Thursday, March 19, 2015

Rolling Up the Valle Valle Narco-network in Guatemala

Agents of the Guatemalan Government and the US Drug Enforcement Agency arrested Rubén Arita Rivera, alleged to be part of a narco-network in Guatemala that articulated with the Valle Valle family network in Honduras.

Arita Rivera was arrested in the small community of Chamagua, near San Jose Zacapa, in Guatemala.  This is a prime location for transshipment of drugs from Honduras, through Guatemala, to El Salvador, one of the known routes of the Cartel del Pacifico (formerly the Sinaloa Cartel), allegedly managed by the Lorenzano family in Guatemala. 

It's an ideal location to intercept drug shipments going through the Honduras - Guatemala border from blind crossings at La Florida (where the Valle Valle family ranch was located) and El Paraiso, as well as shipments going through the border crossings of Copan Ruinas and Ocotepeque.  From there the drugs could be shipped northward to Mexico, or southwesterly into El Salvador.

But Arita Rivera isn't accused of running drugs, just being a money courier. Guatemala began investigating Arita Rivera in 2014 when they captured one of his couriers, Flavio Dimas Rojas, transporting a large sum of currency supposedly belonging to Arita Rivera. Guatemala alleges that Arita Rivera regularly ran drug money from Chiquimula in eastern Guatemala to Huehuetenango, along the border near Comitan, Mexico.

Arita Rivera has a US drug running conviction.  In March, 2008, he accepted delivery of a package in Spring Valley, NY that contained more than 500 grams (slightly over a pound) of cocaine.  He was charged with conspiracy with unnamed others to violate the US narcotics laws, and with possession with intent to distribute the cocaine.  On January 12, 2009 he was sentenced to be imprisoned for 37 months and fined $100.00 (US 7:08-cr-00571-SCR).  He was to serve 3 years probation after he served his sentence, and if he left the country or was deported, was not to re-enter the US without permission of the US Attorney.  If he had remained in the US he would just be completing his probation this coming June.

Instead, today he was arrested in Guatemala with the participation of the US DEA.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why Claims that Lost Cities exist in Abandoned Land are Dangerous for Indigenous Hondurans

The hype about the supposed "discovery" of Ciudad Blanca in eastern Honduras is dying down in English-language media.

A little good came out of this incident: a number of Honduran academics registered their skepticism about the claims. Honduran university students in the young Anthropology major held a public event to educate Hondurans about the reality of archaeology of Eastern Honduras. And a letter taking the National Geographic to task for publishing a sensationalized account, signed by an international group of archaeologists, got enough attention to warrant corrective reporting in some mainstream media.

Predictably there has been push back: don't be such kill-joys, isn't Indiana Jones the spirit of archaeology? and isn't this just another example of politically correctness?

The PC criticism suggests that scholars questioning the promotional stories' claims that the area was uninhabited because this ignores the indigenous people whose own oral histories are our best historical indication that eastern Honduras was once densely settled with larger towns cannot possibly actually be motivated by real people's real situations. It is just an attitude scholars adopted to look good.

Now, a new blog post by Chris Begley, an archaeologist who has one of the most extensive records of archaeological investigation in this area, addresses this question directly, and personally. We would love to reproduce his whole blog post, which you can find here; but short of that, pay attention to what he says:

The language used evokes a time where foreign explorers emphasized their superiority at the expense of local knowledge...there is a much more human and immediate cost, borne primarily by the most marginalized, least powerful folks in the region: indigenous people like the Pech who are descendants of those who built these sites.

I know this is not a ‘lost civilization’ because I am an archaeologist, and I’ve worked in this ‘unknown’ area for almost 25 years. I lived and worked with the Pech almost exclusively, because I thought it was the right thing to do, and because they know the region better than anyone. They have at least a thousand years of history there.

For the Pech, the past is absolutely essential to their future. Their history is not merely an interesting pastime; it creates and supports the present. They are curious about the archaeology. I’ve talked to impromptu community meetings, looked at artifacts they collected, and listened to their interpretations. I saw them make modern pottery look like the ancient pieces we find at archaeological sites, in a deliberate attempt to connect the past and the present.

I lived with the Pech at various times over the last two decades. We lived in small villages with no electricity or water. We spent all day, every day, together. We sat and talked every night. We played cards. We took trips through the forest for two or three weeks at a time, mapping archaeological sites along the way. All told, the Pech and I documented around 150 archaeological sites.

The Pech already knew where every large site was located. Every single one. They knew where fruit trees grew, or where the good fishing holes were. They could find the little trails that I could hardly see. Sometimes we followed an old trail by looking for grown over machete cuts on branches. They knew the forest like I know my hometown.

