1. Miami Herald:
    Liborio Guarulla, the governor of Venezuela’s massive and remote Amazonas state, says his community is being overrun by an unwanted guest: Colombian guerrillas. 
    Guarulla estimates there are 4,000 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in his largely indigenous border state. The rebels, he said, are operating gold and coltan mines and are involved in contraband and drug-running.
    Back in July 2010, Colombia President Uribe released evidence of FARC activity in Venezuela. His ambassador to Venezuela said there were 87 FARC camps containing as many as 1,500 combatants.

    At the time, I wrote two posts discussing the FARC-V (FARC in Venezuela) and describing their potential motives. One year later, in 2011, I noted that President Santos had improved relations with his neighbor and that had pushed President Chavez to place some additional pressure on the FARC-V. I'd recommend reading those posts as background.

    Here we are in 2015 with a Venezuelan governor saying there are as many as 4,000 FARC combatants in his state. On one hand, that is an incredibly large number, about half of what Colombia estimates are the active number of FARC combatants. The size of the claim is why some Colombian analysts are skeptical.

    On the other hand, it is a completely plausible evolution over five years if you believe there were 1,500 combatants in 2010 and that they have been allowed general freedom to operate by the Maduro government for the past two years.

    So let's assume that the governor is telling the truth and there are 4,000 illegally armed combatants calling themselves the FARC within his state. Here are some questions that are worth answering:

    How many of those combatants are Colombian and how many are Venezuelan? It is more likely that the original Colombian combatants that moved the FARC to Venezuela-based camps have recruited locally than have brought thousands of Colombians across the border.

    Does this group fall under the command and control structure of the FARC in Colombia including its leadership in Cuba? Are they planning to return to Colombia and demobilize under the peace process?

    Are the Venezuelan members of the FARC-V marginalized under the Colombians or are they becoming the leaders of the organization? In recent years, Colombian criminal groups (BACRIM) along the border have been eclipsed by Venezuelan-led criminal groups, many with the overt or tacit support of the Venezuelan military. It would be surprising if that same trend did not exist with the FARC-V.

    Is the group ideologically similar to the FARC, are they criminals hiding under the FARC brand, or are they a mix of both? I'm going to guess it is a mix of both, leaning more towards the criminal side.

    If there is an ideological portion of the FARC-V, are they supportive of the Maduro government in Venezuela or not? That is a harder question than it first appears. If they are supportive of Maduro, does it become a stability problem for any post-Maduro government in the country?

    It's tough to answer these questions because the FARC-V is not an announced organization with its own public relations effort like the FARC in Colombia have. The FARC have rarely acknowledged any operations in Venezuela and certainly won't admit that they have thousands of combatants across the border. The FARC leaders are strongly linked to their Colombia identity, even if many of them have spent time in Venezuela. Further, the regions where they are allegedly active are remote and the combatants are not conducting significant operations against local security forces (if anything, they are colluding with the local security forces). All of this means that the facts about the FARC-V remain difficult to pin down.

    However, the FARC-V probably exist and they are probably a decently large group. That remains a problem for both countries.
  2. Go read on El Salvador: Tim Muth, Mike Allison, Hector Silva, Roberto Valencia, Michael Lohmuller.

    With the breakdown of the gang truce, violence has risen across much of the country. The murder rate in recent months is as bad or worse than at any point since the civil war ended. Additionally, the criminal violence is targeted, with police and military being killed. Rumors of a coordinated strategy between the two big gangs (MS-13 and Barrio 18) are likely overblown, but there is certainly a new effort by criminals to hit the government where it hurts, not just target each other.

    As you can read in those links above, there is significant criticism of the government's militarized strategy to deal with the new violence. Salvadoran media have been similarly critical. Battalions of soldiers are deploying to violent areas. The government rhetoric that supports "cleansing" and "self-defense shooting" against gang members is not going to reduce tensions.

