What will it take for Chilean Australians to have peace from Pinochet’s heavies?

Adriana Rivas, a woman close to the top in the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, is working as a cleaner in Sydney. Chile’s exiles demand she be brought to justice.  By Antonio Castillo

Pinochet Photograph: EPA

Decades have passed since the end of the Chilean military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, but for exiled Chileans still living in Australia there is no forgiving or forgetting – especially when former Pinochet heavies can still call Australia home.

Adriana Rivas González, aka “La Chani”, was the personal secretary of General Manuel Contreras: the former head of the secret police, and the second most powerful man after Pinochet, now serving life in prison. 

She has been been living peacefully in Australia since 1978, when she married and settled in Sydney. After recent reports from the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme, it is understood that she now works as a nanny and cleaner.

It is also alleged that La Chani was also a member of the Lautaro Brigade, an elite unit charged with exterminating members of the Communist party. She was detained in Chile in 2006 for four years, while an investigation was conducted into her involvement in the disappearance of three Communist leaders .

To return to Australia, she travelled from Chile to Mendoza and Buenos Aires in Argentina, and then by plane to Sydney. Until she wasinterviewed by SBS earlier this year, La Chani had not been approached on the subject of her return.

While she has denied that she was ever involved in murder or torture, she has never denied her participation in the repressive apparatus of Pinochet, and has defended the use of torture as necessary:

[It was] the same as what the Nazis used, do you understand? It was necessary. And do you think that the US does not do the same? The whole world does it. Silent, underground, but they do it. This is the only way to break the people. Because psychologically, there is no method.

There is a standing extradition order on La Chani’s head from the Chilean supreme court. Last May, on the steps of the Victorian parliament, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, whose wife is Chilean, made an impassioned call for Rivas to be extradited to Chile to face justice. 

La Chani’s extradition request is currently in the hands of the Attorney General George Brandis. “The extradition won’t be easy, but not impossible,” Vlaudin Vega, spokesperson for the Sydney based Chile solidarity committee told me. It is well known that extradition is a complicated process but Australian Chileans aren’t discouraged – they recently had a significant victory against another former Pinochet crony.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a socialist and a former political exile in Australia, recently nominated James Sinclair as Chile’s new ambassador in Canberra. During the Pinochet regime, Sinclair served in the Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI) – the Chilean secret police.

Human rights activists in Chile allege that Sinclair was responsible for the destruction of 31 secret documents in March 1987, two years before the dictatorship ended. They say the documents related to criminal actions committed by Pinochet under the so-called Colombo and Condoroperations – a criminal clandestine alliance between the political police of the dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

The documents activists allege Sinclair destroyed are said to shed light on some of the most notorious crimes committed by Pinochet’s secret police. Two of these operations were acts of international terrorism: the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier, a politician and diplomat during the presidency of socialist president Salvador Allende; and the 1974 car-bombing of General Carlos Prats, Allende’s vice president.

Sinclair’s political career outlasted Pinochet – he was a member of the cabinet of Sebastián Piñera, the wealthy right wing tycoon who governed Chile between 2010-2014. Serving in the establishment is a family tradition; his father, the infamous General Santiago Sinclair Oyaneder, was processed for his involvement in the extrajudicial killing in 1987 of five left wing dissidents, who were thrown from a helicopter into the waters of the Pacific Ocean – one of the Pinochet dictatorship’s favourite methods.

Unfortunately, since 1989, when Chile finally returned to democracy, the country has been largely unable to investigate and punish some of the worst atrocities committed during the Pinochet years. There are still approximately 1,300 cases of unresolved human rights violations, including the assassination on 11 October 1973 of Máximo Neira, my brother-in-law’s father. Most of these cases have been closed due to a lack of evidence – the kind of evidence Sinclair is alleged to have destroyed.

