption and cronyism within the PNC. In January, a report by the Coalition for Citizen Security and the Centre for National Economic Research revealed that, of 167 police promotions in the period January-August 2018, 81 percent evidenced irregularities. Trends in security policy are compounding the phenomenon. A 2018 report by the Guatemalan Studies Center warned that increasing militarization of public security, particularly since the arrival of Enrique Degenhart as Interior Minister in February 2018, risked further devaluing the PNC and harming the professionalization of the police force. The problem of police collaboration with organized crime is far from unique to Guatemala. Parallel examples across the region include Brazil’s Escritorio do Crime (Office of Crime), a militia group comprised largely of current and former members of the security forces. In Mexico, the phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions, with 2018 witnessing the decommissioning of entire police forces in Tehuacán and Acapulco due to alleged links with drug trafficking. The structural factors driving police criminality bear striking similarities across the region, which varying attempts at police reform have failed to resolve. The case of Los Patrones demonstrates that the struggle to build strong, trustworthy police forces remains one of Latin America’s most intractable security problems.    

Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Crusader Faces Arrest

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A Guatemalan judge has issued an arrest warrant for former attorney general and current presidential candidate Thelma Aldana, who previously led several high-profile corruption cases against political elites. The unexpected warrant comes at a moment of extreme political tension in Guatemala, between the government of President Jimmy Morales and the entities investigating him, including the Attorney General’s Office, which Aldana headed until last year. The warrant is based on accusations of embezzlement, lying, and tax evasion. The charges stem from alleged contractual irregularities from when Aldana was in that role.

SEE ALSO: 3 Ways to Measure Up Guatemala’s New Attorney General

Melvin Medina, the attorney general in charge of administrative misconduct, says Aldana hired former Supreme Court lawyer Gustavo Bonilla to train staff in the Attorney General’s Office, but that this training never took place, despite Bonilla charging 20,000 quetzals ($2,600). Aldana, who last week was named as the presidential candidate for the Semilla Movement party (Movimiento Semilla), has publicly denied the accusations and claims that a corrupt group of politicians led by Morales is trying to stop her from running for president. “They are afraid of me running because I will continue the fight against corruption. A lot of people are worried about it,” Aldana told Prensa Libre. Some lawyers claim Aldana’s registration as a presidential candidate grants her immunity from arrest. However, the director of the electoral registration process, Leopoldo Guerra, said that she would only be granted legal protection for three days, ending March 22, during which time other parties can challenge her registration. Aldana, who is currently visiting El Salvador, has postponed her return to Guatemala while she evaluates her legal situation.

InSight Crime Analysis

Thelma Aldana, who took on high-profile corruption cases against political elites as Guatemala’s former top prosecutor, has long faced claims of wrongdoing, racking up 18 formal accusations, mostly by her political opponents. According to Salvadoran news outlet El Faro, the most recent accusations come from the political party Todos. A prominent Todos member, Vice President of Congress Felipe Alejos, is currently being investigated by the MP and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) for his suspected involvement in a criminal network. Alejos, whose clout in Congress has been instrumental in protecting President Jimmy Morales’ own immunity, created a commission in September 2018 to investigate Aldana’s alleged involvement in the irregular purchase of a building to be used by the ministry.

SEE ALSO: 4 Consequences of Morales’ War with the CICIG in Guatemala

Aldana worked closely with CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez to take on elite corruption, including conducting high-profile investigations into illicit financing during the 2015 presidential campaign. CICIG’s ongoing investigations into illicit campaign financing implicate both Morales’ ruling party — the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional – FCN-Nación) and that of presidential candidate Sandra Torres – the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza – UNE) — who is currently neck and neck in presidential polls with Aldana. The timing of the warrant — signed one day before Aldana registered as a presidential candidate — adds weight to her argument that a corrupt political mafia is abusing government institutions to ensure that the one candidate most likely to disrupt the status quo of elite corruption and impunity does not assume the presidency.

Eco-Trafficking Thrives Along Lawless Guatemala-Belize Border

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A poorly defined and lawless border region between Belize and Guatemala is proving to be fertile ground for eco-traffickers to further their criminal interests, underscoring how a lack of government control in such areas helps facilitate these crimes. The business of trafficking prized natural resources like rosewood and colorful scarlet macaws is thriving in the Maya Biosphere Reserve that stretches across northern Guatemala and central Belize’s Chiquibul National Park. Citizens in this porous and sparsely patrolled border region lack viable economic opportunities and turn to illegal criminal activities to boost their incomes, Mongabay reported. These criminal networks operating on both sides of the border — often with financiers in Asia — employ local farmers on the ground to smuggle fauna and flora from the region through Guatemala’s northwest border with Mexico or its northeast border with Belize, where smugglers look for gaps in security personnel. The contraband is then moved using more powerful intermediaries and corrupt government officials through strategic ports in both countries before reaching its final destination, according to Mongabay.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile

The main area affected by this illicit trade is identified as the so-called “adjacency zone,” a one-kilometer stretch of land on either side of the border. A long-running border dispute between the two countries stemming back to the 18th century has made it difficult for authorities to intervene, due to uncertainty regarding jurisdiction, leading to the “unchecked extraction of natural resources,” according to Mongabay. While the region’s rosewood is often destined for places like Hong Kong in southeast Asia, the vibrant scarlet macaw parrots often end up in the hands of wealthy individuals in Mexico and Guatemala. Authorities uncovered two scarlet macaws, for example, in the home of former Guatemala Vice President Roxana Baldetti. The parrots were likely obtained, according to Mongabay, through corrupt officials within the country’s National Council for Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas – CONAP). However, authorities were unable to trace where the macaws came from, as the transaction was never documented, according to Aura Marina López Cifuentes of the environmental crimes division of Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, underscoring how corruption facilitates eco-trafficking in the region.

InSight Crime Analysis

The inability of authorities to establish law and order along the Belize-Guatemala border underscores how a lack of state presence in such zones allows criminal groups to flourish and their criminal activities to continue unchecked. Drug trafficking groups in Guatemala’s northernmost Petén department — home to the Maya Biosphere — have also taken advantage of the poorly secured border area. These groups have long burned large swathes of protected forest to create clandestine landing strips in order to move drug shipments coming from South America out of the country. More than 8,000 hectares of protected tropical forest were burned over the span of only a few months in 2016.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco Trafficking

A combination of loose border controls and official corruption also helps aid criminal activities in other parts of the region. In Paraguay, for example, illegal loggers rely on the country’s porous border with Brazil and corrupt police to traffic timber out of a nature reserve notorious for such criminal activity. The family of former Paraguay President Horacio Cartes has long been accused of facilitating the flow of contraband cigarettes through the so-called “Tri-Border” region, a hotspot for illicit activity where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.

A Guatemala Drug Trafficking Chapter Ends in the US

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A judge lowered the sentence of a convicted Guatemalan drug trafficker in a US court on February 22, just weeks after US federal authorities released another convicted Guatemalan trafficker from jail—both signs of the extraordinary utility to law enforcement these traffickers were as cooperating witnesses and the long trail of indictments, arrests, and other investigations that they left in their wake. After what is known as a Rule 35 hearing—in which defense attorneys can present evidence of cooperation in order to lower the sentence of a convicted felon—a judge in Miami reduced the drug trafficking sentence of Marllory Chacón Rossell from 12 years to 5 years, a significant reduction, which her lawyers said reflected her cooperation. “We’re grateful that the court recognized the extraordinary quantity and quality of Ms. Chacón’s cooperation and adjusted her sentence accordingly,” one of her lawyers, William Barzee, told InSight Crime. The decision came just weeks after the US Federal Bureau of Prisons noted that it had released Hayron Borrayo Lasmibat, another convicted Guatemalan drug trafficker, on January 28. Contacted by phone, Borrayo’s lawyer, Peter Raben, did not comment on his client’s status.

