The Untold Story of Manuel Contreras and the CIA

By John Dinges*

The man who designed and executed the massive human rights crimes of Chile’s military regime died last week.  Manuel Contreras remained a general in Chile’s Army even during the last 20 years in prison, with accumulated sentences of more than 500 years imposed by Chilean courts.  In the United States, his murky relationship with the CIA and masterminding of a shocking terrorist attack in Washington, dominate perceptions of his record.  Contreras, a nondescript, somewhat pudgy man who never tired of boasting about the effectiveness of his anti-subversive campaign, created a security police apparatus, DINA, independent of Chile’s military hierarchy.  He reported only to General Augusto Pinochet, with whom he met early each morning.  DINA was responsible for about half of the 3,200 killed by the Chilean military, and virtually all of the cases of desaparecidos – people detained, tortured and killed in secret interrogation centers, whose bodies were then disposed of in secret graves or dumped into the sea.

Chile was not the most brutal military dictatorship – more than 10,000 Argentines and 200,000 Guatemalans died during that era – but Contreras and Pinochet became the international face of Latin American state terrorism of the 1970s, for various reasons, including their intimate relationship with the United States and in particular with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  It is not quite true that the CIA organized the military overthrow in 1973 of socialist president Salvador Allende, but the U.S. embrace of the violent coup was enough to create the widely accepted narrative that the United States brought Pinochet to power and made him a creature of its anti-communist foreign policy, whose global architect was Henry Kissinger.  In addition to ruthlessly persecuting political opponents in Chile, DINA carried out a spectacular act of international terrorism in the heart of Washington, D.C. – the 1976 car bomb assassination of Allende’s former foreign minister Orlando Letelier, in a blast that also killed an American woman, Ronni Moffitt, and wounded her husband Michael.

Some were quick to see the hand of the CIA in that horrendous crime, a charge that is repeated even today among some writers in Latin America.  But these writers may not be aware that Contreras actually promoted the idea of CIA involvement in Chile as a way to mask DINA’s crimes.  Here, briefly, is what Contreras did to point the finger at the CIA:

  • Contreras was the first to reveal, in an interview, that the CIA had sent intelligence trainers to Chile to help in the formation of DINA, a fact belatedly confirmed by the CIA to a Congressional investigation.
  • As his chief international assassin, Contreras hired Michael Townley, a U.S. citizen who had tried to join the CIA as a clandestine agent – a fact unquestionably known to Contreras and now well established in U.S. declassified documents.
  • Contreras developed a close operational relationship with the CIA, agreeing to provide intelligence in exchange for payment.  He is known to have traveled to the United States to consult with top CIA officials at least five times, including with CIA deputy director Vernon Walters in August 1975 – after which he went on to Caracas to lay out his plans for an international assassination alliance, Operation Condor.  Whether Contreras briefed Walters on the assassination plans is buried in CIA secrecy.
  • Contreras used Operation Condor to obtain false documents for Townley and another DINA agent to use in the first phase of the Letelier assassination.  With the plot under way, in July 1976, he visited Walters again.  Whatever the nature of those conversations (the declassified record is vague), Contreras was again associating himself with the CIA in relation to the impending murder.

When charged with killing Letelier, Contreras pulled out this defense: that the CIA had infiltrated DINA to commit crimes for its own purposes, that Michael Townley was really taking his orders from the CIA, and that the CIA, not DINA, killed Letelier in Washington. That version of events is false, according to my investigations.  Nonetheless, the charge of CIA involvement in Operation Condor and Letelier’s murder has become a kind of dogma, both on the right and the left.  It can be found in the writings of some U.S. academics and is extremely common in narratives of the period in Latin America.  Although there is no direct evidence for the charge, the history of CIA intervention, complicity in human rights violations and defense of military dictatorships is enough to convince many people that it must be true.  Few of those who believe it are aware they are making common cause with General Contreras, perhaps the most emblematic human rights criminal in Latin America.

August 12, 2015

*John Dinges teaches journalism at Columbia University.  He sorts out the documented, fact-based truth about the U.S. role in “The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents” (The New Press 2004).

