Former Brazilian leader in police custody

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CURITIBA, Brazil – Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva surrendered himself to police after a day-long standoff. The politician has begun his twelve-year prison term for money laundering and corruption.

Demonstrators protest outside of the Federal Police Department in Curitiba, Brazil. Image Courtesy of Denis Ferreira.

Lula was taken into custody on Saturday in Sao Paulo and was flown to the southern city of Curitiba. Just hours earlier, he told thousands of supporters that he would surrender to police while still maintaining his innocence. Lula argues that his corruption conviction is just a way to keep him from running for re-election in October.

Judge Sergio Moro ordered the arrest warrant for Lula, giving him until 5 p.m. Friday to present himself to police. Instead, Lula chose to hunker down in the metal workers union headquarters where his rise to power began. The once very popular leader still has a large support base who gathered at the headquarters to keep him from going to jail.

When he first tried to leave, dozens of people blocked the gate where his car was trying to exit. His supporters had a few minutes of tense words with the guards until Lula got out of the car and went back into the building. He emerged a second time later that night surrounded by bodyguards who kept supporters away. He reported to police and was transported by helicopter to his cell in Curitiba.

Currently, Lula is appealing his conviction for corruption. The Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country’s top court, decided in a six to five vote that Lula could not remain free while appealing his conviction. However, it would only take one justice to change his mind for Lula to be released while pursuing his appeals. These could take months if not years. Additionally, Lula is facing six separate pending trials for corruption.

Polls conducted before he was jailed report that Lula was the frontrunner for the October presidential election. He claims that he is a political prisoner of the opposition party. Lula said, “The police and ‘Car Wash’ investigators lied. The prosecution lied, and I don’t forgive them for giving society the idea that I am a thief.”

Supporters have staged a “Free Lula” camp outside of the federal building where he is being held. They say they will not budge until he is released. Police estimated about 700 people camping around the building with more expected to arrive. The leader of the Workers’ Party, Gleisi Hoffmann, said Lula is a political prisoner and the party will not give up the fight to have him released.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Brazil ex-leader Lula’s supporters camp outside jail – 9 April 2018

Irish Times – Former Brazilian president Lula hands himself over to police – 8 April 2018

Washington Post – Still popular, Brazil’s Lula starts serving jail sentence – 8 April 2018

Chicago Tribune – Once wildly popular, Brazil’s da Silva is jailed to start 12-year sentence for graft – 7 April 2018

Times Union – Former leader of Brazil in police custody – 7 April 2018

Brazilian state seeks to close border with Venezuela

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

RORAIMA, Brazil – The governor of Brazil’ northern state of Roraima asked the Supreme Court for permission to temporarily close the only land border crossing with neighboring Venezuela. This move would halt the massive influx of Venezuelan migrants.

Venezuelan families sleeping in Simon Bolivar public square in Boa Vista’s city center. Image Courtesy of Reynesson Damasceno.

Roraima Governor Suely Campos petitioned the high court to order the federal government to increase assistance in her state to deal with the humanitarian crisis. She also requested that the border be closed until the government implements orderly immigration procedures. Campos explained that she had to go to the top court because the federal government had not responded to her state’s requests.

Campos justifies her request by pointing out that the Venezuelan economic crisis causes more than 500 immigrants to cross the open border every day. She says the process is disorderly and most are allowed to enter with no visa, just by showing a Venezuelan document. This has overloaded health, housing, and education services. It is bringing threat of disease and social disorder. Many of these immigrants walked hundreds of kilometers to reach the state capital, Boa Vista, and end up sleeping in the streets.

Campos says, “we have to require more documents, vaccination cards, criminal background checks, the inspection of cars. There has to be a way to contain this influx.” She later told Brazilian media that Brazil’s President Michel Temer has been ineffective in helping her state contain the crisis.

President Temer, attending the Summit of the Americas in Lima, stated that closing the border was “unthinkable.” He said his government was delivering assistance requested by Roraima, and he hoped the Supreme Court would deny the governor’s request to shut the border. The president remarked, “I have just read the petition and I noticed that many of the measures requested are already being taken, such as the shipment of resources and personnel who are going there to provide social assistance and medical care.”

In February, the federal government declared an emergency to boost funding for Roraima and doubled the number of troops at the border. The government also started using Air Force planes to move refugees to larger Brazilian cities. Additionally, closing the border would violate international treaties. President Temer said, “closing borders is not a habit of Brazil. Brazil would not close borders, and I hope that is the understanding of the Supreme Court.”

Since last year, more than 50,000 Venezuelan refugees have fled Venezuela and crossed into Roraima. This influx was approximately equal to ten percent of the state’s population of 520,000 people.

For more information, please see:

Xinhua Net – Brazilian president says closing border with Venezuela “unthinkable” – 14 April 2018

The Santiago Times – Brazilian state asks Supreme Tribunal to temporarily close Venezuela border – 14 April 2018

Business Insider – Brazil state seeks to shut Venezuelan border to stop refugee flow – 13 April 2018

National Post – Brazilian governor wants to close border with Venezuela – 13 April 2018

Measles outbreak in Venezuela’s indigenous community

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela – An outbreak of measles struck an indigenous tribe in a remote jungle region of eastern Venezuela. Sources report that somewhere between 50 and 70 children have died as a result.