InSight Crime Analysis

Both Chacón and Borrayo played major roles in drug trafficking through the isthmus and beyond working with numerous criminal organizations from Colombia to Mexico and nearly every country in between before getting captured and becoming cooperating witnesses—and, in the case of Chacón, an undercover collaborator. To be sure, Chacón’s service to US drug trafficking investigations was as vast as it was consequential, including serving as the bait to lure Borrayo into custody. One counterdrug agent told InSight Crime that Chacón was “perhaps the greatest asset we have ever had.” The list of cases that Chacón, who was sometimes called “The Queen of the South,” helped make is long. It includes significant portions of the Sinaloa Cartel that operated in Central America, such as César Gastélum Serrano, alias “La Señora,” a top cartel member who used San Pedro Sula, Honduras, as a base for a decade or more, swaying the underworld at least as much as he swayed the political elites in the region.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

Gastélum Serrano was captured in Cancún in 2015, and extradited to the US. The lawyer for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the jailed leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, later told a US courtroom that Gastélum Serrano had paid “bribes” to Honduras and Guatemalan politicians, something InSight Crime had chronicled in an earlier story about the 2007 Guatemala presidential elections. Chacón also worked on lesser-known cases in Colombia. One of them concerned Yaneth del Carmen Vergara Hernández, alias “La Tía,” a Colombian who worked with, among others, La Oficina de Envigado in Medellin and one of its leaders at the time, Carlos Arturo Arredondo Ortíz, alias “Mateo.” Both la Tía and Mateo were arrested and extradited to the US; Mateo later asked Colombians for forgiveness in a US court appearance. It was another Colombian trafficker who first infiltrated Chacón’s organization, according to a recent report by Univisión. That same trafficker said Chacón’s right-hand man was Carlos Enrique Luna, aka Cash Luna, the head of a powerful evangelical church in Guatemala. Luna now finds himself under investigation by Guatemalan authorities. Chacón played a major role in the indictment of Mauricio López Bonilla, the former Guatemalan military hero turned interior minister who gave her a government-funded and trained security detail. As InSight Crime wrote, she had by then become a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant, and the DEA had placed cameras and microphones in her house in Guatemala, the same house where the then-minister allegedly accepted a bribe to steer clear of another trafficker Chacón helped corral, Jairo Orellana, alias El Pelón.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala’s Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Pelón was married to Marta Julia Lorenzana, and Chacón participated in the downfall of her father, Waldemar, as well her brothers, Eliú and Waldemar Jr., all of whom were captured and extradited to the United States for drug trafficking. Eliú and Waldemar Jr. were sentenced to life in prison; their father pled guilty and has yet to be sentenced. And then there was Borrayo. Borrayo was the main purveyor of drugs via Colombia for the Zetas, the vicious Mexican criminal organization that tried and failed to get Guatemala’s underworld to yield to its forceful tactics. Borrayo’s wife, Mirza Silvana Hernández Reyes, was also close to political powers, especially Roxana Baldetti, who was a congresswoman and later vice president. But Borrayo had weak knees for the Queen of the South, and when she invited him to enjoy a romantic rendezvous in Paris, he hopped on a plane to Mexico, then another to France, where French authorities were waiting. He was later sent to the United States. She was, as another counterdrug agent put it, “calculating.” Borrayo and his wife, no doubt incensed by his throbbing idiocy, have since become collaborators themselves. His cooperation is said to have helped the US indict Baldetti, who is on trial in Guatemala on corruption charges. López Bonilla was also indicted in the US. Borrayo was originally sentenced to eight years in 2015, and scheduled to be released on July 8, 2023, but his records are sealed, so it is not known what he did to secure his early departure. Under normal circumstances, he would be released to immigration officials who would process his deportation back to his home country. For her part, Chacón has already served 53 months. With the 15 percent reduction from what is now a 60-month sentence, she could be released in the coming days. “She has her whole life ahead of her now,” Chacón’s co-counsel, Jack Denaro, told InSight Crime.

Major Odebrecht Corruption Cases and Investigations in 2019

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Since beginning in Brazil with the “Operation Car Wash” (“Operação Lava Jato”) investigation in 2014, the Odebrecht corruption scandal has been headline news across Latin America. Presidents, lawmakers, and business tycoons alike have been charged and jailed across the region. Here, InSight Crime presents a round-up of investigations or trials against prominent figures in Latin America and the Caribbean. Mexico: Mexico has shown a lethargic approach to the Odebrecht scandal. The only high-profile name being investigated for the largest corruption scandal to rock Latin America is Emilio Lozoya Austin. The former president of the state-owned oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), who served under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, is accused of conducting a corruption scheme that involved ghost companies between 2012 and 2016. In addition, Mexican prosecutors believe that Austin used the hefty bribes received from Odebrecht to fund the electoral campaigns of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI), including that of Peña Nieto. Many in Mexico believe that the lack of accountability and prosecution by the federal government was a way for the former and current administration to protect those who were involved with Odebrecht.  In a country known for its high levels of impunity, it remains to be seen if this case will eventually lead to more far-reaching investigations. In February, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed that the investigation into Odebrecht would continue, which may see more inquiries begin soon. Dominican Republic: Preliminary Odebrecht hearings have dominated news headlines in the Dominican Republic in recent weeks. Known for its entrenched corruption, the Caribbean nation is currently investigating seven people that reportedly received more than $92 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction giant. Two names that stand out from the investigation are current Senator Tommy Galán and former Public Works Minister Víctor Díaz Rúa. Both men are members of the Dominican Liberation Party (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana – PLD), which is gearing up for the 2020 presidential election.  A guilty conviction could potentially tarnish the image of the party and hamper its chances at retaining power as the current president, Danilo Medina, is also a member of the PLD. El Salvador: Former president Mauricio Funes is being investigated for allegedly embezzling $351 million. Odebrecht is suspected of paying out between $1-3 million to Funes during 2009 presidential campaign. Funes, who was president from 2009 to 2014, is also under judicial investigation for reportedly paying off deputies in order to obtain favorable votes in the Legislative Assembly during his presidency. The ex-president has four arrest warrants out against him for corruption cases. He is now residing in Nicaragua protected by political asylum granted by President Daniel Ortega. However, the spokesperson of newly-elected president Nayib Bukele announced that the government will begin talks with Nicaragua to demand Funes’ deportation. Guatemala: Guatemala’s current investigation into Odebrecht is centered on the former minister of infrastructure, and current fugitive, Alejandro Sinibaldi. The Attorney General’s Office and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) claim that Sinibaldi led a criminal structure within the Communications Ministry. Sinibaldi is currently under an Interpol search warrant and an additional eight people with close ties to him are being sought by authorities, including his brothers, Alvaro and Luis Rodrigo Sinibaldi. Another key figure being investigated in Guatemala is former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón, who was arrested in the United States in January 2018. Baldizón is accused of allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht officials to help them with public works contracts in the Central American nation. After a failed attempt to seek asylum in the United States, Baldizón decided to withdraw his request and is now pending extradition to Guatemala. A constitutional crisis has unfolded in Guatemala after President Jimmy Morales decided to ban the CICIG from the country, a move that has been met with public and international backlash. As a result of the absence of the CICIG, the latest hearing against Sinibaldi and Baldizón was suspended and rescheduled for February 27, 2019. It remains to be seen what impact the ongoing crisis with the CICIG will have on the future of the case.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