    The bigger criticism isn't what the government is doing right this moment but what it has and hasn't done over the past year. The Sanchez Ceren government kicked the can down the road, focusing short term anti-gang tactics rather than long term solutions in the run up to the recent legislative and municipal elections. It opposed the gang truce without a plan to deal with the inevitable fallout when that truce broke. Now it is facing the consequences of its poor decisions since it took office.
  3. With general elections planned for 25 October (after an August primary), Argentina's race hasn't changed much since I wrote about it in late February. At the time, I wrote:
    There are three candidates - Massa, Macri and Scioli - who are all polling in the 20's. They're jockeying for position, but none are pulling into a conclusive lead (say, above 40%). Many voters remain undecided. The Nisman death hasn't significantly changed the race yet, though it seems to have been a minor hit to Scioli and his campaign.
    For the August primaries, a Poliarquia poll released last weekend has Scioli 25, Macri 25, Massa 18 and Randazzo 13. 

    Then, assuming with those numbers that Scioli beats Randazzo for the FPV (pro-Kirchner) nomination, the October race shapes up as Scioli 33, Macri 27, Massa 20. 

    A late March M&F poll had the general election race Scioli 30, Macri 29, Massa 15. 

    The conventional wisdom in late April is that Scioli appears to have gained a few points since January/February and Massa has fallen behind. Some analysts in Argentina have started to write off Massa to make this a 2-way race between Scioli and Macri, but I think it is too early for that. 

    No candidate has a decisive lead (which I'm still defining as over 40%), Randazzo and other pro-K candidates are going to present a tough primary challenge to Scioli, there are a few less-popular candidates out there trying to make noise within the other ideological blocs, and there is a long way until the election.

    Finally, while it is not election related, a Poliarquia poll published in early April suggests that only 18% of Argentina's citizens think that their country correctly follows laws and the constitution. Without blaming any particular ideological bloc or political party, the poll shows a troubling amount of distrust in political institutions, parties and politicians.
  4. One of the important shifts that President Obama and his administration have made in US policy towards Latin America is placing climate change and renewable energy near the top of the agenda in every multilateral meeting with the hemisphere. US officials made climate change and renewable energy part of nearly every meeting at the Summit, even as the media focused on other issues.

    Cooperation to mitigate and adapt to climate change is something that nearly the entire hemisphere agrees upon. Having the US leading that discussion strengthens US influence across Latin America and the Caribbean. The US agenda promoting renewable energy and support for adaptation initiatives is smart geopolitics and good for long-term economic growth.

    President Obama at the Summit of the Americas:
    We have to keep investing in the clean energy that creates jobs and combats climate change.  The United States is today leading this global effort, along with many of you.  And I should point out that America's carbon pollution is near its lowest level in almost two decades.  Across the Americas, I think we have the opportunity to expand our clean energy partnerships and increase our investments in renewables.
    Secretary Kerry yesterday:
    Another path to shared progress can be found through joint action on clean energy and climate change. Now while many of the hemisphere’s largest countries are global energy producers, many of the smaller ones are bearing the biggest burden when it comes to extreme weather events, like hurricanes, tropical storms. Nobody in the scientific community debates that the intensity and frequency has risen. Nobody in the scientific community really debates seriously the proposition that human beings are contributing to these negative effects. And if you look at the economic costs, it is far, far more expensive to pay for the dislocation, the disruption, for the crises that are coming at us as a consequence of climate change, than it is to adjust your energy policies now in order to avoid it.
    Kerry also spoke in Panama prior to the Summit of the Americas:
    Here in Panama, extreme weather events are creating cycles of flood and drought and they’re threatening the water supplies that enable the Panama Canal to operate effectively and supply electricity. Just a few years ago, due to a record storm, the canal had to close for only the third time in its 100-year history, disrupting one of the world’s most important economic lifelines. In Peru, where I attended the climate change conference in December, tropical glaciers and fisheries are under threat. We’ve seen sea level rise contribute to the erosion of Puerto Rico’s coastline around Rincon. And coral reefs are at risk from warming waters and ocean acidification. The number of major hurricanes in the Atlantic basin has increased and then it increased some more, and that hurts tourism. Some of your nations, especially those in this region and in the Caribbean, climate change may well be the single gravest danger to security and prosperity. So when I say we need a global solution, I mean it. Anything less won’t work.
    Last year Defense Secretary Hagel set up the Climate Change Roadmap for the DOD and then took that agenda down to the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in Peru:
    These climate trends will clearly have implications for our militaries.  A higher tempo and intensity of natural disasters could demand more support for our civil authorities, and more humanitarian assistance and relief.  Our coastal installations could be vulnerable to rising shorelines and flooding, and extreme weather could impair our training ranges, supply chains, and critical equipment.  Our militaries’ readiness could be tested, and our capabilities could be stressed. 
    Maintaining a strong environmental and renewable energy agenda is vital to US relations in this hemisphere. The Obama administration has done a great job making the US a leader on this issue. The US election in 2016 will determine whether we keep a leadership role or isolate ourselves.
  5. Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina has indicated that he will not renew the CICIG mandate in the country, but he is still a few weeks away from making the formal announcement. Pressure from Guatemalan civil society, the UN and the US has not convinced the president of the need to keep the organization, which is tasked with investigating networks of corruption in the country.