The appointment of James Sinclair was hard to stomach for Australia’s 25,000-strong Chilean community, many of whom arrived as political exiles after the coup of 11 September 1973. Rallies were held in front of the embassy in Canberra over the last month, and also in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Now Sinclair will never present his credentials to the governor-general, because after an inexcusable delay by Bachelet, his appointment was finally revoked.

Sinclair will never walk Canberra’s manicured gardens. La Chani, in the meantime, walks free in Sydney. While she insists on her innocence, Chilean exiles in Australia fear that her extradition may take years, or forever.

Posted in The Guardian


Central American ganglands spark child refugee crisis

By Antonio Castillo

A Special Forces officer of the Grupo Reacion Policial guards an alley during a raid against gang members in El Salvador.

The crossing though Mexico to the US by thousands of Salvadorians, Guatemalan, Honduran and Mexican children has shaken the governments of this region. US military bases, particularly those closer to the Mexican border, have become children refugee camps, and neither the source countries nor the US as the destination have any idea how to deal with what has to be called a refugee crisis instead of an immigration one.

The exodus of unaccompanied boys and girls to the US has become a metaphor of an impoverished region — Central America — that has abandoned its children and mortgaged its future. Pope Francis — who has a deep knowledge of this region — has demanded ‘urgent intervention’, and has called the US to welcome and protect the children who are risking their lives to find a better one.

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are post civil war countries where organised gang violence is out of control and the economic violence perpetrated by US-recommended neoliberal policies has brought about poverty and social exclusion. These are some of the key reasons behind the forced exodus of children.

The US estimates that since October 2013 more than 100,000 girls and boys have been detained. According to the Washington Office for Latin America, around 34 per cent came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. This figure is likely inaccurate, due to the fact that Mexican children detained by US authorities often identify themselves as Central Americans; it is harder to send them back to Central America than to nearby Mexico.

Also, undocumented minors from non-neighbouring countries have a higher possibility of staying in the US for years before being deported. Usually they are detained for a month and then handed over to foster families while the migration legal process continues. And this can take years. Figures confirm this. Only 2000 out of 50,000 minors detained in the US in 2013 were deported.

Maras (criminal gangs) have taken control of large portions of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Neighbourhoods, streets and even primary schools have become enclaves of gang feudalism. Minors are forcefully recruited. They become canon folder, drugs curriers, sex slaves and coerced executioners. A killer who is a minor receives a jail sentence that is much shorter than for adults.

Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world. The homicide rate in Honduras is the highest in the region. In Guatemala it has risen by 70 per cent this year and in El Salvador 12 murders are committed daily, with a rising trend.

In El Salvador, the request for asylum is now higher than during the 1979–1992 civil war. It is significant that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reopened its office in El Salvador, an office that was closed at the end of the civil war.

In the last two decades, these three countries are experiencing a different kind of war: not a civil war between left wing guerrillas and the state, but a war between the maras that has left the state besieged. The government has lost its enforcement monopoly against private armed groups and organised criminal gangs.

Gang violence is not the only reason behind the exodus. There is also the economic violence that has spread in one of the most impoverished regions of the world. Economic violence is subjugation, particularly of children, indigenous people, the rural and urban poor, by exclusionary access to employment, education, health care and means of production.

This economic violence — sponsored by the US neoliberal model forced into these societies — is accompanied by the exploitation of the many by a small local economic and political elite. Any attempt to modify this model — for example to revamp the appalling taxation system — is ferociously opposed by the holders of economic power, leaving the state coffers bare and unable to invest in much-needed social and welfare policy reforms.

Ironically this Washington economic violence has forced thousands of undocumented migrants to flee to the US.

The consequences of a failed economic model are evident wherever you look in Central America. In Guatemala one indigenous child of less than five years dies every two hours due to preventable health problems. Guatemala is a country of young people — 48 per cent — yet has the worst level in the region of government funds allocated to children and adolescents. The educational system is one of the worst in the world.