Brazil: Jailing the Youth

By Paula Orlando*

Brazilian Penitentiary System.  Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian Penitentiary System. Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

A push for legislation to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years could worsen court backlogs and overcrowding in Brazil’s notorious prisons.  According to the International Center for Prison Studies (ICPS), the country’s jails now hold the fourth largest prison population in the world, behind the United States, China, and Russia.  The Brazilian inmate population has doubled in the past ten years – from 296,919 people in 2005 to over 615,000 now – boosted by arrests of young and black people.  The Map of Incarceration, a study released this month by researchers at the Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCAR), shows that prisoners are increasingly between the ages of 18 and 29 (54.8 percent) and black (60.85 percent), with a growing presence of females (from 4.35 percent in 2005 to 6.17 percent in 2012).  The study also notes that the main reasons for arrest are crimes against property and “involvement in drug trafficking.”  Further, on average 38 percent – or four in every ten inmates – are awaiting trial.  According to a report by the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the wait times may vary from months to years – sometimes longer than the actual sentence for the crime committed.  Of the total jail population, over 18 percent would be eligible for alternative sentences, but they either haven’t gone to trial yet or the judges have opted for heavier sentences.

A group of hardline conservative legislators – the “bullet caucus” – is pushing aggressively for a law that would lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and consequently place more youth in the already overcrowded adult jails.  Currently, the Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA) establishes that those between 12 and 17 years of age who committed a crime should be sent to juvenile centers, and for a maximum of three years.  The proposal to lower the age has received overwhelming popular support. This support is generally based on the perception that minors commit more violent crimes because they are not currently accountable as adults – and that harsher sentences would deter them.  However, official data shows that, among those in the juvenile system, only 9 percent committed violent crimes.  On the other hand, homicide is the leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 15 and 29.  Out of the 56,000 yearly homicides, 30,000 victims are young.  By crossing data from the Ministry of Justice and the 2014 Map of Violence, the report also debunks the popular perception that more arrests lead to safer cities.  On the contrary, just as incarceration grows, homicide rates have also steadily risen in the country.  According to press reports and other observers, there’s a good chance the legislation will move forward in the next few weeks.

Since the bill amends the Brazilian Constitution, it must pass both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate with at least two-thirds of the votes.  In addition to increasing youth incarcerations, if passed, the initiative will undermine the 1990 Child and Adolescent Statute, considered a landmark by children’s rights advocates.  It will further remove the state from its responsibility for the protection and education of the youth, essentially eliminating any chance of youths’ rehabilitation while broadening the “school-to-prison pipeline” that envelopes many.   Moreover, passage of this reform, under the banner of law and order, will strengthen the ultra-conservative sectors – including some religious leaders and representatives of agribusiness – who already dominate the Brazilian Congress in an open crusade against social welfare policies and minority rights. 

 June 29, 2015

*Paula Orlando is a CLALS fellow and a PhD candidate at the School of Communication at American University.

While Mexican Government Resists Scrutiny on Rights, Citizens Welcome It

By David Crow*

"Do you how many migrants have died this year in Mexico? The government doesn't either." Photo Credit: Grupo Cinco Amnistía Internacional México / Flickr / Creative Commons

“Do you how many migrants have died this year in Mexico? The government doesn’t either.” Photo Credit: Grupo Cinco Amnistía Internacional México / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Mexican government is rejecting recent criticism of its human rights record, but its citizens welcome it as necessary to hold the government to account on its international rights commitments.  Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (and Professor of Human Rights Law at American University) released a scathing report on Mexico last month, revealing that torture continues to be “widespread” and occurs at every level of government and in every security agency.  Mexico’s Foreign Ministry vociferously challenged the report and indulged in ad hominem attacks against Méndez, branding him “unprofessional and unethical.”  According to Méndez, the Mexican government had pressured him to tone down the report’s findings, but he refused because it proffered no evidence that the report was wrong.  Mexico’s strategy of denying the obvious – the ubiquity of torture is well documented – has been a public relations disaster, according to human rights and international relations experts.  It is rooted in a deep-seated historical aversion to outside prying.  The cornerstone of Mexican foreign policy, the 1930 “Estrada Doctrine,” has meant abstaining from passing judgment on other governments – and Mexico expects the same in return.  Though Mexico is signatory to a number of international rights protocols (including the Convention on Torture), the Méndez kerfuffle seems to betray an atavistic revulsion to external scrutiny.

Ordinary Mexicans, however, do not toe the government line on sovereignty.  They reject the notion that rights are conduits for foreign interests, view international organizations favorably, and welcome international oversight – particularly if it’s not from the United States.   The Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico (in The Americas and the World and the University of Minnesota  (Human Rights Perceptions Polls) teamed up last year to probe Mexicans’ views on human rights.