A Warao boy from Venezuela at a shelter in Pacaraima. Image Courtesy of Eraldo Peres.

Armand Obdola, head of the Kape Kape NGO, has been recording the deaths of the Warao indigenous community in the state of Delta Amacuro. He says children of this community have been dying since the beginning of the year. He reports, “the propagation started in early January and we are calling for a health alert. The most recent deaths were of six children, but since January the toll is 54.”

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that usually affects children and is preventable with vaccination. Latin America was declared free of measles in 2016 after a massive, decades-long campaign. However, it has come back with a vengeance. Venezuela has the highest number of confirmed cases among the nine Latin American countries. The country reported 159 deaths in the first three months of 2018. Also, the Pan American Health Organization reports that Venezuela has seen 886 cases of measles since June.

Venezuela’s economic crisis has been a source of blame for this outbreak. A critical shortage of medicine leaves doctors and nurses unprepared to fight the illness. Jose Felix Oletta, who used to be minster of health and runs a nonprofit, said the country is incapable of providing even basic medical attention. He calls the outbreaks “clear examples” of how basic health programs have broken down. Correspondingly, the National Survey of Hospitals found that 88% of the 134 medical centers in Venezuela were missing basic medicines, while 100% of centers said their pathology labs were inoperative.

Also, it is becoming increasingly difficult to access the affected areas. The Warao settlements are located on the Orinoco River which is an eight-hour trip from the regional capital Tucupita. Obdola explained that it is often impossible to reach a sick person because the boats do not have fuel. His colleague at the NGO, Naveda, says “the indigenous people are populations that are adrift. They are almost waiting for death.”

Obdola says that authorities have done nothing in response despite the seriousness of the situation. However, Venezuela’s Health Minister Luis Loez said that Maduro’s government is fine-tuning details for the launch of a national vaccination plan for diphtheria, measles and yellow fever.

The second biggest outbreak is in Brazil with 14 confirmed cases, all of them imported from Venezuela. The Pan American Health Organization reported that “all confirmed cases were reported in unvaccinated Venezuelan citizens between the ages of nine months and 18 years.” Colombia has also attributed its three cases of measles to Venezuelan refugees.

For more information, please see:

The Economic Times – At least 54 children dead in Venezuela measles outbreak: NGO – 6 April 2018

News24 – At least 70 children dead in Venezuela measles outbreak – 6 April 2018

The Times – Return of measles is blamed on Venezuela – 29 March 2018

Washington Post – Brazil struggles to care for Venezuela’s indigenous Warao – 27 March 2018

Miami Herald – A measles outbreak in ailing Venezuela is threatening Colombia  and Brazil – 26 March 201

Three Ecuadorian journalists kidnapped near Colombia border

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

QUITO, Ecuador – Two Ecuadorean newspaper journalists and their driver were kidnapped near the border with Colombia on Monday. Since then, their families and colleagues have gathered to demand their safe return.

Galo Ortega holds up picture of his son, one of the kidnapped journalists, at a demonstration in Quito. Image Courtesy of Cristina Vega.

At the time of the kidnapping, Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas, and Efrain Segarra were reporting for the El Comercio newspaper. They were covering the living conditions of inhabitants affect by recent bombings near the Ecuador-Colombia border. Their story highlighted increasing insecurity and a rise of violence in the region.

These attacks are the latest in a growing wave of violence in the border region. The three journalists were seized in Esmeraldas province where dissident members of Colombia’s FARC rebel group remain active. Since the guerrilla group agreed to peace talks with the Colombian government in 2016, hundreds of former rebels have broken away. Many have become involved in drug trafficking gangs in the border area.

One professor of political and constitutional studies, Napoleon Saltos, explained the source of the issues in the border region. He said, “it was a border that didn’t have presence of the state. It was the FARC that territoriality controlled and administered it. The moment that the FARC left to negotiate [the peace deal], it was like a state that stopped acting.”

Colleagues and friends of the journalists gather to protest outside of the presidential palace in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. They shout, “we’re missing three! We want them back alive!” Relatives of the kidnapped men decided to release their names in hopes that their captors will show compassion and release them. The families said in a press statement, “we considered it sensible to finish with this silence and give a name and a face to our beloved ones.” They say they will not rest until the victims are home.

The Ecuadoran province of Esmeraldas has seen more than its fair share of violence from Colombia. The situation has only gotten worse since January when a bomb exploded at police headquarters in San Lorenzo and injured two officers. Since then, there have been five other attacks in the province that mainly targeted police and military. Authorities blame these kidnappings and  violent attacks on FARC dissident groups led by a former guerrilla known as “El Gaucho.”

However, FARC dissidents are not the only violent actors in the area. Local media reports up to twelve armed groups in Columbia’s southern state that borders Esmeraldas. This includes violent paramilitary groups and Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. Due to its direct access to the Pacific Ocean and light government presence, Esmeraldas has been used as a trafficking hub for drugs, gold, weapons, and even people. With the highest unemployment rates in the country, traffickers have found the area ripe for recruits.

The government is taking steps to address the violence and increase border security. As one of Ecuador’s poorest regions, the government aims to provide Esmeralda with more infrastructure and basic services to local communities.