The Pech lived in these now remote places as recently as 150 years ago, and they return to hunt and fish, or to harvest sweetgum. They’ve lost traditional lands to encroaching farmers and cattle ranchers. They’ve been moved around, and now live mainly on the edge of the rain forest, in a handful of communities....

They showed me archaeological sites. They showed me features such as which hillsides had been reshaped by people, because they could tell and I couldn’t. They explained what they thought it meant. They critiqued my interpretations.

The Pech did all this while facing serious threats to their continued existence. They fought to keep what traditional land they still had, and to keep their language alive. They buried people killed by outsiders who wanted to bully them off their land. I hated those funerals, where those animated faces I knew were rigid. I hated seeing that. Sometimes I didn’t go.

So, what is the harm in this hype and sensationalism? What difference does it make if, in their ignorance, these ‘explorers’ proclaim that they discovered something nobody has seen in 600 years?  What is the cost of these newcomers, with no real experience in this forest, claiming, disingenuously, to have discovered a ‘lost civilization?’ Why am I moved to spend a few hours writing something like this?

I write this because these false claims, hype and sensationalism invade one of the few remaining spaces in which the Pech, and folks like them, are powerful. These claims strip the Pech of their own history, and deny them the respect they deserve and the acknowledgement for their contribution to our understanding of the past. These sensational narratives, powerful because they are made by powerful people, further marginalize and disenfranchise people. In ignorance and bravado, and in pursuit of the unworthy goal of celebrity and attention, these faux discoverers make it hard to hear a crucial voice from some real experts.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Honduran Archaeologists Criticize US Claim of Archaeological "Discovery"

The US team that has been promoting the idea that eastern Honduras is an impenetrable jungle where no archaeologist has gone before has released a new report, based on arriving at one of the sites LiDAR imagery showed.

Unfortunately, they continue to promote the idea that there was no previous research in the area; they use outdated and long-rejected ideas of "discovery" (ignoring indigenous people who contemporary archaeologists would acknowledge have their own knowledge of the landscape and what lies there), "lost cities", and new "civilizations" supposedly previously unknown.

The continued insistence on the narrative of discovery is especially egregious since the group has been told, repeatedly, about the modern work in the area, and has neglected to even contact the very much available expert in the region. It is almost the 100 year anniversary of the work of the first modern archaeologist who identified archaeological traditions typical of eastern Honduras, Samuel Lothrop.

This may be a newly identified site, but with over 200 sites, including large sites with stone architecture and ballcourts documented in the existing archaeological literature, that cannot be verified without engagement with the broader, knowledgeable archaeological community.

And that is precisely what Honduran archaeologists also had to say about the report in an article just published in La Prensa. These are all people fluent in English and Spanish, so a less lazy US news organization might talk to them directly; meanwhile, let's make sure their voices are heard, shall we?

Ciudad Blanca is a myth for Honduran archaeologists

The publication by National Geographic that Ciudad Blanca has been discovered in the Honduran rainforest wakened unease and incredulity in experts in the country.
Since decades ago, scientific expeditions have explored the legend of the lost city in the Mosquitia, discovering that it is a region rich in archaeological building remains, and according to archaeologists that is what the new reporting by the magazine is showing....
It isn't a discovery...
Ricardo Agurcia, noted Honduran archaeologist, questions the possible discovery that would rise to a world-wide level because the investigation team that was formed, he says, is not well known, and nor does he know the institutions that participated and if there are Honduran experts involved. "What I have been able to see has very little scientific merit. What I find strange as well is that news of this type comes out first published outside Honduras".
He notes that what the magazine shows doesn't have the features of the legend mentioned, and it is not unknown that there are many archaeological settlements in the Mosquitia. "What they encountered is a city? A city is archaeologically defined as a site of human occupation with a population larger than 10,000 inhabitants."
"This is verified with field archaeology and registering of houses. Is it white? I don't see it that way in any of the photos."
 "In the legend of the White City (Ciudad Blanca) that I know there should be a monkey statue made of gold. If this is Ciudad Blanca, where is that monkey? I see a lot of tinges of adventure, of Hollywood fils, as it it were from an Indiana Jones movie. That is not science" pointed out Agurcia.
 The Honduran archaeologist Eva Martinez agrees with Agurcia that this does not constitute a discovery and that Ciudad Blanca continues to be a myth.
"The Honduran Mosquitia has been studied by archaeologists for decades. The place that the National Geographic mentions could be one of the sites already recorded in the National Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH)."
The faculty member in the Anthropology major of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras says that the international publication lacks credibility.
"Any archaeological site in the Mosquitia could be given that name. Ciudad Blanca is a myth, a legend. The publication is not an academic investigation and it gives us a mistaken idea of the work of archaeology" she affirmed.
Martinez recommended that the Government should follow the legal and normal process of the IHAH and solicit a proposal for archaeological investigation, since the goal of the fieldwork that [the US institution involved] has, or if this is a preliminary step, is unknown. Before spreading news of a supposed discovery she thinks that the government ought to shield the Mosquitia from the looting of archaeological objects, which has already been happening and could grow.