  • Asked “[h]ow much does promoting U.S. interests have to do with what you understand human rights to be?” Mexicans averaged just 3.0 on a 1-7 scale (anything under 4 indicates disagreement and anything over, agreement).
  • Mexicans also reject the notion that human rights “spread foreign values” (3.2).
  • In contrast, they strongly support the idea that rights “protect against torture and murder” (5.5).
  • Mexicans view international organizations favorably, awarding the United Nations and Amnesty International scores of 65 and 60 (out of 100), respectively – the two highest ratings of all organizations evaluated.
  • And 50% of the public said UN supervision would “help the human rights situation” (36% felt it wouldn’t), while 48% viewed monitoring by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights favorably (35%, unfavorably). Mexicans split over U.S. supervision: just 43% said it would help, compared to 46% who said it wouldn’t.  Nonetheless, that 43% are willing to accept U.S. oversight is perhaps a measure of just how bad things have gotten.

While a “multilateral turn” is occurring among its citizens, the Mexican government can’t seem to break free from the old isolationism, with serious implications for the country.  The horrifying rights situation dominates international perceptions of Mexico and, along with persistent high-level corruption, threatens to derail President Peña Nieto’s reform agenda, scaring off risk-averse potential foreign investors and weakening his hand domestically with Congress and the public at large.  To reverse these trends, Mexico must make strides, quickly, to improve observance of rights.  International pressure – “naming and shaming” of rights violators – is a key ingredient.  As its citizens have done, the Mexican government must embrace, not shun, international involvement.

April 27, 2015

*David Crow is an Assistant Professor in the International Studies Division of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE, Mexico City).

Brazilian Truth Commission Looks at Police Violence

By Paula Orlando

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

A new truth commission is about to investigate Brazil’s legendary police brutality and, for the first time, attempt to bring some public accountability for the crimes committed by the state. Police kill an estimated six people per day. Civil society organizations persuaded the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly (ALESP) to establish the commission, the first to focus on human rights violations in the post-dictatorship period. It will hear testimony from witnesses and survivors of police brutality, and examine documents and other evidence related to major cases of police violence in the city and state in the last decades. The initiative follows the recent release of reports by the National and Sao Paulo State Truth Commissions on human rights violations during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). In fact, the reports suggested that present-day violence should be understood as a legacy of the lack of accountability for past violations.

The “Truth Commission of Democracy Maes de Maio” – named after a prominent movement of family members of victims of police violence that fights for justice and changes in security policies – held its first hearing on March 21. Parents of some of those killed in May 2006, when at least 493 civilians were killed in a period of 10 days, testified. (The National Truth Commission had accounted for 434 people killed during the 21 years of military rule.) The violence in May 2006 took place in the context of a conflict between the police forces and the “First Command of the Capital” (PCC) – a criminal organization formed within the detention system, and was justified as part of a “war on crime.” A study conducted by the International Human Rights Clinic of the Harvard Law School and the Brazilian Human Rights Organization Justiça Global contends that at least 122 deaths were directly linked to the police, and many of these bodies showed signs of execution. Four other civilians remain missing after nine years, and nearly all the cases have been archived without a resolution. With the participation of representatives designated by the National Secretariat of Human Rights, legislators, and members of social movements, the new commission will also examine other massacres, such as one at the Carandiru penitentiary in 1992 and the nighttime slaughter – also linked to police officers – of several people who were sleeping near the Sé Cathedral, in downtown Sao Paulo, in August of 2004.

The truth commission is more than a symbolic step towards recognizing and bringing some degree of state accountability in human rights violations; it shows the growing pressure of the movement against anti-police violence and in favor of justice and reparations for victims. Deputy Adriano Diogo, a major proponent of the panel, has warned that the way ahead “will be difficult; this is a discussion that the Brazilian government does not accept to have.” Insofar as the truth commission succeeds, it will not only create an institutional space linked to the state to clarify cases of police violence; it will stimulate an important discussion of the legitimization of police brutality in the context of “fighting crime.” In addition, it could contribute to the understanding that unlawful police violence is a form of political violence that no democratic society should endure.

