Central America Theater
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."
A Colombian cartel operative who established Central America's remote and lawless Miskito Coast as a major cocaine transfer point, building a mini-empire in the region of jungle, savanna and offshore cays, has since Feb. 7 been cooling his heels in Managua's notorious El Chipote prison, according to a Feb. 26 report in Nicaraguan daily La Prensa. Although his capture was confirmed by his attorney, Nicaraguan authorities failed to announce the arrest of the country's most-wanted crime lord, Amauri Carmona Morelos AKA Alberto Ruiz Cano.
A joint security force bringing together the three nations of Central America's Northern Triangle officially began operations to fight narco-gangs and organized crime on Nov. 15. The force is made up of military, police, intelligence and border officials from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—which all face growing internal violence from criminal networks. The force was officially inaugurated at a ceremony in the Honduran border town of Ocotepeque, near the point where the three countries meet. The presidents of all three nations were in attendance.
Followers of the indigenous party Yatama clashed with police and supporters of the ruling FSLN in Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas) on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast in the aftermath of contested national elections. Thre police agents were reported injured in the clash, with several arrested and property damaged—including government offices. The march was called Nov. 7, the day after the elections, to demand that the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) release preliminary results on the local race for national legislative deputy, with Yatama candidate Brooklyn Rivera charging numerous irregularities at the polls. Specifically, he accused the FSLN of using the "ratón loco" (crazy mouse) trick, of bussing supporters around to vote multiple times at various locations. Results for the deputy's race in the North Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN) have still not been announced, and Bilwi remains tense, with streets patroled by riot police flown in by the national government over the head of the city's Yatama municipal government. (EFE, La Prensa, Nov. 8; La Prensa, Nov. 7; La Prensa, Nov. 6)
Rights activists and indigenous protesters clashed with riot police in Tegucigalpa Oct. 20 following the murder of two prominent campesino leaders—the latest in a wave of repressive terror. The protest at the Public Ministry was called to demand justice in the case of José Ángel Flores and Silmer Dionosio George of Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA). The two were slain by unknown gunmen Oct. 18 as they left a community meeting in Tocoa, Colón department. Tocoa is in the Lower Aguán Valley, the center of a longstanding conflict between campesinos and large landowners accused of acquiring their lands in contravention of Honduras' agrarian reform laws. The two activists were supposedly under protective measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The orders were issued in May 2014 for several campesino leaders in the Aguán following a wave of killings and death threats. (Human Rights Watch, HispanTV, Oct. 21; Honduras Solidarity Network, Oct. 18)