For more information, please see:

Washington Post – Three journalists are kidnapped in Ecuador, signaling the violence spilling over from Colombia – 2 April 2018

Global Voices – Kidnapping of Ecuadorian Journalists Shows Colombia’s Peace Process is Far from Over – 2 April 2018

Ecuador: Identities of Kidnapped Journalists Revealed, Families Call for Their Release – 1 April 2018

BBC Latin America – Ecuador searches for reporters kidnapped in border area – 28 March 2018

Bogota Post – Colombian insurgents said to be behind kidnapping of Ecuadorian journalists – 28 March 2018

Families demand answers after fire in Venezuelan jail

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s head prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, reports that 68 people were killed in a jail fire on Wednesday morning. Devastated families gathered outside the jail to demand answers from lawmakers.

Relatives of inmates waiting outside of police station after the fire. Image Courtesy of Juan Barreto.

The fire started in the detention center of a police headquarters in Valencia, 100 miles west of Caracas. It quickly ripped through the building and engulfed the jail. At the time, relatives were lined up outside waiting to enter so frantic visitors witnessed the blaze. Saab announced that all of the fatalities were inmates except for two women. He promised an investigation and appointed four prosecutors to give more detail on the tragic event.

Local opposition lawmaker, Juan Miguel Matheus, said that the events were compounded by the delay of information. After the fire had been extinguished, no one was allowed to see the bodies. He explained, “part of the drama is that there was no list of dead because many of the bodies were incinerated and it was impossible to recognize them.” He believes the fatalities actually reached 78.

One mother of an inmate, Carmen Caldera, said the authorities were withholding information from them. She said, “I don’t have any information on him, I don’t know anything. We want information about our family members. We need information. Look at how desperate we are.” Jesus Santander, secretary-general of the Carabobo state government, responded that family members will be informed of the total number of victims at an “opportune moment.”

Once journalists and photographers started arriving, family members began pushing the police to enter. They clashed with police and threw rocks at them. The officers resorted to tear gas to drive the families back.

This fire struck during the country’s historic economic and political crisis. The shortage of basic goods and significant social unrest has had adverse effects on an already overcrowded prison system. Inmates lacked food, water, and medical care, even though guns and drugs were plentiful. The lawmaker, Matheus, reported that at least 180 inmates were crammed into the detention center which was supposed to house 60. Recently, there have been inmate strikes all over Venezuela to protest situations like these.

One nonprofit prison watchdog group, A Window to Freedom, said the blaze began after inmates set fire to their mattresses in an attempt to escape. The source reports that the fire caused so much smoke that people started to die in the enclosed space. All of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation and the two female fatalities came from conjugal visits.

The UN human rights body released a statement from Geneva calling for an investigation to establish the causes of the deaths, identify those responsible, and pay reparations to families. Additionally, Governor Rafael Lacava has promised to form a group that will work to “decongest police detention centers and create new spaces for prisoners.”

For more information, please see:

NY Times – Venezuela, Accustomed to Tragedy, Is Shaken Again by Horrific Jail Fire – 29 March 2018

BBC News – Venezuela fire: Relatives want answers after 68 die – 29 March 2018

Washington Post – Families demand answers after blaze kills at least 68 in overcrowded Venezuelan jail – 29 March 2918

CNN – Families demand answers after deadly Venezuela jail fire – 29 March 2018

Reuters – Outrage, criticism of government follow deadly Venezuelan jail fire – 29 March 2018

Teenage rape victim dies during childbirth in Paraguay

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

ASUNCION, Paraguay – A 14-year old rape victim died during childbirth in Paraguay last week. She died while doctors tried to perform an emergency cesarean section. The baby survived.

Woman holds a sign that says “stop now” at protest against child sexual abuse in Asuncion. Image Courtesy of Cesar Olmedo.

In Paraguay, abortion is illegal for pregnancies that result from rape or incest. It is also illegal where the pregnancy poses a serious, but not life-threatening, health risk to a woman. It is illegal even where there is no hope that the fetus will survive outside the womb. Therefore, abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances except where a pregnancy has life-threatening complications.

The name of this 14-year-old girl has not been released, but she is known as J.S.P. She was raped by a 37-year-old man which caused her pregnancy. Local media reports that the man was arrested for rape this week.

J.S.P. spent 22 days in the hospital with pregnancy complications and a urinary tract infection before going into labor. Doctors at the National Hospital of Itaugua tried desperately to save her life during the operation, but she suffered three cardiac arrests and died. The doctor and director of the hospital said, ‘it was so sudden, in minutes the cardiac arrest happened. Her body was not ready for a pregnancy.” Fortunately, the doctors managed to save the baby.

As it is a deeply personal issue, there is no report of whether or not this teenager wanted an abortion. Even if she had, Paraguay’s strict abortion laws took the choice away from her. She did not have the option of a legal abortion. This means she did not have the opportunity to discuss the situation with her doctor or evaluate the risks of carrying the child to term.

International experts have said that blocking a rape survivor’s access to abortion can amount to torture. The Committee against Torture commented on Paraguay’s situation saying, “the abortion ban means survivors are constantly reminded of the violation committed against them, which causes serious traumatic stress and carries a risk of long-lasting psychological problems.”

