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Weekly Roundup: Mexico's El Chapo Capture, Colombia's Campaign Trail, Venezuela's Peace Conference

February 28, 2014

Sinaloa Cartel Leader “El Chapo” Captured in Mexico

In a joint operation with U.S. authorities, Mexico’s Navy captured infamous criminal Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán early in the morning of February 22 in the seaside resort of Mazatlan. “The capture is seen as a major boost for [Mexican President Enrique] Peña Nieto, who has been criticized for focusing more on the economy than security concerns,” writes Alfredo Corchado in The Dallas Morning News. “It should also lay to rest, for now, questions about his willingness to cooperate with U.S. authorities.”

Some are curious how it was so simple to capture Guzmán, whose escape from a Mexican prison in 2001 sparked a manhunt that lasted years, and who was found in an unexceptional apartment after fleeing a few days earlier through intricate tunnels  leading from a Culiacan safe house. “[O]ne wonders if he was tired of the hard life, looking to be caught, needing some relief from the pressure of transporting thousands of tons of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, you name it, in addition to the daily agony of deciding whom to kill, whom to trust,” writes Alma Guillermoprieto for The New York Review of Books. In the end, it may have been something as simple as his use of a satellite phone that led to his arrest.

The United States unveiled new indictments against El Chapo (“Shorty”) related to drug trafficking and money laundering this week, but Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Eduardo Medina Mora indicated the kingpin would face charges in Mexico first. “Mr. Guzman still has pending time to serve in Mexico from his original sentence and he also faces new charges in Mexico that will be processed in Mexican federal courts,” said the ambassador.

“Peace Conference” Fails to Stem Venezuelan Protests

Opposition protests that began February 12 continued in Venezuela this week, despite a “peace conference” convened on February 26, which the opposition refused to attend. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua began a tour of Southern Common Market countries this week to discuss the protests and seek support from regional leaders. While President Nicolás Maduro said this week that 50 people have died in the demonstrations, the opposition estimates the death toll to be at least 15.

In the context of the international reactions to Venezuela’s protests, The Washington Post’s Wonkblog looks at the Venezuelan government’s success in reducing inequality, noting that income inequity remains high as growth is sluggish and inflation rises. A Pew Research study released this week found that a record low of 33 percent of Venezuelans say their standard of living is improving—a drop from 54 percent a year earlier.

Get an in-depth look at Venezuela’s protests with AS/COA Online’s resource guide.

New App Making Waves in Venezuela’s Protests

Zello, a walkie-talkie app that lets users communicate with thousands of people at a time, has become a favorite of Venezuelan protesters. On February 20, app creator Bill Moore found that the Venezuelan government was blocking the app and access to the Zello website. Moore took to Twitter to ask Venezuelans for feedback in getting around the block and creating a new version of the app. Defense One reports that for Moore, the situation in Venezuela has been like “digital trench warfare with governments working feverishly to outmaneuver software makers and vice versa.” (h/t The PanAmerican Post)

Tapped Out: Venezuela Turns to Public for Oil Investment

Venezuela will create an oil investment fund geared to the public, reports BNAmericas. Due to launch in April, the fund will target projects such as oil and gas transportation and crude upgrading services, said Rafael Ramírez, the CEO of state oil firm PDVSA and the country’s minister of energy. The announcement comes as foreign investment in the oil sector has been dwindling.

Brazil and EU to Build Multi-Million-Dollar Undersea Cable

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff traveled to Brussels this week, following her trip to the Vatican and Italy to meet with the Pope and Italian president over the weekend. In Belgium, Rousseff participated in the EU-Brazil summit, where she met with the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council. Leaders agreed to a $185 million project to lay an undersea communications cable from Portugal to Brazil. Rousseff said the cable would “guarantee the neutrality” of the Internet, and added that both sides have shared concerns about U.S. dominance of fiber-optic cables in the aftermath of the U.S. National Security Agency spying scandal. Rouseff also noted that Brazil and the EU are “close” to beginning negotiations on a free trade agreement.

By the Numbers: Brazil’s 2013 Growth

On February 27, the Institute of Geography and Statistics published data showing Brazil’s economy grew 2.3 percent last year, thanks in part to an expansion in agribusiness. The 7 percent growth in this sector was the largest jump since 1996. Services also boosted overall growth, representing over 69 percent of GDP. Imports grew 8.4 percent, more than three times of the rate of exports. O Estado de São Paulo points out that while Brazil’s growth outpaced that of the United States and Mexico, it also came in below the global average.

Brazil's Speedy 4G

Among 16 countries ranked globally, Brazil has the third-fastest 4G network, says a February report published by OpenSignal. The study also ranked providers, finding that Brazil is home to the company offering the fastest 4G network globally. However, when it comes to coverage, Brazil ranked at spot 14, with 4G available to customers only 47 percent of the time. Brazil’s Info magazine explains that the reason Brazil has such high speeds is due to the small number of users connected to the network.  

