Central America Theater
US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on Feb. 28 defended the US-backed war on the drug cartels, despite the growing violence in Mexico and Central America. On a five-day tour of the region, Napolitano insisted in a joint press conference with Mexican Interior Minister Alejandro Poire that the US and Mexico would maintain "a continuing effort to keep our peoples from becoming addicted to dangerous drugs.... It's a different type of crime and it's a different type of plague, but that's also why it is so important that we act not only bi-nationally, but in a regional way, to go after the supply of illegal narcotics."
In a ceremony broadcast on national television from the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa on Feb. 17, Honduran president Porfirio ("Pepe") Lobo Sosa and National Agrarian Reform Institute director (INA) César Ham signed an accord with two campesino organizations to finance the purchase of land for campesino cooperatives in the Lower Aguán Valley in the north of the country. The government has presented the land deal as at least a partial solution to long-running disputes in the Aguán that have left more than 50 people dead over the past two years.
A federal immigration judge in Florida decided Feb. 23 that former Salvadoran defense minister Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova can be deported for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during El Salvador's civil war. Judge James Grim found that Vides assisted in both the killing of four US churchwomen in 1980 and the torture of two Salvadorans, who testified against him in hearings last spring in the Orlando immigration court. Although this was not an official order for Vides' deportation, it is a confirmation that the government has the ability to deport him based on charges brought against him by the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit of the US Department of Homeland Security.
Hundreds of relatives of inmates who burned or suffocated to death at the Comayagua prison fire in Honduras forced their way into a morgue in Tegucigalpa Feb. 20 to demand the remains of loved ones. The group, mostly women, pushed past security guards, entered the morgue, broke into a refrigerated container and opened at least six body bags. (The Guardian, Feb. 10) Relatives of those who went missing in the conflagration have converged on Tegucigalpa from around the country, and are being housed on the premises of the government aid agency INFOP, as they await word from the Public Security ministry on the fate of their loved ones. They are reportedly facing poor conditions there, with inadequate food, water and shelter. (Red Morazánica de Información, Feb. 21)
Human Rights Watch on Feb. 16 called for the reduction of overcrowding to improve poor prison conditions in Latin America following a prison fire in Honduras. The fire occurred two days earlier and killed more than 300 inmates while injuring dozens more. According to HRW, Honduras prisoners suffer overcrowding which leads to poor prison conditions including inadequate nutrition and sanitation, as well as the tragic result earlier this week. Americas Director at HRW, Jose Miguel Vivanco, stated, "The tragic deaths of hundreds of inmates, one of the worst incidents of its kind in the region, are ultimately the result of overcrowding and poor prison conditions, two longstanding problems in Honduras." According to local press, Honduras has 24 prisons with a total capacity of 8,000. These prisons currently hold 13,000 prisoners, well over capacity.
At least 360 inmates were killed the night of Feb. 14 when a fierce blaze swept through a central prison in Comayagua, Honduras, with several more hospitalized with severe burns. Many victims were burned or suffocated to death in their cells. The nation has been shocked by images of prisoners burned alive clinging to the bars of their cells, desperate to escape. According to one prisoner who escaped by breaking through his ceiling, the guards did not react to pleas for help, and one even flung the keys away, abandoning them before he fled. Other reports indicate guards actually had no keys for exits that inmates fled for—that there was just one set of keys for the facility. Investigators believe the fire started when one prisoner set his mattress alight, possibly in a gang-related conflict. The fire spread rapidly through the wood structure of the prison. After the blaze, relatives of prisoners clashed with police as they tried to force their way into the ruined prison, desperate for news about their loved ones. Police responded with tear gas, and fired shots into the air. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa pledged a "full and transparent" investigation into the "lamentable and unacceptable" tragedy.
A committee composed of deputies from Panama's National Assembly, representatives of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group, and observers was to meet on Feb. 10 to discuss a possible ban on hydroelectric projects in Ngöbe-Buglé territories. The negotiations resulted from an agreement that indigenous leaders and the government of right-wing president Ricardo Martinelli reached on Feb. 7; the pact ended more than a week of massive protests that had led to at least two deaths and dozens of arrests. (Prensa Latina, Feb. 10)
On Jan. 23, the administration of President Mauricio Funes named retired general Francisco Ramón Salinas as the new director of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC), replacing former director Carlos Ascencio—thus removing the last high-ranking member of the public security cabinet linked to the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Prior to his naming, Salinas was vice-minister of Defense and an active-duty general; he officially retired from military service several hours before Funes appointed him.