Friday, July 15, 2016

A Honduran Narco Corrido

Narcocorridos have been a popular means  to immortalize drug trafficking organizations and their leaders in Mexico. This genre also known as durangense, norteña, or grupera originated in small towns in northern states, and its lyrics often glorify the drug trade and drug traffickers. One of the most popular subjects of this popular form of ballad has been  Joaquín  "El Chapo"  Guzmán Loera, who has become a legendary figure because of his two bold escapes from Mexican prisons. Guzmán Loera escaped from the Puente Grande Penitentiary in 2001, was recaptured in 2014, escaped again in 2015 and taken back into custody in 2016.

These types of ballads were also popular during the height of Colombian control of the drug trade, as evidenced by this narco corrido about Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín Cartel, who was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the Colombian military in 1993. This corrido glorifies Escobar.

Not to be outdone, a corrido also was created to celebrate the Honduran drug trafficking gang Los Cachiros. We published an article about the rise and fall of Los Cachiros in this week's edition of NotiCen.

Here are some excerpts:
Los Cachiros” did not take long to jump from stealing cattle to becoming one of Honduras top narco families­––an immensely wealthy crime élite that, among other major-scale activities, supplied drugs to none other than Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his Sinaloa cartel.

The Honduran group, headed by four members of the Rivera Maradiaga family––top leader Javier Eriberto (“Don Javier”), brothers Devis Leonel and Santos Isidro, and sister Maira Lizeth––grew during just over a decade, roughly between 2003-2015, into an organization that controlled most of the US-bound drug conveyances by air.  

The group's downfall began in n September of 2013, when the US Department of the Treasury singled them out as a dangerous drug-trafficking organization operating mainly in the departments of Atlántida, Colón, and Gracias a Dios, on the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras, the latter bordering Nicaragua. This narcocorrido pays tribute to Los Cachiros.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Earthquakes: A Continous Threat in Western South America

More than one-quarter of the world's “Great” magnitude 8 or larger earthquakes have occurred in western South America, including the 1960 magnitude 9.5 Chile megathrust earthquake, the largest earthquake ever recorded. An array of earthquakes are generated by Nazca-South American plate boundary and intra-plate tectonic processes. This animation explores three major mechanisms for earthquakes due to the interaction of the plates:    Incorporated Research Institutes for Seismology (IRIS)
The western countries of South America sit on the Nazca Plate, an oceanic tectonic plate in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Over the last half-century, this geological feature has caused major headaches from Colombia to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Over the last 10 years, LADB has covered some of the earthquakes in the region, including recovery efforts and political implications. Here are some of the headlines. We included analysis from the Incorporated Research Institutes for Seismology (IRIS).

September 21, 2007: Peru: Recovery Fund Set Up After 8.0 Magnitude Earthquake Pounds Region South Of Capital, Kills Over 500 
A severe 8.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the coastal area of southern Peru on Aug. 15, killing at least 540 people and leaving about 80,000 Peruvians homeless. The cities of Pisco and Ica were badly hit, along with the surrounding regions along a 130-km stretch of the Pacific coast. Casualty numbers could have been massive if Lima where a huge portion of the country's population lives had been more directly shaken.
Iris Analysis

March  12, 2010:  Massive Earthquake Strikes Just Ahead Of Presidential Handoff
As Chile digs out from the massive Feb. 27 earthquake, the largest to hit the South American country in a half century, political divisions exacerbated by the recent elections continue to lurk just below the surface. The seemingly interminable quake, which lasted more than two horrifying minutes, struck in the wee hours of Saturday morning and affected a huge swath of the country from north of Santiago to as far south as Puerto Montt in the Lakes Region. For the millions of Chileans shaken awake by the monster magnitude 8.8 event, it was in all senses a living nightmare.
Iris Analysis

