Central America Theater

Nicaragua: Miskito Coast land conflict turns deadly

At least nine people have been killed and 20 more wounded in an escalating land conflict on Nicaragua's Miskito Coast over the past month. Hundreds of indigenous Miskito residents have fled their ancestral lands, in some cases seeking refuge across the border in Honduras. The crisis in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) pits indigenous Miskito and Mayangna communities against mestizo peasant colonists from Nicaragua's more densely populated west. Miskito political party YATAMA claims the peasants are illegally invading titled indigenous lands, sometimes after plots have been fraudulently sold by corrupt officials. Among the most impacted communities is Tasba Raya Indigenous Territory, where the communal president Constantino Romel was shot and wounded by National Police troops Sept. 16, allegedly after attempting to run a checkpoint. Community leaders deny police claims that officers were fired upon fmor the pick-up truck. Elvin Castro, traditional judge in the indigenous community of Francia Sirpi, has issued an ultimatum giving the colonists one month to to quit the community's territory. "If within one month they do not comply with this, then they will die," he announced. "The colonizers come to destroy the forests that we have cared for such a long time, destroying the watersheds, the plants and the animals... The government has supported the colonizers with firearms so that they can make problems."

Guatemala: activist slain in palm-oil region

An indigenous leader who opposed pesticide abuse on Guatemala's palm oil plantations was killed Sept. 18 outside a court that just one day earlier ordered the closure of a plantation against which he had led protests. Rigoberto Lima Choc was slain by two gunmen on a motorcycle near the civil courthouse at Sayaxche, in the northern rainforest department of Peteñ—now heavily colonized by palm plantations. The court had ordered a six-month closure local palm oil manufacturer Repsa due to unethical environmental practices. Lima, a municipal councilor with the National Union of Hope (UNE), was campaigning against contamination of the Río La Pasión with pesticide runoff from the plantation. He documented the death of thousands of fish, with numerous marine species now threaetened with extinction. The United Nations office in Guatemala recently described the situation as an "ecological disaster." Two other activists have been abducted since the court ruling. Repsa employees protested in Sayaxche after the ruling. Repsa (for Peteñ Palm Reforestation) is a member of the UN Global Compact "corporate sustainability initiative." (Siglo21, Prensa Libre, Guatemala, Sept. 19; AFP, Global News, TeleSur, Sept. 18; UN Global Compact)

El Salvador rules street gangs are 'terrorist groups'

The constitutional chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court of Justice on Aug. 24 ruled that the country's notoriously violent street gangs and those who support them financially will now be classified as "terrorist groups." The ruling came in a decision rejecting four challenges to the constitutionality of the country's Special Law Against Terrorist Acts (LECAT). The ruling defines terrorism as the "organized and systematic exercise of violence," placing the label on any group that attempts to usurp the state's monopoly on the use of force. The ruling upholds the freezing of funds for any persons believed linked to the named groups, and a ban on any negotiation with the groups. At issue are the rival Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs.

Guatemala: president resigns under scandal probe

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina sent a letter to both the country's congress and reporters early Aug. 3 announcing his resignation and his intention to "stand before justice." The congress had called an emergency session to meet that day to accept the letter of resignation. Several hours before resigning, the public prosecutor requested Pérez Molina's arrest on corruption charges and a trial judge ordered his arrest. Pérez Molina and 30 other government officials allegedly took millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for keeping low import duties. Vice President Alejandro Maldonado has assumed the presidency, and must compile a list of three names for consideration for vice president, to be chosen by congress. Maldonado replaced vice president Roxana Baldetti, who was arrested in August on corruption charges. Eight other government officials have already resigned over the allegations. Pérez Molina's resignation comes only three days before the Guatemalan general election.

Guatemala: ex-dictator can be tried —not sentenced

A Guatemalan court on Aug. 26 held that former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt can stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity but cannot be sentenced because he suffers from dementia. The court held that a special closed trial can be held where all evidence and witness testimony will be presented with representative of Ríos Montt present. Ríos Montt's lawyers have an opportunity to appeal. This ruling comes after a Guatemalan court, earlier this month, ordered Rios Montt to undergo competency tests to determine whether he was fit to stand trial. In May the Guatemalan Congress approved a resolution denying any existence of genocide during the country's civil war.

Guatemala political money linked to criminality

The UN International Commission Against Impunity on July 18 reported that approximately a quarter of the money used for Guatemalan political campaigns is from criminal groups. The main criminal group being drug traffickers. The report also indicated that government contractors themselves contribute to more than half of the funds. Ian Velásquez, head of the commission, stated: "Corruption is the unifying element of the Guatemalan political system based on an amalgam of interests that include politicians, officials, public entities, businessmen, non-governmental organizations and criminal groups." The report suggested several campaign finance reforms including limiting private funding, strengthening institutional coordination, and reforming the system itself.

Honduras: protesters demand president resign

Thousands of protesters marched in Honduras on June 26 calling for the resignation of President Juan Hernández and demanding an independent investigation into his role in an ongoing corruption scandal. Hernández is accused of knowingly using money from a $200 million embezzlement scandal at the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) to help pay for his 2013 presidential campaign. Hernández last week acknowledged that his campaign did receive funds from people involved with the scandal, but stated he and his party had not been made aware of where that money had come from.

Narco angle in Guatemala political crisis

Thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets May 16, demanding the nation's President Otto Pérez Molina step down amid a scandal that has already forced the resignation of his vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Despite rain, protesters marched in 13 cities. Throngs filled the capital's central plaza, where a giant banner read "We are the people." The mobilization was largely leaderless, organized by social media under the hashtag #RenunciaYa (Resign Already). It all blew up in April, when the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala released findings of an investigation into a customs bribery ring uncovered by Guatemalan prosecutors. Baldetti's private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, was named as the ringleader, forcing Baldetti to step down May 8—despite protesting her innocence. Pérez Molina likewise pleads ignorance about the ring, dubbed "La Línea," and pledges a crackdown on corruption. Monzón is on the lam and an Interpol warrant has been issued.

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