Panama: Former President Ricardo Martinelli, who is under arrest, and other people with close ties to his presidency are currently under investigation for allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht. Panamanian prosecutors indicate that from 2009 to 2014, the duration of Martinelli’s presidency, payments surpassing $96 million were awarded for infrastructure projects such as road improvement in Chanis, the Tocumen Airport expansion, the urban renewal of Curundú, improvements to Line 1 of the Metro, and many others. As a result, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office in Panama launched an investigation against the former economy minister Frank de Lima, who is accused of receiving at least $7 million in improper payments. Another high-level name that is currently under investigation is the former minister of public works, Jaime Ford. Ford is linked to accepting illegal bribes from the Brazilian company, as well as being accused of overpricing the Arraijan-La Chorrera Highway project for illicit purposes. Colombia: In Colombia, Odebrecht paid at least $32.5 million in bribes to ensure contracts for the building of the Ruta del Sol highway and other infrastructure projects. Colombia’s Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez has found himself in the spotlight  after Jorge Enrique Pizano, an auditor, revealed secret recordings in which he talked about contract irregularities with Martínez, who was at that time an attorney for Corficolombiana, a minor partner of Odebrecht. Pizano’s tapes with Martinez came to light in a television interview. Pizano, who was suffering from cancer and ultimately died of a heart attack, provided the interview on the condition that they only broadcast it in the event of his death. Congress has opened an investigation into Martinez’s statements about the Obredecht scandal, and he is under pressure to resign. Martinez’s conflict of interest doesn’t stop with Corficolombiana. He was also legal advisor to Luis Carlos Sarmiento, Colombia’s richest man and founder of the conglomerate Grupo Aval. Grupo Aval is a part owner of Corficolombiana and is currently cooperating in a US Justice Department investigation, according to Reuters. Former Senator Otto Nicolás Bula Bula, who was sentenced to two years in jail for bribery, has been the government’s key witness in unraveling the graft scheme. The investigation has ensnared a number of government officials during the administrations of both former presidents Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos, including former senator Bernardo Miguel Elías. Ecuador: Ecuador’s Odebrecht case illustrates a close-knit corruption structure that took place under the presidency of Rafael Correa. His childhood friend and ex-vice president, Jorge Glas, who is already serving a jail term for the corruption scandal, has been accused by Luis Mameri, Odebrecht’s vice president in Latin America, of accepting further bribes than initially known through a company named Glory International. In September 2018, the Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office opened a preliminary investigation against eight people for allegedly indulging in organized crime within Odebrecht’s corruption scheme. Among those investigated is former President Rafael Correa, who is currently residing and seeking asylum in Belgium. In addition, former legal secretary of the presidency Alexis Mera, former Interior Minister José Serrano, and former Attorney General Diego García are also being investigated for their role in the Hydroelectric San Francisco Project. Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office recently announced that an additional 11 preliminary investigations were going to be targeting Rafael Correa, Alexis Mera, and Jorge Glas. The latest announcement solidifies Ecuador’s efforts to punish those involved in this corruption scandal.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Peru: To say that the Odebrecht scandal has rocked the political class in Peru would be an understatement. Maria Sokolich, Peru’s new attorney general following the controversial resignation of Pedro Chávarry, is currently overseeing the investigation into some of the country’s top politicians, which are holding or have held the highest office in this country. Current president Martín Vizcarra is being investigated for an alleged link between his company and Odebrecht between 2006 and 2008. His predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, has an ongoing investigation against him — which forced his resignation in March 2018 — for alleged consultancies that his company, Westfield Capital, made to Odebrecht between November 2004 and December 2007. Former president Alan García, who was denied an asylum request in Uruguay after the allegations came to light, is accused of taking bribes during the construction of the Lima Metro. The two other former presidents being investigated for allegedly taking bribes are Alejandro Toledo and Ollanta Humala. In March, Odebrecht’s former executive in Peru, Jorge Barata, is expected to declare this in Brazil. Barata’s testimony could potentially create new shockwaves in the Andean nation. Recently, Odebrecht has announced it will cooperate with the Peruvian government. Its former executives in the country are set to be interviewed, which may yet lead to further revelations. Argentina: The Odebrecht investigation in Argentina threatens dozens of former high-level officials linked to public works projects during the presidencies of Néstor Carlos Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015). Most notably are the investigations into Julio de Vido and Daniel Cameron. Julio de Vido, a former minister of federal planning under Fernández, turned himself into authorities in October 2018. De Vido is accused of being part of the “Road Works” scandal, which involves the alleged embezzlement of public funds through tender processes for road works in the former president’s home province of Santa Cruz, as well as other infrastructure projects under his supervision. Meanwhile, former Energy Minister Daniel Cameron is being investigated as part of a case known as “Skanska II,” where irregularities in the expansion of gas pipelines in the country are being linked to a corruption scheme with the collaboration of Odebrecht. However, the level of corruption into the Kirchners’ is more profound. Reports suggest that an additional 14 businessmen and five former employees are also being investigated for many illicit activities in cooperation with the Brazilian construction giant. Bolivia: Bolivia’s has a history of favorable dealings with Brazilian companies that dates back to 1987. In that year, then-Energy Minister Carlos Morales Landívar was accused of using his political influence to favor the Brazilian company, Andrade Gutierrez. Now, Landívar is being accused of being involved in 2003 with Camargo Correa — among the 13 major companies in Brazil under investigation in the Lava Jato case — when he was minister of services and public works. However, the names directly linked to the Odebrecht case are the former president and current 2019 presidential hopeful Carlos Mesa and his successor, Supreme Court Justice and former president Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé. Both are being investigated for allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht during their presidencies, which spanned between 2003 and 2006. Mesa’s investigation could play a pivotal role in the presidential elections that are to be held in October. A conviction in Mesa’s case could leave the door wide open for Evo Morales to be reelected. Brazil: Over the past five years in Brazil, more than 77 company executives have agreed to plea bargains, one president was impeached, another former president is currently in jail, and his successor is now also being investigated as a result of the Odebrecht scandal. That’s just a slight glimpse of the far-reaching impact that the Lava Jato case has had on South America’s largest nation. On February 6, currently jailed former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was indicted for additional charges that would add 13 extra years to his current sentence. Lula is accused of receiving illicit benefits during his mandate from 2003 to 2010. In addition to Lula, other people close to his inner circle have been accused and arrested for corruption. One of those people, former Chamber of Deputies President Eduardo Cunha, has been in prison since 2016. Cunha is accused of receiving a $5 million bribe. However, despite his current arrest, Brazilian prosecutors have requested further charges against him. Meanwhile, Aécio Neves, a former governor and 2014 presidential candidate, is accused of receiving bribes in exchange for support for legislation mainly regarding works that were of interest to Odebrecht when he was governor of Minas Gerais state. Neves’ investigation is ongoing while he maintains a seat as a senator for Minas Gerais. Lastly, former President Michel Temer (2016-2018) has made headlines as Brazil’s federal police have asked for him to be charged with bribery and money laundering. According to officials, while vice-president in 2014, Temer and his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro – PMDB) received more than $2 million from Odebrecht. Now that Sérgio Moro, who was once leading the Lava Jato corruption probe, is the new justice minister under President Jair Bolsonaro, close attention will be focused on sweeping new legislation that he has proposed to combat corruption.  

