Sunday, May 20, 2012

Belated Happy Mother’s Day, Pending Surgery, Electronic Books, Cambodian Forests, Nigerian Prisoner Released, Amnesty Statement on Human Rights in Cuba, No Honduras News Is Good News Except Model City

Hope that all you mothers out there, and those fortunate enough to still have living mothers,

enjoyed Mother’s Day. I certainly did. I spent a busy weekend with my older daughter Melanie, granddaughter Natasha, and Natasha’s 4-year-old son. Melanie’s younger sister-in-law, age 13, also joined us. Additionally, my Kenya visitor Tabitha and friend Blanka from the Czech Republic made the annual Capitol Hill Restoration Society House Tour. See photos.

The house tour always invokes shame and envy among us ordinary mortals who have functional living spaces, but not ones that are super-convenient, impeccably neat, and spectacularly beautiful. All or nearly all the houses were built in the 1800s. Some had retained their historical character; others had departed imaginatively from the original, but only inside, because little change is permitted to outside facades. One house that seemed to have been excessively modernized had a video-cam running to film everyone entering and leaving and television that could be viewed in mirrors in most rooms. (I don’t own even one TV set.) The various bathrooms with their marble floors and jacuzzis, the kitchen with its granite countertops, the skylights, the soft music playing in the background, the patio fountains—it was all very luxurious, but some of the effect was counteracted by warning signs posted everywhere: no photographs, no sitting on the furniture, no using the bathrooms (I jokingly threatened to take a shower!). We did not feel welcome.

Since I am facing surgery on Wed. (not serious, I hope, just a small hernia), I may not return to these pages for a while.

Electronic books are the wave of the future (my book is on Kindle and the Nook), as most people don't want to accumulate books any more (although most of the houses that we visited on the tour had libraries). Few folks today seem prone to collect matched sets of the classics with gold lettering, such as used to grace home libraries. Home libraries don't exist much now, instead, there’s a TV/computer room. Among physical books, it's mostly paperbacks to be thrown away or passed along.

Apparently Europeans are more willing than Americans to tax very rich people. In the US, many people aspire or expect to become rich themselves and don’t want to overly tax their future selves. Of course, few will ever actually make it into that 1%, but they seem to identify more with that unlikely possibility than with their actual present-day straitened circumstances.

Now that Mexican immigration is a net loss, the day may come when we will be sorry here in the U.S. if we should reach the point of many European countries and Japan, losing population and becoming top-heavy with older people, while Canada and Australia, which welcome immigrants, will benefit.

These days when the Portuguese are engaging in reverse migration to Brazil, perhaps the “global south” will become the new magnet to recession-weary Europeans and Americans. Certainly Asia seems to be booming, especially China and India, and I predict that Africa will be the next big growth center despite its current problems of corruption and AIDS.

Our Washington, DC, Amnesty International office hosted a presentation by human rights defender and forest preservation activist Phouk Hong, a member of Cambodia’s indigenous Kuy people and a mother of five with no formal education or literacy who has become a leader in protecting the forests that provide her people with a sustainable livelihood. Unassuming and soft-spoken, she and her colleagues have been able to protect part of their forest, though other indigenous groups in Cambodia have not been so fortunate. High government officials benefit from payoffs from lumber companies, something very hard to circumvent, though appeals from the U.S. ambassador have helped. Boycotting of Cambodian lumber by American firms would have only limited effect, as China and Viet Nam are only too willing, apparently, to deforest large areas and to pay bribes to government officials in any case. NGO’s working directly with local people have made some headway, but not without risk. USAID is promoting ecotourism and other endeavors that provide a livelihood without cutting down the forests, although the high officials benefit less. It’s hard to keep with the speed with which the land is being decimated.

Our Amnesty Group 211’s Nigerian prisoner case, Patrick Okoroafor, was just released after 17 years!

In other Amnesty news, Amnesty International in London suffered a malware attack. Amnesty International's UK website was compromised and used to install a notorious backdoor trojan allowing hackers to spy on political activists and government employees.

The following is a video from Amnesty International headquarters in London on human rights in Cuba, actually released before Pope Benedict’s visit:

A student in a Spanish class somewhere used some of my blog photos in a power point about Honduras, which I was glad to see.

