Monday, March 7, 2011

WNU #1070: Panama President Backs Down on Open-Pit Mining

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #1070, March 6, 2011

1. Panama: Martinelli Backs Down on Open-Pit Mining
2. Mexico: Did US Let Guns “Walk” to Drug Cartels?
3. Mexico: Calderón Fights WikiLeaks Fallout in DC
4. Venezuela: Jailed Unionist Convicted, Then Released
5. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Puerto Rico

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 . It is archived at

*1. Panama: Martinelli Backs Down on Open-Pit MiningRightwing Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli announced in San Félix, Chiriquí, on Mar. 3 that he would ask the National Assembly to rescind a mining law that opponents said would encourage open-pit mining for metals by foreign companies and endanger the environment. “A president like me will always listen to his people,” Martinelli wrote in his Twitter account, following nearly a month of demonstrations led by the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group [see Update #1068]. Polls reportedly showed 75% of Panamanians opposing the mining industry. (Adital (Brazil) 3/3/11)

On Mar. 4 Martinelli’s government sent the National Assembly the formal request for rescinding the law, which was passed less than a month earlier, on Feb. 11. Discussions are to start after the conclusion of Carnaval (Mardi Gras) festivities on Mar. 8. (Prensa Latina 3/4/11) The main beneficiary of the law would have been the Canadian firm Inmet Mining, which planned to get financing from foreign state-owned financial firms like Korea Resources Corp to construct a copper mine worth some $4.3 billion. Inmet president Jochen Tilks said on Mar. 4 that his company would be able to proceed with the mine despite the overturning of the law, which he called “the correct decision.” (Reuters 3/4/11)

Martinelli’s about-face on the mining law came after indigenous Panamanians intensified their protests for four days, culminating in blockades of the Pan American Highway at various points in Veraguas and Chiriquí provinces on Feb. 26 and Feb. 27. Confrontations broke out between protesters and police agents during the blockades, with injuries reported on both sides; the Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights (Frenadesco) said 10 indigenous people were wounded. (Adital 2/28/11, some from AFP and Prensa Latina) The Spanish journalists Paco Gómez Nadal and Pilar Chato were arrested while covering one of the demonstrations on Feb. 26, on charges that Gómez Nadal, a freelancer for Spanish daily El País and Panama's La Prensa, was inciting the demonstration. The two were deported on Feb. 28. (EFE 3/1/11 via Latin American Herald Tribune)

This is the second time in less than a year that grassroots protests have forced Martinelli to withdraw major legislation. On Oct. 10 the government agreed to rescind Law 30—known as the “sausage law” (“ley chorizo”) because of the various elements stuffed into it, including anti-union measures and the weakening of environmental safeguards. The law had provoked militant protests in July [see Update #1053].

*2. Mexico: Did US Let Guns “Walk” to Drug Cartels?Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat (SRE) said on Mar. 5 that it had requested “detailed information” from the US government on Operation Fast and Furious, in which the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) reportedly allowed some 2,000 firearms to enter Mexico illegally in an effort to trace the activities of gun smugglers. The operation was said to be carried out without the knowledge of the Mexican government. (La Jornada (Mexico) 3/6/11) Gun running from the US is considered a major source of weapons for drug cartels in Mexico, which has stricter gun control laws than several US states near the border.

The first report about Fast and Furious--part of Project Gunrunner, an ATF program intended to stop the flow of weapons to Mexico--appeared on CBS News on Feb. 23. According to unnamed sources, including six veteran ATF agents and executives, in late 2009 the bureau learned about cash purchases of semi-automatic versions of military-type rifles and pistols at seven gun stores in the Phoenix, Arizona area; these are weapons favored by Mexican drug traffickers. The sources told CBS News that several gun shops wanted to stop the sales but ATF managers decided instead to use a tactic known as “letting the guns walk”—allowing the weapons to be bought so that agents can gather intelligence on their use. “The numbers are over 2,500 on that case, by the way,” one source said. “That's how many guns were sold--including some 50-calibers they let walk.”

The operation unraveled on Dec. 14, 2010, when US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout with bandits near Rio Rico, Arizona. Two assault rifles found at the scene were among the weapons that suspected gun smuggler Jaime Avila of Glendale, Arizona bought a year earlier, at a time when the ATF was keeping an eye on Avila but allowing him to make purchases. Avila and 33 others were arrested after Terry’s death. (CBS 2/23/11)

After further investigation, the Washington, DC-based Center for Public Integrity and the Los Angeles Times reported that “1,765 guns were sold to suspected smugglers during a 15-month period of the investigation. Of those, 797 were recovered on both sides of the border, including 195 in Mexico after they were used in crimes, collected during arrests or intercepted through other law enforcement operations.”

Several agents objected vehemently to the practice. "With the number of guns we let walk, we'll never know how many people were killed, raped, robbed,” Agent John Dodson told the Center for Public Integrity. “There is nothing we can do to round up those guns. They are gone.” The dissent reached a point in March 2010 where the operational supervisor, David J. Voth, warned the agents in an email against “petty arguing, rumors or other adolescent behavior.” “Whether you care or not, people of rank and authority at HQ are paying close attention to this case, and they also believe we…are doing what they envisioned the Southwest Border Groups doing,” Voth wrote. He suggested that if they didn’t like the program, the ATF agents might prefer working at the Maricopa County Jail, where “you can get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day.”

Agent Dodson gave an example of the ATF’s attitude to possible victims of the operation when the guns circulated in Mexico. “If you're going to make an omelet, you've got to scramble some eggs,” a supervisor said, according to Dodson. “I took it to mean that whatever crimes these guns were going to be involved in, those were the eggs, those were acceptable,” Dodson explained.