The Collaborators in Guatemala: Chained to the MS13

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The number of imprisoned women in Guatemala has quadrupled in the past five years, influenced by an increase in police mega-operations yielding more arrests for extortion and related crimes. One of the many suspects arrested and jailed, an alleged gang collaborator told her story, illustrating how Guatemala’s judicial system more easily targets women. Her glitter-polished nails flashing as she clung to the bars, “Hera” (her name has been changed for safety) stepped around the women on the floor in the cell. She came over to say that her husband could not come that day because he was at home with their son. Accused of collaborating with street gangs, Hera stood by her innocence, saying that she is simply a good neighbor who greets everyone in her community, and that is why the authorities arrested her. She was lying. But that would not come to light for another week.

*This report is part of The Collaborators series, a journalistic project about the current role of women in Central American gangs carried out by El Intercambio, financed by Internews, and published in partnership with InSight Crime.

The complete investigation may be read here. Six months pregnant and 24 years old, Hera is from the neighborhood of Canalitos, where residents walk along dirt alleyways and live in houses made of sheet metal and wood. It sits across a gully that marks the end of an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the capital of Guatemala City. Canalitos could be considered the wild part of town, but not in terms of nightlife, in terms of bloodshed. Hera was waiting inside a narrow holding cell that reeked of urine and was dark as a dungeon, while the cars of judges sat in the daylight just outside, waiting for their owners to return from their work at the Guatemala City courthouse. All around her, some 30 other jailed women endured the conditions the best they could while sharing their cell with a clogged toilet. In ancient Greek mythology, Hera is the wife of Zeus, king of the gods of Mount Olympus. And the pregnant woman with the painted nails in the jail cell had more in common with her than she may have thought. Prosecutors accused Hera of three crimes in her alleged collaboration with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), the most powerful gang in the world. The crimes were related to extortion, an illegal practice sweeping Central America in which the perpetrators demand money from their victims upon threat of death. It is one of the most common offenses the Attorney General’s Office uses to put gang members behind bars.      SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile Handcuffed to another woman, Hera walked out of the cell and waited in front of the elevator, avoiding the stairs due to her advanced pregnancy. She shared the elevator with other detainees and several policemen, crammed into a box measuring no more than four square meters. It was chained shut to deter escape attempts. Despite the uncomfortable ride, Hera held her head high throughout. A view of the mountains in the distance greeted her when she entered the courtroom. She sat on a bench with the other accused and stared at the empty chair in front of her. She did not know it yet, but the hearing would eventually be suspended. “Each time more women are tried,” Judge Mynor Moto said with a resigned air from the armchair in his office the day after he ultimately ruled against Hera. The number of women in prison in Guatemala, especially for crimes related to extortion, grew exponentially in the last five years, quadrupling from 36 to 144.

Arrests of Women Suspected of Extortion Continue to Rise

Back at the first hearing, the judge eventually showed up, and Hera’s free lawyer from the Criminal Public Defense Institute (Instituto de la Defensa Pública Penal – IDPP) requested a medical exam for her pregnancy. The judge granted it, stating that the only right of hers that had been limited was her freedom. He said it seriously. At times paternal, he ran the hearing with a disciplined neutrality devoid of jokes, irony or sarcasm. The courthouse suffered occasional power outages, and some of the accused were not provided counsel like Hera was. A week later, Hera returned to the courthouse from the Santa Teresa women’s prison in Guatemala. She and 10 other people faced charges related to allegedly extorting money from public transportation drivers.
The cells inside the courts building of Guatemala City measure between 10-15 square meters, with just one bathroom at the back. Sometimes, over 30 detainees wait in these cells for their court appearance.
As far as the Attorney General’s Office knew, Hera’s level of collaboration with the gang was known as “active check-up” (chequeo activo), a trial period during which she handled small jobs for the gang in order to gain entrance into the gang’s criminal network. Many of the incarcerated women’s situations are paradoxical. As a woman, Hera was barred from joining the gang itself. But the Attorney General’s Office was nonetheless able to charge her with managing one of the gang’s extortion rings. A guilty verdict would mean a judge determined she was the one who collected the extortion money and, under orders from the gang’s area clique leaders, divvied out payments in descending amounts through the gang’s hierarchy.      SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles At her second hearing, Hera was not handcuffed to anyone else. She faced the same judge but in a different courtroom, one where the justice system tries the country’s more serious cases. She had a different public defender, and her haughtiness had faded. Hera’s husband was at home again caring for their son; she said that was why he could not come to bring her food before the hearing. In the courtroom, none of the women were accompanied by boyfriends or spouses, only mothers, fathers or aunts. By contrast, many of the male suspects had spouses at their trials. The husband back at home does not exist. The last romantic relationship Hera had before her arrest was with a man in prison. At least, that is what she wrote in the records of over a hundred visits she made to Julio César Mejía García, whom Hera herself would never mention. Mejía García is currently serving his sentence in the southeast of Guatemala. Power over the gangs rests in the hands of incarcerated men. The tip of the MS13’s hierarchy consists of a board of directors called the Council of Nine. They give the highest orders, which then trickle down through the criminal organization. The MS13’s style is more strategic and less grisly than that of its enemy, Barrio 18. Female gang members are scarce in Guatemala, and those who still exist are incarcerated. The days when women submitted to the traditional 13-second beating to enter the MS13 have been gone since the mid-2000s, when gangs stopped letting women join their ranks. Now, women who associate with the gangs perform tasks such as opening bank accounts and moving and laundering money. They provide a face and a name that the gangs can use to hide their illegal profits. But they are at the bottom of the totem pole and easily replaceable. Once a woman is jailed for gang-related crimes, it does not take long for another to be roped in to take her place. It was only in 2009 that Guatemalan authorities began to decisively strategize to combat the country’s gangs, despite the fact that the two largest — the MS13 and Barrio 18 — have been present there since the late 1990s. The creation of two elite groups, one in the police and the other in the Attorney General’s Office, served to identify them, map out where they operated and determine how they made their money and how they committed their murders. They went from slews of unsuccessful cases against individual suspects to closing smaller numbers of mega-cases against hundreds of alleged gang members at a time. The secret to the authorities’ success was a combination of wiretapping and gang members willing to betray their compatriots and become informants. And they got results. They began to reach the top level of the gangs’ hierarchy.
A prison guard checks a woman facing extortion charges, while she waits for a court hearing.
Between 2016 and 2017, Guatemala launched five mega-operations against gangs. If the structures were identified and their leaders — always men — were incarcerated, it was time to take out the bottom rungs. That is where authorities found people like Hera, who did not actually belong to a gang but allegedly worked for one. The arrests of women in the mega-operations began to catch people’s attention. They went from invisible to visible, and the number of female collaborators orbiting the gangs was tremendous. The phenomenon continues to this day. Officials thought that arresting and charging the gangs’ workforce would cripple them, but they were wrong. The female collaborators, low-level workers who generally did not identify with the criminal groups because they simply worked for the money, were easily substituted. And because they were not members, the gangs did not feel obligated to pay for their legal representation when they were arrested. By the end of 2017, Operation Regional Shield (Operación Escudo Regional), which consisted of three operations over two years, had hit the MS13 and Barrio 18 in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala with approximately 200 arrests. Half of the suspects were women. Hera was arrested on April 18, 2018. In the gangs, women take on liability but have no authority. They receive and implement orders from the organization without belonging to it, without contributing at the decision-making level. The anti-extortion unit of the Attorney General’s Office has been following the logic that the gangs abandon women to the authorities, but at the same time, it prosecutes the women as though they were gang members. It is difficult to investigate the MS13 structurally, but it is easy to get to the female collaborators. Picking off someone carrying a phone or collecting money is simpler than tracking down and building a case against someone giving the orders and enjoying the fruits of the collaborators’ labor from afar. Hera allegedly collaborated with a local MS13 clique called the Pewees Locos Salvatruchas. Since 2010, Canalitos, which is located on the outskirts of the city in Zone 24 and has struggled with poverty and violence, has been its center of operations. The investigation against Hera and the others arrested with her was based on three witnesses: a former female collaborator with the gang, the owner of a motorcycle taxi and a business owner. None of the witnesses could provide details for any alleged incidents of extortion for the MS13 like times, places or methods used. None of them even described Hera; they simply named her without providing any evidence. In the courthouse a week after the first hearing, which had been suspended, the white shirt of the IDPP lawyer struggled to contain his corpulent, clumsy body. It was the first time he saw his defendants: Hera and two other women. He requested pregnancy assistance for a woman who was not there. He tried to refer to Hera, but he did not know who was who. The women stared at him. They widened their eyes, trying to tell him something but it did not get through. The man barely made any arguments at the hearing. The attorney works for a women’s legal defense unit created in 2005 in the IDPP that targets gender bias with tools for defending women accused of crimes. At the time this article was written, the unit’s task list had amassed 1,400 files on women in the capital alone. Edith Ochoa is in charge of the women’s legal defense unit and its 30 lawyers. She explains that they cannot handle 90 percent of the cases that come to them because the accused do not speak to them, whether due to fear or other reasons. Ochoa’s team has secured “three or four” acquittals for its defendants in the last three years. Hera’s lawyer at the hearing never spoke to her and knew nothing about her life, her thoughts or feelings or what she could have contributed to her own defense. He also did not see the gender bias. He did not believe that Hera had been forced to do anything nor that her family had been used to pressure her into working for the gang, that her poverty or other vulnerabilities had been taken advantage of. His only defense strategy was for her to exercise her right not to testify. There was another IDPP lawyer who should have defended Hera: her official defense attorney, the one who did know about her case, but this attorney had not attended any of Hera’s hearings. That means a total of three lawyers — the official attorney for the case, the attorney at the first hearing and the one at the last hearing — were working on Hera’s case under Ochoa, who believes her unit cannot win its clients’ cases. “El Flaco” and “El Voltio” run the Pewees Locos Salvatruchas clique from prison. Second in command is El Voltio, whose real name is Julio César Mejía García. He is the man Hera visited at the El Boquerón prison, where she sometimes signed in as his wife. In 2017, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison for five crimes including murder and rape. Added to a previous sentence, his total time in prison is now up to 213 years. A year later, Judge Pablo Xitumul, who sentenced El Voltio, admitted seeing a change in the gang’s pattern of operations. “We noticed that the ‘patojos’ [younger gang members] were reeling the women in.” He explained that he feels touched by the women’s plight and that he always gives them the minimum sentence of six to eight years. But, act of empathy or not, that still means a conviction and several years behind bars. Neither El Flaco nor El Voltio were present at Hera’s hearings, but their presence was felt nonetheless. The prosecuting attorney spoke about them. So did the judge. When he read the list of visits they received in prison, Hera’s name also came up. While prison visits cannot be used as evidence, they can serve as the basis upon which a judge might deny a suspect’s release from jail while awaiting trial. The only person who did not mention the clique leaders was Hera’s defense attorney. He spoke little because he knew little. The first time Hera went to see El Voltio in prison was in March 2015. She signed in as his girlfriend for two years. Then, during the first four months of 2017, she visited as his wife, after which she switched back to signing in as his girlfriend. One month before she was arrested, already pregnant, the Hera visited El Voltio for the last time. The date was March 20, 2018. It was their 102nd visit, and they spent eight hours together. The Attorney General’s Office only had enough evidence to get one of the charges against Hera to stick. The judge dropped the other two. So, Hera returned to pretrial detention on the charge of illicit association, a particularly difficult one to challenge in court. Hera’s story leaves off, then, with her back in jail still accused of running an extortion operation for the MS13. When she pleads her case before yet another judge, will her defense attorney know her name?

