May 21, 2015
Manuel Contreras, the former police chief during Chile’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, received a 15-year sentence for murder on Wednesday, adding to the 490-year term he is currently serving. In 2013, the Supreme Court convicted Contreras, 86, for the December 1974 disappearance of Alejandro de la Barra and Ana Maria Puga, members of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR—Revolutionary Left Movement). Four other officials from the Pinochet era were also convicted by the Court.
The Court’s rulings are a historical feat in Chile, marking the first time that disappeared Chileans have been acknowledged as victims of secuestro permanente (permanent kidnapping), which enables the crimes to be prosecuted despite the country’s 1978 amnesty law. The only way Contreras would have been able to evade a prison term on permanent kidnapping charges was “by producing the remains of the disappeared person or fully demonstrating that he or she is indeed dead,” according to Latin America Press.
Contreras has been found guilty of a slew of atrocities. Throughout Pinochet’s dictatorship, Contreras headed the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA—National Intelligence Directorate), an agency responsible for managing torture centers where hundreds were slain. Contreras completed a seven-year prison term between 1994 and 2001 for the 1976 assassination of former Ambassador Orlando Letelier in Washington DC. In 2004, Contreras was sentenced to 12 additional years in prison for the kidnapping and disappearance of a MIR guerrilla member Miguel Ángel Sandoval. Contreras received a 490-year sentence for crimes against humanity carried out during the early years of the military regime.
February 26, 2015
A vote to decriminalize marijuana passed through Jamaica’s parliament Tuesday night and is expected to be signed into law by Governor General Sir Patrick Allen later this week. The law, approved by Jamaica's Senate in February, will overturn the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1948, which punishes the possession, cultivation, selling, transporting, and smoking of “ganja,” the local term for the drug.
Under the new regulation, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana will no longer show up on an individual’s criminal record, but will be re-categorized as a low-level offense resulting in a small fine. Individuals will be permitted to cultivate up to five plants on their property. Additionally, the law permits the use of marijuana for medical purposes, as well as for Rastafarian religious ceremonies.
Marijuana regulation has been a hotly contested topic on the island, in large part due to Jamaica's close ties with the United States. However, Jamaica’s national security minister, Peter Bunting, assured the parliament that the new law would not affect international relations.
"The passage of this legislation does not create a free-for-all in the growing, transporting, dealing or exporting of ganja. The security forces will continue to rigorously enforce Jamaican law consistent with our international treaty obligations," said Bunting.
Earlier on Tuesday, Alaska passed legislation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, joining Colorado and Washington as the only U.S. states to do so. Elsewhere in the hemisphere, Uruguay permits the growth, sale and distribution of marijuana, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina have decriminalized possession of the drug, and Chile, Costa Rica and Guatemala are in the process of discussing new policies around marijuana.
October 23, 2014
Author's note: Following the Boston shooting in April 2013, I wrote about how North America would continue to face the threat of domestic terrorism. Yesterday, Canada's Parliament was assailed by what is described as a "lone wolf" gunman. This was the second attack in a week, and Canada has lost two soldiers to the violence. The gunmen in both attacks, who were killed by authorities, are purported to be recent converts to Islam, though any ties to ISIS remain unclear at this point. Their Canadian passports were recently rescinded. Yet, despite these tragic events, Canada must continue to cherish its freedoms while remaining highly vigilant about security matters. My original blog post from April 30, 2013 continues below.
The last couple of weeks have shown that terrorism, or the threat of it, is not just something we read about in other parts of the world. Occasionally, we recall the events of 9-11, but soon it will be twelve years since that horrible day. However, the tragic ending of the Boston Marathon reminded us in vivid terms how vulnerable a free and open society is to the threat of terrorism, whether domestic or imported. Hence, the balance between freedom to exercise our rights in society and the need for security and safety from harm is once again at the center of public policy.
A few days after the two Boston bombers were apprehended (with one killed in the process), Canadian authorities arrested two alleged plotters in Montreal and Toronto—supposedly linked to an Al Qaeda cell in Iran—and accused them of planning to derail a Via Rail passenger train with an explosive device. Although the Boston bombings might appear, for the moment, to have been the work of a domestic “lone wolf” operation, the Canadian incident might have a direct international link. Meanwhile, the Canadian Parliament adopted a law giving authorities greater preventive powers in dealing with future threats of terrorism.
January 13, 2014
Since the Edward Snowden–National Security Agency (NSA) affair exploded in the media last summer, some world leaders, such as Angela Merkel of Germany, have since discovered that they were under some surveillance by the U.S. security apparatus. The negative reaction that followed the German chancellor discovering the bugging of her cell phone is evidence that NSA policies are more than an infringement of privacy if they have created a diplomatic incident with a major ally to the Obama administration.
