Tuesday, November 8, 2011

WNU #1104: Colombian Students Continue Massive Marches

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #1104, November 6, 2011

1. Colombia: Students Continue Strike, Massive Marches
2. Argentina: US Legislator Wants Release of "Dirty War" Files
3. Honduras: 300 Police Rifles "Disappear" as Drug Running Soars
4. Mexico: Both US Parties Hit by Gun Walking Scandal
5. Mexico: Film Documents Protests Against Oaxaca Mine
6. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba

ISSN#: 1084 922X. Weekly News Update on the Americas covers news from Latin America and the Caribbean, compiled and written from a progressive perspective. It has been published weekly by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York since 1990. For a subscription, write to weeklynewsupdate@gmail.com. It is archived at http://weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com

*1. Colombia: Students Continue Strike, Massive Marches
Tens of thousands of students and their supporters marched in cities across Colombia on Nov. 3 in a continuing struggle against proposed changes to Law 30, the legislation that has governed higher education since 1992. More than 1.8 million students from 37 public universities and at least 17 private ones have carried out an open-ended strike since Oct. 11 to protest the changes, which they say will “reduce education to a commodity.” They are also protesting Colombia’s free trade agreement (FTA) with the US, which the US Congress approved on Oct. 12 [see Updates #1101, 1102].

According to press reports, as many as 600,000 people joined the Nov. 3 demonstrations in 31 cities, including Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Manizales and Armenia. In Bogotá the sheer number of protesters forced the local mass transit system, TransMilenio, to shut down during the evening, and major roads, including routes 30 and 45, were impassable because of traffic jams. The Bogotá protests included a public debate in the late afternoon; Education Minister María Fernanda Campo and other officials were invited but failed to attend. Later, at least 10,000 protesters held an evening of celebration in the Plaza de Bolívar, with dancing, puppets and a “kiss-a-thon” illuminated with torches.

The government of rightwing president Juan Manuel Santos has already sent its legislative proposal to Congress, and a committee of the Chamber of Representatives of the Congress is scheduled to begin debating on Nov. 8. The changes would give more academic and financial independence to individual universities, but students say this would force the institutions to generate their own income, opening up the system to the profit motive and to exploitation by multinational corporations. The strikers are demanding free, high-quality public university education. “[I]n a soldier they invest 18 milion pesos [about $9,400],” the students said, referring to Colombia’s mandatory military service; “in a student, hardly more than 2 million [$1,044].”

Student leaders insist that the government must withdraw the proposed changes before any negotiations can take place. The strike will continue indefinitely, they say, with mass demonstrations planned for each week—the same tactic Chilean students have used in a protest which has shut down much of Chile’s educational system since June [see Update #1102]. “[W]e will not permit the loss of public education,” Sergio Fernández, a spokesperson for the Colombian Student Organization (OCE), told Bogotá’s Radio W. “We would prefer to lose the semester, or whatever it takes, than to lose this right.” (Semana (Colombia) 11/3/11 from EFE and from staff; Prensa Latina 11/4/11; Colombia Reports 11/4/11; La Jornada (Mexico) 11/4/11 from PL, AFP, DPA, Notimex)

The 11 Congress members from the center-left Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) have joined with two representatives of the indigenous sectors and two from the Green Party (PV) to call for the government to withdraw its education proposal. The legislators argued that there can’t be a fair debate on the issue, since the government counts on the support of more than 90% of the legislators. When Education Minister Campo announced on Nov. 4 that the government would not withdraw the measure, PDS senator Camilo Romero Galeano called for her resignation. (Caracol (Colombia) 11/4/11; Radio Santa Fe (Bogotá) 11/4/11)

*2. Argentina: US Legislator Wants Release of "Dirty War" Files
A US Congress member, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), has written US president Barack Obama asking for the declassification of several US intelligence documents with information on the abduction of children in Argentina during the 1976-1983 “dirty war” against suspected leftists. An estimated 30,000 people were disappeared, including hundreds of pregnant women whose babies are believed to have been taken by the military dictatorship then in power and given to adoptive parents. Argentine authorities have been seeking in formation on these cases to aid in the prosecution of former officials and to allow children to be reunited with their biological relatives.

“Thousands of families have waited more than 30 years to learn the fates of their loved ones, and we have an opportunity to make a contribution to truth and justice by helping to bring this troubling chapter in Argentina’s history to a close,” Hinchey wrote. “I ask that you follow through on your administration’s commitment to openness by reviewing these files for declassification. The release of these documents would once again demonstrate our nation’s dedication to human rights and open government.”

Hinchey was referring to documents held by the US military, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central intelligence Agency (CIA). Last May the Republican majority in the House of Representatives voted down an amendment Hinchey wrote that would have required the director of national intelligence to issue a report to Congress on Argentine human rights violations under the military dictatorship. (Buenos Aires Herald 11/3/11; AP 11/3/11 via CBS News)

*3. Honduras: 300 Police Rifles "Disappear" as Drug Running Soars
Honduran police officials gave contradictory responses on Nov. 1 to a report published the day before about the disappearance of some 300 light automatic rifles (FAL, from the initials in Spanish) and 300,000 5.56-caliber bullets from a police unit. The weapons, which were in the control of the Cobras special operations police group, were taken from a Tegucigalpa warehouse in August or September; the Tegucigalpa daily El Heraldo broke the story on Oct. 31.