The Ministry of health reports that four girls suffer sexual violence every day in Paraguay. Also, two girls under the age of 15 give birth every day. Many of these pregnancies are the result of sexual abuse by relatives and stepfathers. Correspondingly, a United Nations study found that pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for teenage girls in the area. The World Health Organization points out that globally, the risk of maternal death is four times higher among teenagers less than 16-years-old than among women in their twenties.

Amnesty International reiterated its call for Paraguay to ease abortion laws and improve protection of girls from sexual violence. The Americas director at Amnesty International, Erika Guevara-Rosas, stated, ‘it’s not just the access to abortion rights, it has to be about comprehensive health care, it has to be about sex education, it has to be about prevention of violence, sexual violence in particular.”

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch – 14, Pregnant from Rape, Dead in Childbirth – 26 March 2018

The Guardian – Abortion laws are not ‘pro life’ when they ignore women – 25 March 2018

Gympie Times – 14-year-old girl dies in childbirth after being raped – 24 March 2018

Metro – Rape victim, 14, died in childbirth because her young body wasn’t ready for pregnancy – 24 March 2018

Reuters – Death of Paraguay Teen rape victim in childbirth fuels abortion debate – 23 March 2018

Argentine human rights lawyer escapes political prison in Venezuela

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela – The Argentine-Venezuelan human rights lawyer and activist Marcelo Crovato has escaped political prison under Nicolas Maduro’s regime. He made his way into Colombia over the weekend and flew to Argentina with his family on Monday.

Political prisoner who escaped from Venezuela. Image Courtesy of Enrique Garcia Medina.

Crovato was arrested during an anti-government protest in 2014 while working for a rights group that defended young protestors. He offered legal assistance to those who were arrested during the protest. At the time, there had been a wave of demonstrations against Maduro’s socialist government. The unrest left forty-three dead and thousands injured. Crovato was arrested while trying to offer legal aid to people whose homes were being raided. One Argentine newspaper lists his crimes as “public incitement, obstruction of the public highway, instigation to the disobedience of the laws, and association to commit a crime.”

As a result, Cravato spent ten months in jail.  During his time at the prison where he had once served as director, Cravato attempted to commit suicide twice. He also suffered from “a carcinoma in the skin” and “chikungunya.” Because of his frail health, he was granted house arrest in February 2015. The entire three years of imprisonment were suffered without trial, sentence, or any preliminary hearings. Many of his rights were violated and he was given no due process.

Now, Crovato has escaped. He remarks, “I am so happy to be free, but so sad for what’s left behind.” He declined to give full details of his escape for fear of retaliation against friends or relatives by Venezuelan intelligence agents. However, he reveals that he thought of a silent plan to cross into Colombia and only his wife and some relatives were aware. He left without saying good bye to his parents because he didn’t want to compromise the plan. As difficult as this was, he was afraid of dying in prison and felt that the country was dominated by Maduro. He said, “fear never disappears when you are under a police state where there is no rule.”

Crovato declines to give details about where he crossed or what vehicle he took. He is avoiding being tracked and adds, “if there is no information, they will not know what or where to look and I will go to be able to protect people who helped.”

In Colombia, he was reunited with his wife and children. He will seek medical assistance in Argentina to cope with his skin cancer. Still, he promises to continue the fight to set Venezuela free.

Crovato’s departure is the latest in a string of escapes by detained activists. However, several hundred still remain imprisoned under Maduro’s regime.

For more information, please see:

El Nacional – Marcelo Crovato in Argentina: “It seems unreal to be here” – 20 March 2018

Reuters – Argentine human rights lawyer is latest Venezuelan detainee to flee – 19 March 2018

La Voz – An Argentine detained in Venezuela during the 2014 protests, escaped to Colombia – 18 March 2018

El Nuevo Herald – Maduro escapes another political prisoner: Argentine-Venezuelan Marcelo Crovato – 18 March 2018

La Nación – The only Argentine political prisoner in Venezuela escaped to Colombia – 17 March 2018

Indigenous women demand end to extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

QUITO, Ecuador – Nearly 100 indigenous women of the Ecuadorian Amazon traveled to the capital to protest outside of the Presidential Palace. The women spent five days protesting and demanding a meeting with President Lenin Moreno to personally deliver their political mandate.

Women from the Ecuadorian Amazon gather outside the Presidential Palace. Image Courtesy of Jose Jacome.

Many of the women travelled on long journeys by foot and by bus to gather for this protest. The purpose was to address the oil and mining activities in the Amazon and its harsh impact on indigenous women. The protesters sought a personal meeting with President Moreno to deliver the “Mandate of Amazonian Women Defenders of the Jungle of the Bases against Extractivism.” The mandate includes 22 points that mostly involve putting an end to exploiting the Amazon. It points out that the industry has had a dire consequence on women in particular.

One point of the document refers to land-use issues. It demands the annulment of contracts granted by the government to the oil and mining companies. Also, it demands “that the indigenous territories and peoples be declared free of activities of extractive products such as oil, mining, hydroelectrics and logging.”

The protestors explain that women who live around extractive areas are often the most vulnerable populations. After contamination or community displacement destroys their traditional lifestyles in the jungle, women tend to face more economic barriers than men. One study by Oxfam reports that women struggle to find work in local towns, which often results in increased cases of position, drug abuse, and alcoholism.

