Two Argentine “Death Pilots” Arrested for Involvement in 950 Deaths

By Sovereign Hager

Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Two suspected “death pilots” have been arrested and are being detained for their alleged involvement in the murders of 950 people during Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s and 80s.

A Spanish judge ordered former Argentine Navy Lt. Julio Alberto Poch to remain in jail until a decision is made about whether he should be extradited to Argentina to be prosecuted.

Poch was arrested in Valencia, Spain after police found an Argentine army pistol in his home.  Poch holds Dutch and Argentine nationality and works for the airline Transavia. Poch reportedly told airline colleagues that he was involved in the death flights in 2007.  An international warrant for Poch’s arrest was issued in March of this year. A spokesperson said that the extradition decision could take several months.

In Argentina, police arrested former Navy Captain Emir Sisul Hess last week in the town of Bariloche, near the Chilean border. An initial hearing was held on Friday. Sisul also reportedly discussed his involvement in the “death flights” with colleagues. He was a helicopter pilot in Argentina from 1976-77.

Argentine federal Judge Sergio Gabriel Torres is pursuing the extradition of Poch and handling the arrest of Sisul Hess. The men are suspected not just of drugging, blindfolding, and dumping people into the sea or the Rio Plata, but also of being involved in murders at the Argentine Marine Academy. Poch denies any involvement, saying that “it is practically impossible” and that he was a jet fighter at the time. Sisul has also denied the allegations.

Executed prisoners included students, labor leaders, intellectuals and leftists who were politically opposed to the dictatorship. Most of the people were snatched off of the street or arrested and held without trial in secret prisons and subject to torture. As many as 30,000 people disappeared or were held in secret prisons during the dictatorship.

There have been four major “dirty war” convictions. The first was the 1984 conviction of Ex-President Jorge Videla for the murder, torture, and detention of thousands. He is currently serving a life sentence. In 2005, an ex-naval officer was sentenced to 640 years in prison for his involvement in the “death flights.” In 2006, an ex-police chief was sentenced to life in prison for human rights abuses and earlier this year Ex-General Santiago Omar Riveros was sentenced to life in prison for kidnap, torture, and murder.

Hebe de Bonafini, the well known president of the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers whose children went missing during the “dirty war” said that she found no joy in the arrests. She urged the government to find other criminals from the period, “there are several. They are not the only ones.”

For more information, please see:

Aljazeera – Argentine Held Over “Death Flights” – 7 October 2009

BBC – Jail Ruling for “Dirty War” Pilot – 6 October 2009

CNN International – Argentine “Death Pilot” Held In Spain – 6 October 2009

Dutch News – Pilot Suspected of Role in 950 Murders – 6 October 2009

United Press International – “Death Flight” Pilot’s Release Bid Denied – 6 October 2009

Two Mass Graves Found in Colombia

By Sovereign Hager

Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BOGOTA, Colombia – Two mass graves were discovered last week containing over thirty peasants and rebel fighters.  Seventeen peasants were found in a grave on a ranch owned by the now dead, far-right militia leader Carlos Castano in Northwestern Colombia. Meanwhile, sixteen FARC rebels, thought to have been killed in combat, were found in La Uribe, in the southern jungles.

The peasants found in the ranch grave were dismembered and showed signs of torture.  Colombian prosecutors reported that the peasants were killed ten to twelve years ago by men commanded by Jesus Ignacio Roldan, known as “Monoleche.”

Castano, the owner of the ranch, was reportedly killed because he disagreed with the anti-guerrilla movement’s use of drug-trafficking mafias and because the paramilitaries were frightened that Castano would report them to U.S. drug agents.

The FARC fighters were killed in July and the bodies include the nephew of senior FARC Commander Jorge Bricero.  La Uribe, where the grave was found, has traditionally been a stronghold for the FARC.

Over 2,570 victims of right-wing paramilitaries have been unearthed in Colombia since the militias began demobilizing in 2005 pursuant to a peace agreement with the Colombian government.  The AUC was formed in 1997 as an umbrella group for the numerous paramilitary organizations created to protect drug lords’ territory and operations from attacks by leftists groups, such as the FARC.  The AUC is reportedly responsible for most of the drug related deaths in Colombia.

Both the FARC and the AUC have been designated terrorist groups.  While the AUC is no longer a formal organization, most of its past members have joined other criminal organizations.

Militias such as those that formally comprised the AUC often worked with members of the Colombian military in a “dirty war” killing and torturing people suspected to be leftist rebels or sympathizers. Prosecutors report that demobilized paramilitaries have confessed to over 25,000 murders.