Was also glad to see from several sources, information about a brand new Honduran model city still on the drawing boards for lack of sponsors, but being promoted by economist Paul Romer and endorsed by President Porfirio Lobo. The idea is to build a crime-free, eco-friendly city from scratch (see NY Times magazine, May 13, 2012). There are is at least one precedent already, the smaller Ciudad Espana outside of Tegucigalpa mentioned in my book, one of whose satisfied residents I met at the school for the blind in my 2010 trip to Honduras.

Honduras is certainly otherwise a nation under siege, as witnessed by the following reports. First April’s headlines:

Journalist and human rights defender threatened with sexual violence (C-Libre)

Journalist and human rights activist Dina Meza threatened again (RSF)

TV show host shot dead (C-Libre)

Television presenter assassinated (IPI)

Radio journalist assaulted, gets death threat from Liberal Party leaders (C-Libre)

Then in late April and May:

IFEX: TV journalist survives assassination attempt

(C-Libre/IFEX) - 30 April 2012 - Elder Joel Aguilar, a correspondent for Canal 6, survived an attack on the night of 28 April. The incident occurred while he was on a highway that connects Nueva Arcadia (La Entrada), in Copán, to the city of San Pedro Sula.

According to Aguilar, when he went to pick up his partner from work at a gas station outside of Nueva Arcadia, two people in a car shot at him repeatedly with AK-47s.

Aguilar said that as soon as he felt the shots hitting his car, he accelerated and drove until he crashed into a barrier at a gas station on the highway. The police report said there were 14 AK-47 bullet holes in the car, including in the window in front of the driver's seat and in the doors on the left-hand side of the vehicle.

According to sources that asked not to be named, Aguilar had recently reported on an armed gang holdup of four trucks carrying shipments of coffee. The description of the car belonging to the people who attacked Aguilar matches that of the vehicles used by organised crime groups in the area.

Roberto Hernández, the mayor of Nueva Arcadia, stated that Aguilar's reporting has provoked reactions from many people, and he also condemned the attack. Because of the seriousness of the incident, Aguilar is asking for police protection.


IFEX: Shots fired at journalist's home

By Selvin Martínez, Journalist

(C-Libre/IFEX) - 30 April 2012 - The home of JBN Televisión correspondent Selvin Martínez, 34, from Omoa, Cortés department, came under attack on 26 April 2012. The journalist is known as "El Halcón" ("The Hawk") for his journalistic prowess.

Around 5:30 p.m. on 26 April, as Martínez was returning from a work trip to San Pedro Sula, he saw people in a red car firing towards his home.

Martínez told C-Libre that his two children, aged five and three, were playing outside the house with his wife, who had recently given birth. "I felt like my world was collapsing, I imagined the worst," he said.

After making sure his children and wife were unharmed, he called the national police in Omoa but the officer who answered the call told him he was in a meeting and abruptly hung up.

"Two blocks from my home there is a police station, but when I called there was no answer. I am still waiting for the police so that I can submit my statement. I found 16 bullet casings in front of my house," said Martínez.

The journalist said that the only issue he has covered recently that could have caused this type of reaction was a complaint from a poor villager who was denied financial assistance by the mayor of Omoa, Ricardo Alvarado. Martínez said that in his nine years working as a journalist he has never before experienced this type of intimidation.

"The state of impunity in the country is the responsibility of the government and a result of the authorities' negligence . . . they want us journalists, who are informing our communities, to be silenced with lead, but this kind of intimidation will not shut me up. My main concern is my family and they are entrusted to God," said Martínez.

May 10, 2012 - Alfredo Villatoro, presenter of the morning news program and News Director at the major Honduran radio station, HRN radio, was kidnapped Wednesday morning near his residence at 4:50 a.m., just outside the capital city Tegucigalpa.

Villatoro was on his way to the office when he was abducted from his vehicle. A colleague at the radio station who knows to expect Villatoro just before 5:00 a.m. was worried when he did not arrive, and called the police.

Later that morning, HRN radio said in a broadcast that the captors had communicated with Villatoro’s family, most likely to ask for a ransom.

"IPI urges Honduras police to carry out swift investigations and do everything in their power to ensure that Villatoro is freed immediately," IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. "Journalists in Honduras work under terrible conditions and this heavilly affects thier ability to inform the people about issues of public interest. It is the responsibility of the Honduran authorities to ensure that journalists can carry out thier work safely."