The exodus of children has reinforced once again the need to reform the US migration philosophy, which has failed due to the lack of engagement with Mexico and Central American countries. Washington’s demand — as expressed a few weeks ago by vice president Joe Biden in Guatemala — to Central American countries and Mexico to detain by force the departing and entering minors is unworkable and will make things worse.

Should the US compel southern neighbouring countries to do the ‘dirty work’ alone, it will only bring about more corruption, extortion, prostitution and human rights violations. State agencies of the region are not able to police these porous borders, which are already under the control of organised crime.

While organised crime continues, economic violence remains unresolved and the US doesn’t get its migration policy right, undocumented and unaccompanied children will keep risking their lives.

Posted in Eureka Street

New Hopes For War’s End As Colombia’s Santos Holds Power

José Manuel Santos’ victory on Sunday’s run off presidential election will make Colombians a little less anxious and more hopeful that the 50-year war may finally come to an end, writes Antonio Castillo. 

Santos’s triumph in the run-off election on Sunday over Óscar Iván Zuluaga by 50.9 per cent against 45 per cent of the votes was also the victory of the peace process that began in 2012 and is under way in La Habana, Cuba.

The election was also won by political legitimacy – 60 per cent abstention in the first round dropped to 50 per cent, and Santos received a respectable winning margin of 900,000 votes.

“History has its chapters, and this is the chapter to end the conflict,” he said in his first speech.

Colombia’s civil war is now 50-years-old. It began in 1964, and since then there have been many fruitless attempts to bring it to an end.

The war – waged by the government against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the longest existing left wing guerrilla group in the world, has left Colombians up to their neck in blood.

Santos – who had lost against Zuluaga in last month’s first round, made the peace dialogue his central leitmotif of the campaign, a peace process that recently has also incorporated the much smaller war-waging Liberation National Army (ELN) guerrilla group.

Santos and Zuluaga are ideologically related. Both men are right wing conservatives and political heirs to the former President Álvaro Uribe, now a senator elect.

During Uribe’s government – 2002-2010 – Zuluaga was in charge of Finances and Santos was in charge of Defence. However, in his first terms, Santos began disassociating himself from the Uribista block, the hard line, right wing fundamentalist political cluster led by former president Alvaro Uribe. 

During the election, Santos positioned himself as a more appeasing negotiator. This included the recognition of an existing conflict that needs a “political solution”. Zuluaga on the other hand described the FARC as common criminals and terrorists and therefore as non-lawful interlocutors. 

He wants – as Uribe wanted – the military defeat and surrender of the guerrillas. And this won’t happen.

These two approaches have profound implications when it comes to the post-war process of reconciliation and immersion of the left-wing fighters into the civilian life and political arena.

The political participation of the guerrillas post-conflict is one of the most sensitive aspects of this scenario.

Santos has shown more willingness to incorporate the guerrillas into the political arena, while Zuluaga made his intentions clear, when he said he didn’t want to see FARC’s maximum leader Timochenko in Congress..

Santos will be president for the next four years and he will have to thank the Left for this.

Grouped around the Alianza Verde (Green Alliance), Marcha (March) and the Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union), the Left gave its support to Santos on the basis of two central conditions: to continue with the peace dialogue; and establish a government with a stronger social vocation. 

While the peace process is among the priorities of many Colombians, they are mostly concerned about education, health and employment. 

Colombia, a country that this year has experienced the sorrow of losing its much beloved writer Gabriel García Marquez, and the exhilaration of a winning start in the Football World Cup, has historic and deeply rooted societal problems.

The war has taken the lives of almost 250,000 people and has displaced around 10 per cent of the population.

It is estimated that 32 per cent of its 47 million people live in poverty, and it is the seventh most unequal country in the world.  The high level of corruption – in all levels of the public sector – is a major problem, as is the justice system’s reluctance to bring it to heel.

