Central America Theater
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."
An indigenous leader who opposed pesticide abuse on Guatemala's palm oil plantations was killed Sept. 18 outside a court that just one day earlier ordered the closure of a plantation against which he had led protests. Rigoberto Lima Choc was slain by two gunmen on a motorcycle near the civil courthouse at Sayaxche, in the northern rainforest department of Peteñ—now heavily colonized by palm plantations. The court had ordered a six-month closure local palm oil manufacturer Repsa due to unethical environmental practices. Lima, a municipal councilor with the National Union of Hope (UNE), was campaigning against contamination of the Río La Pasión with pesticide runoff from the plantation. He documented the death of thousands of fish, with numerous marine species now threaetened with extinction. The United Nations office in Guatemala recently described the situation as an "ecological disaster." Two other activists have been abducted since the court ruling. Repsa employees protested in Sayaxche after the ruling. Repsa (for Peteñ Palm Reforestation) is a member of the UN Global Compact "corporate sustainability initiative." (Siglo21, Prensa Libre, Guatemala, Sept. 19; AFP, Global News, TeleSur, Sept. 18; UN Global Compact)
The constitutional chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court of Justice on Aug. 24 ruled that the country's notoriously violent street gangs and those who support them financially will now be classified as "terrorist groups." The ruling came in a decision rejecting four challenges to the constitutionality of the country's Special Law Against Terrorist Acts (LECAT). The ruling defines terrorism as the "organized and systematic exercise of violence," placing the label on any group that attempts to usurp the state's monopoly on use of force. The ruling upholds the freezing of funds for any persons believed linked to the named groups, and a ban on any negotiation with the groups. At issue are the rival Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs.
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina sent a letter to both the country's congress and reporters early Aug. 3 announcing his resignation and his intention to "stand before justice." The congress had called an emergency session to meet that day to accept the letter of resignation. Several hours before resigning, the public prosecutor requested Pérez Molina's arrest on corruption charges and a trial judge ordered his arrest. Pérez Molina and 30 other government officials allegedly took millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for keeping low import duties. Vice President Alejandro Maldonado has assumed the presidency, and must compile a list of three names for consideration for vice president, to be chosen by congress. Maldonado replaced vice president Roxana Baldetti, who was arrested in August on corruption charges. Eight other government officials have already resigned over the allegations. Pérez Molina's resignation comes only three days before the Guatemalan general election.
A Guatemalan court on Aug. 26 held that former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt can stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity but cannot be sentenced because he suffers from dementia. The court held that a special closed trial can be held where all evidence and witness testimony will be presented with representative of Ríos Montt present. Ríos Montt's lawyers have an opportunity to appeal. This ruling comes after a Guatemalan court, earlier this month, ordered Rios Montt to undergo competency tests to determine whether he was fit to stand trial. In May the Guatemalan Congress approved a resolution denying any existence of genocide during the country's civil war.
The UN International Commission Against Impunity on July 18 reported that approximately a quarter of the money used for Guatemalan political campaigns is from criminal groups. The main criminal group being drug traffickers. The report also indicated that government contractors themselves contribute to more than half of the funds. Ian Velásquez, head of the commission, stated: "Corruption is the unifying element of the Guatemalan political system based on an amalgam of interests that include politicians, officials, public entities, businessmen, non-governmental organizations and criminal groups." The report suggested several campaign finance reforms including limiting private funding, strengthening institutional coordination, and reforming the system itself.
Thousands of protesters marched in Honduras on June 26 calling for the resignation of President Juan Hernández and demanding an independent investigation into his role in an ongoing corruption scandal. Hernández is accused of knowingly using money from a $200 million embezzlement scandal at the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) to help pay for his 2013 presidential campaign. Hernández last week acknowledged that his campaign did receive funds from people involved with the scandal, but stated he and his party had not been made aware of where that money had come from.