*This report is part of The Collaborators series, a journalistic project about the current role of women in Central American gangs carried out by El Intercambio, financed by Internews, and published in partnership with InSight Crime.

The complete investigation may be read here.

Growing Extortion Spurs Wave of Deadly Bus Attacks in Guatemala

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Though violence has decreased in Guatemala, recent deadly attacks against buses show that public transport remains under siege by gangs, which have increased their extortion demands as smaller groups get into the game. Just last week in Guatemala City, a bus robbery turned into a shootout that left one of two assailants dead and injured the other. In another incident shots were fired into a bus, injuring the driver and a passenger, Prensa Libre reported. And seven people were hurt when a homemade bomb exploded at a bus stop. Authorities said the attack — carried out by a 19-year-old woman who lost both her arms in the explosion — was related to extortion payments. After the bombing, drivers in Guatemala City told Prensa Libre that the number of extortion payments demanded by gangs has increased in the past two years, as more “cliques,” or sub-groups of gangs, demand payments for crossing into the patches of territory they control. Previously, drivers had to pay only the major gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. Much of the violence takes place along the same routes in the heart of the capital city or its outskirts.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

In the first two weeks of 2019, eight people were killed on public transport, including the driver of a motorcycle taxi who was shot and killed by his passenger, according to Prensa Libre. Violence in public transport is not a new phenomenon. Between 2010 and 2017, such attacks killed more than 2,000 people, including bus and taxi drivers, bus assistants (known as “brochas”), passengers, transportation service owners, among others. Last year, another 200 people were killed.

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite Guatemala seeing a general reduction in homicides in recent years, violence aimed at public transport has continued, taking the lives of passengers and making drivers’ jobs some of the most dangerous in the world. As far back as 2011, InSight Crime investigated how the poor regulation of some $35 million in government subsidies to bus companies — without which most Guatemalans could not afford to ride the bus — led to gangs extorting these companies. It was believed that the “brochas,” who often have ties to the gangs, tipped off gang leaders about the extra cash. When bus operators refused to pay, their drivers were threatened or murdered.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Extortion

Meanwhile, the Guatemalan government’s later attempt to secure transport through the construction of a central bus system that used electronic payments was beset by corruption. Around 3,150 vehicles were destined for the system, but only 455 were ever imported. Card readers were left untouched in a warehouse. Authorities have tried to provide extra patrols on bus routes when violence flares up, but the current, chaotic fleet of some 3,000 public buses is nearly impossible to police. Other forms of transport, including minibuses, taxis, and “colectivos,” or taxis that pick up several people, have also been plagued by extortion rackets. Edgar Guerra, the human rights ombudsman in charge of public transport in Guatemala, told InSight Crime that the gang attacks have become more violent as the number of individual cliques demanding extortion payments has increased. “Each clique is making demands now,” he said. “This is not only putting the drivers in more danger but also passengers.” The government’s response to the violence is always “reactive,” he said. Yet the disorderly and dilapidated conditions of Guatemala’s public transport system have provided the perfect conditions for crime to flourish. Within it “there is no control,” Guerra said, adding that there is little political will to overhaul the system, which would require massive investment and also the cooperation of multiple government institutions. The extortion of public transport generates nearly $40 million (300 million quetzals) annually, Guerra said, citing a 2015 survey of workers. With that kind of money at stake, the gangs will continue trafficking in terror and the transport system will remain under siege. “The rate of homicides has gotten better,” he said. “But in public transport, there has been an increase in attacks and threats. Drivers and other transportation workers would rather pay extortions than die.”