March 26, 2010:  Sebastián Piñera Takes Helm Of Quake-rattled Nation 
Two decades of leadership by the center-left Concertacion coalition came to an official end March 11, when Sebastian Pinera, a conservative billionaire businessman and onetime senator, donned Chile's presidential sash for the first time in what turned out to be literally an earth-shaking event. Just minutes before the start of the ceremony, held in the Congress building in Valparaiso, a series of powerful tremors rippled through central Chile, putting a natural exclamation point on a transfer of power already loaded with historic significance. Not only did Pinera's inauguration swing the country to the right for the first time since the end of the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), it also came less than two weeks after Chile suffered its worst natural disaster in half a century: a magnitude 8.8 earthquake that struck Feb. 27.
December 10, 2010:  Chile President and Opposition Trade Barbs while Earthquake Victims Wait for Solutions 
Nine months after one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history jolted central Chile, the disaster has returned to the national forefront as fodder in a mudslinging match between the country’s increasingly popular President Sebastián Piñera and a weakened opposition eager to find a chink in the first-year leader’s political armor. The massive magnitude 8.8 quake and subsequent tsunami struck Feb. 27, less than two weeks before Piñera took office. The back-to-back disasters killed 521 people and caused an estimated US$30 billion in damages, destroying homes, bridges, and other structures throughout Chile’s central regions.

January 2, 2011 Magnitude 7.1 Earthquake in Central Chile  (IRIS)

September 30, 2012 Magnitude 7.3 Colombia (IRIS)

October 9, 2015: Chile Slammed but Not Leveled by Third Major Earthquake in Five Years 
As cleanup efforts continue following last month’s major earthquake off the coast of Illapel, in the Coquimbo Region of northcentral Chile, more than a few observers are marveling at how relatively well the country fared—all things considered. The disaster that unfolded on the evening of Sept. 16, just ahead of Chile’s annual Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) celebrations, was both horrifying and tragic. The powerful quake ruined thousands of dwellings, prompted a mass evacuation along the country’s lengthy coastline—parts of which were inundated by tsunami waves—and killed 15, according to the Ministerio del Interior y Seguridad Pública's Oficina Nacional de Emergencia (ONEMI). It also triggered a barrage of aftershocks (more than 800 to date), rattling already frayed nerves not only in Norte Chico, as the hardest-hit area is known, but in the populous Metropolitan (Santiago) and Valparaíso Regions, as well.
Iris Analysis

November 24, 2015 Iris Reports Earthquakes Along Brazil-Peru Border
May 20, 2016:  Ecuador Accused of Boosting Taxes to Cover Costs of Earthquake Damage 
 Ecuador has a pro-forma 2016 budget of approximately US$25 billion and a fiscal shortfall of some $US8 billion, caused mainly by a dependence on oil exports that have suffered falling prices in the last two years. Now, the government has decided to deal with the economic crisis by creating new and unexpected taxes, arguing that more funds are needed to face the damage caused by the April 16 earthquake on its northern coast... Following the earthquake, Ecuadorans showed their solidarity in many ways: various public and private entities, especially municipalities, managed to collect major quantities of food, clothing, water, and even money. They organized to take the supplies to the earthquake areas, but they came up against government officials who decided the government would take charge of distribution.
Iris Analysis

Friday, November 13, 2015

Fracking a Big Concern in the Amazon

As global oil prices remain in the dumps and Brazil’s state-owned petroleum company Petrobras reels from a corruption scandal, an October auction of exploratory oil blocks yielded little interest from major multinational corporations...Greenpeace Brasil called the auction a "double disaster." In a note on its Web site, the environmental advocacy group said, "In addition to being a clear incentive for dirty and polluting energy sources, the onshore exploratory blocks are located in ten large hydrological basins." The nongovernmental organization (NGO) also noted that the auction considered blocks of shale gas in the Amazon, which require the use of a process known as hydrologic fracturing, or fracking, that has been at the center of controversy about natural-gas extraction in the US.-from NotiSur, Nov. 6, 2015
Hydraulic fracking fracking or simply “fracking” is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside.  

The process is becoming an increasingly popular method to extract natural gas in the US and Europe, drawing strong opposition from environmentalists in both continents. Opponents have raised concerns about the huge amounts of water used in the process and the potential for contamination of groundwater with carcinogens. Fracking has also been known to cause earth tremors.