 Who are these Honduran skeptics? Eva Martinez was the former head of the division of the Institute of Anthropology that is supposed to be responsible for vetting new projects in order to ensure that Honduras' cultural patrimony is properly managed. Ricardo Agurcia is a former Director of the Institute.

Theirs are not the only Honduran archaeologist's voices being raised in protest of the misrepresentation both of the level of knowledge that already exists of their country's archaeological resources, and of the way that Honduran anthropological archaeology-- a discipline that only recently became a university-level major at the National University-- is being ignored. What they have to say is echoed by many others, nationally and internationally.

We have long known there were large cities in the eastern Honduran rainforest. We have long known that there were traditions of sculpture, closely related to those of Nicaragua and Costa Rica and therefore NOT "Mesoamerican" (contrary to what one US archaeologist quoted by La Prensa said). We have even known for decades that many of the larger sites in the Mosquitia include ballcourts-- which was a real discovery, when it was made in the 1990s by Chris Begley as part of his University of Chicago doctoral research, undertaken with the proper approval and support from Honduran archaeologists.

I was challenged for calling the current project "pseudoscience". It may not be pseudoscience as we normally think of it (aliens built the site! it represents the lost civilization of Atlantis! Lucifer fell to earth here!).

But it isn't science either. Science rests on the assumption that each new investigator acknowledges what previous researchers have done, engages with it, and contributes to a growing body of knowledge. In contemporary anthropological archaeology, that process has led us to reject notions of "lost civilizations" and mysterious cities as hype-- what I called the way this team promoted itself in 2012, and still a valid label today. And that process has made it indispensable to leave behind the colonial legacy of archaeology, to acknowledge the contributions of archaeologists from other countries and the knowledge of local people, including but not just limited to those who might be descendants of the indigenous people whose histories we are tracing.

This ain't science, so give me a better work than pseudoscience: adventurism?

see the complete article in Spanish here

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sentiment Isn't A Crime Statistic

You would expect someone who rises to the post of government minister in Honduras to know the difference between a statistic which his government reports, and public sentiment about the same condition that generates that statistic, but at least when it comes to Arturo Corrales, Honduras's former Security Minister (and now Foreign Minister), you'd be wrong.

The Fundacioé por la Paz y Democracia (FUNPADEM), in San Jose, Costa Rica, released the results of a public survey of public sentiment about security in Latin America.  Honduras is one of the countries where the survey took place, and the results about public sentiment are reported in LAPOP 2014.

What the survey reported is that 66.4% of Hondurans feel safe in their community, which is better than Costa Rica where only 51.4% of those surveyed felt safe in their community.  The Director of FUNPADEM told the press:
"In Honduras the people seem to be getting used to crime, its a society that culturally is beginning to tolerate living badly.  They feel safer in the barrios when San Pedro Sula alone, second [largest] city in the country- the homicide rate is 182 per 100,000 inhabitants and here in Costa Rica we're scared when we have a homicide rate of 10 or 11 in prior years."
Arias lamented the attitude of the residents of northern Central America who favor mano dura policies over crime prevention:
"The paradox of Central America is that the countries of the north cry out for the army to protect them, the same army that 30 years ago killed their families.  This is the last straw of preventative measures of security."

Only 38.8 % of Hondurans have confidence in their police force.  Note that the question did not distinguish between the National Police and the Militarized Police.  Furthermore, 31.3% of Hondurans reported to FUNPADEM that they had been victims of a crime in the last year.

It should come as something of a shock to our gentle readers to learn that Arturo Corrales, acting as a government representative, wrote FUNPADEM a stern letter demanding that they correct the information reported in their survey results, calling it erroneous because it doesn't correspond with official government statistics.

Specifically he rejects their aside on the homicide rate in Honduras, which admittedly uses 2012 numbers. Corrales wrote:
In the last year, Honduras promised to secure the peace, tranquility, and quality of life of its citizens, which has permitted us to achieve a reduction of more than 23 percent in the homicide rate, going from 86 per 100,000 inhabitants to 66 per 100,000 inhabitants during the period 2012-2014.
Corrales further wrote:
With respect to victimization [of a crime] in the last 12 months, your report notes an erroneous figure of 31.3.  But actually the national and international observatories [of violence], particularly the Barometer of Latin America establish the rate at 18.

