Central America Theater
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.
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.