For more information, please see:

BBC – Colombian Mass Graves Discovered – 26 September 2009

RTT News – Thirty-three Bodies Unearthed in Two Colombian Mass Graves – 26 September 2009

South America Policy Examiner – COLOMBIA: Two Mass Graves Discovered, Bodies Include Nephew of FARC Leader – 26 September 2009

AP – Colombia Finds 2 Mass Graves of Peasants, Rebels

Educators Bear the Brunt of “Shocking” Level of Political Violence in Colombia

By Sovereign Hager

Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

PARIS, France – Education International, a global union federation, released a report today finding that Colombian teachers face the highest rates of political violence against teachers in the world. The detailed report, entitled Colombia’s Classroom Wars details incidences of murder, disappearances, torture, death threats, forced displacement, arbitrary detention, and other violations of human rights..

The Colombian National Trade Union School reported that 816 Colombian trade unionists were killed between 1999 and 2005. That represents more than half of the 1,175 trade unionists killed during that period worldwide. The Education International report points out that many violations go unreported because the environment is so politicized and dangerous. As a result, the estimates of human rights violations are thought to be conservative.

Over half of the trade unionists murdered in Colombia are teachers. Teachers working in rural areas are seen as community leaders, which can bring them into conflict with powerful local, national, and international interests. For example, teachers in Arauca, an oil-rich region, campaigned for multinational oil companies to finance social investment.

The report finds that political violence disproportionately affects teachers in Colombia because they represent the majority of unionization in the country. Findings of the report indicate that due to repression, and the massive growth in the informal sector, trade union representation is extremely low in Colombia. The majority of state employees are unionized and the biggest trade union in Colombia is the FECODE – the National Teacher’s Federation. FEDCODE has a strong presence and leadership in the Colombian Labor Federation.

Education International attributes the majority of the assassinations to right-wing paramilitary organizations with links to the Colombian state. People responsible for the assassinations “committed their crimes with impunity.” Dr. Mario Novelli, of the University of Amsterdam prepared the report and will present it at a UNESCO – sponsored seminar today in Paris. Dr. Novelli argues that “the violation of the political and civil rights of educators in Colombia by state and state-supported paramilitary organizations is carried out precisely with the intention of silencing the very organizations and individuals that are actively defending the economic, social, and cultural rights of their members and the broader Colombian society.”

Colombian labor union leaders spoke at the ALF-CIO meeting in Pittsburgh earlier this month. They expressly stated that the government and employers are responsible for violence against unionized workers. They argued that violence against unions rises to the level of governmental policy, saying that the government “uses its own agencies to murder trade unionists.”

Two U.S. corporations have been accused of being involved in anti-union “death squads.” The Organization of American States said that 3,000 automatic weapons and 2.5 million bullets were shipped through Chiquita Brands International’s private port and picked up by death squad operatives. Drummond Coal executives are currently being investigated for allegedly conspiring with paramilitaries to kill three union activists. Trade unionists in Colombia are hoping that violence against trade unions will be considered as the United States and Canada negotiate a Colombian Free Trade Agreement.

Dr. Novelli traces the violence to “a highly unequal development model favoring a small minority of wealthy elites at the expense of the vast majority of the population.” Novelli and Education International are urging the international community and labor movements around the world to call on governments to hold Colombia accountable for crimes; to stop giving financial support to the Colombian military; and to prioritize improvement of human rights in Colombia over the interests of foreign-based corporations.

For more information, please see:

Agencia Latinoamericana de Información – Colombian Teachers Face Highest Rate of Political Violence – 29 September 2009

Education International – Colombian Teachers Face Highest Rate of Political Violence – 29 September 2009

People’s Weekly World – Trade Unions to Colombia: Stop Murdering Labor Activists – 24 September 2009

Latin American Drug Cartels Penetrate West Africa

By Ryan C. Kossler
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

Colombia – Latin American drug cartels have crossed the Atlantic Ocean seeking to expand their share of the drug market into West Africa.  The Drug Enforcement Agency’s regional director for Europe and Africa said that “the same organizations that we investigate in Central and South America that are involved in drug activity toward the United States are engaged in this trafficking in Western Africa.”  He further said that “there’s not one country that hasn’t been touched to some extent,” by the Latin American drug cartels.

There are several factors that have led the cartels’ to seek West Africa as a viable market source.  West Africa is one of the poorest and least stable regions in the world.  Its Governments are weak and often corrupted and law enforcement in the region is also often riddled with corruption.  Further, due to its large population of desperate indignant inhabitants, it is relatively simple for the cartels to recruit soldiers from the area.  The combination of these factors makes West Africa particularly vulnerable to penetration by the drug cartels.

Geography also plays an important role.  West Africa is close to Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, which are the three Latin American countries that produce most of the world’s cocaine.  Cartels transport the drugs through Venezuela and across the Atlantic Ocean to the West Africa region.  A recent U.N. report said that nearly 1,000 tons of pure cocaine is produced each year.  Of this nearly 1,000 tons, approximately 60 percent evades the detection of law enforcement agencies, making for a wholesale global market value of $70 billion dollars.

Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) has already been identified by the DEA as one of the Latin American groups involved in the drug trafficking in West Africa.  Recently, Colombian and United States officials signed an agreement that would allow the United States access to Colombian military bases.  This agreement is intended to help battle the drug epidemic in the region.  Unfortunately, surrounding nations have condemned the agreement.  Nations such as Venezuela and Ecuador provide refuge to criminal organizations such as Colombia’s FARC and have been vocal in stating that they would not condemn any military activity against these organizations within their borders.

The United States has pressed Latin American countries to meet there counter narcotics obligations.  In a recent annual report, the United States identified Bolivia as the world’s third largest cocaine producer and charged Venezuela as failing to do enough to fight the drug trade.  The United States, however, said that it would continue to provide humanitarian aid to the Latin American countries, even though the aid was intended to be dependent on the countries counter narcotics obligations.

For more information, please see:

CNN – Latin American Drug Cartels Find Home in West Africa – 21 September 2009

The Spectator – South American Spat – 24 September 2009

Reuters – U.S. keeps Venezuela, Bolivia atop narcotics list – 16 September 2009

Former Head of Truth and Reconciliation Commission Threatened in Peru

By Sovereign Hager

Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

LIMA, Peru – Dr. Salomón Lerner Febres, former president of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been the victim of intensified threats and harassment in recent days.  Peru’s National Coordinator for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch are calling on the Peruvian government to investigate the threats and ensure Lerner’s safety.

On September 5, 2009, Lerner reported that his dogs were poisoned and died at his home in Lima.  This week, he received anonymous phone calls at his house and at his office at the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at the Catholic University of Peru.  The caller left a message saying, “What we did to your dogs, we will do to you.”

Peru’s Ombudsman, Beatriz Merino, stated that she is in “complete solidarity” with Lerner.  She said that the threats should be strongly denounced by the state because they demonstrate an intolerance of advocacy for human rights and democracy.

Lerner has been the victim of threats and harassment since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report in 2003. In addition to presiding over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Lerner is the vice president of a high level commission creating a Museum of Memory, which will focus on human rights abuses in Peru.  That commission is headed by renowned writer Mario Vargas Llosa.

Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2001 to investigate massacres, forced disappearances, terrorist attacks, and violence against women committed in the 1980s and 1990s by the Peruvian government and two rebel groups. The commission held meetings, collected testimonies, and did forensic investigations. It also made recommendations for reparations and institutional reforms.  An estimated 69,280 people were killed during that period.  The formal work of the commission ended with the 2003 publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.

The Americas director of Human Rights Watch stated that “this is still a delicate time for human rights defenders in Peru, given the longstanding lack of action to stem abuse.”  He called the conviction of former President Alberto Fujimori a “fragile gain”, saying that “the government needs to show clearly that harassment and threats against human rights defenders are not permissible.”

For more information, please see:

Derechos Humanos Peru – Solidaridad Con Salomon Lerner – 25 September 2009

El Comerio – La Defensoría Exhortó a Interior Dar Protección a Salomón Lerner – 25 September 2009

Human Rights Watch – Peru: Investigate Threats Against Rights Defender – 25 September 2009

Los Andes – Salomón Lerner, Ex Presidente de la CVR Recibe Amenazas– 25 September 2009

UNASUR Fails to Reach Consensus on Arms Deals

By Ryan C. Kossler
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

Quito, Ecuador – South American defense officials were unable to come to an agreement on Tuesday, September 15 when they convened to attempt to defuse regional tension caused by many of the South American countries recent arms deals.  The UNASUR group of nations is seeking transparency in the region’s recent defense deals due to the exacerbation of mistrust amongst the nations.

Colombia’s recent military pact with the United States has caused extreme tension in the region, and was one of the main topics discussed during the UNASUR gathering.  After the meeting, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said “we regret the attitude of Colombia, the intransigence of Colombia, which does not want to make transparent its pact concerning military bases.

Colombian officials say that the military pact with the United States is aimed at combating drug trafficking and that it sought the assistance of the United States because its neighbors are not doing their part to help the country combat the insurgency.  Under the military pact, U.S. forces will have access to up to seven Colombian military bases.

Venezuela’s recent arms deal with Russia was also on the table, however, Venezuela said that it would share information about its weapons deal. Venezuela said that its recent weapons purchases are for defense purposes only, however, have not provided any more information.  Venezuela accused Colombia of shrouding its military pact with the United States in secrecy. Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez said “we have seen neither the bold nor the fine print of the accord and of course this generates worries.”

The secrecy is a cause for worry among other countries in the region as well.  Ecuadorian officials have stated that any cross boarder military attacks on insurgents by Colombia will be met with equal military force.