Remember what Corrales is objecting to here is that according toFUNPADEM,  31.3 percent of Hondurans report being a victim of a crime.  Corrales doesn't seem to understand the difference between that and his official crime statistics, which document only 18 percent of Hondurans having been victims of a crime.




That Hondurans might not be reporting all crimes, particularly because of a lack of confidence in the police and the lack of investigation of crimes by police appears never to have crossed his mind.  He concluded his letter demanding that FUNPADEM correct their statistics and publicize the new results.

FUNPADEM responded that they used the latest World Health Organization and UN numbers for any reported crime statistics.  They offered to let Corrales publish an article in their newsletter detailing all the crime fighting steps Honduras has taken over the same time period, but they stand by their reporting of public sentiment, which after all, is public sentiment, not an official crime statistic!


In the meantime, Corrales is gearing up his Foreign Ministry to "correct" what FUNPADEM  reported.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Hernandez loses vote on Military Police

Congress voted 67 to 61 over the weekend to not change the Honduran constitution to include Policia Militar de Orden Público (PMOP). So much for Oscar Alvarez's claim that he had 80 solid votes in favor, made on the 18th of January.  The opposition in Congress held together and won.

Those that wanted the constitutional change included the entire National party bench (48 members) plus all of the Christian Democrats (2), the only UD party member, and 10 members of the Liberal party.  Those opposed to making the constitutional change included the entire Libre party bench ( 37 members) plus the 13 members of PAC,  the only PINU party member, and 17 members of the Liberal party.

Only the Liberal party members split their vote on this motion, and today there was talk of making those Liberal party members who voted in favor of the constitutional change face party disciplinary hearings for breaking with the party leadership.

So what changes does this mean for the Militarized Police?  Nothing.  As things stand, they continue to function as they do today under the law that created them (decreto 168-2013) until Congress votes not to fund them further using the security tax.

This, however, is the first significant defeat the National party has received since becoming the majority in Congress under this President.  In the face of this defeat, Juan Orlando Hernandez vowed to hold a public referendum asking the question "Are you in favor of giving the Militarized Police of Public Order a permanent place in the constitution of the Republic?".  He has submitted a law to Congress to submit the question to the Honduran electorate in the 2017 general election, and the bill would have the effect of changing the Honduran constitution in the way the National party could not through Congress. 

However, the bill introduced contains some additions to the language that were not in the bill submitted to Congress for approval.

In Article 274, the proposed constitutional changes include language letting towns, villages, and ZEDEs request that the PMOP, or other parts of the Armed Forces [emphasis added], provide them with a public security service.  The proposed changes to Article 329 include granting the Executive branch the ability to declare ZEDEs as "special security zones", and gives the Executive branch the right to declare regions, populated or not, as "special security zones", whose security is provided by the PMOP.

This is overreaching by Hernandez, contemplated neither in the ZEDE authorization law nor previous proposals about making the Militarized Police mandated in the constitution.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Permanent Parallel Police Forces?

Juan Orlando Hernandez would like to make the Policía Militar de Orden Público (PMOP) a permanent part of Honduras by modifying the Honduran constitution.  He seems to be having problems convincing anyone outside of his party that this is either necessary or a good idea.

In August, 2013 the Honduran Congress, led at that time by Juan Orlando Hernandez, passed a bill (decreto 168-2013) creating the PMOP as an added branch of the Honduran armed forces.  Their mission, as defined, is essentially the same as the National Police.   Rather than being Military Police, that is a police unit located in the military, policing military bases, they are a Militarized Police, soldiers policing the civilian population of Honduras.  The argument urging their creation was that they were needed because one could not have confidence in the National Police because so many of them were linked to organized crime or corrupt in other ways.  At the time the PMOP were created, it was going to take 5 years to review and vet the 12,000 National Police officers. 

Juan Orlando Hernandez now wants to make them permanent, called for from within the constitution, the same way the constitution mandates the existence of the Honduran Armed Forces.  This would make it harder for future legislators to dissolve the PMOP, because a constitutional amendment would require a 2/3 vote of Congress two years in a row.  Hernandez stated:
"For me its important that the Militarized Police be permanent, because today I am the President, but if tomorrow someone else comes along and for ideological reasons dissolves the Militarized Police, we will fall back into the pothole that we all suffered; the Honduran people are not mistaken, if you ask the people who know the subject of security, in which they live all their days, they will tell you of the enormous support that the Militarized Police have."