The Brazilian government has also developed an ambitious plan to use fracking to extract natural gas in a vast area of over 122,000 square kilometers across 12 states, including including protected areas and lands directly adjacent to indigenous domains in the Amazon.

"Effects from drilling and extracting oil and gas in the Amazon are characterized as being not only disastrous for ecosystems and biodiversity where drilling takes place, but also for the populations living in surrounding areas, as is the case with many indigenous and traditional peoples," said Amazon Watch. Fracking activities have been linked to devastating environmental, social and economic effects such as water contamination, air pollution, destruction of terrestrial and aquatic fauna, soil infertility, and also to health problems such as increased risk of cancer, neurological and heart problems and birth defects.

Greenpeace Brasil has come out against fracking, but the strongest opposition is heard from the activist group Coalizão Não Fracking Brasil - COESUS (The Brazilian No Fracking Coalition) has organized to fight against the corporate takeover of indigenous lands and precious bioregions. This coalition formed mainly by indigenous leaders and environmental activists, in a strange twist of political resistance, actually represents a shared-interest with those interested in protecting the traditional oil industry, such as the leaders and investors of Petrobras.
In an act of defiance targeting the Brazilian Oil and Gas Agency (ANP), Brazilian indigenous leaders and activists interrupted a major auction of new fracking concessions set to spread across the Amazon rainforest. Holding up signs calling for "No Brazil Fracking" (Não Fracking Brasil), activists seized the spotlight to demand indigenous rights and divestment from dirty energy, briefly halting the 13th round of bidding for fracking exploration rights at the ANP on October 7th in Rio de Janeiro. Amazon Watch
Fracking has had another effect on the Brazilian energy market. The increased availability of shale gas has reduced prices. A boom in fracking mostly in Brazil’s northern Amazonian provinces is literally sucking up a large portion of foreign interest in Brazil’s energy resources.

Fracking in the Amazon might represents a serious threat for Brazil’s oil interests, and contributes to a trend of dropping oil values worldwide, as well as new sites for foreign investment in places like Iraq and Western Africa. US investors, as well as other foreign prospectors, are far more interested in Amazonian fracking than Brazilian oil right now, and that may also have something to do with the fiscal policies that make it much more difficult, expensive and risky to invest in oil.

The greatest obstacle for fracking projects in the Amazon is the inability of the government to draw up land deals that do not violate agreements between the state and indigenous groups.  Because of this, we may be seeing the start of a new era in which national governments are forced to backtrack on land deals they made decades, even centuries ago. States have backtracked on agreements with indigenous peoples for generations. What is different in contemporary times is is the strength of the opposition voices, particularly voices that speak for the wellbeing and sustainability of the earth.

 Jake Sandler contributed to this post

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ecuador's Fundamedios at the Center of International Fight for Freedom of the Press

The beginning of an administrative process to shut down the Fundación Andina para la Observación y Estudio de Medios (FUNDAMEDIOS), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works to promote and protect the right to free expression and association, alerted civil society organizations to the start of new restrictions on these rights and the danger that other organizations could be forced to close. While the reaction of domestic and foreign organizations—including a statement by four UN rapporteurs and the Organization of American States (OAS)—forced the Secretaría Nacional de Comunicación (SECOM) to shelve the case already underway, the risk for civil society organizations remained because of the arbitrary way cases can be opened or closed to fit the political convenience of the government. -from NotiSur, October 16, 2010

By Jake Sandler
In 2006, a group of Ecuadoran journalists, anthropologists, economists and architects organized themselves formally in an effort to improve the quality and integrity of the nation’s journalistic output. This was the seed of the organization called Fundamedios, according to the organization's’ official Web site.  Once the effort began to gain traction and support from almost every corner of academia, social activism and community watchgroups, the new organization assumed the role of independent observer to ensure the quality of print publications and broadcast media outlets.