Along with Colombia’s military pact with the United States, and Venezuela’s weapons deal with Russia, many other countries in the region are increasing their weapons defenses.  Ecuador and Chile recently purchased new equipment in order to strengthen each of their air forces respectively, Chile is planning a weapons deal with Russia, similar to the one that Venezuela recently entered, and Bolivia is planning on purchasing new fighter planes and helicopters from France and Russia.  It appears that if tensions remain unchecked, an arms race may be inevitable, if it has not already begun, and the already troubled region may become even more troubled.

For more information, please see:

The Spectator – South American Spat – 24 September 2009

AP – Brazil’s Lula defends South America arms buildup – 18 September 2009

Reuters – South American Officials Fail to Reach Arms Deal – 15 September 2009

U.N. Denounces Enslavement of Indigenous Guarani

By Sovereign Hager

Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

EL GRAN CHACO, Paraguay and Bolivia – The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issueshas expressed grave concern in two recently released reports over findings of forced labor of indigenous people in the Chaco regions of Paraguay and Bolivia.  The report also cited findings of abuses related to land rights, child labor, freedom of association and discrimination. Permanent Forum Chairperson Victoria Tauli-Corpuz even found that “in some areas, those seeking to defend their rights were the target of systematic violence and threats.”

Three Permanent Forum members were in the investigatory mission along with experts from several UN agencies.  The reports recommend that the governments of Bolivia and Paraguay take steps to address forced labor beyond what is already in place.  This should include increased presence of state institutions in forced labor areas to ensure the enforcement of domestic and international labor law, security and legal services, social services and rural development.

Evo Morales has stated his intent to aid the tens of thousands of ethnic Guarani who live in eastern Bolivia by creating a 390,000-acre reservation. Guarani leaders in Bolivia have expressed optimism about positive progress under Morales’ government. However, land owners in the area have vowed to resist any attempts of land reform.

The Permanent Forum was clear in stating that “all efforts to address the situation of indigenous peoples of the Chaco region must  . . . include restoration of territorial and land rights for indigenous peoples, and the promotion and application of the principle of non-discrimination in all spheres of life of indigenous peoples.”

Reports over the last four decades by researchers and non-governmental organizations have made similar findings regarding the indigenous people of the Chaco region, who live in a state “reminiscent of slavery.” Most land in the Chaco region is owned by non-indigenous people, who government and international observers say force landless indigenous families into labor.  Many people are paid only in food and clothing, or live in debt bondage.

For more information, please see:

Indian Country Today – Permanent Forum Wants Forced Labor Stopped – 17 September 2009

The Scoop – Forced Labour Of Indigenous Peoples in Bolivia – 1 September 2009

The Business Age – Chaco Indigenous People Suffer Forced Labor, Abuse: U.N. – 31 August 2009

United Press International – U.N.: Protect Chaco Indigenous People – 31 August 2009

Venezuelan Weapons Deal Brings Fear of South American Arms Race

By Ryan C. Kossler
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela – Last week Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced that Venezuela had entered into an arms deal with Russia.  The Russian government is purported to have opened a 2.2 billion dollar line of credit for Venezuela to purchase weapons, including, 92 Soviet-era T-72 battle tanks, 300-millimeter Smerch multiple launch rocket systems, and surface to air missiles with a range of up to 186 miles.  The Russian government has said that it is willing to sell Venezuela whatever weapons it is willing to buy.

President Chavez said that the weapons were needed for defense purposes because his government feels threatened by Colombia’s recent agreement with the United States to give U.S. forces increased access to Colombian military bases.  The agreement between the U.S. and Colombia occurred last month and was for the purpose of combating regional drug trafficking and terrorism.

U.S. officials say that they fear Venezuela’s new arms acquisitions could lead to an arms race in the region, in turn, leading to regional instability.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said U.S. officials think Venezuela’s arms buildup “poses a serious challenge to stability in the western hemisphere.”

Kelly also said that the U.S. urges Venezuela “to be transparent in its purchases, and very clear about the purposes of these purchases” and that the U.S. is concerned that the Venezuelan government “put[s] in place very clear procedures and safeguards that these arms are not diverted to any irregular organizations,” referring to the fact that in the past, the Venezuelan government has been accused of providing arms to FARC guerillas in Colombia, who are considered a terrorist group by the Colombian government.

President Chavez said that his country had the “right to take the minimum necessary steps” to protect its national security and natural resources.  He accused the United States of encroaching on the country’s oil and gas reserves by saying “the empire has set its sights on them.”  President Chavez seemed to be implying that the U.S.-Colombian agreement may have ulterior motives.

Russia has already sold Venezuela military equipment amounting to the cost of 4 billion dollars since the United States barred the country from buying U.S. equipment and this latest purchase further outpaces those of any other South American country.