    Late last week, the CICIG made its own case for remaining in Guatemala. An investigation by the organization led to an arrest order for 22 officials including the current and former heads of the Tax Authority (SAT). Firms were paying bribes to the SAT to underreport the amount of goods entering the country at ports. As the PanAmerican Post writes, "The arrests came the day after President Otto Pérez Molina expressed his support for Franco’s leadership of the SAT."

    More important, the investigation also named a top advisor for Vice President Baldetti, which has thrown the powerful vice president's office into a bit of chaos. The fact that there is corruption in the vice president's office isn't surprising. Allegations of Baldetti's corruption have been a common story in the media. A Southern Pulse investigation in 2013 referred to "allegations that Baldetti has tried to set up contracts under virtually every Ministry for her personal enrichment." It's the fact that some of this corruption may go to trial that is unexpected.

    The CICIG exists to investigate and prosecute officials who would otherwise be untouchable in Guatemala. At the top of that list are the people around the president and the vice president. This investigation is showcasing the reason that the CICIG should remain.

    The investigation has generated a political crisis for the government. Mike Allison goes as far to suggest it threatens the government's stability, writing, "The arrests are a positive development but now there have to be questions concerning the ability of the president and vice president to serve out the remaining months of their terms."

    The CICIG and its leadership is playing a risky political game in naming top government officials, including those in the vice president's office, in the weeks running up to the CICIG renewal decision. Whether the timing of this investigation is purposeful or coincidental, it places a large amount of political and public opinion pressure on President Perez Molina. For Perez Molina to now kick out the CICIG, it would create the appearance that he is removing an institution because it is exposing corruption within his own government.

    UPDATE: One day after I wrote this post, President Perez Molina announced that we would renew the CICIG mandate for another two years.
  6. The most recent Datanalisis poll has Venezuela President Maduro at 28% approval and 65% disapproval. About 80% of the country views the current situation as negative.

    Maduro's 28% is five points higher than the 23% that he had at the end of 2014, a slight improvement in the first quarter of this year.

    Opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles have around 40% approval ratings, better than the president but still well below majority support.