Hernandez has portrayed opposition to this as either being unmotivated, or linked to support for the drug traffickers.  But Hernandez faces a lot of opposition on this issue.

There's never been a unified opposition in Honduras, especially not since the 2009 coup, but on this issue the political parties not in power, PAC, Libre, PINU, and the Liberals, have all stated their opposition to this move.  Its not that they're against the PMOP, they all have emphasized, its that they are against there existing two parallel police forces in Honduras with the same mission.  Mauricio Villeda, who was the Liberal Party's Presidential candidate in the last election, argues that the PMOP does not need to be added to the Honduran constitution, that as part of the Military it already has all the status it needs.  Villeda pointed out that creating a mandate for the PMOP within the constitution would be like creating a second armed forces, equal to the existing armed forces.  He suggested that this move has more to do with Hernandez wanting to continue in power after his term runs out.

Manuel Zelaya (@manuelzr), leader of Libre, responded on Twitter:
"We are not opposed to the PMOP; yes to them having a parallel mission"

Salvador Nasralla, leader of PAC responded on his TV program saying:
"The Armed Forces are already in the constitution which clearly establishes their obligations, PAC is not against the Militarized Police who should work until the problem of insecurity in this country is resolved.  We are against including [the PMOP] in the constitution and that they convert into a branch loyal to the President to defend him in his eager desire to continue in power clearly expressed in all the media."

The opposition has said it would welcome Hernandez putting this measure to a public referendum, as Hernandez said he might do if Congress fails to act.

The National Party is completely behind Hernandez, but lacks sufficient members in Congress to make this happen without some participation by those in other parties. Oscar Alvarez, head of the National Party caucus in Congress, claimed on Sunday that they had 80 solid votes for the change.  Since there are only 76 National Party members in Congress, that must mean he's managed to convince 4 members of the opposition to vote with them.  However, this bill needs 86 votes to pass to become law.

The current Congress has until January 24, when their session ends, to act.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Honduran Bond Sale

Honduras has finally succeeded in placing $250 million in bonds to be used to help pay down its debt to private energy providers, but first it had to sweeten the offering.  As of July, 2014, Honduras had a debt of $355 million with private power producers.

Honduras's state energy company, Empresa Nacional de Energia Electrica (ENEE) pays private companies for power generation. That's not to say it doesn't generate power as well, but it generates far less that the country uses.  It must therefore buy power from the Central American power grid, or pay private companies to generate the needed power in Honduras.  Until recently, it has primarily paid private companies to generate the the rest.

Specifically, ENEE generates a maximum of 2567 Gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity (about 39%), while private producers generate a maximum of 3992 GWh (61 %).  Most of ENEE's generation is hydroelectric, which cannot produce full output in drought years like Honduras has seen over the last several years.

Furthermore, until this year ENEE, courtesy of a law passed by the Honduran Congress, subsidized the first 250 Kilowatt hours (KWh ) of power used by poor households to make it essentially free.  While the percentage of poor households has varied through time, its not dropped below 54% during the time this subsidy was in place and is currently around 63%. This policy encouraged increased electrical usage in the houses that were on the electrical grid, and it was only terminated in 2015.

ENEE owns the power grid in Honduras, but lacks the funding, technical skills, and equipment to properly maintain it so that measured loss in the power grid is sometimes over 25%.  Loss is the difference between the power placed on the grid, and that paid for by customers.  El Salvador has a 13% loss rate, Guatemala a 7% loss rate, and Nicaragua a 19% loss rate.  Only about 10% of the loss is due to the transmission network itself; the rest is due to illegal connections and billing errors.   ENEE historically has not disconnected users for non-payment, nor does it have the equipment to track electrical losses in particular circuits and thus know about illegal electrical connections.  ENEE also has trouble getting customers to pay for electricity.

With the private power producers, ENEE has typically had contracts where it paid for the petroleum used to generate the power, and then paid another $0.06 to $0.20 per KWh to buy the generated power.

Its the above practices that drove ENEE deep into debt with the private power generators.  In 2013 Honduras sold $215 million in ENEE bonds principally to help pay off its debt with private energy providers.  Last August, Honduras attempted to place a further 5,268.8 million lempiras ($250 million) in bonds with a fixed interest rate of 10.5% but only was able to sell abut $34 million (728 million lempiras).  Marlon Tabora, the President of the Honduran Central Bank, said that the market found the offered interest rate too low.

The sale results announced today were for a a different financial instrument, inflation indexed bonds of 5 and 10 years, some at 4% above inflation, and some at 4.5% above inflation.  Honduras had averaged an inflation rate of 6.41% in November 2014.