For more information, please see:

Google News – US Fears Latin American Arms Race – 14 September 2009

Miami Herald – US Worries About Venezuelan Arms Buildup- 14 September 2009

Miami Herald – Venezuela Gets $2.2B in Credit for Russian Arms- 13 September 2009

VOA News – US Says Venezuelan Arms Buildup Threatens Regional Stability – 14 September 2009

VOA News – Venezuela Buys Rockets from Russia – 12 September 2009

Indigenous Mapuche Show Dissent in Absence from Chilean Independence Celebration

By Sovereign Hager

Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

ARAUCANÍA, Chile – The indigenous Mapuche Nation will not participate in the upcoming annual Chilean independence celebrations because they perceive Chile to be an oppressive state. The Mapuche have been actively seeking land reform and regional autonomy for the last several years, often leading to violent confrontations with the Chilean government in the state of Araucanía. Last month the military police shot Mendoza Collío, a Mapuche activist, to death in an effort to remove activists from a piece of land they had symbolically seized.

Land reform is a part of Prime Minister Bachelet’s indigenous policy, however the pace of reform is slow. This has led to the use of civil disobedience to encourage the government to move more quickly.  The use of land invasions began after the Mapuche were not granted an audience with President Bachelet or with the Governor of the state of Araucanía.

The international community has criticized the the Chilean government’s reaction to the land seizures. The executive director of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, called the August killing of Mendoza Collío an “unjustified homicide”.  The Chilean government is currently using an anti-terrorism statute from the Pinochet era to punish Mapuche protesters who seize and destroy property.  Prosecutors may call unidentified witnesses, withhold evidence for long periods, deny bail, and double the length of sentences under this statute.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared the anti-terrorism law to be a violation of international law.  Similarly, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racism has criticized the law because it is applied “principally to members of the Mapuche community, for acts committed in the context of social demands and related to the vindication of their ancestral land rights.”

Regional autonomy is a goal of numerous Mapuche groups who use both protest and the political process to further their goals. Groups call for a reconstituted, decentralized local government and a new constitution that would recognize Chile as a plurinational state and raise Mapudungun to the status of an official language.  The national legislature is asked to reserve seats for Mapuche representatives.

While Mapuche leaders have pledged to continue their struggle, the independence celebration will go on, with special requirements that all Chilean children participate in military processions. A Mapuche man remarked, “It pains many of us to see our sons and brothers participating in military parades because this is the same organization that has been raping and killing our families over the centuries.”

For more information, please see:

The Santiago Times – Fiestas Patrias – Whose Party is It? – 16 September 2009

Upside Down World – The Mapuche Nation Ups the Ante – 16 September 2009

World Press Review – Chile’s Mapuches Call for Regional Autonomy – 15 September 2009

Silencing the Voice of Private Media

By Ryan C Kossler
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela – The fate of Globovision, the last major channel in Venezuela that is critical of President Hugo Chavez, is unknown.

On September 7, Minister of Public Works and Housing Diosdado Cabello announced that an investigation would be initiated into Globovision’s recent alleged unlawful broadcast of a viewer’s text. The message called for a coup and the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  “If you call for a coup, if you call for assassination, assume your responsibility,” Cabello said.

Earlier in the day, Venezuela’s telecommunications commission issued a statement accusing Globovision of airing messages having the implication of calling for violent acts.  The commission also stated that Globovision’s airing of anti government messages sought to “promote public protests, which could generate a climate of tension and nervousness in the population.”

Globovision’s legal advisor Ana Cristina Nunez responded by saying that “We are very careful in attempting to stop people from using Globovision’s screen to make illegal petitions,” and that the channel “would never intentionally broadcast unlawful text messages.”

Opponents to President Chavez see the potential closure of Globovision as another instance of President Chavez trying to silence the media.  “There is a clear strategy to control the flow of information and restrict criticism,” said Carlos Lauria of the New York Committee to Protect Journalists.

President Chavez has denied any accusations that his government is attempting to control the private media for political reasons and has said that Globovision is being investigated only for violations of unlawful broadcasting regulations.

The latest accusations regarding Globovsion’s alleged actions come in the wake of the recent closure of 32 private media outlets and the announcement by Cabello that “there are 29 [radio stations] that will be off the air shortly.”

This is not the first instance that Globovision has clashed with the government and is one example among many in the growing tension between the government and Venezuela’s private media.  On July 17, 2009, Cabello announced that if Globovision did not comply with the laws, its license would be revoked.  This announcement was made shortly after regulators opened five investigations into Globovision’s activities.

For more information, please see:

CNN – Venezuelan Minister: More radio closures coming – 6 September 2009

Miami Herald – Anti-Chavez TV station faces possible shutdown – 7 September 2009

Miami Herald – Venezuela steps up threats against anti-Chavez TV – 17 July 2009

U.S. Upgrades Colombia’s Human Rights Assessment Despite Concerns

By Mario A. Flores
Special Features Editor, Impunity Watch Journal

BOGOTA, Colombia — The United States has quietly made the legal certification this week that Colombia’s human rights record has improved in spite of reports alleging that serious abuses and impunity for illegal activity in the Latin American nation persist.

