Central America Theater
Panama has opened the long-awaited $5.4 billion expansion of its inter-oceanic canal, completed after nearly a decade of work and forecast to boost global trade. China's container ship Cosco Shipping Panama was the first to pass through the expanded canal, crossing from the Pacific to Atlantic June 26, emerging at a ceremony attended by thousands of onlookers and foreign dignitaries. The expansion is designed to accommodate the huge "neo-Panamax" ships to move far greater quantities of cargo through the canal—also dubbed "mega-ships." But the Spanish-led consortium that carried out the expansion is demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns. And there are long-term concerns about available fresh water to feed the expanded canal's new locks. The expanded canal is relying on the same water sources as the original canal—which are already under stress. During this year's El Niño-related drought, shippers had to significantly lighten their loads through the canal. Jorge L. Quijano, CEO of the Panama Canal Authority, has been pressuring Panamanians to conserve water to assure the functioning of the new mega-canal. (China Daily, June 27; Radio Australia, June 26; NYT, June 22; Miami Herald, June 20; American Shipper, March 22)
Francisca Ramírez Torres, leader of the movement against the planned Nicaraguan canal, was arrested by National Police agents June 25 in a raid on her village in the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Ramírez was leading a workshop at her village of La Fonseca, Nueva Guinea municipality, teaching local residents to build fuel-efficient wood-burning ovens. She was detained along with her husband, four other local campesinos and four foreigners who were participating in the workshop, mostly Mexicans. The event was part of a Mesoamerican Caravan for Good Life, organized to support local communities opposed to the canal project. No formal charges have yet been announced. "We don't know what argument the police used to detain them and take them by force to the state," attorney López Baltodano told the AP. President Daniel Ortega said the detained had been "handling explosives." On April 22, Ramírez and her National Council for the Defense of Our Land, Lake and Sovereignty led a march of thousands of campesinos against the canal project in Nueva Guinea. (Caravana Mesoamericana, La Prensa, La Prensa, Confidencial, AP, June 25; Havana Times, April 25; La Prensa, April 23; Havana Times, March 12)
The 2009 coup d'etat in Honduras has recently been in the news due to revelations that it was lubricated by then-Secretary of State and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Now comes the embarassing news that the son of Honduras' ex-president Porfirio Lobo has pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking charges in a federal court in Manhattan, and faces a mandatory 10-year prison term. Fabio Lobo, 44, admitted to scheming to import a “multi-ton load” of cocaine into the US. Federal prosecutors said the younger Lobo was snared by DEA informants who went undercover as traffickers and started collecting evidence against him in 2013. They popped him in Haiti a year ago, and put him on a plane to New York. Said US Attorney Preet Bharara: "Whether you are a street-level dealer, a member of a cartel, or the son of a former foreign president, drug dealing is drug dealing. It is a serious federal crime for which you will be prosecuted."
Security forces in Honduras on May 4 carried out raids on suspected narco-gang safe-houses at various locations, bringing out helicopters and heavy weaponry, and placing residential neighborhoods under siege. Code-named "Tornado," the operation coordinated troops from the National Police, Military Police, the elite Inter-institutional National Security Force (FUSINA), and the Technical Criminal Invesitgation Agency (ATIC). Locations were raided in the capital Tegucigalpa as well as the crime-stricken second city of San Pedro Sula, the Caribbean port of La Ceiba, and elsewhere. In Valle de Amarateca in the central department of Francisco Morazán, security forces seized at least two assualt rifles, fragmentation grenades, police unfiorms, and unspecified quanitities of cocaine, cannabis and cash. At least 12 people were arrested in the raids, including minors. The raids were officially called to apprehend gang members wanted for assassination and extortion. (La Prensa, May 4)
In a hotly contested incident in Nicaragua's Matagalpa department, army troops on May 2 killed "Comandante Invisible," a local campesino leader who had just announced he was taking up arms against the government. The army's Sixth Command said the "delinquent" was killed in a confrontation with troops on a patrol at the community of Palancito, Esquipulas municipality. But family members of Enrique Aguinaga Castrillo said he was "assassinated" in a raid on his nephew's home, and was unarmed when he was gunned down by soliders in front of young children. He was apparently still alive when taken away by the troops, although seriously wounded, and when his body was returned to the family it showed signs of torture. Family members also said the soliders ransacked their home, stole food and cash, and forced the nephew's wife at gunpoint to cook a meal of chicken soup and rice for them. Three days before the incident, Aguinaga had issued a communique under name "Comandante Invisible," saying he was taking up arms with a band of followers, calling the government of President Daniel Ortega "unconstitutional" and demanding new elections. Three co-signatories to the statement, who also used noms de guerre, remain at large and unidentified. The army says the operation was called as part of a crackdown on cattle-rustling in the area, not in response to the declared insurgency. (La Prensa, May 7; La Prensa, May 5; La Prensa, May 4; La Prensa, May 3; La Prensa, Nicaragua, May 2)
El Salvador has deployed a new special unit to fight criminal gangs that are now said to be operating not only in the cities but in rural areas throughout the country. The 1,000-strong Specialized Rapid Reaction Force is equipped with helicopters, armored cars and assault weapons. A mixed unit of 600 military troops and 400 National Civil Police agents, it is charged with "pursuing and neutralizing" the gangs, which are said to have 70,000 members in the country. At an April 20 ceremony to unveil the new force, Vice President Oscar Ortiz said: "The moment has come to stop the scale of violence which has imposed itself in the last few years on our country, and which has created so much blood and sacrifice... We are going to go after them in the countryside and in the city." He added that human rights will be respected. National Civil Police director Howard Cotto pledged the new force will "disarticulate the command structure" of the gangs. (BBC News, Reuters, La Prensa, Honduras, April 20)
On May 2, authorities in Honduras arrested four people in connection with the March murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres. As part of an operation code-named "Jaguar," police arrested the four in different locations around the country, including the capital Tegucigalpa. Two were members of the security forces: Mariano Chávez, a Military Police major; and Edilson Duarte Meza, a retired military officer. The two others were linked to the Honduran company that is building the Agua Zarca dam on the Río Gualcarque, which Cáceres was leading the campaign against: Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, a manager for social and environmental issues with the company, Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA); and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a former security guard hired by DESA for the dam project.
Nearly 15,000 converged on Guatemala City on Earth Day, April 22, the culmination of a cross-country march by peasants and popular organizations to demand local rights over access to water. Marchers set out April 11 from Tecun Uman in the southern coastal department of San Marcos, and from Puruhá, Baja Verapaz, in the central highlands. The March for Water, Mother Earth, Territory and Life was called to "defend water resources against the voracity of agro-industry and extractive industry," according to a statement form the indigenous organization Winaq. The statement said the movement "condemns the abusive, inhuman and impune use of by companies linked to agro-industry and extraction of metals, and the commercialization of the same." The statement called access to water an "elemental human rights," and called for it to be enshrined in Guatemala's constitution.