April 6, 2015

Ecuador: Stacking the Deck Against Democracy

Enlace Cuidadano

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa during one of his weekly broadcasts Enlace Ciudadano / Mauricio Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons

By Catherine M. Conaghan*

Taking a page from Hugo Chávez’s playbook, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is intimidating and steadily increasing controls on his opponents.  He regularly uses his Saturday morning broadcasts to name and shame them.  Actors from all walks of Ecuador’s civil society – journalists, lawyers, activists, academics, bloggers, union and social movement leaders – have been the target of his insults and thinly veiled threats on the weekly program, Enlace Ciudadano.  In February, Correa’s show was skewered by HBO comedian John Oliver – and, to Oliver’s delight, Correa fired back by tweeting insults (click here and here).  Journalists and civil society leaders applauded Oliver for drawing attention to the continuing deterioration of civil liberties in Ecuador.  Correa’s virulent rhetoric and intimidating use of media is part of a larger matrix of policies endangering freedom of expression and association in Ecuador.  Over the last two years, the Correa administration has worked methodically to mount a legal framework allowing for greater government control over the media and civil society organizations.

  • The 2013 Law of Communication and a new oversight agency, the Superintendence of Information and Communication, are intended to ensure that all print and broadcast media provide “truthful information” that is “verified, contrasted, precise, and contextualized.”  Superintendent Carlos Ochoa was selected from a short-list of nominees provided by Correa.  Among alleged violations recently singled out for sanctions are items in the leading newspaper El Universo and its accomplished political cartoonist, Xavier ‘Bonil’ Bonilla.
  • Issued in 2013, Executive Decree 16 also has civil society – from neighborhood associations to think tanks, business chambers, unions, and advocacy groups – under pressure. In addition to elaborate regulations for the legal registration of organizations, the decree stipulates conditions allowing the government to “dissolve” them.  These include group involvement in “partisan activity” and “interfering in public policies.”  To date, only one organization – the Fundación Pachamama involved in environmental activism – has been dissolved, but civic leaders fear that the decree will induce ”self-censorship” and stifle participation.

The new laws amount to a project – unprecedented for Ecuador – of surveillance and regulation.  They provide the government with a tempting arsenal of weapons to use, if necessary, in upcoming battles on other important legal matters, especially on the issue of presidential re-election.  After years of pledging that he would not seek a third term in office, Correa reversed course and has tasked his legislative super-majority with finding a swift route to amending the constitution.  Most public opinion polls show, however, that a majority of Ecuadorians would prefer a referendum to decide whether or not yet another consecutive re-election should be allowed.  The road to re-election may be more difficult than Correa and his advisors imagine, but they enter the fray with the weight of the law on their side.  With powers to control the media and limit the activity of civil society, the Correa administration enjoys the upper hand as 2017 approaches.

March 12, 2015

*Catherine Conaghan is the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Latin American Politics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  She specializes in Andean politics.  She is the author of an article, “Surveil and Sanction: The Return of the State and Societal Regulation in Ecuador,” in the April issue of the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Invisibility and Violence in Brazil

By Paula Orlando

Anistia Internacional Brasil / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Anistia Internacional Brasil / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Staggering statistics of violence in Brazil continue to make headlines in the country and abroad, but the invisibility of the victims and indifference toward them blunt the impact of the numbers.  According to the 2014 Map of Violence published by FLACSO-Brazil sociologist Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, 30,000 people between the ages of 15 and 29 – 77 percent of whom are black – are murdered in Brazil every year.  Additionally, the annual report of the widely respected Brazilian Public Security Forum indicates that in 2008-2013 the police killed at a rate of six people per day, while a research group at the Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCAR) found recently that 61 percent of those killed by the police in Sao Paolo State are black.  The absence of popular outrage over these facts is being addressed by a range of initiatives, and social media – of which Brazilians are avid users – are an important tool to this end.

  • Amnesty International’s newly launched campaign, Jovem Negro Vivo, uses social media to raise consciousness about the rates of violence and societal responses to it. One of the main parts of the campaign is a video showing a black teen traveling through his neighborhood and city, successively encountering other invisible people.  At the end, the teen faces a similar fate – death and invisibility.  The campaign questions the trivialization of violent deaths and society’s silence about it.  The campaign asks: “84 homicides per day.  Do you care?” And adds: “More shocking than this reality, just indifference.”
  • Rede Jovem, an internationally acclaimed NGO created in 2000, is conducting Projeto Wikimapa with collaborative technologies to identify neighborhoods, streets and services in communities that are invisible – that is, not shown on official maps – even though many are heavily populated. A number of local projects are redrawing the maps of various cities, including Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo.  The resulting maps, which can be accessed on the Web and handheld devices, expose communities’ rich social structures to the world.  Some of this work is presented in a new released documentary, Todo mapa tem um discurso – “Every map has a discourse.”