This certification will allow Colombia to access $32 million that Washington has withheld as part of a $545 million package that the U.S. government is to provide Colombia this fiscal year under the State Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. The funds are meant to fight gangs and drug smugglers.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Colombia has “made significant efforts to increase the security of its people and to promote respect for human rights by its Armed Forces,” which justify the determination that the nation meets the legal certification criteria on human rights and paramilitary groups.

According to Kelly, factors that led to the upgraded finding are reforms and training that have resulted in respect for human rights by most of the Armed Forces coupled with significant advances in investigating and prosecuting human rights cases over the past few years.

Kelly described “several disquieting challenges” where Colombia must still make progress, including allegations of soldiers involved in extrajudicial killings — which the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions described as “systematic”–, illegal surveillance by the government’s security agency, and the ability of the Prosecutor General’s Office to conduct thorough and independent investigations that result in accountability.

The Attorney General’s Office is said to be investigating cases involving more than 1,700 alleged victims in recent years.

Colombian officials insist they are trying to stamp out human rights abuses, but critics say abuses remain widespread in the country, where the government has been battling the left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for years.

Ongoing anti-union violence, with the offenders rarely brought to justice, led the International Trade Union Confederation to say that Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for labor rights activists.

According to Human Rights Watch, there has also been an increased activity of new armed groups linked to paramilitaries. These groups engage in threats, targeted killings, and forced displacement of civilians, very much like the paramilitary groups of old that are supposedly demobilized.

The media and civil society have reported that there has been a recent rise in forced displacement partly as a result of the activities of these new paramilitary groups. Last year, more than 380,000 persons were internally displaced, according to Human Rights Watch.

Maria McFarland, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that the U.S. decision was disappointing and that Colombia’s government had responded to abuse allegations only after intense pressure.

For more information, please see:

The New York Times – U.S. Upgrades Colombia’s Human Rights Score – 11 September 2009

The Washington Post – US certifies Colombia’s rights record – 11 September 2009

Department of State – Determination and Certification of Colombian Government and Armed Forces with Respect to Human Rights Related Conditions

Human Rights Watch – Colombia: Obama Should Press Uribe on Rights – 26 June 2009

Scandal over Alleged Bribe Scheme that may Involve Presidency in Ecuador Lawsuit

By Mario A. Flores
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

QUITO, Ecuador — Chevron announced that it obtained recordings of meetings in Ecuador this year that appear to reveal a bribery scheme connected to a $27 billion 16-year-old lawsuit the company has been battling over environmental damage at oil fields it operated in the Amazon forest in Ecuador.

The audio and video recordings reveal a $3 million bribe scheme implicating the judge presiding over the environmental lawsuit currently pending against Chevron, Juan Núñez, and individuals who identify themselves as representatives of the Ecuadorean government and its ruling party, including possibly Pierina Correa, the sister of Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa.

Judge Núñez appears in the video released by Chevron explaining that he plans to rule against the oil giant later in the year or in January at the latest for an award of $27 billion, “more or less.” In that part of the video, the Judge says he will only discuss the verdict, not “the other stuff,” which Chevron contends is a $3 million payoff request. The video later implies that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa will benefit from the bribe amount.

Correa, a left-wing economist who rose from obscurity to become Ecuador’s strongest president in recent years, has sided with the plaintiffs in the case, prompting Chevron to lobby Washington to strip Ecuador of American trade preferences. But the Obama administration allowed the preferences to continue as a chance to improve ties with Correa.

The release of the recordings is sure to focus more scrutiny on Correa, who has come under pressure over his clashes with the media and accusations of corruption involving another family member, his brother Fabricio Correa, a prominent businessman.

In one of the recordings made in June, the political operative negotiating the bribe identifies himself as an official in Correa’s political party, and refers to $3 million in bribes to be split equally among the judge, the presidency and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In the same meeting, the operative explains how to approach the president’s sister about the bribe. “Tell Pierina clearly, ‘Madam Pierina, what we came to do beyond anything else is to participate, participate in the remediation. That’s why I want to make you part of this,’” he said.

The recordings, obtained by businessmen using spy watches and pens implanted with bugging devices, are not clear on whether any bribes discussed were actually paid or whether Judge Núñez was even aware of plans to try to bribe him. The tapes are also unclear as to whether the president’s sister was aware of the scheme or had participated in it. Nor is there confirmation that the political operative was in fact in contact with her.

Alexis Mera, a legal adviser to the president, dismissed the recordings as “approaching the level of defamatory libel,” and said Chevron’s was a “terrible legal strategy.”