NSA methods seem to be out of control when a country is caught spying on its allies. Concerned about this type of fallout, the Obama administration, along with its outside NSA review panel, is now considering sweeping changes to existing policies.
Just over the holiday season, The New York Times made the case for clemency for the former NSA contractor. British newspaper The Guardian, which has been the conduit of many of Edward Snowden’s sensational bombshells, called for an outright pardon by U.S. President Barack Obama.
What started out as a “hero versus traitor” debate about the actions of Edward Snowden is now becoming one about whether an individual whistleblower who broke the law while purportedly acting in defense of the U.S. constitution (the Fourth Amendment) should be tried for a 'crime' created by a governmental institution.
May 17, 2013
En los últimos años, se ha presentado en México un fenómeno social muy preocupante. En muchas de las regiones azotadas por la violencia del crimen organizado, las poblaciones se han unido para crear las llamadas “policías comunitarias”—grupos de autodefensa civil integrados por vecinos de las mismas comunidades que se dedican a realizar las labores de vigilancia y combate al crimen organizado que las autoridades responsables han dejado de hacer. Éste fenómeno se ha presentado principalmente en los estados de Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca y Morelos y ha provocado más de un enfrentamiento con los gobiernos estatales y municipales, así como con los cuerpos de policía oficiales.
El general Óscar Naranjo Trujillo, colombiano que funge como asesor externo de Enrique Peña Nieto para asuntos de seguridad, ha dicho últimamente que el Estado debe asegurar el monopolio de la aplicación de la justicia y el monopolio legítimo del uso de la fuerza. Según él, “cuando a una autodefensa se le empieza a llamar policía, se produce una distorsión que realmente, lejos de invocar el deber ser, destruye el deber ser y es imaginario.”
Indudablemente, en condiciones normales, el Estado es el único que debe ostentar el monopolio del uso de la fuerza y la aplicación de la justicia. Eso ocurre en cualquier país medianamente civilizado. Sin embargo, el problema en México es mucho más complejo que eso.
June 7, 2012
Former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt will face a second genocide trial on the civil war-era Dos Erres massacre after Judge Carol Patricia Flores Blanco issued her ruling last week.
After a marathon hearing that lasted more than 10 hours, a packed court saw relatives of civil war victims as well as human rights activists celebrate the decision. Under international pressure to resolve excesses of the 36-year civil war, Guatemala will become the first country in Latin America to place a former president on trial for genocide.
In January, Judge Blanco ruled there was a case to answer for Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity and the genocide of Maya-Ixil during Guatemala’s civil war in the Nebaj region.
Challenges to the Ministerio Público prosecutors’ claims and evidence have thus far kept the trial from beginning; it was supposed to get underway in March.
May 9, 2012
El Salvador has undergone various political events in the past couple of months. Political drama and institutional bickering have been present in daily news. For one, the legislative and municipal elections that took place this past March were fair and clean, while the same cannot be said about other countries in the region—namely Nicaragua. The outcome of El Salvador’s election results was bleak for the ruling Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí Liberation Front, or FMLN) party; FMLN’s largest loss was in the country’s most populous and important municipalities.
Second, the main opposition party, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA), simply recuperated what they had historically obtained in legislative elections before the defection of 12 of their deputies in 2009. ARENA’s main win was in taking the larger, emblematic municipalities from the FMLN which are also founding shareholders of Alba Petroleos, the gasoline-importing Venezuelan joint venture with the FMLN. With these results the citizens of El Salvador confirm the country’s preference for the two larger parties.
Changes in electoral legislation allowing for independent candidates proved useless: the most voted independent candidate only obtained a little over 1,000 votes. El Salvador’s strong political party system has allowed, for the most part, defining medium-term policy agendas and a certain degree of accountability toward voters. This is unlike Guatemala, where political parties come and go—creating a real problem for the democratic process.
Unfortunately, the outgoing legislature made some nefarious decisions prior to their term coming to an end on April 30. The most troubling decision was made regarding the anticipated election of Supreme Court magistrates and specifically some magistrates in the Constitutional Tribunal. In essence, the previous President of the Supreme Court—who also heads the Constitutional Tribunal—was removed from his office by the legislature before his term was over. The reason behind the shuffle presumably responded to some decisions that the previous Tribunal had made regarding electoral reform and political parties. Civil society organizations denounced the decision to no avail.
May 17, 2011
A San José court rejected most of an appeal by former Costa Rican President Rafael Calderón last week, but the court ruled to lighten his charges and overturned his five-year jail sentence.
Calderón, age 62, was convicted in October 2009 of two charges of embezzlement for helping divert millions of dollars from a Finnish government loan to Costa Rica’s social security system in 2004, after his presidency.
