Days of street clashes between opponents and supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have left five dead, with scores injured or detained. The demonstrators, mostly students, blame the government for violent crime, high inflation, chronic shortages, and what they charge is repression of opponents. They are calling for Maduro to resign. The street fighting has mostly been in middle-class areas of Caracas, where it seems we are treated to the unlikely spectacle of well-heeled youth throwing Molotov cocktails at police and blocking streets with burning trash. Authorities even said a funeral procession for revered folk singer Simón Díaz, who died Feb. 19 aged 85, was held up by "violent groups" blocking roads. (Reuters, Feb. 20) Widely blamed for inciting violence is the leader of the right-wing Voluntad Popular party, Leopoldo López. CNN reported that López turned himself in Feb. 19 to face murder charges—which CNN reported the following day had been dropped. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles has also been supporting the protests, but is publicly urging nonviolence. The unrest extends beyond Caracas, with the government mobilizing troops to Tachira state following protests there. Maduro has also threatened to expel CNN from the country if it does not "rectify its coverage" of the protests. (BBC News, Feb. 20)
El Salvador's Feb. 2 presidential election was overshadowed by a dramatic spike in the country's homicide rate—less than a year after a truce between warring criminal gangs had led many Salvadorans to hope that their country was back from the brink. Most alarming was the December discovery of 44 bodies in 14 mass graves in a wooded area of Villa Lourdes barrio in Colón, a suburb of the capital San Salvador and a notorious gang stronghold. Many of the bullet-ridden bodies were mutilated and half-naked. Authorities accuse the Barrio 18 gang of depositing their victims in the clandestine graves. A March 2012 truce between Barrio 18 and its deadly rivals, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), was credited with slashing El Salvador’s homicides from more than 4,000 in 2011 to just 2,500 over the past two years. For at least 15 months after the truce, the number of killings per day averaged 5.5, up from 14 before. But January 2014 saw a daily average of 7.7. This made easy propaganda for the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) to bait the ruling left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) as soft on crime.
Mexico's federal government signed an accord with Michoacán's "community police" network Jan. 27, calling for the self-defense militias to be incorporated into the official security forces. The pact was signed by Alfredo Castillo, the government's special pointman for pacification of Michoacán, and 30 leaders of the "community police" forces. The ceremony took place at the village of Tepalcatepec, one of those recently seized by the militias. The "community police" are to be absorbed into the Rural Defense Corps, a paramilitary network under the command of the National Defense Secretariat.
Mexican federal police arrested 38 people across violence-torn Michoacán state on Jan. 20, claiming a blow against the notorious Knights Templar drug cartel. Among those detained was Jesús Vázquez Macías AKA "El Toro"—claimed to be a top kingpin of the blood-drenched narco network. "El Toro" was apprehended in the port city of Lázaro Cárdenas, and flown to a prison in Veracruz state, far from his home turf. But Lázaro Cárdenas, one of Mexico's key Pacific ports and industrial hubs, was actually taken over by federal security forces back in November, ostensibly to protect it from the warring narco gangs. That El Toro apparently managed to remain at large in the city until now loans credence to the claims of Michoacán's vigilante network that the government is turning a blind eye to the drug lords. (AFP, BBC News, Milenio, Jan. 20; BN Americas, Jan. 10; Reuters, Jan. 1)
On the night of Jan. 13, one day after "community police" gunmen seized several pueblos that had been controlled by the Knights Templar narco-gang in Mexico's west-central state of Michoacán, federal army troops were sent in to take back the villages from the vigilante force. "Community police" leaders say up to 12 of their men have been killed in clashes with the army. The bloodiest incident is reported from Antúnez pueblo, Parácuaro municipality—where a 17-year-old youth is said to be among seven dead. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) says it has confirmed the deaths of four at Antúnez, including a minor.
Some 100 gunmen from a "community police" force in Mexico's Michoacán state on Jan. 12 seized the town of Nueva Italia—precipitating a shoot-out with gunmen from the Knights Templar cartel who had been in control there. Two members of the vigilante force were wounded before the Templarios retreated, leaving the "community police" in control of thw town. It is unclear if there were casualties on the cartel's side. It seems there were no "official" police in the town, nor any army troops. Traveling in a convoy of pick-up trucks and armed with rifles, the "community police" also seized several hamlets in Parácuaro, Apatzingán and other municipalities—where several trucks and other vehicles deemed to belong to cartel collaborators were burned. Jan. 10 saw a confrontation for control of the municipal palace in the center of Apatzingán. The vigilantes also briefly set up a roadblock on the coastal highway, where more vehicles were stopped and burned—a total of 13 across the state in three days of violence.
Colombia's National Police announced Jan. 24 the seizure of 1.2 tons of cocaine allegedly belonging to paramilitary group Los Urabeños in the northwestern department of Córdoba. The find came when police searched a truck at a checkpoint that had been established in Montería municipality. The interception was reportedly planned by police intelligence in advance. The two truck occupants who were arrested apparently tried to bribe the officers with $150,000. The agents also confiscated 6,800 gallons of biodiesel and 3,400 gallons of gasoline, worth around $30,000. The cocaine was reportedly en route to the port of Turbo in Urabá region, the Urabeños' heartland in the northern part of Antioquia department, and was intended for export to the US and Europe. The Urabeños are a "neo-paramilitary" group that remained in arms after the ultra-right paramilitary network was officially "demobilized" some 10 years ago. Authorities now consider the Urabeños Colombia's most powerful drug trafficking organization. (Colombia Reports, Jan. 24)
Jamaat-e-Islami party (JI) leader AKM Yusuf, died at age 87 on Feb. 9 of cardiac arrest. Bangladeshi authorities arrested Yusuf in May on 13 charges of crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Yusuf became ill while in jail, where we was detained while facing the war crimes charges, which included genocide, arson and rape. The International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh ( ICTB) had been scheduled to begin Yusuf's trial on February 12. His defense counsel had previously sought bail due to the man's old age, and now claim that the jail should have provided better treatment.