InSight Crime’s 2018 Homicide Round-Up

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With a worsening crisis in Venezuela, dark days in Nicaragua, an ever more fragile peace process in Colombia, new governments and new ideas in Brazil, Mexico and beyond, 2018 was a year of turmoil across Latin America and the Caribbean. Homicide levels have reflected this uncertainty, rising sharply in parts, continuing to drop in others. In its Homicide Round-Up, InSight Crime looks into the murder rates country by country and the factors behind them.  Venezuela: 81.4 per 100,000 Venezuela has not given up its status as the Latin American country with the highest homicide rate, at 81.4 homicides per 100,000 people, or 23,047 murders. While this number is slightly down from the 26,616 murders reported in 2017, the country remains wracked by severe political, economic, and social conflicts. A report from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV), the only public source of homicides in the country, put the murder rate at 81.4 in 2018, down from 89 in 2017. But this drop might not be cause for optimism, as it is based on 2011 population figures and does not take into account the massive migration of an estimated three million Venezuelans fleeing crisis. The OVV also found that this supposed reduction in homicides contrasts with a sharp increase in killings by security forces — 7,523 victims in 2018 as opposed to 5,535 in 2017 — accounting for an astounding 32 percent of all homicides. While the government has not published official crime statistics for 2018, InSight Crime had access to a leaked document from the Venezuelan Observatory for Public Security, a department within the Interior Ministry. This spoke of an official rate of 10,573 homicides in 2018, or just 33 per 100,000 people, showing that the government does not include cases of “resisting authority” or other categories, such as victims of stray bullets. El Salvador: 51 per 100,000 El Salvador logged 3,340 homicides in 2018, a 15 percent drop from 2017. The resulting homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 people continues the downward trend seen in El Salvador in recent years. As recently as 2016, the country topped InSight Crime’s regional rankings with an alarming rate of 81.2 per 100,000. In 2017, the rate dropped by 20 homicides per 100,000, but the country remained second on the list, only behind Venezuela. El Salvador’s homicide rate has long been linked to its two dominant and deadly gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18. Though there may be a number of causes for the reduction in killings, such as the gangs forgoing internecine wars, the government has claimed its “mano dura,” or what are euphemistically termed “medidas extraordinarias” (extraordinary measures) now, was largely responsible. That same crackdown, however, explains a United Nations report that found extrajudicial killings were on the rise and likely to go unpunished. During the first two weeks of the new year, 126 people were murdered. Police officials blamed the gangs for the bloodshed, accusing them of a show of force ahead of presidential elections on February 3. Jamaica: 47 per 100,000 In an address to the House of Representatives, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness said homicides decreased by 21.9 percent last year. The country recorded 1,287 murders in 2018 for a homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 people. The police have attributed this improvement to the creation of Zones of Special Operation (ZOSO), areas in which the military joins in policing efforts. As part of his plan to bring the murder rate to 16 per 100,000 over the next decade, Holness has advocated for 20 more special security zones to be designated in 2019. Last year’s drop in homicides, however, comes after a near 20 percent rise in killings in 2017, which was linked to the poor rollout of the ZOSO plan and similar security crackdowns.

(InSight Crime map of homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. Click the picture for a larger version.)

