Weekly News Update on the Americas
The central Chilean port city of Valparaíso remained under military control as of April 15, three days after forest fires began sweeping into some of the city's working-class neighborhoods, leaving at least 15 people dead and destroying 2,900 homes. Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said the government hoped to have the fires under control by April 16, but the national forestry agency indicated that it might take the 5,000 firefighters and other personnel in the city as long as 20 days to extinguish the fires completely. Some 12,500 are now without homes in Valparaíso; this disaster follows an 8.2-magnitude earthquake in northern Chile that killed five people on April 1 and made 2,635 homes uninhabitable.
Honduran journalist Carlos Hilario Mejía Orellana was stabbed to death the night of April 11 at his home in the city of Progreso, in the northern department of Yoro. Mejía was the marketing executive for Radio Progreso, a community radio station established by Jesuits, and was also a member of the Jesuits' Reflection, Investigation and Communications Team (ERIC). Police investigators suggested that he was killed by someone close to him in a "crime of passion," but the radio station's director, the Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, called the murder "a direct attack not only on the life of our colleague, but a frontal attack on the work produced by Radio Progreso." The station, which provided favorable coverage of resistance to the June 2009 military coup that overthrew then-president José Manuel ("Mel") Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009), has been the target of threats over the years. The Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR, or CIDH in Spanish), called on the Honduran government in 2009—and again in 2010 and 2011—to provide protection for 16 Radio Progreso staffers, including Mejía.
A US immigration judge has ruled that former Salvadoran defense minister José Guillermo García Merino (1979-1983) is eligible for deportation from the US because of "clear and convincing evidence" that he "assisted or otherwise participated" in 11 acts of violence during the 1980s, including the March 1980 murder of San Salvador archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Gen. García also helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who raped and killed four US churchwomen in December 1980 and “knew or should have known” about the military’s December 1981 massacre of more than 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote, according to the 66-page decision by Immigration Judge Michael Horn in Miami. The judge ruled against García on Feb. 26, but the decision was only made public on April 11 as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the New York Times. García’s lawyer said the general would appeal.
On April 2 Pierre Espérance, the executive director of the Haitian nonprofit National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), received a letter at the organization's Port-au-Prince office warning him not to issue "false reports destabilizing for the country." "In 99 we missed you, this time you won't escape it, stop speaking," the letter's authors wrote, referring to a 1999 attack in which Espérance suffered bullet wounds to the shoulder and knee while driving in Port-au-Prince. Recent reports by the RNDDH have dealt with such subjects as the slow pace of the prosecution of former "president for life" Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier (1971-1986) and alleged ties between drug traffickers and the government of President Michel Martelly ("Sweet Micky").
On April 7 a court in La Ligua, in Chile's Petorca province, Valparaíso region, convicted agronomist Rodrigo Mundaca of slander and sentenced him to 541 days in prison for accusing former government minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma of water usurpation. Mundaca, the secretary of the Movement in Defense of Water, Land and the Environment (Modatima), also faces a fine. According to current Modatima spokesperson Luis Soto, the court's decision won't stop the group's activist work. He said Modatima would take the case "to the Valparaíso Appeals Court, and if we aren't successful there, we'll go to the Supreme Court."
A large part of Argentina's labor movement participated a 24-hour general strike on April 10 to demand increases in wages and pensions and to protest the economic policies of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. With support from the Automatic Tramways Union (UTA) and three airline workers' unions, the strike shut down surface trains, subways, air service, schools and businesses in many parts of the country. Union leaders said the action was 90% effective, and the Argentine business consulting firm Orlando Ferreres & Asociados S.A. set the losses for the day at almost $1 billion. Government officials and Fernández supporters downplayed the significance of the strike, charging that relatively few workers actively participated and that people stayed home only because transportation was cut off by the UTA and by roadblocks that leftist parties and groups had set up.
On April 9 the California-based technology company Hewlett-Packard (HP) announced that it was paying a $108 million fine to the US Justice Department and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to end an investigation into subsidiaries in Poland, Russia and Mexico that allegedly paid bribes to officials. The HP subsidiaries "created a slush fund for bribe payments, set up an intricate web of shell companies and bank accounts to launder money, employed two sets of books to track bribe recipients, and used anonymous email accounts and prepaid mobile telephones to arrange covert meetings to hand over bags of cash," according to a statement by the Justice Department. HP said the corruption "was limited to a small number of people who are no longer employed by the company."
US citizen Alan Gross, serving a 15-year prison term in Cuba for his work there as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), held a liquids-only hunger strike from April 3 to 11 to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and the US governments. According to Scott Gilbert, Gross's Washington, DC-based lawyer, the prisoner started his hunger strike after he learned about an April 3 Associated Press report on ZunZuneo, the "Cuban Twitter" service that USAID launched after his arrest in December 2009. Gross was charged with seeking to subvert the Cuban government by supplying dissidents with Internet technology, and ZunZuneo had the potential to damage his legal case.