Soon, the young organization realized that the most significant obstacle to quality of journalism was liberty; if too many journalists feel scared and intimidated (by the government, by corporations, by organized crime, etc.) to write and report the full depth and degree of their stories, then the quality and integrity of the overall media output will continue to suffer tremendously. And so Fundamedios formed itself as an organization focused specifically on working to keep tabs on the activities of hired thugs and other actors that work to threaten, violently or otherwise, the liberty for journalistic work. Each year, Fundamedios watched its registro de agresiónes (register of aggressions) continue to grow  to an irrevocable point of reckoning – there was now an empirical and accessible list of proof of all the journalists who have been or are being actively repressed. In 2008, the young register project identified 23 cases of repression. In 2009: 103, 2010: 151 cases, until 2013 when they registered a startling 174 cases of aggressions against journalists.

International attention
Finally, after the government gave absolutely no action or acknowledgement of the complaints and evidence that Fundamedios was reporting, the organization went to international human rights groups, including the UN. After the international community began wagging its finger at the Ecuadoran government, President Rafael Correa's administration began cracking down on the organization itself, and Fundamedios found itself the subject of the same threats and active repression that was being wielded against the journalists on the Fundamedios’ register.

The more reports that Fundamedios would supply to the international community, the heavier the threats and repression from the Ecuadoran government became. The most successful action taken by the government to quiet the group was its own propaganda, designed to convince the public that the Fundamedios group was undermining liberty and had too much control of the press. Under these auspices, the government began legally chipping away at the power of Fundamedios to exist. However, the impact on the international community was felt strongly, and many groups including the UN continue to battle with the Ecuadoran government on behalf of Fundamedios’ right to exist.

Because so many other nations in the world face the same grave problems of freedom of the press, not only in Latin America, the impact of Fundamedios has influenced the growth of similar groups, as well as the growth of action by the international community to combat such repressive tactics. In Ecuador, due in large part to international pressure, the government’s plans to shut down Fundamedios have been abandoned, at least for now.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Uruguay Opposes TiSA and Effort by U.S., European Union to Control the Flow of Digital Information

The strong domestic dispute that, during the first six months of Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez’s term, muddied the waters of the Frente Amplio (FA) ended in early September. On Sept. 7, the president and his ministers adopted as their own the recommendations from an FA congress and closed the controversial negotiations on Uruguay’s eventual participation in the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), an accord promoted by some of the biggest US and European service-industry corporations.   NotiSur, October 2, 2015

By Jake Sandler
On the surface, the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) appears to be a tool to renovate and enhance the services sector of existing international trade agreements, particularly the more ephemeral and immaterial aspects of global services commerce such as the trade and migration of digital information and Internet services across national borders. Therefore, we might think of TiSA as a transnational data-flow agreement.

TiSA’s overall promotional framework is that the agreement would stimulate the growth of the services sector (by far the most robust and important sector of the US, EU and many other highly developed nations’ economies) by opening up channels of access and better regulating for fair practices.

However, this agreement--predominantly designed and pushed by the US and the EU, along with Taiwan, Israel, Chile and New Zealand--has come under harsh criticism for its suspicious focus on regulation mechanisms to control of information flow. This is a subject that whistleblower Edward Snowden has made so potent a topic for many people throughout leftist communities in the Western hemisphere.

Uruguay’s recent decision under President Tambaré Vázquez of the leftist Frente Amplio coalition to drop out of the deal is highly representative of the general criticism of the agreement. The decision of  the Vázquez administration is certainly not motivated by economic interest, as Uruguay would likely benefit from new opportunities to invest overseas and new markets for exporting their own services. Uruguay views TiSA as a threat to information privacy and freedom of information. The South American country also fears that this deal would give the US and the EU a disproportionately strong amount of control over international data flow.

With Uruguay decision to drop out, six other Latin American countries remain part of TiSA: Chile, Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama.

Controversy, WikiLeaks
In June of 2014, WikiLeaks released a document from the TiSA negotiations called the "Financial Services Annex," This document reveals that the talks were shrouded in secrecy, a clear departure from the World Trade Organization’s traditional template. The break-away group of  WTO nations  conducting the TiSA talks, led by the US and the EU, is often referred to as the Real Good Friends of Services Club.