This is not the first time Correa is plagued by accusations of alleged bribes. Earlier this year, the Colombian military seized a set of three laptops from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which were alleged to contain at least one video with evidence that the guerrilla group may have contributed money to Correa’s first election campaign in 2006.

President Correa has vehemently denied allegations that he received election funds from the Marxist FARC rebels. He has said evidence had been fabricated to destabilize his left-wing government.

For more information, please see:

San Francisco Chronicle – Chevron Ecuador Judge Nunez bribery scandal – implications – 31 August 2009

The New York Times – Chevron Offers Evidence of Bribery Scheme in Ecuador Lawsuit – 31 August 2009

Los Angeles Times – Chevron, Ecuador and a clash of cultures – 29 August 2009

The Wall Street Journal – Report: Chevron seeking probe of judge in Ecuador suit – 1 September 2009

U.S.-Colombia Base Deal Continues to Threaten Peace in Latin America

By Mario A. Flores
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BARILOCHE, Argentina — A special televised presidential summit of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) held in Bariloche on Friday to discuss the use of Colombian military bases by the United States ended in tension and acrimony between leaders and resulted in a vague resolution.

Leaders from the left-leaning countries of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia made clear their intense opposition in heated speeches to Colombia’s decision of allowing the United States to use up to seven Colombian bases to counteract drug trafficking and violence by insurgents.

US Bases in Colombia

Two of the most vocal leaders, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, demanded that Colombia give the group copies of the agreement with the United States.

Correa argued that the accord is a risk to the region’s stability. “You are not going to be able to control the Americans,” said Correa, staring down at Uribe. “This constitutes a grave danger for peace in Latin America.”

Apparently bowing to requests from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who leads the region’s rising economic and political power, Chávez refrained from his characteristic personal attacks and instead spoke of his deep mistrust of the President of Colombia and read a long document that he said demonstrated the United States is planning a war on South America.

Uribe insisted at the meeting that Colombia would not cede its sovereignty or even a “millimeter” of its territory to the United States. He said that the military bases would be under Colombian control and that the American soldiers will only combat the narcotics trade and domestic terrorism. He told the leaders that a copy of the 20-point accord with the United States was available on the Internet.

Uribe also went on to accuse Venezuela of giving refuge to top guerrilla commanders, and said that arms “from other countries” have been supplied to Marxist rebels in Colombia.

Although Chávez and his allies have been the most vocal opponents to the base access plan, less polarizing countries like Brazil and Chile are also opposed to the presence of foreign soldiers on the continent. But they also said Colombia’s neighbors should respect its sovereignty.

In a sign of the animosity that pervaded the discussions, Uribe had to be physically led by the country host’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to participate in the traditional end-of-summit photograph with his peers.

The United States was not present at the meeting. Although not a member of the regional organization, it elected not to send an observer. “We and the Colombians have been clear about the nature of the bilateral agreement,” Charles Luoma-Overstreet, a State Department spokesman, said in an e-mail message. “We will continue to reach out to our hemispheric neighbors to explain the agreement.”

The tensions during the seven-hour long meeting eased after the leaders unanimously agreed to a vague resolution that says no foreign military force should be allowed to threaten the sovereignty of a South American nation. The statement does not mention either Colombia or the United States, a result the Colombian press hails as a success.

“The resolution does not name Colombia or the United States but applies to all Unasur countries,” said Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina.

Partly in reaction to the U.S.-Colombia agreement, Venezuela has recently announced a series of military equipment purchases from Russia. And The New York Times reported just over a week ago that Russia will also help Ecuador develop a nuclear energy program for peaceful purposes.

Ecuador’s government said the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, or Rosatom, would provide “support and assistance” to Ecuador. Russia wants to increase ties with leftist governments in Latin America, a move that has renewed some cold-war-era antagonism with the United States.

For more information, please see:

The Washington Post – South American Leaders Assail U.S. Access to Colombian Military Bases – 29 August 2009

The New York Times – Leaders Criticize Colombia Over U.S. Military Pact – 28 August 2009

The Washington Post – U.S.-Colombia Deal Prompts Questions – 27 April 2009

The New York Times – Ecuador: Russian Nuclear Energy Aid – 21 August 2009

Argentina Joins Growing Number of Latin American Nations to Decriminalize Small-Scale Drug Use

By Mario A. Flores
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In what is the latest blow to America’s “War on Drugs,” the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that possession of small amounts of marihuana, meant for personal use and that do not represent a threat to someone else, is no longer a crime, making this nation the latest Latin American country to reject punitive policies toward drug use.

The Argentine Court’s unanimous decision, which found unconstitutional the arrest of five youths for possession of three marijuana cigarettes, came only days after Mexico’s Congress voted to end the practice of prosecuting people found to be carrying small amounts of illicit drugs, including marijuana.