While war violence is mainly experienced in rural areas, the cities have been engulfed in a spiralling urban violence – from assaults to pickpocketing – that has put Colombia at the top of the most insecure societies in the world.

Proportionally, the rate of homicides is higher than Brazil and Mexico.

“We continue to be a tremendously violent society,” said María Victoria Llorente, Director of the Ideas for Peace Foundation.

And this is indeed another problem – the re-socialization of the Colombian society with peace.

The culture of violence has scattered into all sectors of society. In the last few years, for example, gender violence has raised to levels and brutality not seen before. Acid attacks against women have become common.

The success of Santos – a classic exponent of the Latin American oligarchy – will depend on his ability to continue with some of the economic accomplishments of his first term in government, such as the respectable 4.3 per cent annual growth, the 2.5 million reduction in poverty and the steady decline of the 9.6 per cent unemployment.

It will also depend on his ability to get rid of the old faces in his cabinet, to incorporate the Left into his administration, and to heal the political wounds with the right, a sector that feels rather uncomfortable with the peace process.

Posted in New Matilda

Journalism Is The Novel Of Reality

Gabriel Garcia Marquez won accolades for his fiction but he was at heart a journalist, who learned his trade in the slums of Colombia, writes Antonio Castillo from Buenos Aires

For Gabriel García Márquez, who died on 17 April at his home in Mexico City at age 87, Latin America was the land where the bizarre, the illogical and the strange were able to explain reality. It was, for him, the land of “magic realism”.

Reality was central to his fiction, which was magically nourished by his journalism. So while much has been written about his best known works of fiction, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, or Love In The Time Of Cholera, many have forgotten that García Márquez was first a journalist, “the best job in the world”, as he described it.

Gabo, as he was fondly known in Latin America, saw journalism as “an instrument to change reality”. He was foremost a journalist and he shouted it from the rooftops. “Above all things, I have always considered myself a journalist,” he wrote in a 1981 article published in El Pais.

Gabo embraced literature and journalism with conviction and was an early proponent of literary non-fiction. “What’s been most appreciated about me is my imagination,” he used to say. “In fact I’m a terrible realist. I don’t invent anything, everything I write down is already there.”

It was already there in the streets, in the alleys and the slums of the northern Colombian city of Barranquilla where he began his journalism career with a short stints at El Nacional and El Universal, followed in 1950 by a longer period at El Heraldo.

Enticed by Alvaro Mutís, a writer and PR man for the oil company Esso, García Márquez moved to Bogota in 1954 and joined El Espectador, a newspaper that offered him a steady salary and a column called “Día a Día” (“Day to Day”).

It was not the kind of writing he was pursuing, but it paid the rent and it was – as he acknowledged – a true writing school where he was forced to depersonalise his writing and adopt a neutral journalistic tone. The monotony and formulaic quality of the writing didn’t bother him; he used it as a way to discover and polish his own style.

After enduring several months writing at “Día a Día”, El Espectador opened the door of the crónica to García Márquez – the reportage, literary journalism or however we might want to define it – a door he never closed during his career.

During the 1950s, the period that set the basis for the violence that has engulfed Colombia until today, his long form journalism achieved unprecedented popularity. The crónica, where the brutal and violent reality was told with the tools of fiction, was more effective than any other form of journalism. At El Espectador, García Márquez rose rapidly to become one of Colombia’s leading journalists.

His reportage — such as Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor, his account of a man lost at sea; and News of a Kidnapping, a chronicle of Colombians held hostage by Pablo Escobar’s henchmen — became as popular as the fiction that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.

Alongside Mexico’s Carlos Monsivais and Elena Poniatowska, Argentina’s Tomas Eloy Martínez and many others, García Márquez was a major influence on what is now the booming Latin American crónica, that journalistic genre that García Márquez defined as “la novela de la realidad” (the novel of reality).

“A piece of literary journalism is a story that is true,” he used to say, and he never relinquished the mélange of journalism and literature. “After 30 years finally I discovered something we — fiction writers — forget too often, that the best literary formula is to tell the truth.”