Last Wednesday, the appeals court reduced the ruling to a single embezzlement charge with three years in prison.
However, Calderón won’t go behind bars.
Under Costa Rican law, a person who is handed a sentence of three years or less, and whose record is otherwise clean, can walk.
In Calderón’s case, the judges said he must refrain from breaking the law for five years or else he could lose this get-out-of-jail card.
Costa Rica’s justice system confirmed that a former president took up to $500,000 in kickbacks of public funds meant to be used to purchase medical equipment, but set him free. This drew a muted but “respectful” reaction in a brief statement from the Public Ministry that took him down, and it bewildered the citizens of this country of about 4.5 million.
Calderón, who served as president from 1990-1994, maintains he’s innocent, claiming that those funds were legitimate payment for legal services rendered while he wasn’t in office.
The 2009 guilty verdict was a huge blow to Calderón and his center-right Social Christian Unity Party. He was all set to run for president on the party’s ticket that year until the day the Supreme Court declared him an embezzler.
The court sentenced him to five years in prison but Calderón stayed out of jail pending appeals—another interesting facet of Costa Rican law.
Calderón vowed to continue challenging the accusations. After the decision last week he said he plans to bring the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Court (the Costa Rica-based judicial arm of the Organization of American States).
The ruling came just two weeks after a conviction of fellow ex-president Miguel Angel Rodríguez, also of the Social Christian Unity Party, who was sentenced to five years in prison for taking bribes from French mobile gear maker Alcatel.
Rodríguez, president from 1998 to 2002, said he would appeal the ruling but no date has been set for hearings. Rodríguez was in office at the time that the crime was perpetrated. His onetime electorate will be watching closely to see what kind of decision the appeals court makes the next time around.
*Alex Leff is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org based in San José, Costa Rica, and is a local correspondent for Reuters and GlobalPost.
May 11, 2011
Sandra Torres, the recent ex-wife of Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, filed papers yesterday with the Registro de Ciudadanos at the Tribunal Supremo Electoral in Guatemala City to become a presidential candidate in the upcoming election. Accompanied by Roberto Díaz-Durán, her aspiring vice-presidential candidate and the former president of port operator Nacional Santo Tomás de Castilla, the filing put an end to weeks of speculation that the former first lady would run for office after filing for divorce from the president this past March. If approved, Torres and Díaz-Durán will be the candidates for the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) and Gran Alianza Nacional (Gana) political parties, which have formed an alliance to back the two candidates in the September 11 election.
Torres filed for divorce from President Colom to sidestep a law in the country’s constitution prohibiting the president’s relatives from running for the nation’s highest office. Colom is also ineligible to run for re-election. Despite legal approval of the divorce in April, some have called the divorce fraudulent and a blatant violation of the constitution. On Friday, a legal organization, Alternativa Renovadora de Abogados y Notarios, filed a motion with the civil tribunal court asking for a reevaluation of the approval of the divorce in light of the allegations. The motion also asks the court to decide if the candidacy filing should be considered fraudulent and the approval annulled.
In the meantime, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral will now review Torres’ candidacy papers to ensure they meet all the necessary requirements before officially registering Torres and Díaz-Durán as candidates. It is uncertain how last week’s legal filing may affect the proceedings.
Should Torres be approved by the Tribunal, her main opponent would be former army general Otto Pérez Molina, of the right-wing Partido Patriota. Polls published this Monday by newspaper Siglo 21 show that Molina holds a 16+ point lead over Torres among likely voters in September's election.
April 13, 2011
Uruguay’s Senate voted yesterday to annul the Ley de Caducidad, or Expiry Law, which since 1986 had granted military officers immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity committed during the country’s military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985. The vote effectively overrules two prior national referendums in 1989 and 2009, which had upheld the Expiry Law, and opens the door to the possible prosecution of former military officials. The measure keeps intact amnesty for crimes committed during the same period by left-wing militants.
The vote fulfills a major demand of the left-wing members of the Frente Amplio (FA) governing coalition and complies with a 2009 Uruguayan Supreme Court ruling that found the Expiry Law unconstitutional. The measure faced opposition from right wing political party leaders, retired military officials, and even some members of FA like retired Colonel Jose Carlos Araujo, who says repealing the law despite two referendums shows a lack of “respect [for] the decisions of the people.”
In 2003, an independent peace commission found that 175 political opponents were killed during the 12-year dictatorship, including 26 in clandestine torture centers. Only about a dozen officials have been prosecuted for those killings. The repeal passed by a 16-15 vote after a 12-hour debate. It is backed by President José Mujica and will now move to the Uruguay’s lower house for amendments and a vote, which could come as soon as May 20.
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