Women arrived at the presidential palace carrying anti-extractive banners, wearing traditional clothing, chanting, and vowing not to leave without speaking to the president. They continued to return throughout the week and made speeches through a loudspeaker in the central plaza. However, officials reported that President Moreno could not attend to the group since he was traveling home from Chile on a work visit. The protestors stayed for five days and authorities eventually agreed to a meeting between them and the President.

President Moreno’s government has made several advancements with the indigenous community compared to the last administration. There have been improvements in areas such as bilingual education and reinforcing free, prior, and informed consent regulations for mining projects. President Moreno was praised by environmentalists last year after promising the United Nations he would take steps to protect the Amazon. However, Ecuador’s economy has heavily depended on oil and gas for economic stability and growth. In February, the government held an oil auction and handed out several new mining concessions.

Indigenous women are demanding more of their government. Patricia Gualinga, an indigenous woman, told the president, Your government cannot permit that our rights continue to be violated. Ecuador has to change its energy policy. It could be an example for the world.”

For more information, please see:

Taipei Times – Indigenous women call on Ecuador not to drill for oil – 25 March 2018

Reuters – From Ecuador’s Amazon to president’s palace, indigenous women demand end to drilling – 23 March 2018

The Guardian – Keep off our land, indigenous women tell Ecuador’s president – 23 March 2018

Mongabay – Indigenous Amazonian women demand end to extraction – 22 March 2018

Telesur – Ecuador: Indigenous Women Protest Lack of ‘Consultation,’ Environmental Damage Caused by Mineral, Oil Extraction in Amazon – 14 March 2018

UNHCR asks other nations to treat Venezuelans as refugees

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BOGOTA, Colombia – In light of the continuing crisis in Venezuela, the United Nations has asked the region to treat the population as “refugees” who are unable to go home, as opposed to mere economic migrants. Meanwhile, Colombia is calling out for urgent help along its border because of the humanitarian “catastrophe.”

Venezuelan citizens cross the border into Colombia. Image Courtesy of Fernando Vergara.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, released a three-page report with new guidance for governments to address the situation of persons in need of international protection and humanitarian assistance. It is titled “Guidance Note on the Outflow of Venezuelans.” The report recommends that countries do not deport, expel or forcibly return Venezuelans in view of the current situation. Also, it asks countries to guarantee refugees residency and the right to work, even if they are residing in the country illegally or without proper identification papers.

The increase of migrants has exploded in the past few years. Since 2014, there has been a 2,000% increase in the number of Venezuelan nationals seeking asylum. While 94,000 have been able to access refugee procedures in 2017, many more have not. Most seek legal arrangements that will help them get the right to work and access to health and education as quickly as possible. Still, hundreds of thousands reside illegally in asylum countries. This has resulted in high levels of exploitation, trafficking, violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, and xenophobia.

In response to these startling numbers, UNHCR encourages states to provide Venezuelans with access to refugee procedures. It calls on governments to adopt pragmatic protection-oriented responses, including alternative stay arrangements and temporary visas. Additionally, it calls for other programs that will supply basic needs of health, education, family unity, freedom of movement, and shelter. UNHCR stresses the importance of people not being deported or forcibly returned to Venezuela.

These guidelines seem to reproach Colombia’s current methods. As an overwhelmed neighbor, Colombia has been deporting and barring Venezuelans. Last month, Colombian immigration began requiring new Venezuelan arrivals to present passports even though they have become extremely difficult for people to obtain. These methods have decreased the number of Venezuelans entering the country on a daily basis by 30%.

However, more than 600,000 Venezuelans have already entered Colombia in the past couple of years. Border towns, like Cucuta, are struggling to maintain their homes. Officials have encouraged foreign aid to be sent to Colombia since it is hosting the bulk of the migrants. Organizations such as the World Food Program are present in Colombia helping to deal with the crisis.

The director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, said “Colombia has made so much progress in the past many years with peace and the last thing it needs now is for all that success to be undone. So I will be expressing to other nations the severity of this crisis and why they must come to help the Colombian people immediately.”

Currently, UNHCR is working with governments to address the basic needs of the crisis. It developed a regional response plan that covers eight countries and the Caribbean sub-region. Specifically, the goal is to strengthen national asylum and other international protection processes to foster an effective response to this crisis.

For more information, please see:

IRIN – As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes – 13 March 2018

TRT World – UN says refugee claims by Venezuelans surging – 13 March 2018

UNHCR – As Venezuelans flee throughout Latin America, UNHCR issues new protection guidance – 13 March 2018

Miami Herald – As Venezuelans flee collapsing country, UN asks other nations to treat them as refugees – 12 March 2018

ABC News – UN official warns of humanitarian “catastrophe” in Venezuela – 12 March 2018

Argentina lawmakers propose bill to legalize elective abortion

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina’s government said it would consider holding a referendum on legalizing abortions. After seven proposals for bills that would decriminalize abortion, this is the first time the center-right government has ever agreed to consider it.

A pro-abortion activist listens to a speech outside of Congress. Image Courtesy of Victor R. Caivano.

On Tuesday, more than 70 Argentine lawmakers of various political parties presented a bill to legalize elective abortions for women in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Most lawmakers wore green handkerchiefs symbolizing the abortion rights movement and cheered as the bill was introduced. Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña said the issue is “on the table.”