National Police spokesperson Silvio Inestroza insisted that this was an old case, referring to the similar disappearance of 186 weapons in 2007, also from a Cobras unit. But Police Internal Affairs director Simeón Flores said that a new arms theft had been reported two months earlier, and he asked why it hadn’t been investigated. José Ricardo Ramírez del Cid, the newly appointed head of the National Police, said that he didn’t know the details but that he had appointed a commission to study the matter. (Fox News Latino 10/31/11; El Heraldo 11/2/11)

Police director Ramírez had in fact only been in office since Oct. 31. Security Secretary Pompeyo Bonilla appointed him to replace José Luis Muñoz Licona following another police scandal: Tegucigalpa police chief Jorge Alberto Barralaga Hernández released four agents who are suspects in the murder of two university students; he told them to take a few days off and report back on Oct. 30. The four suspects never reappeared, and Barralaga Hernandez and Muñoz Licona were both dismissed. (Honduras Culture and Politics blog 10/31/11)

Adding to the embarrassments for the government, on Oct. 30 the Associated Press wire service quoted an unnamed US law enforcement official who called Honduras “the number one offload point for traffickers to take cocaine through Mexico to the US.” An estimated 250 to 300 tons of cocaine are shipped from South America through Honduras each year, according to the AP article. Much of the cocaine comes by sea, but Honduras is also the region’s main center for smuggling drugs by air. The unnamed US official said that 79% of the drug flights from South America to the north land in Honduras.

Large numbers of people are reportedly involved in the trade, from the populations of impoverished fishing communities to corrupt soldiers. Drug traffickers stole a military plane from the San Pedro Sula army base earlier this year, according to Alfredo Landaverde, a former adviser to the Honduran security ministry; he claims that soldiers were involved in the crime. Rich landowners with property on the coast have also profited. The authorities “seized 13 luxurious homes and ranches and 17 boats” in a mass raid in the last week of October, according to the AP article. (AP 10/30/11 via Miami Herald)

[One of the country’s richest landowners, cooking oil and food product magnate Miguel Facussé Barjum, may have been involved in three drug-related incidents at one of his properties in 2003 and 2004, according to a secret US diplomatic cable; see Update #1096.]

Meanwhile, the country’s homicide rate more than doubled from 2005 to 2010, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, Global Study on Homicide 2011. Honduras registered 82.1 homicides for every 100,000 people in the country in 2010, the highest rate per capita in the world. (Fox News Latino 10/31/11)

A CID-Gallup poll from October found that 79% of Hondurans questioned consider violence and crime the country’s most important problems. Some 54% said the government of President Porfirio (“Pepe”) Lobo Sosa was the most corrupt in Honduran history, and 63% thought the president “never” or “almost never” does what is best for the people. Lobo won the presidency in November 2009 in a controversial election organized by a de facto government installed after former president José Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009) was overthrown in a military coup. (Télam (Argentina) 10/28/11 via Terra.com; Honduras Culture and Politics 10/31/11)

*4. Mexico: Both US Parties Hit by Gun Walking Scandal
A scandal involving US law enforcement programs to let guns “walk” into Mexico has now widened to include the 2001-2008 administration of former president George W. Bush, a Republican, as well as the administration of current Democratic president Barack Obama. The latest revelations concern a program codenamed Operation Wide Receiver, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) reportedly allowed some 350 or 400 guns to enter Mexico illegally during 2006 and 2007.

US media and legislators revealed in February that the ATF let some 2,000 firearms “walk” into Mexico during 2009 and 2010 in Operation Fast and Furious, a bungled effort to trace the activities of gun smugglers in the US Southwest [see Update #1103]. Led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), Republican politicians have used the scandal to attack the Obama administration; some have called for the resignation of Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., who as head of the Justice Department is ultimately responsible for activities of the ATF.

In early October Issa and Grassley released documents and emails which they apparently thought further implicated Democratic Justice Department officials in Fast and Furious. But it seems that some of the material referred to the earlier program, Operation Wide Receiver, which instead implicated Republican officials. Wide Receiver “has not received a lot of attention,” the Washington Post noted on Oct. 6. (WP 10/6/11; New York Times 10/31/11; La Jornada (Mexico) 11/2/11 from unidentified wire services)

The partisan maneuvering over the two ATF operations has tended to obscure the larger issue of the impact of lax gun regulation in the US on Mexico’s “drug war,” which has led to the deaths of some 45,000 Mexicans since the beginning of 2007, 200 of them reportedly by weapons allowed to “walk” under Fast and Furious. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 1, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said that of 94,000 firearms seized by Mexican authorities over the past five years, 64,000—68%--had come from the US. (LJ 11/2/11 from unidentified wire services)

*5. Mexico: Film Documents Protests Against Oaxaca Mine
Residents of San José del Progreso, a municipality in the Ocotlán district of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, say they are continuing their three-year struggle against a mine operated by Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver Mines Inc. They blocked the entrance to the company’s San José mine for 40 days in the spring of 2009, charging that there had already been environmental damage even though the mine wasn’t yet in operation; they also said the authorities had licensed the project without community consultation. The protest was ended abruptly when some 700 police agents, armed with assault rifles and backed up by a helicopter, stormed the community on May 6 of that year [see Update #983 and World War 4 Report 5/27/09].

The mine is now operating, and residents report that it has depleted the area’s scarce water resources and has contaminated the subsoil with sulphuric acid. The community is currently fighting the project by using a 30-minute documentary to call national and international attention to the damage caused by mining in Oaxaca, where mining concessions take up 742,791 hectares, 7.78% of the state’s surface. The documentary, “Minas y Mentiras” (“Mines and Lies”), was produced by the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center and the Oaxacan Center in Defense of the Territories; it can be viewed on the internet at
http://vimeo.com/27948780. (La Jornada (Mexico) 11/5/11)

Correction: This item originally described Fortuna Silver as Toronto-based. It is based in Vancouver.

*6. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba

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