Honduras: 40 per 100,000* Between January to November 2018, Honduras saw 3,310 murders, according to the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras – UNAH). This would point to a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people, a minor decrease from the 42.8 per 100,000 registered in 2017, when there were 3,791 murders. After hitting a high of 85.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, Honduras’ murder rate was cut in half by 2017. As in neighboring El Salvador, security officials attributed the downward trend to a government crackdown against drug traffickers and gangs. But officials have also blamed limited year-over-year reductions in the homicide rate on the very same security strategy, saying it leads to retaliation by criminal groups. In the first two weeks of 2019, 30 people were murdered in eight separate massacres, showing that the regular cocktail of gang violence, high levels of impunity and corruption continue. Trinidad and Tobago: 37.5 per 100,000 The year proved to be the second deadliest in the country’s history with 516 homicides, behind only 2008 when 550 people were killed. Despite its relatively small population of 1.3 million people, Trinidad and Tobago has seen violence grow steadily worse in recent years. Impunity continues to be a major challenge, as the Caribbean nation’s police officials have admitted that at least 83 percent of the murder cases from last year remain unsolved. Belize: 35.9 per 100,000 Despite being the smallest country in Central America, Belize has faced a stubbornly high homicide rate. While official stats have yet to come out, local media tallied 143 murders in 2018, just two less than in 2012, the country’s most violent year. The government has denied that Belize is a staging base for criminal groups such as the Zetas and Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) from Mexico, or the MS13 from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. However, a persistently high homicide rate shows that while Belize may have stayed out of the headlines, organized crime appears to be a major threat. Mexico: 25.8 per 100,000 Enrique Peña Nieto’s tenure as Mexico’s president ended with homicides at a record high. In 2018, the country logged 33,341 murders, up from 31,174 in 2017, according to data from the National System of Public Security. This brings the murder rate to 25.8 per 100,000 up from 22.5 in 2017 and 16.2 in 2016. The spike in homicides has been spurred by the continued fragmentation of larger cartels, and the government’s inability to react to the less organized, smaller gangs, which kill for control of territory. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has reversed his security plans, advocating for the creation of a national guard and keeping the military in the streets to try and stem the bloodshed after an average of 91 people were killed per day last year. Brazil: 25 per 100,000* 2017 marked a sad record for Brazil: 175 people were killed every day.  Last year saw slight improvement, with 39,183 murders between January and September, down from 44,733 killings in the same period in 2017, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública). If this reduction held, it would bring the murder rate to 25 per 100,000 people for the year. But insecurity and violence continue to be top concerns for much of the population, as Brazil struggles to find effective ways to stop violent crime. The army was sent in to Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the latest example of a militarization strategy that has consistently failed in Latin America. Jair Bolsonaro was propelled to the presidency largely by pledging to allow police to shoot criminals and to simplify gun ownership laws. So far in 2019, criminal groups have unleashed an assault on the state of Ceará, and the government has responded to the violence with federal troops, turning northeastern Brazil into a battle zone. Such outright conflict may add to the body count, meaning Brazil will be unable to address the root causes of its consistently high murder rate. Colombia: 25 per 100,000* After seeing its lowest level of violence in 42 years in 2017, Colombia saw a small resurgence of violence in 2018, increasing to 12,311 homicides from 11,381 in 2017. This four percent rise takes the homicide rate to 25 per 100,000 people, up from 24 last year. In 2018, Colombia saw an increase and diversification of criminal groups in Colombia, including former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who have gathered into ex-FARC Mafia groups that are growing in strength, as well as members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The increasing number of FARC dissidents abandoning the peace process and the breakdown in talks with the ELN have emboldened these organizations. Furthermore, violence has risen along the border with Venezuela while social leaders have been killed as a result of fighting over control of illicit crops and land. Guatemala: 22.4 per 100,000 Guatemala continued to show marked improvements in its homicide rate, ending the year at 22.4 per 100,000 people. The country recorded 3,881 killings in 2018, down from 4,409 murders and a homicide rate of 26.1 in 2017, according to government officials. But civil society figures tell a different story. The Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo – GAM), a non-governmental organization which tracks crime in the country, said the official tally was short by over 1,000 homicides, placing the total at 4,914 and the murder rate at 28 per 100,000. Either way, Guatemala remains less plagued with violence than its Northern Triangle neighbors in Honduras and El Salvador. The findings of InSight Crime’s 2017 investigation into homicides in Guatemala remain valid. President Jimmy Morales’ war with the anti-corruption body known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) has left little room for the government to improve on rampant impunity for murders and faulty data-gathering about such crimes. Puerto Rico: 20 per 100,000 Puerto Rico saw its murder rate remain at 20 per 100,000 people in 2018, about four times that of the mainland United States. Records show that 641 people were killed last year, a dip from the 710 murders in 2017, and far below the record 1,164 homicides in 2011. Local drug gangs are largely to blame for the body count, with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) saying some 60 percent of homicides there are drug-related. This year, Puerto Rico has already seen a wave of killings, worrying residents and federal law enforcement. A police force struggling to maintain its ranks, as well as solve crimes, will only fuel insecurity on the island. Costa Rica: 11.7 per 100,000 With just 17 fewer homicides in 2018, Costa Rica saw its homicide rate remain relatively stable. The Central American country counted 586 murders, dropping the murder rate slightly from 12.1 to 11.7 per 100,000 people. Until last year’s drop, the homicide rate had steadily increased since 2012. The country’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) had even predicted the same for 2018. Traditionally one of Central America’s more peaceful nations, the country has suffered from rising levels of crime recently, thanks to its position as a key transit point for Colombian cocaine. The government has struggled to respond to an increase in available drugs, which has led to groups fighting for control of local markets. Uruguay: 11.2 per 100,000 Uruguay recorded a record high 382 murders in 2018. With 99 more homicides than in 2017, this marked a brutal year-over-year increase of 35 percent and a homicide rate of 11.2 per 100,000 people. These statistics are drawn from the Propuestas Foundation (Fundapro), linked to the opposition Colorado Party. Official figures have only been released for the first half of the year, showing 218 murders, as compared to 131 from January-June 2017. For one of the traditionally more peaceful and stable countries in the region, this sudden rise is alarming. Authorities are convinced fighting between organized crime groups is to blame. However, this may provide a convenient scapegoat to justify a militarized response when other problems, such as lackluster resolution and conviction rates for homicides, may also have contributed to the situation. Dominican Republic: 10.4 per 100,000* The Citizen Security Observatory reported that 801 murders were registered in the Caribbean nation during the first nine months of 2018, a drop of 145 when compared to the 946 homicides registered for the same period in 2017. Although this shows a continued downward trend that has lasted since 2011, a recent poll shows that public insecurity remains a top concern for the Dominican population. Panama: 9.6 per 100,000* In December, Panama’s Public Ministry released a report showing that there were 401 murders between January and November of 2018, about a dozen fewer than the 378 deaths in 2017. At this count, the homicide rate sits at 9.6 per 100,000 people. The report highlighted that more than 40 percent (169) of the incidents occurred in the capital, Panama City. National Police Director Alonso Vega Pino says that the slight increase is “directly related to organized crime.” Panama’s geography makes it a vital transit point for illegal trade in the region. An internal investigation into an international arms trafficking network in October 2018 illustrated the country’s ongoing challenges with confronting corruption and organized crime. Peru: 7.8 per 100,000* In 2017, Peru registered 2,487 murders, slightly up from the 2,435 in 2016, for a homicide rate of 7.8 per 100,000. No data is available for 2018 so far. The country has maintained relatively low levels of violent crime in recent decades, though institutionalized corruption is threatening resources dedicated to fighting Peru’s ongoing drug trafficking challenges. Bolivia: 6.3 per 100,000 During a televised news conference, Bolivia’s Interior Minister Carlos Romero announced that the country had registered a homicide rate of 6.3 per 100,000 people in 2018, a more than two percent improvement compared to the first half of 2017, when the country recorded a rate of 8.5 per 100,000. The announcement comes as the country prepares for primary presidential elections on January 27.  In the past year, opposition groups who firmly reject Evo Morales decision to run for a fourth consecutive term have conducted mass demonstrations and national strikes. The presidential elections, which will take place in October, are likely to take the focus away from national security issues at a time when Brazil’s gangs are moving into the South American nation. Ecuador: 5.7 per 100,000 Ecuador saw 975 murders in 2018, 18 more than the 957 recorded in 2017, giving the country a homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 people, according to figures from the national police. Less than a decade ago, Ecuador faced murder rates three times as high, but a process of so-called “gang legalization” has helped drastically reduce killings. However, an increase in drug trafficking from Colombia to Ecuador has renewed concerns about violence. The high-profile killing of three journalists by an ex-FARC mafia group has also made cross-border security a priority for the government. Argentina: 5.2 per 100,000* In the midst of a deep economic crisis, Argentina continues to have one of the lowest homicide rates on the continent. Argentina recorded a homicide rate of 5.2 per 100,000 people in 2017, a slight decrease from 6.6 in 2015, according to Security Ministry figures. No data was available for 2018 so far. Low levels of violence, however, haven’t translated into security. In December, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich signed a decree giving federal forces greater use of deadly force. The measure, expected to be implemented six months from now, is already creating controversy and uncertainty within the Argentine population. Paraguay: 5.1 per 100,000* The latest homicide report by Paraguay’s National Observatory of Security and Citizen Coexistence indicates that a total of 350 murders were recorded between January and September of 2018. This statistic yields a murder rate of 5.1 per 100,000, considerably lower than the homicide rate of 7.8 recorded in 2017. However, Interior Minister Juan Ernesto Villamayor recently stated in a radio interview that the country must reevaluate its transnational strategies with Argentina and Brazil to combat organized crime in the region. The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s most powerful gang, continues to threaten the country’s security. Chile: 2.7 per 100,000 Chile continues its reign as the country with the lowest homicide rate in Latin America. From January to October 2018, a total of 488 killings were recorded, accounting for a homicide rate of 2.7 per 100,000 people. This is even lower than the country’s homicide rate of 3.3 that was registered for the same period of time in 2017. Even with low levels of homicides, Chile has seen random acts of violence. An explosive artifact, for example, was detonated at a local bus stop in the capital city of Santiago, resulting in multiple injuries. With organized crime expected to strengthen in 2019, it remains to be seen if Chile can continue to uphold its low levels of violence. Nicaragua: N/A In 2017, Nicaragua registered a homicide rate of 7 per 100,000 people, with 431 total murders, continuing a positive trend of lower violence seen over several years. However, levels of violence soared in 2018 due to the brutal repression of civilian protesters by the regime of President Daniel Ortega. Incomplete statistics of killings have been provided by civil society and non-governmental organizations. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (Asociación Nicaragüense Pro Derechos Humanos – ANDPH) recorded in July that at least 448 had been killed and 595 people disappeared. Further information from the group has not been issued since it closed its offices in Nicaragua in August due to consistent government threats. * Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime based on partial homicide data for 2018 and the country’s 2017 estimated population total, according to the Population Reference Bureau. These will be updated as full 2018 figures become available.