Historically, abortion has been a controversial issue in the predominately Catholic nation. Right now, it is only allowed in Argentina in cases of rape, cases where a woman’s health is at risk, or cases where there is a severe malformation of the fetus. In 2012 the Supreme Court passed a ruling to remove barriers and take judges out of the decision. However, women must still apply to a judge for permission to get an abortion. Critics consider it an unnecessary requirement intended to delay the procedure. Regardless of the legislation, doctors and judges continue to block abortions.

While legislative efforts have failed in the past, new initiatives have gained momentum. This bill was introduced at a ceremony attended by dozens of activists. Following 13 years of struggle, the National Campaign for the Right of Legal Safe and Free Abortion has gained the support of over 500 organizations and prominent figures. The group said, “over the past weeks, Argentine society has proved that it was not only prepared to debate about abortion but also to make a decision in favor of its decriminalization and legalization.”

The group also stated, “the State does not fulfill with the international treaties regarding women’s rights and people with the ability to be pregnant: in this country, between 370,000 and 520,000 abortions are carried out every year in secrecy, with about 49,000 women ending at the hospital because of complications related to unsafe surgeries.”

Argentina’s health ministry reaffirms those numbers and estimates that up to 522,000 Argentine women undergo illegal abortions every year. Several Latin American countries outlaw abortion in any circumstance. However, some have legalized therapeutic abortions.  The U.N. Population Fund reported that eight percent of women’s deaths worldwide are due to unsafe abortions. In Latin America and Africa, about 25% of all abortions are classified as unsafe and performed under substandard conditions.

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri said he was personally opposed to relaxing the country’s abortion laws, but assured that he would give Congress a free vote.

For more information, please see:

Americas Quarterly – The Surprising Politics Behind Argentina’s Abortion Debate – 7 March 2018

BBC News – Argentina abortion: Referendum ‘on the table’, government says – 6 March 2018 

Washington Post – Argentina lawmakers propose legalizing elective abortion – 6 March 2018

Telesur – Argentine Women’s Groups Hopeful About Legalizing Abortion – 4 March 2018

Thousands mourn the assassination of Rio councilwoman

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Thousands of Brazilians are taking part in a vigil to honor a politician who was brutally murdered, Marielle Franco. In the days leading up to her death, Franco campaigned heavily against police brutality.

Marielle Franco in Rio. Image Courtesy of Midia Ninja.

The 38-year-old Rio city councilor for the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party was shot dead in her car on Wednesday evening. After leaving a meeting about empowering black women, a car pulled up alongside hers. Attackers sprayed her car with bullets which fatally injured her and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. Additionally, a press officer working for Franco was injured while sitting in the back seat.

The Brazilian director of Human Rights Watch, Maria Laura Canineu, described Franco as “an outspoken and courageous advocate for victims of police abuse and a tireless defender of the rights of women and Afro-Brazilians.” She added, “Brazilian authorities need to respond decisively by identifying those responsible for the killing of Marielle and Anderson, and bringing them to justice.”

Franco grew up in an impoverished community in Rio. She became an activist and was elected to city council in 2016 as the only black female representative and one of seven women in the council. She became president of the women’s commission and was recently appointed to rapporteur of a municipal commission to monitor the federal intervention in policing Rio.

This federal intervention began in February when President Michel Temer handed over control of the state police and prisons to the armed forces. Franco had been a vocal critic of the measure, pointing out that it threatened to raise bloodshed without addressing the root cause of violence. In the days leading up to her death, she posted several tweets about police killings and assumed responsibility for conducting oversight of the military intervention.

As of Thursday afternoon, no suspects have been taken into custody. Rio’s civil police is responsible for investigating the killing. If needed, it is supposed to collaborate with federal police. Human Rights Watch asks that the army general in charge of the military intervention makes sure that investigators have the necessary independence and resources to find the killers. Also, Amnesty International urged that the investigation be rigorous and focus on the context, motive, and responsibility for the killing.

Canineu says, “The climate of near total impunity in Rio de Janeiro needs to end once and for all. Marielle and Anderson are the latest victims of a security system that has long failed to stop violence, or to ensure justice for the victims.”

On Thursday, thousands of Brazilians marched to the Rio state assembly to protest Franco’s murder. Many wore black and chanted against the police. One woman, Ilona Szabo, said that Franco “represented hope for so many women who never felt like they had a voice.”

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Brazil: Vigil held for Rio politician killed in drive-by shooting – 15 March 2018

Human Rights Watch – Brazil: Assassination of Rights Defender, Driver – 15 March 2018

New York Times – Killing of Rio de Janeiro Councilwoman Critical of Police Rattles Brazil – 15 March 2018

The Guardian – Protests held across Brazil after Rio councillor shot dead – 15 March 2015

The Citizen – Thousand of Brazilians mourn slain Rio councillor, rights activist – 15 March 2018

Brazilian Supreme Court rules pregnant women will no longer await trial in jail

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – The Brazilian Supreme court issued a groundbreaking human rights ruling that people accused of non-violent crimes are allowed to await trial under house arrest instead of in detention centers. This rule applies to women who are pregnant, who have children up to twelve years of age, and people with disabilities.

Painted fingernails at a women’s prison in Brazil. Image Courtesy of Ueslei Marcelino.

