Central America Theater
The Supreme Court of Guatemala on Jan. 28 rejected a request to strip a member of congress of his immunity from prosecution for allegedly overseeing grave human rights violations during the country's civil war. Edgar Justino Ovalle is a top adviser to President Jimmy Morales and a member of Congress, which gives him immunity from prosecution. A spokesperson for the court stated that there was insufficient evidence that he participated in the alleged acts. However, the spokesman also explained that the court decided to reject the request "in limine," without further investigation. Edgar Ovalle was accused of having led operations as a military officer in which 77 massacres took place. The request to lift Ovall's immunity came from Prosecutor General Thelma Aldana.
Prosecutors in Guatemala on Jan. 6 announced the arrest of 14 former military and government officials for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the country's 1960-1996 civil war. Among the detained is Benedicto Lucas García, chief of the army High Command under the rule of his late brother, ex-dictator Fernando Romeo Lucas García, between 1978 and 1982. Also detained were retired Gen. Francisco Luis Gordillo, who helped bring José Efrain Rios Montt to power in the coup that toppled Lucas García in 1982, and Byron Barrientos, who was interior minister during the 2000-2004 presidency of Alfonso Portillo. "The cases that we have documented were [attacks] against the non-combatant civilian population including children," the country's chief proscutor Thelma Aldana said, asserting that they were among "the largest forced disappearances in Latin America."
The International Court of Justice on on Dec. 16 recognized Costa Rica's sovereignty over a 2.5-square-kilometer disputed territory on the border with Nicaragua, one of the main claims fought over by the two countries at The Hague-based court. "The sovereignty over the disputed territory belongs to Costa Rica," Justice Ronny Abraham stated. The ruling found that an artificial canal opened by Nicaragua in 2010 through Isla Calero, also called Isla Portillos or Harbour Head Island, was within Costa Rican territory and not part of the common border between the two countries. Justices also unanimously found that Nicaragua violated Costa Rican territory by invading Isla Calero with military personnel, by dredging canals in Costa Rican territory, and by violating Costa Rica’s navigation rights on the Río San Juan. Nicaragua was ordered to compensate Costa Rica for damage caused to its territory.
The Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) delivered a judgment Oct. 30 in a land-rights case brought by indigenous Maya elders in Belize, finding that the government violated communal rights. The case, Maya Leaders Alliance et al v the Attorney General of Belize, concerned indigenous communities in Toledo district whose lands have been usurped. The case was first brought in the Belizean courts more than 20 years ago. The country's Court of Appeal ruled in 2010 that the Maya do have communal land rights, but failed to order any restitution in the case. Maya leaders then brought suit before the CCJ. In its new ruling, the CCJ wrote that the Belizean government had "breached the appellants' right to protection of the law by failing to ensure that the existing property regime, inherited from the pre-independence colonial system, recognized and protected Maya land rights." It ordered Belize to take positive steps to secure and protect constitutional rights and to honor its international commitments, including its obligations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.
Nicaragua's Canal Commission on Nov. 5 approved environmental and social impact assessments for construction of the inter-oceanic canal by Hong Kong company HKND. "We are officially authorizing HKND to now begin the structural design and construction processes," said commission president Manuel Coronel in a ceremony. The impact studies were undertaken by UK-based Environmental Resources Management (ERM) and handed in to the government in September after a year and a half of prerparation. The assessment found that the canal project "will have significant environmental and social impact," but that this can be mitigated if it is developed properly. Project adviser Bill Wild said the approval marked a "giant step" for the project, and assured rapid advancement in the construction. The studies had not yet been approved by the official groundbeaking on the project last December.
A change of government in Guatemala and Belize is reviving long-simmering fears of war between the Central American neighbors. Media in Belize are reporting that a leaked document written by a senior officer in the Belize Defense Force apparently claims an ongoing campaign of aggression and confrontation from the Guatemalan military along the Sarstoon River, which forms the border between the two nations in the south. The leaked memo, dated Oct. 22, notes incidents as far back as 2003, with tension reaching dangerous point in 2006. The tension eased when the two nations' armed forces agreed on protocols for their border forces along the Sarstoon. But the memo says late 2009 saw another incident, in which a Guatemalan army vessel anchored on the Belizean side near the mouth of the Sarstoon, and raised a Guatemalan flag from a tree-top. BDF troops apparently removed the flag, but that the Guatemalan soldiers defiantly promised to replace it.
Three members of the ruling elite in Honduras were charged by US authorities with money-laundering this week. Yankel Rosenthal, a former minister of investment and president of the popular Club Deportivo Marathon soccer team, was arrested Oct. 6 upon landing at the Miami airport. His cousin Yani Rosenthal and uncle Jaime Rolando Rosenthal, a four-time presidential candidate and owner of El Tiempo newspaper, were also detained. Grupo Continental, owned by the Rosenthal family, is a pillar of the Honduran economy, with holdings in real estate, tourism, industry and telecommunications. US officials now say these businesses helped launder narco-profits, transfering dirty money from New York to Honduras over a period of more than 10 years. The three men provided "money laundering and other services that support the international narcotics trafficking activities of multiple Central American drug traffickers and their criminal organizations," said the US Treasury Department in a statement. Seven of their businesses were labelled under the US Kingpin Act as "specially designated narcotics traffickers." Yankel Rosenthal, who served in President Juan Orlando Hernandez's cabinet until stepping down unexpectedly in June, has won popularity in Honduras through his largesse. Among other public works, he built a new stadium in the city of San Pedro Sula, which was named after him. (El Heraldo, Oct. 8; BBC News, Oct. 7)
At least nine people have been killed and 20 more wounded in an escalating land conflict on Nicaragua's Miskito Coast over the past month. Hundreds of indigenous Miskito residents have fled their ancestral lands, in some cases seeking refuge across the border in Honduras. The crisis in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) pits indigenous Miskito and Mayangna communities against mestizo peasant colonists from Nicaragua's more densely populated west. Miskito political party YATAMA claims the peasants are illegally invading titled indigenous lands, sometimes after plots have been fraudulently sold by corrupt officials. Among the most impacted communities is Tasba Raya Indigenous Territory, where the communal president Constantino Romel was shot and wounded by National Police troops Sept. 16, allegedly after attempting to run a checkpoint. Community leaders deny police claims that officers were fired upon fmor the pick-up truck. Elvin Castro, traditional judge in the indigenous community of Francia Sirpi, has issued an ultimatum giving the colonists one month to to quit the community's territory. "If within one month they do not comply with this, then they will die," he announced. "The colonizers come to destroy the forests that we have cared for such a long time, destroying the watersheds, the plants and the animals... The government has supported the colonizers with firearms so that they can make problems."