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.
Brazilian Military Police backed by Marine troops occupied the massive Maré favela next to Rio de Janeiro's Galeao international airport on March 31, allegedly without firing a shot. The aim was to secure one of the city's most violent districts, long under control of drug gangs, ahead of the World Cup, to be held in Brazil in June. Shock troops of the elite Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) and Marines in armored vehicles and helicopters secured the Maré area, where 130,000 people live in poverty on the north side of Rio. Police said they seized guns and 450 kilos of marijuana, and arrested two suspected dealers. But residents said most gang leaders slipped out the favelaahead of the occupation. The operation had been expected; in preceding days Police Pacification Units (UPPs) had been installed in 174 of Rio's favelas— home to around 600,000 people. (InSerbia, April 1; MercoPress, March 31)
A new anti-terrorism bill presented in the Brazilian National Congress on April 19—two months ahead of the 2014 World Cup—has raised concern among human rights groups who allege the law threatens free speech and peaceful assembly. Brazilian lawmakers argue the legislation is required to fill a missing piece in the Brazilian legal system as the country's international exposure grows. The anti-terrorism bill would impose a 15-30 year prison sentence for "causing or inciting widespread terror by threatening or trying to threaten the life, the physical integrity or the health or liberty of a person." The broad language of the bill is a major point of concern for human rights groups, but the drafters of the law stated they will amend the language to clear up ambiguities. Two human rights groups are leading the challenge against the bill: Brazil's Institute of Human Rights Defenders and Amnesty International. The rights groups believe any change in language will not alter the new police power embedded in the law, and the measure may criminalize freedom of expression.
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.
More than 1,500 Military Police were mobilized April 11 to evict thousands of squatters who had recently taken over an abandoned office complex in Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian media reported that most of the squatters left peacefully, but others resisted, sparking pitched street battles with police. Protesters chanted "We want houses!," and some hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails at police and set several vehicles on fire. Four buildings were also set aflame. Authorities reported 12 injured and 26 detained, including six minors. The squatted complex was known as Telerj Favela, because it had been the offices of the Telerj, the state telecommunications company, before it was recently vacated. (SMH, April 12; Europa Press, April 12; EuroNews, April 11)
A court in Salto de Guairá, Paraguay, on April 9 refused to grant house arrest to five imprisoned campesinos held since 2012 despite having never been brought to trial or convicted. The denial of their petition came on the 55th day that the five prisoners have been on hunger strike. The five, Adalberto Castro, Felipe Benítez, Néstor Castro, Rubén Villalba and Amado Quintana, were arrested during the June 2012 violent eviction of peasant squatters at Curuguaty, in which 11 campesinos and five police offers lost their lives. The five, who deny their guilt in any slayings, have been tranferred against their will to a military hospital. (Prensa Latina, April 9; Radio Mundo Real, March 14)
The Aché indigenous people of Paraguay on April 8 brought suit in a court in Argentina demanding reparations for "genocide" carried out under the late Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner. The Aché are being represented by Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzón, and chose to bring the case in Argentina under the doctrine of "universal jurisdiction" for crimes against humanity, asserting that justice is not possible in Paraguay's own courts. "We still feel enormous pain in our hearts and minds," said Aché leader Ceferino Kreigi Duarte in a press conference announcing the suit. "For this reason we today demand the Paraguayan state must answer for all this damage, not only to our community but to all the peoples of Paraguay who were victims of the dictatorship." Under Stroessner's 1954-1989 rule, the Aché people, who live in the riverine forests of Paraguay's east, saw their population diminish by 60% due to forced relocations, seizures of their traditional lands, and abduction of the young to serve as virtual slaves in domestic labor. Most of the population plunge took place during five years in the early 1970s. (AP via Excélsior, Mexico; EFE via Radio Caracol, Colombia, April 8)