The Rocky Road of Colombia’s Campaign Trail

Colombia’s presidential contenders are gearing up ahead of the May 25 election. According to a Cifras & Conceptos poll released this week, President Juan Manuel Santos leads the race with 31 percent in polls. Green Alliance candidate Enrique Peñalosa and Democratic Center candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga have 9 and 8 percent, respectively.

This week there were also surprises on the campaign trail. On February 23, Colombian prosecutors began an investigation after Santos revealed that over 1,000 of his personal emails were hacked, as were emails of his family members. Santos says that the unknown criminals are trying to slander him during his reelection campaign, and investigators will try to discover if the hackers are connected to an army intelligence unit accused of spying on the government’s peace negotiators.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Patriotic Union candidate Aida Avella suffered an assassination attempt, which the guerrilla group National Liberation Army later took credit for—alleging Avella’s bodyguards opened fire on rebels first.

Santos Proposes Longer Terms, End to Presidential Reelection

This week at a meeting with the country’s mayors, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos proposed ending reelection for mayors, governors, and the president, and instead to extend administrations to five or six years in length. If he wins reelection this year, Santos said he will introduce a constitutional reform to abolish reelection for these roles.

Peru Gets Its Fifth Prime Minister in Three Years

For the fifth time in less than three years of his presidency, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala appointed a new prime minister this week. On Sunday, Prime Minister César Villanueva resigned after a dispute with the first lady and finance minister about raising the minimum wage. Housing Minister René Cornejo was sworn into office as prime minister on February 24. Humala also reshuffled his cabinet, naming a new energy and mines minister, as well new ministers of housing, labor, agriculture, production, development and social inclusion, and women.

Chile Officially Enters U.S. Visa Waiver Program

Starting this May, Chileans traveling to the United States will no longer need a visa to enter the country, writes La Tercera. Chile is the only Latin American country on the visa waiver list, which allows visits of up to 90 days for tourism or business and includes transit through Canada and Mexico. The U.S. State Department officially eliminated the requirement after a lengthy process that required Chile to meet conditions such as a visa rejection rate of less than 3 percent and certification by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The cost to register online before traveling will be $14, down from $160, and eligibility lasts for two years. Around 200,000 Chileans visit the United States annually, with that number expected to rise, writes El Mercurio.

After Local Elections, Ecuador to Face a “Cabinet Crisis”

President Rafael Correa called for the resignations of his entire cabinet and said there would be a “cabinet crisis” after the ruling party lost mayoralties in the key cities of Quito and Guayaquil during the February 23 elections. The opposition captured the leadership of five of the country’s largest cities—a blow to Correa, who had sought to boost governing party mayoral campaigns. Correa said the shake-up is a necessary step to “breathe fresh air” into the cabinet. After cabinet ministers turned in their letters of resignation on February 26, Vice President Jorge Glas said Correa would take a few days to make a decision on the reshuffle.

Read about Ecuador’s local elections in an AS/COA elections blog post.

U.S. State Department Releases Annual Human Rights Country Reports

This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry submitted to Congress the State Department’s annual country reports on human rights in 2013. In Latin America, the State Department found increased restrictions on press freedom in Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as attacks on peaceful assembly by the government in Cuba. Additionally, the reports address disappearances in Mexico and impunity in Guatemala.

Jamaica Seeks to Decriminalize Marijuana

In a statement this week, Jamaica’s Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell said that he intended to introduce legislation by the end of the year to decriminalize marijuana. “Jamaica cannot be allowed to be left behind on the issue,” he said. The Economist’s Americas blog points out that decriminalization would reduce the number of criminal offences by as many as a million a week, unclog the courts, and allow the police to pursue other crimes. But the blog notes that it would still be illegal to grow and trade the drug in large quantities, which means criminal gangs may continue to control the market.

Future Unclear for Guatemala’s Attorney General

On February 26, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court heard final arguments in the case to determine if Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz can serve her full four-year term or if it will expire in May, as the court decided in a previous provisional ruling. El Periódico reports that there are six candidates for the position, should it open up—including Paz y Paz herself.

Mexico Plans Construction of LatAm’s Largest Solar Plant

Renewable energy is gaining steam in Mexico as the country plans to construct Latin America’s largest solar plant, Aura Solar 1. The 30-megawatt farm is part of the country’s growing solar market, which is expecting to quadruple by year’s end. Meanwhile, the energy secretariat set a goal that 35 percent of power generation comes from non-fossil fuels by 2024. The country’s recent energy reform provides an opportunity to open up the solar power sector, Christina McCain, senior manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Latin American Climate Initiative, told ClimateProgress.