From the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online’s news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
In Wake of Consular Killings, Calderón and U.S. Ambassador Visit Ciudad Juarez
Mexican President Felipe Calderón traveled to Ciudad Juarez Tuesday to express his “strongest indignation” over the March 13 murder of three people leaving a children’s party in the violence-plagued border city. Gunmen thought to have links to the Los Aztecas gang killed a U.S. consular worker and her husband driving in one car, and a Mexican man married to another U.S. consular worker traveling in a separate vehicle. The Federal Bureau of Investigation believes there’s a chance the murders were a case of mistaken identity, but investigations continue.
U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual joined Calderón in Ciudad Juarez and clarified that Mexican authorities are leading the investigation in Mexico while working in coordination with American officials on the U.S. side of the border. He also said Washington will keep cooperating with the Mexican government “to break the power of narcotrafficking organizations and to put an end to the violence they cause.” Both the White House and the U.S. State Department released statements regarding shared responsibility in fighting drug and arms trafficking.
Calderón’s visit to the border town marked his third this year and comes as public support wanes for a three-year-old military push to combat drug cartels. The battle has left 18,000 people dead since the president took office in 2006. On Tuesday, he gave details about “We are all Juarez,” a series of social programs designed to give the city’s residents better educational and job opportunities. The project was first launched in the wake of a January massacre of over a dozen teenagers at a party in Ciudad Juarez.
Mexican Authorities Impound Planes in Cartel Crackdown
USA Today reports that drug gangs are turning to light aircraft as a means of beating surveillance systems when transporting drugs across borders. Mexican police have impounded 400 planes over the last five years.
Austerity Plan Unveiled in Mexico
The Associated Press reports that the Mexican government announced an austerity plan to save $3.2 billion over a three-year period. The goal of the plan, which freezes pay raises for high- and mid-level officials, is to funnel money to social and infrastructure projects.
Michelle Obama to Visit Mexico in April
The First Lady travels to Mexico City April 13 to 15, marking her first official foreign trip without her husband. According to a White House statement, Michelle Obama “will have the opportunity to engage the citizens of Mexico, particularly young people, and build on her recent conversation with Mexican First Lady Margarita Zavala de Calderon on the issues of education and economic advancement in both countries.”
DHS Shelves Virtual U.S.-Mexico Border Fence
U.S. Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano announced plans to shelve $50 million in funding for the Secure Border Initiative Network, a surveillance program designed to virtually monitor portions of the U.S.-Mexico border using cameras, radar, and sensors. National Public Radio reports that Napolitano made the move in anticipation of a Government Accountability Report that found “the system is still full of bugs.”
Lula Meets with Israeli and Palestinian Leaders
“I dream of an independent and free Palestine living in peace in the Middle East,” said Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during a visit to Ramallah Wednesday, where he laid a wreath at the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The visit came a day after Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, rejected meeting with Lula for not visiting the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Lula’s staff contended that a visit to Herzl’s grave had not been scheduled. The Brazilian leader also announced free-trade pacts between Mercosur and both Israel and the Palestinatian National Authority. Brazil’s president travels to Jordan during this trip and will pay an official visit to Iran in May.
Uribe-Aligned Parties Win in Colombian Legislative Vote
Candidates from four parties in President Álvaro Uribe’s conservative coalition had a strong showing in the March 14 legislative election, winning 66 of 102 Senate seats, reports the Hemispheric Brief blog. In particular, the Partido de la U won 27 seats, giving that party’s presidential candidate, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, a boost. La Silla Vacia, in a 10-point examination of Sunday’s election, reports on surprisingly high voter support for the Green Party, which likely won more votes than the Liberal Party. Ex-Mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus won the Green Party’s presidential-candidate primary, also held Sunday.
Read an AS/COA hemispheric update outlining top presidential candidates in Colombia’s upcoming presidential vote.
OAS Reports of Vote-Buying in Colombian Elections
Final results in the March 14 elections have been delayed amidst charges of vote-buying and corruption. The Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States, which monitored elections in 16 out of Colombia’s 32 provinces, reported cases of vote-buying in six provinces. The controversy led to a recount of the votes in the Conservative Party’s primary. Noemí Sanín and Andrés Felipe Arias are fierce competitors in the race for the Conservative presidential candidacy.
U.S. Senators Say Strong OAS Vital to the Americas
In an op-ed piece for The Miami Herald, Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) call for renewed efforts to strengthen the Organization of American States (OAS) “to help resolve disputes and build consensus.” To that end, the senators submitted related legislation to the U.S. Congress in early March. “We agree that the OAS is an embattled institution. It has had its wins and its share of losses—as well as missed opportunities,” they write. “However, as others have said about the United Nations, if it did not exist, it would have to be created. Our task is to make the OAS better, not irrelevant.”
The OAS holds elections for its secretary general on March 24.
Colombia, Canada One Step Closer to Trade Pact
Canada and Colombia came closer to signing a free trade agreement this week after the Canadian Parliament tabled legislation to pass the accord. The pact includes bilateral agreements on labor rights and environmental protection.
Panama and Colombia Kick off Trade Talks
Officials began the first round of negotiations Monday in Panama City for a Colombian-Panamanian free-trade agreement. An initial framework document was inked in February and the second round of talks take place in Bogota in April.
Chávez Hosts Belarusian Prez, Talks Oil and Weapons
On a visit to Caracas, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pledged to strengthen bilateral ties, offering assistance to the Venezuelan military in the form of an integrated military defense system. In return, Chávez said his government would begin selling 80,000 barrels of crude oil a day to Belarus.
Russian President to Visit Argentina, Brazil
President Dmitri Medvedev travels to Buenos Aires in April, in the first visit to Argentina by a Russian president. Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said the meeting between Medvedev and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will deepen bilateral economic ties and that Argentina supports Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization. Medvedev will also visit Brazil, reports Infolatam.
Piñera to Dip into Chile’s Rainy Day Fund
Recently inaugurated Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced to Chilean lawmakers that his administration will draw from the country’s Copper Stabilization Fund to help aid earthquake reconstruction efforts. The sovereign wealth fund, worth $11 billion, was created from soaring copper profits over the last two decades.
Argentine Bank Chief Survives Congressional Panel
Due to last-minute defections in its ranks during a congressional vote, the Argentine opposition failed to remove Mercedes Marcó del Pont from her post as governor of the Central Bank. Marcó del Pont, an ally of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, approved the transfer of reserves held by the Bank for government debt repayments, a move rejected by the opposition and previous Bank chief.
China Pays $3.1 Billion for Stake in Argentine Oil Firm
Chinese oil firm CNOOC agreed March 14 to pay $3.1 billion for a 50 percent stake in Bridas Corporation, a subsidiary of Argentine oil-exploration firm Bridas Energy. The pact, CNOOC’s first footprint in South America according to The New York Times’ DealBook blog, requires Beijing’s approval and should be concluded in June. Reuters offers a timeline of Chinese investments in Latin America.
Justice Minister of Peru Fired amid Scandal
Peruvian President Alan García sacked Justice Minister Aurelio Pastor this week due to allegations of corruption surrounding his pardon of prominent businessman and media mogul, José Enrique Crousillat.
LatAm Weapons Purchases Jump 150 Percent over Five Years
According to new data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South American arms purchases increased by 150 percent over the last five years compared with the first half of the decade. The report states there is “evidence of competitive behavior in arms acquisitions” in the region, stoking tensions between neighbors.
In a recent AS/COA interview, Commander of U.S. Southern Command General Douglas M. Fraser termed the weapons buildup as “a modernization of fairly old, difficult-to-maintain capability.”