Central America Theater
Thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets May 16, demanding the nation's President Otto Pérez Molina step down amid a scandal that has already forced the resignation of his vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Despite rain, protesters marched in 13 cities. Throngs filled the capital's central plaza, where a giant banner read "We are the people." The mobilization was largely leaderless, organized by social media under the hashtag #RenunciaYa (Resign Already). It all blew up in April, when the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala released findings of an investigation into a customs bribery ring uncovered by Guatemalan prosecutors. Baldetti's private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, was named as the ringleader, forcing Baldetti to step down May 8—despite protesting her innocence. Pérez Molina likewise pleads ignorance about the ring, dubbed "La Línea," and pledges a crackdown on corruption. Monzón is on the lam and an Interpol warrant has been issued.
Panamanian vice president and foreign minister Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado announced on Feb. 9 that the country's National Environmental Authority (ANAM) had ordered the temporary suspension of work on the $130 million Barro Blanco hydroelectric project, which is being built on the Tabasará river in the western province of Chiriquí. ANAM attributed the suspension to the owners' failure to comply with requirements in an environmental impact study, including those for clear agreements with affected communities and a plan approved by the National Culture Institute (INAC) to protect archeological relics likely to be flooded by the dam. ANAM officials also cited the owners' handling of hazardous waste without an environmental impact study and the lack of a plan for the management of sediments.
US political and trade policies "play a major role" in worsening the poverty and violence that are root causes of unauthorized immigration to the US by Hondurans, according to a report released by the AFL-CIO, the main US labor federation, on Jan. 12. The report, "Trade, Violence and Migration: The Broken Promises to Honduran Workers," grew out of the experiences of a delegation the union group sent to Honduras in October following a sharp increase in migration from the country by unaccompanied minors the previous spring. The report notes that Honduras is now "the most unequal country in Latin America," with an increase in poverty by 4.5 percentage points from 2006 to 2013. "[T]he percentage of those working full time but receiving less than the minimum wage has gone up by nearly 30%."
On Jan. 29 the administration of US president Barack Obama announced that its budget proposal to Congress for fiscal year 2016 (October 2015-September 2016) would include $1 billion in aid to Central America, with an emphasis on El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The goal is to help "implement systemic reforms that address the lack of economic opportunity, the absence of strong institutions and the extreme levels of violence that have held the region back at a time of prosperity for the rest of the Western Hemisphere," according to a White House fact sheet. The New York Times published an op-ed the same day by Vice President Joseph Biden explaining the request as a way "to stem the dangerous surge in migration" last summer—a reference to an uptick in border crossings by unaccompanied Central American minors that peaked last June and quickly diminished in subsequent months.
Panamanian officials and leaders of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group were scheduled to meet on Feb. 2 to discuss the controversial Barro Blanco hydroelectric project, which is being built on the Tabasará river in the western province of Chiriquí. Ngöbe-Buglé representatives are calling for the cancellation of the dam and say there will be forceful actions if the government doesn't agree to their demand by Feb. 15. President Juan Carlos Varela has named a committee to represent the government in the talks; it is headed by Vice President Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado, who is also the foreign relations minister, and includes security minister Rodolfo Aguilera, governance minister Milton Henríquez, labor minister Luis Ernesto Carles and environmental minister Mirei Endara. Some members of the committee held a preliminary meeting with indigenous leaders on Jan. 29, and the government's technical commission was studying the area around the dam on Jan. 31.
On Jan. 19 Guatemala's High Risk Court B convicted former police chief Pedro García Arredondo of the deaths of 37 people in a fire at the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City on Jan. 31, 1980. García Arredondo was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the fire and 50 years for the deaths of two students; he is already serving a 70-year sentence for the killing of a student. The fire broke out when police stormed the embassy, which had been occupied by indigenous and campesino protesters from El Quiché department; the police blocked the doors and refused to let firefighters enter. The victims included the Spanish consul, two of his employees, a former Guatemalan vice president, a former Guatemalan foreign relations minister, and 22 El Quiché campesinos; one was Vicente Menchú, the father of 1992 Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum.
The retrial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity was delayed on Jan. 5. Two of the three judges on the panel accepted the defense's motion that the third judge, Judge Jeannette Valdez, should recuse herself from the trial on the grounds that she is biased because she wrote her master's thesis on genocide. Rios Montt is being tried for ordering military operations that led to the torture, rape and murder of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Mayan between 1982 and 1983, part of Guatemala's bloody 1960-1996 civil war. Rios Montt was convicted on these charges in 2013 and sentenced to 80 years in prison, but 10 days later his sentence was overturned by the Constitutional Court on procedural grounds and a retrial was ordered.
Unknown assailants shot and killed TV news presenter Reynaldo Paz Mayes on the morning of Dec. 15 as he was exercising at an outdoor sports centers in Comayagua, capital of the central Honduran department of Comayagua. A supporter of the center-left opposition Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), Paz owned a small local television station, RPM TV Canal 28, where he hosted a news program known for its criticism of President Juan Orlando Hernández's right-wing government and the June 2009 military coup that removed then-president José Manuel Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009) from office. Another station owner, Juan Ramón Flores, said Paz had received various threats, including an anonymous phone call the week before, because of his political views.