His journalistic reportage was deeply truthful, humanised and stylistically unambiguous. Reportage was to him the start of all journalism genres. “It requires more time, more research, more reflection and a sure domination of the art of writing,” he said. “ It is the painstaking reconstruction of the events, so the readers will be able to feel they were there when they happen.”

His love for journalism didn’t deter him from expressing his bile when he saw bad journalism. In a 1996 speech to the Inter American Press Society he pointed his accusatory finger to the “frenzied utilisation of the quotation marks for false statements.” Perhaps this brings to mind the contemporary false statements still quoted even knowing they are false.

He warned us too about the newsroom culture — “aseptic laboratories,” as he called them — detached from the “heart of the readers.” The bad journalist was the one who thought that his or her source, especially the official source, was sacred and deserved to be protected and coddled, resulting in a dangerous relationship of complicity.

And he loathed tape recorders: “A diabolic invention … Journalists don’t pay attention to the answers, thinking the tape recorder hears everything — wrong — it doesn’t hear the sound of the heart, the most valuable part of an interview.”

I write this tribute from the land of magic realism. Many of us journalists here in Latin America “blame” him for our chosen profession. And many of us thank him too. Personally I thank him for shaping my view of what journalism should be: that the best story is not always the first, but the one that is best reported to the public.

Posted in New Matilda

The Other Story Of Venezuela’s Riots

Venezuela’s opposition have never accepted defeat at the ballot box. The riots in Tachira are a sign that they can’t wait until 2015 for another legitimate tilt at power, writes Antonio Castillo.

In 2002, I covered the April coup against the late President Hugo Chavez. The collusion between the economic elite, the political right, the commercial media and the US failed to overthrow Chavez’s democratically elected government. Twelve years later, President Nicolás Maduro is facing the same menace.

The coup of 2002 came straight from the US low intensity warfare playbook — support for a militarised right wing, financial sanctions, destabilisation — specifically mentioned by the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, before he was deposed in 1973.

These days the same playbook has been dusted off and used by the most reactionary sectors of Venezuela’s opposition. The unfolding events began on 6 February when a group of 80 students from Táchira — a state bordering Colombia — protested against insecurity and inflation.

The rally ended badly when the students tried to burn the local government house. From then on, the students’ actions have become a seditious call to overthrow Maduro, who replaced Chavez after his death almost a year ago.

The government responded by sending a battalion of paratroopers to Táchira — “to enable the city to function, so food can get in, so people can go about their normal lives,” according to Venezuela’s interior minister. The opposition say the paratroopers are part of a political crackdown by the state. Either way, 13 have been killed.

That Venezuela has economic problems is undeniable. Neither Chavez nor Maduro have been unable to reduce the country’s crime rate. Maduro was also wrong to revoke the accreditations of CNN reporters covering the country’s crisis.

However, it is also true that the extreme right — the “blonde ones” as Chavez used to call the wealthy, white social elite — has never accepted political defeat at the ballot box. In the last 15 years, the Bolivarian socialist government has won 18 out of the 19 elections held in the country, from presidential to municipal polls.

The opposition — assembled around the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD) — tried to delegitimise Maduro’s win in the 2013 April election. Their “electoral fraud” campaign, instigated by the defeated Henrique Capriles Radonsky, provoked massive street unrest, resulting in 11 deaths and dozens of wounded.

It was only after the US recognised that the election of April was clean and transparent — it was monitored by the the Carter Center — that Capriles and the MUD backed off.

The most recent time Venezuelans went to the polls was on 8 December last year for the municipal elections. The opposition cast the election as a plebiscite on Maduro. They lost again, by a margin of one million votes. It was their fourth opposition defeat at the ballot box in recent months. The legislative elections at the end of 2015 would be their next legitimate try at power

MUD’s defeat last December provoked a bloody civil war between the moderate and the extreme right of the party. The extreme right won. Capriles, seen as too soft, was ostracised and replaced by Leopoldo López, instigator of the latest street violence in Caracas.