Mexico now has one of the world’s most liberal laws for drug users after eliminating jail time for small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and amphetamine. The decision has resulted in some friction between Mexico and the United States, considering that Mexico’s northern neighbor contributes millions for the purchase of equipment destined to the fight against the drug cartels.

Argentine legislators vowed to start working immediately on a bill that would modify current drug laws to reflect this week’s Supreme Court decision and expect to submit it to Congressional vote by the end of this year.

If passed, the Argentine law would be part of a growing trend across Latin America to treat drug use as a public health problem and make room in overcrowded prisons for violent traffickers rather than small-time users.

The decriminalization of drug usage in Mexico and Argentina comes at a time when a respected group of former Latin American presidents have been calling for the legalization of marihuana.

Former presidents Fernando Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia led a 17-member group of journalists, academics and others to form the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which concluded earlier this year that the “war on drugs” strategy pursued in the region over the past three decades had been “a failed war, negative and ineffective.”

The study called for an urgent “in-depth revision of current drug policies” in Latin America, including decriminalizing possession of marihuana.

Brazil basically decriminalized drug consumption in 2006 when it eliminated prison sentences for users in favor of treatment and community service but imposes some of the stiffest sentences in the region to drug traffickers.

Peru, the world’s second largest producer of coca leaves and cocaine, allows small-scale possession for individual use. Venezuela is more restrictive albeit small amounts of cocaine and marihuana possession are not a crime but administrative penalties can be imposed. Uruguay is holding presidential elections in October and the legalization of marihuana is expected to be a campaign issue.

However, a large group of nations (Paraguay, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Chile) remains to decide whether to lift penalties in cases of possession of drugs for personal use.

Countries in the region hope that new laws help counteract prison overcrowding, a rise in organized crime and rampant drug violence affecting all levels of society, but in particular the poor and the young.

Argentina has one of the highest per-capita rates of cocaine use in the world and a growing problem with synthetic drugs like Ecstasy. But the use of marijuana is not an especially serious problem in the country.

For more information, please see:

The New York Times – Latin America Weighs Less Punitive Path to Curb Drug Use – 26 August 2009

The Washington Post – Mexico’s new drug use law worries US police – 26 August 2009

The Washington Post – Argentina decriminalizes small-scale marijuana use – 25 April 2009

La Nacion – América latina, más permisiva con los ´porros´ – 27 April 2009

Venezuelans March against Cuban Indoctrination in Schools Ends with Tear Gas

By Mario A. Flores
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela — Thousands of Venezuelans marched in Caracas this weekend over a controversial new education law passed last week that critics say it not only strengthens Chavez’s grip over schools and universities but also aims to instill his authoritarian nationalist ideology into the schooling system.

Police forcibly dispersed opponents of President Hugo Chavez’s government as thousands demonstrated both for and against an education law that critics fear will lead to Cuban-style political indoctrination in schools. Some opposition marchers carried placards that read: “I can’t stand your Cuban law.”

The police forces, in full riot gear and backed up by the National Guard, launched several attacks against the protesters. Helicopters hovered overhead as a water cannon drenched protesters and there were unconfirmed reports that dozens of people had been hurt.

The government claims the police used the water cannon and fired tear gas and rubber bullets only when government opponents knocked over a fence marking the end of the authorized route.

Teargasattack

The organizers of the march charge that the police started attacking well before the protesters approached the headquarters of the Chavez-nationalized telecommunications company, CANTV, which the government had set as the end site for the march.

The Minister of Interior and Justice, Tareck El Assaimi, had banned protesters from going on to the National Assembly, as the opposition originally wanted.

Oscar Perez, from the opposition party Alianza Bravo Pueblo claimed El Assaimi was responsible for “violations of human rights.” And National Assembly Deputy Juan Molina, from Podemos, the social democratic party which once backed Chavez but is now against him, denied that protesters had tried to get past the barricades at the final destination point, as the police claimed.

The new education law allows community councils, which are often pro-Chavez, to play a larger role in the operations of schools and universities. It also calls for the education system to be guided by the “Bolivarian doctrine,” a term Chavez uses to describe his socialist government.

Chavez’s previous attempt to reform education in 2002 led to mass protests at that time, eventually culminating in a failed coup attempt against him.

Church and university authorities oppose the new law. The church says it will hinder religious teaching and free the state from its obligation to subsidize private, church-run schools in poor neighborhoods.

“We have to fight for this country and for our children,” said one middle-aged woman shrouded in tear gas at the protest who was interviewed on the independent Globovision television station.

For more information, please see:

The Latin American Herald Tribune – Chávez Government Cracks Down on Venezuela Opposition March – 24 August 2009

Globovision – Dirigentes políticos denunciaron ante el MP la actuación de los cuerpos de seguridad en marcha contra la LOE – 23 August 2009

The Washington Post – Venezuelans march over schools law, police use gas – 22 April 2009