    In the legislative elections scheduled for later this year, the opposition has 46% support and the government only has 25% support, leaving a large number of undecided.
  7. This article has a summary of all of the recent polls done for the upcoming legislative elections in Mexico. Key points:

    • The PRI has a lead over the other parties in all of the polls, though in no poll do they earn higher than 36% and in some polls they are in the low 20s. The PRI lead even though the president's approval rating is below 50%. This is a very divided electorate.
    • The PRD and PRI both have very high negative ratings, much higher than their positive ratings. The PAN is also doing poorly, though to a lesser extent than the other two.
    • The PRD and Morena are going to divide the vote on traditional left. The two parties, along with the Partido Verde, are going to have a tough competition for third and fourth place.
    • There are a large number of voters who have not yet decided, are refusing to talk to pollsters and/or have decided to spoil their ballots.
    Voters are unhappy with the current situation and view all of the parties poorly. While every opposition party wants to portray themselves as the clear alternative to the current government, no party has successfully made the case to voters. With opposition votes divided, the PRI benefits.
  8. Last week, police arrested João Vaccari Neto, treasurer of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil.

    Vaccari’s name is not well known among the general public, but his arrest is a particularly tough blow to the administration of President Rousseff. Vaccari's role in this Lava Jato scandal is one of the important links that moves the issue beyond a simple personal enrichment style of corruption to one that used corruption at state institutions to finance a political party and their election campaign.

    The fact that bribes and kickbacks at Petrobras were funneled to party activities means that Rousseff cannot claim that those involved were simply “bad apples.” Even if Rousseff or Lula did not have personal involvement or knowledge of the corruption, the money from the corruption went to their party and its election activities.

    While there have been and will be government employees, business CEOs, and other politicians taken down in this prosecution process, it is the involvement at the level of the Workers’ Party that may be the most politically damaging for the president and her allies right now. The party-level corruption is most likely to harm her  public image and lead to further calls for the president’s impeachment.
  9. A FARC attack against a military unit in Cauca left 11 soldier dead and over a dozen others wounded.

    The Colombian government lifted its restrictions on bombing raids and the peace process's opponents in Colombia have been handed a gift with this FARC attack making it look as if the group is not interested in peace. A FARC representative in Cuba suggested that perhaps the military had attacked first, but all of the initial information from inside Colombia suggested that it was an ambush by the FARC unit with some specialized training.

    There are at least three theories here:
    1) The FARC are playing a double-faced game in which they claim to want a ceasefire and peace while using an attack like this to maintain pressure and demonstrate capabilities.
    2) The FARC are not completely in control of all their units and some groups are acting independently, perhaps to harm the peace process's chances.
    3) This attack was not actually committed by the FARC, but a fringe group that is loosely linked to them.

    Prior to yesterday's attack, I had begun drafting a blog post about the support for Colombia's peace process being one of the positive outcomes of the Summit of the America's meeting in Panama last week. All 35 countries in the hemisphere unanimously support the peace process and the Colombian government's efforts at negotiations. While there are some spoiler factions who oppose peace (including conservatives in the US and Colombia and some hardline Chavistas in Venezuela), all of the national governments in the hemisphere currently have an official policy of supporting the peace negotiations.

    This attack harms what had been a string of several months of good news regarding the peace process. The Santos government and the FARC leadership need to find a way to rebuild trust to regain momentum and complete the negotiations in the coming months.
  10. A Datafolha poll released this weekend shows 63% of Brazilians want the Congress to open up impeachment proceedings over the Lava Jato scandal and other corruption issues.

    Impeachment should be based on specific legal issues and not on public opinion, but political reality means that public opinion plays some role in it. The fact that a majority of Brazilians want Dilma impeached (even if a surprising number don't know what happens if she is) places pressure on politicians in the Congress to do more.

    Meanwhile, Brazil had another protest this weekend. The scale of the protest was still not the size of the 2013 protests (it's still in the hundreds of thousands of protesters range, not millions), but that same Datafolha poll indicates 75% of the country is in favor of the protest movement.

    At the Summit of the Americas, Brazil President Rousseff met with President Obama and agreed to a White House visit in the coming months. While not shown in this poll, Obama continues to receive high ratings in Brazil as does the US in general. Rousseff's postponement of the state dinner in 2013 may have helped her with a portion of her base, but it was not widely supported in the country. Rousseff is now moving towards better US relations as one response to her current political troubles.