Central America Theater
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.
Christmas Eve saw clashes in Nicaragua between riot police and campesino protesters, with some 40 detained and several injured. Most have been released, but a few are still reported missing and are believed to be in Managua's El Chipote prison. "This is no longer a dictatorship lite, this is a now a full-blown repressive dictatorship that is baring its claws and releasing its dogs," Vilma Nuñez, head of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, told US-based Fusion website. The protests took place at El Tule, Chontales department, and in Rivas, where campesinos tried to block road construction related to the inter-oceanic canal project. Protests were also reported at Nueva Guinea in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, where campesinos burned tires at roadblocks. The protests began Dec. 22, marring that day's ceremonies marking the start of construction on the mega-project. Laureano Ortega, son of President Daniel Ortega, and canal developer Wang Jing of Hong Kong-based HKND Group, were helicoptered into Rivas for the affair, and apologized to assembled journalists for the disturbances. (Fusion.net, La Prensa, Nicaragua, Dec. 27; Nicaragua Dispatch, Dec. 24)
Victims and survivors of the 1989 invasion of Panama by the US held a public ceremony on Dec. 20 to mark the 25th anniversary of the start of the military action. As they have for 25 years, the ceremony's participants called for the US government to acknowledge the damage from the invasion, indemnify the victims and their survivors, and reveal the location of mass graves where some of the dead were buried. "There were bodies that were thrown in the sea, and there are bodies scattered in different places, so we can never finally offer them a tribute," Trinidad Ayola, whose husband died defending an airport, told AFP. "Without justice there can't be peace or reconciliation, and we can't turn the page." President Juan Carlos Varela attended the ceremony, announcing that the government would form a commission to consider the families' demands, including the declaration of Dec. 20 as a national day of mourning. He is the first Panamanian president to attend the annual commemoration.
A decree by Costa Rican president Luis Guillermo Solís authorizing payments to former banana workers sickened by the pesticide Nemagon became official on Dec. 1 with the measure's publication in the government's gazette. Under the decree the government's National Insurance Institute (INS) will pay out from 25% to 100% of the medical bills for workers who suffered physical or psychological damage from Nemagon, with the percentage based on their years of exposure to the pesticide. The decree currently covers 13,925 former banana workers; cases are pending for 9,233 of the workers' children and 1,742 of the workers' spouses. More than 11,000 other applications were dismissed.