This decision came in the wake of public outcry about pretrial detention conditions. In December, Human Rights Watch reported that conditions were worsening and pre-trial detention was growing dramatically. Brazilian prisons lack adequate care for pregnant women and newborns. Prenatal and postpartum medical care are minimal or non-existent. Also, two thirds of female detention centers lack designated facilities for pregnant women and babies.

Before this decision, the Brazilian Criminal Code stated that judges “may” determine house arrest instead of preventative detention when a woman is pregnant or has a child of up to twelve-years-old. Now, justices have decided that this exception needs to become a rule. After the decision is published, courts will have to comply with the order within sixty days. Human Rights Watch estimates that up to 15,000 women could be released. However, it will not affect inmates who have been found guilty.

While Human Rights Watch celebrates the ruling, the organization says Brazil still has work to do on prison reform. Brazil must address “excessive pretrial detention for all, and ensure all pregnant women and mothers in detention are held in humane conditions, with adequate health care, in compliance with Brazilian law and international standards.”

The public outcry stemmed from stories like Jessica Monteiro’s. She was arrested for allegedly possessing ninety grams of marijuana. At twenty-four years old, she had no criminal record, was pregnant, and was throw into a filthy police precinct cell. She went into labor the next day and was taken to a hospital to give birth. The court held a hearing in her absence where a judge ruled that she should remain in jail pending her trial. A few days later, police returned her to the cell where she slept on a mattress on the floor with her newborn.

Several have raised criticism over the ruling. The President of the Federation of Penitentiary Servants, Allan Vieira, stated that “women could be used by criminal enterprises to commit crimes while on house arrest including carrying weapons and drugs into the jails.”

While this will not affect the male incarceration rate, officials hope this will relieve overcrowding in women’s prisons.

For more information, please see:

IR Insider – Brazil Supreme Court Issues Landmark Human Rights Ruling – 4 March 2018

The Nation – Deceit at a Brazilian ‘Crisis Pregnancy Center’ – 28 February 2018

The Jurist – Brazil top court rules pregnant woman will no longer serve pre-trial detention in jail – 23 February 2018

Human Rights Watch – Pregnant Women Will No Longer Await Trial in Brazilian Jails – 23 February 2018

Folha de S. Paulo – Pregnant Women and Mothers of Children of Up to 12 Years of Age to Be Placed on House Arrest – 21 February 2018

Mass exodus of Venezuelans overwhelms Latin America

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CUCUTA, Colombia – The mass exodus of Venezuelans desperate to leave their country are overwhelming the continent. Venezuela has spurred one of the biggest migration crises in Latin American history.

A boy from Colombia’s indigenous Yukpa community stands at the entrance to the border bridge in Cucuta. Image Courtesy of Ivan Valencia.

The International Organization for migration reports that nearly one million Venezuelans have left their country over the past two years, with a surge during the second half of 2017 when the economy took a hit. One immigration expert, Tomas Paez, says that “our migration levels are now comparable to Syria or to Bangladesh.”

Colombia’s border cities are taking the worst of the crisis. Roughly 250,000 migrants have crossed the border into Colombia since August, with 3,000 still arriving every day. Approximately 3,000 troops are fanning out across the 1,400-mile border in an effort to contain the migration. The government had to suspend the issuance of temporary visas for Venezuelans last month. It has begun operations to capture and expel illegal immigrants. The regional director of a Catholic charity in Colombia, Willington Munoz Sierra, considers this a humanitarian crisis. He says, “In Venezuela, children are dying. People are starving and being persecuted. What they’re getting from us is a door in the face.”

Similarly, Brazil has declared a state of “social emergency” in response to the massive influx of migrants. In recent months, 40,000 Venezuelans have poured across Brazil’s northern border. The migration has stressed infrastructure and caused security concerns. Residents in border cities worry about crime and Venezuelans taking away jobs. Brazilian President Michel Temer assessed the crises and suggested that some migrants could be moved to other states. Still, he insisted that Brazil would not turn its back on the refugees and pledged $20 million to the cause. The military has doubled its troops in border areas and established a field hospital for migrants.

All Latin American nations are feeling the impact of the crisis to some extent. Peru has seen the largest percentage increase in Venezuelan population. From 2015 to 2017, it increased 1,388%. In response, Peru is offering temporary resident permits to Venezuelans which grants them the right to work. Likewise, Panama has been overwhelmed with Venezuelans. It has imposed new visa requirements making it more difficult for migrants to be granted asylum.

Jozef Merkx, representative for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees in Colombia, said the agency is concerned about the operations that expel migrants lacking valid visas. However, it is harder to classify its people as refugees in need of international protection because Venezuela is not at war. He says, “People fleeing Syria were generally seen as refugees, but that’s not the case with Venezuelans. Venezuela is not being bombed. It has some of the dimensions [of a refugee crisis], but not all Venezuelans are refugees.”

For more information, please see:

Chicago Tribune – Venezuelans are fleeing their crisis-torn country en masse – 3 March 2018  

Washington Post – The Crisis Next Door – 2 March 2018

Reuters – Special report: A journey on a caravan of misery – 2 March 2018

DW – Brazil to declare ’emergency’ in response to Venezuela migrant influx – 16 February 2018

Brazil’s army uncooperative on Rio killings

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

SAO PAULO, Brazil – Human Rights Watch reported that Brazil’s army will not make its personnel available to talk with state prosecutors about the Rio de Janeiro killings that are under investigation. The joint raid with civil police occurred on November 11th, 2017 and left 8 people dead.