The police stated that “young gang members” carried out the kidnapping and have subsequently arrested three suspects for questioning. Former deputy inspector of the Honduras National Police, Gerson Basilio Godoy, was taken into custody four hours after the kidnapping. According to the Honduran newspaper La Prensa, Godoy left the police force in Nov. 2011 for his connection with a gang notorious for extortion and kidnapping. However, La Prensa also reported that Godoy was later released due to a lack of sufficient evidence linking him to the case.

Villatoro’s abduction comes three days after fellow journalist and gay rights activist Erick Martinez was found dead on the roadside in Guasculile, a small village just north of Tegucigalpa. Local media reported that Martinez’s body showed signs of strangulation.

Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world and has become increasingly dangerous for journalists given a the recent rise in drug trafficking and organized crime. Since the military coup that overthrew Former President Manuel Zelaya in May 2009, more than 20 journalists have been killed in Honduras, according to the IPI Death Watch. It is unclear at this time whether their deaths were in relation to their journalistic work.

Human rights groups have condemned Honduran authorities for not bringing a single investigation of these deaths to a close. "We're enormously worried that there are next to no investigations in the murders of our colleagues," said the President of the Honduran College of Journalists, Juan Roman Mairena.


Lessons of Iraq Help U.S. Fight a Drug War in Honduras

By THOM SHANKER NY Times, May 5, 2012

FORWARD OPERATING BASE MOCORON, Honduras — The United States military has brought lessons from the past decade of conflict to the drug war being fought in the wilderness of Miskito Indian country, constructing this remote base camp with little public notice but with the support of the Honduran government. It is one of three new forward bases here — one in the rain forest, one on the savanna and one along the coast — each in a crucial location to interdict smugglers moving cocaine toward the United States from South America.

Honduras is the latest focal point in America’s drug war. As Mexico puts the squeeze on narcotics barons using its territory as a transit hub, more than 90 percent of the cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela bound for the United States passes through Central America. More than a third of those narcotics make their way through Honduras, a country with vast ungoverned areas — and one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world.

This new offensive, emerging just as the United States military winds down its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and is moving to confront emerging threats, also showcases the nation’s new way of war: small-footprint missions with limited numbers of troops, partnerships with foreign military and police forces that take the lead in security operations, and narrowly defined goals, whether aimed at insurgents, terrorists or criminal groups that threaten American interests.

The effort draws on hard lessons learned from a decade of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, where troops were moved from giant bases to outposts scattered across remote, hostile areas so they could face off against insurgents.

But the mission here has been adapted to strict rules of engagement prohibiting American combat in Central America, a delicate issue given Washington’s messy history in Honduras, which was the base for the secret operation once run by Oliver North to funnel money and arms to rebels fighting in neighboring Nicaragua. Some skeptics still worry that the American military might accidentally empower thuggish elements of local security forces.

In past drug operations, helicopters ferrying Honduran and American antinarcotics squads took off from the capital, Tegucigalpa, whenever an intelligence task force identified radar tracks of a smuggler’s aircraft. The three-hour flights required to reach cartel rendezvous points did not leave much idle time to spot airplanes as they unloaded tons of cocaine to dugout canoes, which then paddled downriver beneath the jungle canopy to meet fast boats and submersibles at the coast for the trip north.

In creating the new outposts — patterned on the forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan that gave troops a small, secure home on insurgent turf — spartan but comfortable barracks were built. Giant tanks hold 4,500 gallons of helicopter fuel. Solar panels augment generators. Each site supports two-week rotations for 55 people, all no more than 30 to 45 minutes’ flying time from most smuggling handoff points.

Before his assignment to Central America, Col. Ross A. Brown spent 2005 and 2006 in Iraq as commander of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Third Squadron, responsible for southern Baghdad. It was a time so violent that President George W. Bush ordered an increase in troop levels to retake the initiative.

Colonel Brown is now commander of Joint Task Force-Bravo, where he and just 600 troops are responsible for the military’s efforts across all of Central America. He is under orders to maintain a discreet footprint, supporting local authorities and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which leads the American counternarcotics mission.