Furthermore the WikiLeaks report investigation found that:
  • TiSA is designed for and in close consultation with the global finance industry, whose greed and recklessness has been blamed for successive crises and which continues to dominate rulemaking in global institutions.
  • A sample of provisions from this leaked text show that governments signing on to TiSA will: be expected to lock in and extend their current levels of financial deregulation and liberalisation; lose the right to require data to be held onshore; face pressure to authorise potentially toxic insurance products; and risk a legal challenge if they adopt measures to prevent or respond to another crisis.

Ban on Access to Source Codes 
TiSA also contains stipulations that require an open access for source codes of all member nations. For example, the Mayor of Munich has already taken the step of making a mandatory switch of all public systems to open source systems like LibreOffice or OpenOffice.While this can be considered a part of the framework of creating openness and transparency, the second edge of the blade is that it also knocks down national and subnational barriers of protection against the reach of other nations into their own public information flow.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Jimmy Morales: the Comedic Actor Who Could Become President of Guatemala

Jimmy Morales, a comic actor who once starred in a slapstick comedy as a cowboy who ran for president, is the surprise winner of the Guatemalan elections held on Sept. 6.
Morales, of the minuscule Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), is running for office in the midst of the greatest political crisis in the country’s recent history and has successfully portrayed himself as an outsider. However, his critics have warned that most of his party members are right-wing Army veterans and that, given the country’s recent history of authoritarian military regimes, Guatemala could be heading for a repeat episode.  from NotiCen, September 24, 2015
 By Jake Sandler
The string of protests that have consumed Guatemala in the aftermath of the scandals involving ex-President Otto Pérez Molina and his former vice president Roxana Baldetti includ what  some journalists and academics have called it ‘the Guatemalan Spring and the emergence of  a fascinating political leader, comedic actor Jimmy Morales. Morales is famous for playing a bumbling cowboy who accidentally becomes president. Well, after Morales garnered 24% of the votes cast in the recent Sept. 6 national election, his famous comedic interpretation in Presidente de a sombrero (“President in a Cowboy Hat”) may become real life, just without the cowboy hat. Here is a trailer.

Born James Ernesto Morales Cabrera in the capital city of Guatemala in 1969. Morales spent his earl school years at the Evangelical Institute of Latin America. If elected president, Morales would become the third Evangelical President of Guatemala. Before beginning his career in television and film, Morales went on to earn various degrees, including a bachelor’s in Business Administration and Theology, and a master’s and doctorate the University of San Carlos in Strategic Security, focusing on security and defense.

Morales entered the entertainment industry alongside his brother, Sammy Morales, with the still popular television series Moralejas (“Morals”), a comedic show that centers on satire of society and government. In addition to this series for which he is best known, Morales has appeared in seven Guatemalan films, including Manzana güena en noche buena, La misteriosa herencia, Detectives por error, “Ve que vivos, una aventura en el más allá, Repechaje, Gerardi, and Un presidente de a sombrero. He has also starred in the movie Fe as a morally bound priest, directed by renowned Guatemalan director Alejo Crisóstomo.

The 2011 casting of Morales to this role as priest-protagonist displays the artistic reach of his acting, which goes beyond comedic satire into the profound and dramatic nuance of Crisóstomo’s internationally awarded films. That same year he changed his name to Jimmy Morales and ran for mayor of Mixco as the candidate for the Acción de Desarrollo Nacional (AND) political party. Two years later in 2013, Morales was elected as Secretary General of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN) party, a post he currently holds.

Jimmy Morales’ emergence as a political leader and serious frontrunner in Guatemala’s presidential race places the actor, writer, director, producer and politician in a group of memorable moments throughout recent history – when democracy crosses the paths of popularity with professional entertainers and artists. Here is his campaign Web site.

Morales joins list of entertainers running for office
Earlier this year we published a blog post on the story of Haiti’s pop music icon and President Michael Martelly, who has led the Haitian government since 2011. In 2010, popular Haitian-American hiphop artist Wyclef Jean had attempted to join the fray of presidential hopefuls, but was turned down by the national election committee.