Brazilian marines stand guard during a surprise operation in Kelson’s slum in Rio de Janeiro. Image Courtesy of Leo Correa.

On November 7th, army helicopters dropped personnel in a forested area within a neighborhood near Rio. The soldiers hid and waited for the chance to intercept suspects. However, the mission failed because someone tipped off local gang members. Then on November 11th, the army conducted another operation in the same area. The civil police elite unit later found that 8 people had been shot and killed. Witnesses reported shots coming from the forested area by men wearing all black with highly advanced weapons. The equipment identified the killers as military special forces.

However, the army claims that they did not fire their weapons during the operation and therefore refuse to open an investigation into the killings. The federal military prosecutor opened an inquiry anyway, but has to rely on the army to handle the investigation. In October, Congress approved a law that allows the military to handle investigations of civilian killings during police operations by members of the armed forces. Any potential trial would be held before a court of military officers, virtually guaranteeing that there would be no impartial or independent investigation.

This law was passed in spite of the international norm that human rights violations should never be tried before military courts. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights explains that, “when the State permits investigations to be conducted by the entities with possible involvement, independence and impartiality are clearly compromised.”

Even though state prosecutors can’t investigate army personnel as suspects, they can interview them as witness to find out what happened. It has been almost three months since state prosecutors met with General Walter Braga Netto, chief of the Eastern Military Command. The prosecutors called the meeting to learn about the army’s involvement in the case. Immediately afterward, prosecutors requested a copy of transcripts of statements made by members of the army who participated in the operation. They also requested interviews with the participants. Still, the army has yet to provide either.

Brazil’s director at Human Rights Watch, Maria Laura Canineu, remarked that, “the stonewalling by General Braga Netto shows a lack of any serious commitment to justice for the victims in this case and a flagrant disrespect for civilian authorities. This does not bode well for regular citizens during his tenure as head of public security in Rio de Janeiro.” She insisted that the general show he is not trying to bury the case by doing his duty to find the killers and ensure justice.

For more information, please see:

News 18 – Military Takeover of Rio de Janeiro police Stirs Dictatorship Ghosts – 24 February 2018

The Brazilian Report – Under intervention, Rip relives problems of 200 years ago – 24 February 2018

US News – Life in a War Zone – 23 February 2018

Human Rights Watch – Brazil: Army Stonewalls on Rio Killings – 23 February 2018

Peru’s ex-President Fujimori could face another trial despite pardon

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

LIMA, Peru – A Peruvian court ruled Monday that former President Alberto Fujimori can stand trial for killings. The decision comes in spite of the fact that the current President had already granted Fujimori a pardon for these human rights abuses.

Ex-President Fujimori being wheeled out of a Lima clinic. Image Courtesy of Luka Gonzales.

Essentially, the court decided not to apply the grace that current President Kuczynski granted him. This ruling has paved the way for Fujimori to finally be tried for his alleged responsibility for the murders of six people in the town of Pativilca. The event occurred in 1992 when a paramilitary group under Fujimori’s orders kidnapped, tortured, and killed six farmers by death squad. Prosecutors asked to try the ex-president and 23 others for these crimes against humanity.

However, President Kuczynski’s office decided to grant the 79-year-old a “humanitarian pardon.” This heavily criticized pardon was granted on the grounds of Fujimori’s declining health. The President cited low blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat as justification. Doctors diagnosed Fujimori with a progressive, degenerative and incurable illness. They said prison conditions would put him at risk. The President said, “I am convinced that those of us who consider ourselves democrats cannot allow Alberto Fujimori to die in prison. Justice is not vengeance. All pardons are by nature controversial.” In response, protests erupted over the pardon. Peruvians were outraged and demonstrations turned violent in clashes with the police.

Now, the Peruvian court has made a historic decision in refusing to honor this pardon.  Amnesty International sees it as an important advance in the fight against impunity. They say it reinforces the obligation of the Peruvian state to guarantee victims’ right to truth, justice, and reparation. The Americas Director at Amnesty International, Erika Guevara Rosas, said, “Today the victims, families and Peruvian society have achieved an important step towards justice and preserving the memory of the victims of these crimes.”

Fujimori has indicated that he is prepared for the legal process ahead. His lawyer, Miguel Perez, stated that “Mr. Fujimori is not scared or does not oppose being summoned in this process as a defendant.” His son also remarked that he believes that the political process will treat his father fairly and acquit him of the charges.

Now that the path is clear, human rights organizations demand that he be tried if there is sufficient and admissible evidence against him. Prosecutors are seeking a 25-year sentence and reparations to the victim’s families. Still, Fujimori’s attorney said that he might appeal the court’s decision.

For more information, please see:

The Santiago Times – Peru’s ex-President Fujimori to be tried for 1992 killings despite recent pardon – 20 February 2018

BBC News – Peru’s ex-President Fujimori ordered to stand trial again – 20 February 2018

CNN – Ex-Peru leader Fujimori can be tried over killings despite pardon – 20 February 2018

Voice of America – Peru Court: Pardoned Fujimori Could Face Another Human Rights Trial – 19 February 2018

Amnesty International – Peru: Fujimori may be tried after decision not to apply grace in Pativilca case – 19 February 2018