Central America Theater
Independence Day celebrations in Guatemala on Sept. 15 were disrupted by protests across the country, as thousands took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Jimmy Morales. The protests were sparked after the country's Congress two days earlier approved legislation that decreases the penalties for campaign finance crimes. The reform reduces the maximum sentence for illegally funding an election from 12 to 10 years, and allows prison time to be waived altogether for a fine. Prosecutors sought to remove Morales' immunity in order to investigate the misappropriation of over $800,000 in election funds from his 2015 campaign, but Congress voted Sept. 11 to turn down the prosecutors' request. Congress only voted on the request at all after being ordered to do so by the country's Supreme Court of Justice. The Constitutional Court, the highest body overseeing civil law, has also provisionally suspended the new campaign finance legislation. (AFP, Sept. 16; NYT, TeleSur, RFI, Jurist, Sept. 15; Reuters, Sept. 13; Jurist, Sept. 12; Jurist, Sept. 11)
The Guatemalan Supreme Court on Aug. 29 suspended President Jimmy Morales' order to deport the head of a UN anti-corruption commission from the country. The order came from the president two days after Ivan Velásquez, the Colombian prosecutor who leads Guatemala's International Commission against Impunity, announced he was seeking to lift Morales' immunity from prosecution in order to investigate alleged illegal campaign financing. The Supreme Court quickly halted the deportation, stating that the order was issued improperly. The UN said that it was disturbed by Morales' actions against Velásquez. In protest of Morales' actions, citizens declared a state of siege in the capital, while US ambassador to Guatemala Todd Robinson stated that the president's moves could put at risk a US development plan in Central America to reduce poverty and crime.
A new report from Amnesty International accuses the Nicaraguan government of "placing business before the future of the country and its people" with its inter-oceanic canal mega-scheme "that will affect the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people and might leave many homeless." The report, Danger: Rights for sale, charges that "the obscure legal framework that led to the concession of the project, without genuine consultation with all affected communities, violates a catalogue of national and international standards on human rights and might lead to the forced eviction of hundreds of families." It also accuses authorities of harassing and persecuting opponents of the project. (Amnesty International, Aug. 3)
The daughter of assassinated Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres survived an armed attack, just weeks after being named leader of the indigenous alliance formerly led by her mother. Bertha Zuñiga, 26, was assaulted along with two other members of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPNIH) as they drove back from a visit to the community of Cancire in Santiago Puringla municipality, La Paz department, on June 30. Three assailants hurled rocks and tried to hack the COPINH members with machetes, after forcing their vehicle to stop by blocking the raod with a pick-up truck. The activists managed to escape, but came under renewed attack as the driver of the pick-up tried to force their vehicle off the cliff-edge road.
Panama announced June 13 that it is breaking its long-standing diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing relations with China—a clear political coup for Beijing. The Panamanian statement said it recognized "only one China" and considers Taiwan to be part of it. The change was spurred by an unavoidable fact: China is the second most important Panama Canal user after the United States. Last year it sent 38 million metric tons of cargo through the interoceanic waterway, accounting for 19% of its traffic. The announcement of the diplomatic switch also comes just as Chinese enterprises began building a container port, with natural gas terminals, in Panama's Colón province, on the Atlantic side of the canal. "I think Dominican Republic and Nicaragua will soon follow," Mexico's former ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, tweeted soon after the announcement.
A judge in El Salvador on May 24 sentenced seven accused members of the country's feared mara gang networks to 390 years in prison each for the March 2016 massacre at the town of San Juan Opico. Authorities say the maras kidnapped three day laborers and eight electric company workers at the town, just outside the capital San Salvador—and then killed them, without waiting for a ransom. The mara networks have been factionalizing in a struggle over the cocaine trade through Central America, as well as the lucre from their new sidelines of extortion and kidnapping. The seven sentenced are said to be from a new faction with the disconcerting name of the Barrio 18 Revolutionaries—implying they actually seek to challenge the state, in the style of Mexico's Zetas.
With the signature of President Salvador Sánchez Ceren, El Salvador on April 27 became the first country on Earth to ban the mining of metals—following a long campaign by campesinos and their ecologist allies. The law, passed by the country's Legislative Assembly March 29, bans "prospection, exploration, exploitation, extraction or processing of metallic minerals in El Salvador." Mauricio Sermeno, leader of the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), said the law "is necessary in the face of an industry which, far from bringing any benefit to communities, brings serious pollution to water sources and the environment." (Duluth News Tribune, April 28; AFP, Inhabit, April 27)
At least three guards were killed when riot police were sent in to storm the Etapa 2 juvenile detention center outside Guatemala City, where members of the notorious Barrio 18 narco-gang had seized cell-blocks and taken hostages March 20. Riot troops were ordered to take the facility despite desperate pleas from guards being held hostage. Latin American Herald Tribune reports that before the bloody climax, hostages had shouted from windows, urging authorities to negotiate with their captors. "We are begging and the government doesn't want to do anything," one reportedly cried. "They give no attention to our lives."