Elsewhere, we have seen actors make their way into the top offices of government: Eva Peron, although never president, maintained a great degree of power and popularity in Argentina; actresses Silvia Pinal and María Rojo both became senators in the Mexican National Congress. However, India and the Philippines top the list with famous actors turned politicians. The United States is a  close third. We all know about Ronald Raegan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Jerry Springer (mayor of Cincinnati) and Sonny Bono (US representative in California). In the current election cycle, Donald Trump has emerged as political player. Trump might claim to be more of a businessman than an entertainer, although many would disagree.

Some US news outlets have begun to dub Morales “The Donald Trump of Guatemala," but there are stark differences between the two politicians, namely: money. A first-round win by Morales was a remarkable achievement considering his party spent around US$480,000 for the campaign through July, according to electoral records. In contrast, Manuel Baldizón, of Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER), who came in third, spent US$5.3 million.

Part of Morales' appeal is that he has centered his campaign on convincing the electorate that he is not part of the elitist political establishment. His slogan, “neither corrupt nor a thief” could earn him some support in the runoff election. However, his conservative views on social issues, including his anti-abortion stance, could alienate voters who lean left, and especially the youth student movement, which is looking for a change. His primary opponent is Sandra Torres, ex-wife of former center-left  President Álvaro Colom (2007-2011).

Friday, September 18, 2015

Meet the Fire Expert Behind the Investigation at the Garbage Dump in Cocula, Guerrero

A report from a group of independent experts working under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has cast doubt on a Mexican government report regarding the fate of 43 students from a teachers college (Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa Raúl Isidro Burgos) in Guerrero state. An investigation from the IACHR-sanctioned Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), however, challenged the administration’s version of the events, including the official conclusion that the students had been killed in Iguala and taken to the garbage dump in Cocula where their bodies were burned to ashes. The GIEI based its conclusion on an investigation of the site conducted by José Torero, a renowned Peruvian expert on fire, who visited the site on July 13. Torero’s report said, "The minimum amount of fire needed to cremate the bodies could not have occurred" at the dump in Cocula, not even enough to burn one body.  -SourceMex, September 16, 2015

Photo: University of Queensland
 By Jake Sandler
 The decision by the IACHR to hire José Luis Torero as a consultant gives the investigation significant credibility. After all, Torero has done extensive research on fire safety, arson and other matters related to the incendiary sciences. He has  published 20 book chapters and over 300 articles on subjects relating to fire protection and fire safety engineering. His specialties include “fire dynamics, flame spread, microgravity research, smoldering combustion, smoke detection, structures and fire, suppression systems, contaminated land and education in fire safety engineering.

Torero has conducted work on prescriptive and performance based design, forensic fire investigation and product development, conducted detailed structural response to fire, fire resistance evaluation, material selection, life safety analysis, smoke evacuation, detection and alarm design as well as standard and advanced fire suppression systems.” Over the years his numerous awards and honors include a NASA-Certificate of Recognition for Outstanding Contributions to Space Shuttle Mission (1995).

Born in Lima, Peru, Torero graduated with a Masters Degree in Engineering from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (1989), MSc. from the University of California at Berkeley (1991), and a PhD. from the University of California at Berkeley (1992). In 2001 he took a position as Associate Professor of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland. That same year he was also awarded a position as researcher with the National Center for Scientific Research in France. That began his move into European research communities, where since the 1970s the University of Edinburgh had established the most state of the art Fire Safety Engineering program in the world. His current positions include a Chair and Directorship of Fire Safety Engineering at the Building Research Establishment at the University of Edinburgh, where he is also head of the Institute for Infrastructure and Environment.

His expertise on this specialty subfield in engineering is extraordinary and rarely matched throughout the globe. The question is, has he had experience intersecting his work and research with a volatile and politically charged issue such as that which Mexico has contracted him? Although it can be said that fire safety and protection are socially loaded fields everywhere, it seems most of Torero’s work had been in aerospace engineering, urban planning and fire suppression systems, not necessarily this more forensic and criminal angle at play in Guerrero. Although this is a somewhat new position for Torero, he will be utilizing his expertise in the same way he has in his previous studies, focusing on patters and nature of the flames themselves, and the materials that were burned in an attempt to construct a better overall understanding of what actually happened.