On Mar. 3 US attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. asked Justice Department officials to look into the possibility of an investigation of Fast and Furious. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the leading Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has started his own inquiry. (LAT 3/3/11) It should be noted that Grassley is an opponent of gun control, with an “A” rating from the National Rife Association (NRA). (On the Issues website, accessed 3/6/11)

*3. Mexico: Calderón Fights WikiLeaks Fallout in DCUS president Barack Obama expressed strong support for Mexico’s “war on drugs” during a joint press conference in Washington, DC on Mar. 3 with Mexican president Felipe Calderón Hinijosa. “I have nothing but admiration for President Calderón and his willingness to take this on,” Obama said, referring to Calderón’s militarization of the fight against drug trafficking since he took office in December 2006. Some 35,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence since then, and many Mexicans reject the militarization strategy [see Update #1068].

The US “will support [Calderón] in any ways we can to help him achieve his goals, because his goals are our goals as well,” Obama said, promising that the US would speed up the delivery of military assistance under the Mérida Initiative program [see Update #1065], do more to stop the flow of weapons from the US to Mexican drug traffickers, and focus more on using education, prevention and treatment to cut down the demand for drugs in the US. However, the only substantive agreements that came out of the meeting were aimed at ending a longstanding dispute over access to the US by Mexican truckers. Negotiators are expected to come up with a draft agreement soon to allow trucking by Mexican carriers—as provided for in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994. (New York Times 3/3/11)

When the Mexican government announced on Feb. 23 that Calderón would be visiting Washington a week later, the left-leaning Mexican daily La Jornada speculated that the purpose was damage control after several embarrassments for the Mexican president. One was the killing of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Jaime Zapata on Feb. 14 while he and another US immigration agent were driving from Monterrey, Nuevo León, to Mexico City. Another problem for Calderón was La Jornada’s publication, starting on Feb. 10, of a series of secret US diplomatic cables from the WikiLeaks group. A number of the cables showed growing doubts among US diplomats over the efficacy of the same “drug war” that Obama praised on Mar. 3, as did cables published by the Spanish daily El País in December [see Updates #1059, 1067]. (LJ 2/24/11)

Adding to Calderón’s difficulties, three US cables from 2006 suggested a remarkably close relationship between US diplomats and Calderón as he was running for the presidency. A classified Jan. 18 cable describes a meeting of Calderón with then-US ambassador Antonio O. Garza, Jr. and others on Jan. 10, shortly before Calderón’s campaign officially started. The future president was concerned that the “negative spin on migration in the Mexican press”—Mexican anger over plans to extend a fence on the US side of the border and a harsh anti-immigrant bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI)—would help the center-left coalition candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, widely known as “AMLO.” Calderón explained that “[h]e couldn't allow AMLO to take one vote on the migration issue, and would have to speak out against a ‘border wall’ as well.” Garza agreed that “[c]ertainly it was politic to reject the border fence.” (LJ 2/21/11)

The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) declared Calderón the winner in the July 2 election by a minuscule margin; López Obrador promptly denounced the results as fraudulent and led massive protests in Mexico City. Calderón and Garza met on Aug. 2 at Calderón’s request, “primarily to express thanks for President [George W.] Bush's early and friendly congratulatory call,” according to a confidential Aug. 4 cable. “Calderon expressed his regret about the ongoing PRD protests (which have blocked key arteries leading to the embassy's neighborhood).”

When Calderón and Garza met again on Aug. 29, there was little question that the electoral court, the Electoral Tribunal of the Judicial Branch of the Republic (TEPJF), would uphold the IFE’s declaration of Calderón’s victory, but Garza’s classified Sept. 1 cable shows his concern about Calderón’s situation. “Calderón will come into office Dec. 1 in the weakest possible situation politically,” Garza wrote. “We risk stagnation on our highest-profile issues unless we can send a strong signal of support, prompt the Calderón team into a vigorous transition, and reinforce Calderón's agenda and leadership…. I recommend that President Bush make a second call to Calderón once the TEPJF results are released, offering formal congratulations on his victory. At that point my mission team will engage energetically with Calderón's transition team to invigorate progress on our priority areas.”

Garza didn’t try to hide his contempt for López Obrador and the Mexican left. He referred to the protests against suspected electoral fraud as “AMLO’s harassment,” “AMLO's dramatic gesticulations” and “his constant barrage of attacks.” The leftist candidate was “increasingly inconsiderate and obstructive,” Garza wrote. (LJ 2/21/11)

*4. Venezuela: Jailed Unionist Convicted, Then ReleasedOn Mar. 3 Venezuela’s highest court, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), ordered the conditional release of union leader Rubén González, who had been in prison since Sept. 29, 2009 [see Update #1037]. Just two days before the TSJ order, Bolívar state judge Magda Hidalgo sentenced González to seven and a half years in prison for instigating a job action and blocking a highway in Ciudad Guayana at the government-owned Ferrominera Orinoco (FMO), an iron ore mining subsidiary of CVG, the national heavy industry holding company. González is general secretary of the Ferrominera Workers Union (Sintraferrominera). Under the terms of the conditional release, he is required to report every 15 days to the authorities in Ciudad Guayana.

González’s release followed two days of protests by students and unionists representing both opponents and supporters of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías, including sections of the pro-Chávez National Workers Union (UNT) and of the anti-Chávez Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV). When he was freed, González expressed his thanks “to all the labor forces of Guayana, to all those who have supported me and have been in solidarity with this struggle.” He called for unity in the workers’ movement, despite its differences and particular interests. (EFE 3/3/11 via; El Universal (Caracas) 3/6/11; (Venezuela) 3/5/11)

*5. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Puerto Rico
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