American troops here cannot fire except in self-defense, and they are barred from responding with force even if Honduran or Drug Enforcement Administration agents are in danger. Within these prohibitions, the military marshals personnel, helicopters, surveillance airplanes and logistical support that Honduras and even the State Department and D.E.A. cannot. “By countering transnational organized crime, we promote stability, which is necessary for external investment, economic growth and minimizing violence,” Colonel Brown said. “We also are disrupting and deterring the potential nexus between transnational organized criminals and terrorists who would do harm to our country.”

To reach Forward Operating Base Mocoron, an Army Black Hawk helicopter flew through fog-shrouded canyons, over triple-canopy rain forest and across savannas that bore dozens of 200-yard scratches — pirate runways for drug smugglers.

Conducting operations during a recent day at the outpost were members of the Honduran Tactical Response Team, the nation’s top-tier counternarcotics unit. They were working alongside the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, or FAST, created by the Drug Enforcement Administration to disrupt the poppy trade in Afghanistan. With the campaign in Afghanistan winding down — and with lowered expectations of what Washington can do to halt heroin trafficking there — FAST members were in Honduras to plan interdiction missions in Central America.

And Honduran Special Operations forces, with trainers from American Special Forces — the Army’s Green Berets — were ferried from the outpost by Honduran helicopters to plant explosives that would cut craters into smugglers’ runways. Honduran infantrymen provided security for the outpost, which remains under Honduran command.

Those missions were conducted amid reminders of the dirty wars of the 1980s. One such reminder was a delegation of Congressional staff members visiting recently to assess local forces’ respect of human rights. Legislation prohibits United States military assistance to foreign forces that violate human rights, so before Joint Task Force-Bravo can cooperate with Central American militaries, they must be certified by American embassies in the countries where those operations are to take place.

Another reminder sits across the runway at Soto Cano Air Base, the large Honduran base outside the capital that hosts a local military academy and Colonel Brown’s headquarters. Behind a high fence is a compound once used by Mr. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel at the center of the Iran-contra operation, a clandestine effort to sell weapons to Iran and divert profits to support rebels in Nicaragua, despite legislation prohibiting assistance to the group because of human rights abuses. Today, tropical undergrowth is erasing traces of the secret base.

But that history still casts a shadow, skeptics of the American effort say.

“We know from the Reagan years that the infrastructure of the country of Honduras — both its governance machinery as well as its security forces — simply is not strong enough, is not corruption-proof enough, is not anti-venal enough to be a bastion of democracy,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a policy research group in Washington.

The American ambassador to Honduras, Lisa J. Kubiske, is responsible for bringing order to the complex and sometimes competing mix of interagency programs, and she oversees compliance with human rights legislation. She described the Honduran armed forces as “eager and capable partners in this joint effort.”

One of those partners, Cmdr. Pablo Rodríguez of the Honduran Navy, is the senior officer at the second of the forward bases, at Puerto Castilla on the coast. He pointed to his “bonus fleet” of several dozen vessels seized from smugglers, the fastest of which were retrofitted with Kevlar armor over outboard engines and mounts for machine guns for chasing drug runners. The improvements were financed by the State Department.

“We have limitations on how quickly we can move, even when we get strong indications of a shipment of drugs,” Commander Rodríguez said. “We can’t do anything without air support. So that’s why it’s very important to have the United States coming in here.”

Permanent American deployments overseas are shrinking to match a smaller Pentagon budget — and missions will increasingly reflect partnership efforts traditionally assigned to Special Operations forces. A significant effort is the presence of 200 of those troops assigned as trainers across Central America.

The third forward base, at El Aguacate in central Honduras, has sprung from an abandoned airstrip used by the C.I.A. during the Reagan era.

Narcotics cartels, transnational organized crime and gang violence are designated as threats by the United States and Central American governments, with a broader consensus than when that base was built — in an era when the region was viewed through a narrow prism of communism and anticommunism.

“The drug demand in the United States certainly exacerbates challenges placed upon our neighboring countries fighting against these organizations — and why it is so important that we partner with them in their countering efforts,” said Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, the No. 2 officer at Southern Command, which is responsible for military activities in Central and South America.

Before this assignment, Admiral Kernan spent years in Navy SEAL combat units, and he sees the effort to combat drug cartels as necessary to preventing terrorists from co-opting criminal groups for attacks in this hemisphere. There are “insidious” parallels between regional criminal organizations and terror networks, Admiral Kernan said. “They operate without regard to borders,” he said, in order to smuggle drugs, people, weapons and money.


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