Guatemala President Causes Constitutional Crisis to Oust CICIG

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Guatemala President Jimmy Morales has pushed his country to the brink of a constitutional crisis in his eagerness to rid himself of the anti-corruption commission that has accused him of illegally financing the election campaign that brought him into power. Morales’ hunger to oust the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) — an entity funded by multiple countries that acts as a sort of adjunct prosecutorial body alongside the Attorney General’s Office — has reached the point where he has violated court orders and illegally used security forces to carry out his plans.      SEE ALSO: 4 Consequences of Morales’ War with the CICIG in Guatemala On January 7, the Guatemalan foreign affairs minister delivered a letter to the United Nations in New York stating that the Morales administration had unilaterally decided to terminate the agreement that founded the CICIG. Morales said he was revoking his government’s recognition of the CICIG because its officials “participated in illegal acts such as malfeasance, abuse of authority, acts against the constitution [and] illegal orders and sedition.” He also accused the commission of exceeding its powers. In conjunction with the letter to the UN, Morales held a televised press conference at the presidential palace to announce his decision. To defend his position, the president put forward the cases of businesspeople, a former government official and a Russian citizen whom the CICIG had investigated for crimes ranging from using false documents to committing extrajudicial executions. So far, only the Russian citizen has been convicted, but Morales claimed that all of them were victims of arbitrary actions on the part of the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office.      SEE ALSO: Morales Orders CICIG Agents To Leave Guatemala On Tuesday, January 8, a CICIG spokesperson announced that the Commission’s international staff would be leaving the country as a preventive measure due to a lack of guarantees for their safety and work. However, the CICIG’s office in Guatemala City will remain open and local staff will continue to work. Since its arrival in the Central American country a decade ago, and especially during the past four years, the CICIG has helped the Attorney General’s Office to solve corruption and organized crime cases involving legislators, mayors, important business leaders and even former presidents, many of whom are now in prison. In fact, the president and those who joined him behind the podium at his press conference on Monday are a prime example of the powerful figures whom the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG have shaken with their investigations. Among the people the president used to justify his newest attack on the CICIG are the following:
  • Relatives of former Interior Minister Carlos Vielman. The CICIG investigated Vielman for his alleged participation in extrajudicial executions committed by the National Civil Police, which he headed during the 2000s. Internal CICIG documents to which InSight Crime had access established that in January 2009, the commission investigated Vielman as a “member of an organized group” within the Guatemalan government that participated in an inmate massacre at the Pavón prison and in the murder of three Salvadoran representatives of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen) and their driver. A court in Spain, where Vielman holds citizenship, acquitted him of his charges in connection with the Pavón prison massacre, and the Parlacen investigations were discontinued in Guatemala. In October 2018, the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office presented another case against Vielman, this time for his alleged role in the extrajudicial executions of inmates who had escaped from a prison known as El Infiernito (Little Hell) in 2005. Vielman was interior minister during the presidency of Óscar Berger and known to be very close to Guatemala’s economic elites.
  • The Valdés Paiz family. InSight Crime published a detailed report on the elites in Guatemala in 2016 that revealed the possible participation of brothers Francisco and José Valdés Paiz in a criminal plot that culminated in a lawyer named Rodrigo Rosemberg committing suicide. One of Rosemberg’s clients was Luis Mendizábal, a shadowy political and intelligence operator whose name US legislators have requested be added to a list of people sanctioned for connections to organized crime. The Attorney General’s Office accused the Valdés Paiz brothers of masterminding Rosemberg’s death. In August 2017, an appellate court closed the case against them for lack of evidence.
  • The Bitkov family. Igor Bitkov is a Russian citizen who was convicted in Guatemala for buying false documents from a criminal organization embedded in the country’s immigration department. In 2010, when Bitkov bought the documents, the Attorney General’s Office was investigating a criminal network specializing in immigration fraud. The Attorney General’s Office included current Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart in its investigation as a suspected member of the network. Degenhart is also one of Morales’ main allies. On December 28, a judge sentenced Bitkov to five years in prison. The case gained importance because, with the help of lobbyists and a US news columnist, Republican legislators used it in an attempt to stop the CICIG’s investigations, alleging that the commission was colluding with the Russian government to persecute the Bitkovs. However, the US State Department under President Donald Trump denied that possibility.
Of course, the main protagonist of the press conference was Morales, who himself has been investigated by the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office for alleged illicit campaign financing. Once again, as he did before the UN plenary session in September 2018, the Guatemalan president accused the CICIG — and by consequence the Attorney General’s Office — of violating the law. He also, once again, placed himself at the helm of a show of force intended to remove the commission from the country. Only this time it is in direct violation of multiple Guatemalan Constitutional Court orders already issued in favor of the CICIG, and other court rulings such as the one that sentenced Igor Bitkov to serve jail time, not attend a press conference. In another violation of a court ruling, the Morales government ordered the police to cordon off La Aurora International Airport in an attempt to prevent a Colombian CICIG investigator from entering Guatemala. A court had previously ruled that foreign CICIG officials could not be denied their visas.

InSight Crime Analysis

For now, Morales’ unilateral termination of the agreement that created the CICIG will have no concrete ramifications. The commission’s mandate was already set to expire in September 2019, and several legal steps that supersede Morales’ decision — at least in theory — would have to be followed to cut the mandate short. The CICIG’s existence is regulated by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT), which the Guatemalan government signed and ratified. Article 14 of the agreement signed between Guatemala and the UN states that the CICIG lasts for two years following each renewal, and Morales himself renewed it last year, which puts the commission’s expiration date at September 3, 2019. The same agreement holds that if one of the parties wishes to unilaterally terminate it, that party must give 12 months’ advance notice, which would be impossible to do at this point because the agreement only has eight more months before it expires.      SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2018: Threatened by Inquiries, Central American Elites Strike Back UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutérres said on Monday that he rejected the Guatemalan petition and reiterated that the CICIG will remain intact at least until the end of its current mandate. One thing that has remained clear throughout the events of the past few days is that the Guatemalan business elites who used to support the CICIG now seem to be joining Morales’ camp regardless of the consequences. In an immediate reaction to the president’s announcement, Guatemala’s business leaders gave their own press conference to endorse his decision. But Morales’ latest moves have pushed other actors to position themselves more clearly in favor of the CICIG and corruption investigations, or to reiterate their unwavering support for the organization’s efforts. Such is the case with the Guatemalan government’s attempt to block the entry of the Colombian CICIG official, Yilen Osorio, into the country on Saturday. The situation motivated Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who until then had made only lukewarm efforts to challenge Morales, to order the arrest of the executive officials who tried to deport him. On the other hand, Congressional President Álvaro Arzú Escobar, who is the son of late former president Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen — himself the target of CICIG and Attorney General’s Office investigations — has said that there were votes to support the president’s decision to terminate the CICIG agreement. According to Guatemalan law, however, such a decision by Congress would only be symbolic. In the United States, one of the CICIG’s largest donors, positions have also become clearer. When Trump entered the presidency, the unquestionable support previously maintained by the Obama administration began to wear away, even to the point where Guatemalan officials dared to use military equipment donated by Washington to intimidate the CICIG. But in light of recent events, US Democrats, now in the majority of the House of Representatives, have warned Morales that they will suspend aid to his country and have openly branded him as corrupt. Moreover, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), one of the Senate’s most influential members on Central American issues, has stated that the Guatemalan president is not welcome in the United States. However, Morales’ willingness to flout the law begs the question of how far international pressure will go in curtailing his hunger to expel the CICIG from Guatemala, stall the investigations currently underway and prevent new ones from being opened. As of now, he has gone against the country’s judicial authority, which is prohibited by the Constitution, and has demonstrated that he is willing to use government security forces to enforce his decisions, even when they are unlawful. Morales has sparked a constitutional crisis in Guatemala, and now he is poised to stoke the flames.