In a society in which significant numbers of communities and individuals are still invisible to the state and fellow citizens, violence is not surprising.  During the recent and run-off campaigns Dilma Rousseff met with grassroots leaders who demanded urgent action to end systematic violence against poor youth and police abuse.  She promised them that she would push further implementation of specific youth programs such as Juventude Viva, while also recognizing the need to continue confronting racism and start taking serious measures against police abuse.  Human rights organizations and community activists have pledged to hold her to her word.  Communication and technology tools – which activists used during protests last year to gather evidence of police abuse through crowdsourcing – can provide a boost to citizens and activists in reclaiming public spaces and demanding better social services. Creating inclusive and participatory maps, for example, facilitates postal service, the allocation of resources, and the implementation of programs such as cultural and after-school activities that help protect vulnerable youth.  Further, the use of collaborative media technologies has the potential – over time – to reduce invisibility and bring society closer to dealing with the tragedy of the violent deaths of thousands of people every year.

November 25, 2014

Argentina’s Stolen Children and National Narratives of Recovery

By Brenda Werth

Bruno Piatti / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Bruno Piatti / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Argentina’s National Day of the Right to Identity (October 22) had special meaning this year because of the recovery in August of Guido Montoya Carlotto, the 114th grandchild to be found, but hundreds of cases remain unsolved.  The day honors the tireless efforts of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to recover the identity of the approximately 500 grandchildren who were stolen as babies during the dictatorship and raised in most cases by collaborators of the military regime.  Guido is the grandson of the group’s longstanding president, Estela de Carlotto.  In June, 36-year-old Guido, who grew up in the province of Buenos Aires as Ignacio Hurban, voluntarily submitted a blood sample for DNA testing that confirmed that he is the son of Laura Estela Carlotto and Walmir Oscar Montoya, Montonero militants who were kidnapped and disappeared during Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983).  Guido subsequently learned he had been born in captivity on June 26, 1978.  He was allowed to stay with his mother for only five hours before being handed over to the couple (whose involvement in his kidnapping is still unclear) who would raise him.  His mother was executed two months later.

The heavy media coverage of the recovery of Guido – who prefers to be called Ignacio Guido – has revived discussions in Argentina about identity narratives  surrounding the stolen children in the wake of dictatorship.  The most prominent human rights organizations to emerge since the mid-1970s are structured along familial lines:  the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, and the H.I.J.O.S.  (Children for Identity and Justice, Against Forgetting and Silence).  As a result, the recovery of each and every grandchild is inextricably and symbolically linked to national recovery.  Moreover, due to a leak to the press, Ignacio Guido’s reunification with his biological family did not take place in an intimate, private setting but instead unfolded publicly in the national spotlight through a series of highly publicized press conferences and interviews, culminating in a meeting with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.  His recovery has generated an outpouring of support and an unprecedented sense of national unity among Argentines.  Politicians, celebrities, and sports figures alike have hailed his identity restitution as both a personal and national triumph.  Due to Estela de Carlotto’s stature as a world-renowned human rights activist and her close ties to the Kirchner government, this case, perhaps more than any other, illustrates how the personal, familial story of recovery can acquire a public dimension and give a push to the national commitment to resolve remaining cases of the stolen children.

Yet it is often during these moments of perceived national consensus when underlying tensions reassert themselves as well, and these tensions have manifested themselves institutionally, specifically in the areas of science, the law, and the Catholic Church.  At the height of the media storm surrounding Guido’s recovery, representatives of the National Genetic Data Bank held a press conference to restate their disapproval of the official decision to transfer the laboratory, including over 20,000 DNA samples, to the Ministry of Science and Technology.  Another tension emerged in the judicial sphere after the judge presiding over the case, María Servini de Cubría, was accused of leaking Ignacio Guido’s identity to the press before he could be reunited with his biological family – creating a rift with the Grandmothers.  In a meeting with Pope Francis on November 5, Carlotto and her grandson presented him with the iconic white handkerchief, which is a symbol of the Grandmothers’ mission, and a sculpture representing the fight for truth, justice, and memory.  Carlotto also took the opportunity to acknowledge that she had committed an error in linking him to the dictatorship in public statements soon after he became Pope in March 2013.  Their gifts were intended to enlist the Church’s support for full disclosure of evidence relating to the stolen children’s identity.  It was also a gesture of reconciliation between human rights organizations in Argentina and the Church, which failed to defend human rights during the dictatorship.  The meeting also strengthened the tight allegiances that President Kirchner has cultivated between her government, human rights organizations, and the charismatic figure of the Pope.  However halting, such moves could ultimately help resolve the cases of the hundreds of stolen children.

