South America

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