November 17, 2014

Historic August for LGBT Rights in Colombia

By Juliana Martínez

Colombia Diversa / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Colombia has again shown itself to be a country of contrasts – a society ostensibly ruled by Catholic and conservative morals with one of the hemisphere’s most progressive Constitutional Courts – with two important legal decisions on LGBT rights.  The Court has defended the democratic, pluralistic, and inclusive spirit of the Colombian Constitution against powerful authoritarian and conservative forces for years.  In 2007 and 2008, it granted pension, social security, and property rights to registered same-sex couples, and it ruled that same-sex couples “constitute a family” in 2011.  In spite of some recent rulings tarnishing its liberal record, last month the Court made two decisions that, though limited, have historic implications.

  • It ruled in favor of step-child adoptions by gay couples.  After much political, legal, and even religious debate, the Court broke a four-year silence on the highly contested issue, ruling 6 to 3 that Verónica Botero could legally adopt the biological children of her wife, Anna Leiderman.  The ruling does not explicitly allow joint adoption by gay couples, but the decision cites ample scientific evidence and declares that parental homosexuality cannot be considered a risk factor for children, thus leaving the door open for further LGBT-friendly jurisprudence in the matter.
  • The court recognized the gender identity of trans women by declaring that they do not have to comply with the compulsory military service required of all Colombian males.  The case centered on Gracy Kelly Bermúdez, a transgender woman who filed a lawsuit against the mayor’s office in Bogotá when she was denied a job for failing to provide proof of her military service.  Bermudez had not entered the military because she identifies as a woman, and therefore did not have the Military Service Registration Certificate (libreta militar) required when applying for jobs, studying at the university level or accessing health care services.  She would have been exempted if she had undergone an official sex change – the right to change one’s sex has been protected in Colombia since 1993 – but this can only be legally done after undergoing sex realignment surgery, a procedure that most trans women do not have access to, cannot afford, or do not want.  Therefore, despite their gender identity and expression, the legal sex of the majority of trans women continues to be “male.”  The Court decided in favor of Bermúdez and ordered the mayor’s office to hire her immediately.

These decisions are far-reaching.  In the Bermúdez case, the Court was essentially prioritizing gender identity over assigned sex at birth.  It declared that asking trans women for the Military Service Registration Certificate when hiring them is unconstitutional because it violates their right to define their own gender.  Furthermore, the Court told Congress to draft a bill that regulates the rights of transgender people in Colombia, paving the way for a much-needed Gender Identity Law.  The ruling also has deep regional implications.  Since Argentina passed a groundbreaking Gender Identity Law in 2012, many countries have been struggling to achieve similar results – and the Colombian legal precedent can become a viable alternative for impact litigation.  Currently, at least ten countries in Latin America have compulsory military service with different levels of enforcement attached to non-compliance.  But as the Bermúdez case illustrates, military conscription mandates can turn into strange, yet effective platforms to denounce how the state routinely imposes gender identity on its citizens, often against their own will, and to catalyze legal reform that advances LGBT rights in the Americas.

* Dr. Juliana Martínez teaches gender and sexuality and Latin American Literature in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

September 25, 2014

Children and Migrant Teens: Trapped with No Way Out

By Ursula Roldán Andrade*

Alaks / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Alaks / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The 56,000 Central American children involved in the humanitarian crisis along the Mexico-United States border are trying to reach the United States not only to reunite with their families.  They are also driven by poverty, social exclusion and violence in their home countries of northern Central America.  The response of U.S. and Central American authorities, however, seems to be only to strengthen the barriers to migration – not only along the Mexico-United States border but also between Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  The United States has emphasized immediate deportation, and its request for funding includes an increase in the number of courts to expedite deportations and in enhanced border security with military and police forces.  The Obama Administration also seeks resources to address the consequences of emigration in Central America, where the governments have done little more than begin criminal prosecutions against the “coyote” network.  In Guatemala there are rumors that parents responsible for migrating children could face criminal charges.  Caring for would-be migrants is a much lower priority; there are only two shelters, of a capacity of less than 80 children, in charge of the Social Work Program of the Office of the First Lady of Guatemala (SOSEP), which has also proposed the improvement of child reception conditions.

A mass media campaign in Guatemala promotes the idea of children staying to fulfill the “Guatemalan Dream” rather than risk their lives attempting to live the “American Dream.”  Yet, the “Guatemalan Dream” that authorities are referring to is lacking.  The Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of the Catholic Church of Guatemala (ODHAG), which has tracked human rights for children in the nation for the past 15 years, reported in 2011 that simply being alive in Guatemala means surviving health risks, food insecurity, and violence.  The report’s most revealing data show that over 48 percent of Guatemalan children suffer from chronic malnutrition.  According to ODHAG, 51 percent of the deaths of minors in 2011 were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17.  The report called on the state to take preemptive measures to protect children and adolescents from malnutrition, hunger, violence, abuse, and human trafficking networks, but the government still spends only 3.1 percent of GDP on this population, whereas other Central American countries invest 6 percent.

Central American children are caught in the crossfire of political discourse in the United States – a migrant population that either gains protection or is cast aside, sometimes with xenophobic or even racist overtones.  Partisan politics, interest in cheap labor, and other factors short-circuit debate, creating conditions for exploitation of migrants without recognition of their citizenship, families, or rights.  The Guatemalan government neglects its vulnerable population, is rife with political corruption, and is cursed with the narrow-mindedness of its economic elite, which does not, in the least, attempt to change the structural conditions that exclude and eventually expel their countrymen.  Solutions to the resulting humanitarian crisis will remain elusive as long as Central American governments do not guarantee fundamental rights and undertake policies aimed at the defending the higher interests of children and adolescents. 

* Dr. Roldán Andrade specializes on migration issues at the Center for Research and Policy Management (INGEP) at the Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala.

Prison Reform in Latin America: Lessons from Costa Rica

By Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran*

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Prison overcrowding is a widespread problem in Latin America, primarily because of harsh drug-sentencing laws and inadequate budgets, but Costa Rica may be setting a useful example for dealing with it.  In most countries, guards control the perimeter, but groups of prisoners or criminal gangs organize and control life inside the prison compound.  Rehabilitation and re-integration programs are limited.  Not surprisingly, there is little political leadership for prison reform; the issue wins few points with the general public.  Even dramatic events – like prison riots in Venezuela or prison fires in which hundreds of young men die as in Honduras – don’t generate interest in prison reform.  A key component of the criminal justice system – as a deterrent, a punishment, and as a provider of rehabilitation and reintegration services that will reduce recidivism – the prisons are often neglected.

While Costa Rica faces growing drug-related problems, a multi-country analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America of persistent criminal justice and prison problems in Latin America – aimed at identifying strategic solutions – indicates that the country stands out as having undertaken at least modest reforms of its prisons to prevent them from becoming the breeding grounds for increasingly hardened criminals and gangs.  Prison conditions in Costa Rica have not been among the worst in Latin America, although the U.S. State Department said in its Human Rights Report for 2013 report that they were “harsh” and that “overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems.”  Until very recently, when new drug sentencing laws and tough anti-crime measures pushed the prison population up, the system generally did not exceed capacity.  Even today, the system is at 140 percent of capacity – far less than the 200-300 percent seen in other countries.  Prison conditions also seem less abusive than those seen in other countries.  An external oversight body was created to protect the rights of prisoners.  Moreover, the government, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is reaching out to local businesses to support vocational training programs for inmates.

This process has been driven by reformers inside the government and prison system, in contrast to most reforms elsewhere in the hemisphere driven by international donors.  This is a rare example of how reformers inside and outside the system worked to achieve institutional changes that increase citizen security while respecting human rights.  In this case, long-standing mid-level and senior staff of the penitentiary system, with the support of successive Ministers of Justice appointed by President Laura Chinchilla, played a key role in resisting pressures from legislators who want to toughen sentencing, which would increase prison populations.  They have advocated measures to ease overcrowding and ensure proportionality in sentencing.  At the same time, they have also used the IDB loan to both defend and expand the rehabilitation and re-insertion programs in the prison system.  Every country’s situation is unique, and Costa Rica has advantages — a relatively low crime rate, a relatively strong state structure, a relatively well-established respect for the rule of law – that others lack, but San José has shown that reform in this difficult, politically sensitive area is possible.

*Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), recently led a small delegation to visit Costa Rican prisons.