Riot police and protesters in Tachira.

Riot police and protesters in Tachira.


Lopez, a telegenic Harvard-educated economist perennially dressed from head to toe in gleaming white, was one of the ringleaders of the botched 2002 coup against Chavez.

The political defeat of the opposition last December gave Maduro further legitimacy and strengthened his determination to introduce further reform. His most daring is the “Fair Price Law”, introduced on 11 January, that puts a 30 per cent profit ceiling on goods and services. The financial elite went into paroxysms when they saw their speculative 400 to 2000 per cent margins melts into air.

This has happened before — to Allende in Chile. “Make the economy scream,” US President Richard Nixon’s told the CIA, “to prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.” It was a pre-coup strategy. El acaparamiento (hoarding) was one of the most effective tactics used by the financial elite to prepare for the Chilean coup of 1973. This is what has been happening in Venezuela since the Bolivarian government came to power.

Hoarding basic goods in Venezuela — such as toilet paper, coffee, rice and milk among others — creates both a false shortage, increasing hardship, and the appearance of chaos. Almost daily the authorities find new storehouses packed to the rafters with basic goods. Last February more than 900 tones of rice, sugar, oil, milk and coffee were discovered in a warehouse in the state of Táchira.

Nixon’s interference in Chile is a reminder that Washington is never too far from attempts to destabilise radical democracies in the region.

When is it considered legitimate to try and overthrow a democratically elected government? Mark Weisbrot ponders in The Guardian. “In Washington, the answer has always been simple: when the US government says it is.”

In a speech before the US Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives in April last year the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, reminded the world that Latin America is the “backyard” of the US. The US has historically funded opposition groups in Venezuela, through the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID programs.

The current destabilisation attempts have been widely condemned by most Latin American governments. Bolivia’s president Evo Morales described the latest events as a coup against the legacy of late Hugo Chavez and Argentine Minister of Foreign Relations, the highly respected human rights advocate Héctor Marcos Timerman, said his government fully supported Venezuela’s democracy.

The uncritical and myopic international news media neglect to quote Maduro’s supporters — as they neglect to mention that he was elected by the majority of Venezuelans.

Posted in New Matilda

Bring Us The Heads Of The Knights Templar

Organised vigilante groups in Michoacán, Mexico, have had success in driving out a major drug cartel and their police colluders. Their victory is part of Mexico’s DNA, writes Antonio Castillo.

If the state either abuses or fails to protect them, Mexicans look to history for solutions. Sometimes they take matters into their own hands. A year ago they did so when Mexico’s self-defence paramilitary forces reclaimed a large part of Michoacán from Los Caballeros Templarios, the country’s newest drug cartel.

Michoacán was, as historian Enrique Krauze reminds us, the site of the Mexican wars of the 19th and 20th centuries: the War of Independence, the War of Reform, the French Invasion, the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War. Now it is the epicentre of the drug war.

Michoacán, in the country’s southwest, is one of Mexico’s wealthiest and most beautiful states. It’s also the most violent. Since 2010 it has been under the control of the so-called Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), the newest drug cartel formed by a splinter group of La Familia (The Family), a pseudo-religious criminal group that in 2006 forced out the Zetas and Sinaloa drug cartels.

Members of Por Un Aquila Libre (For a Free Aquila), one of the vigilante groups.

Members of Por Un Aquila Libre (For a Free Aquila), one of the vigilante groups.

Some sectors of the international media have wrongfully described the self-defence groups — vigilantes — as a new phenomenon in Mexico. Actually, they’re nothing new. Self-defence armed groups have existed for centuries, and are responses to the abuses of the financial, political and criminal powers. They belong to the past as well as contemporary Mexican history.

Three years ago, indigenous people from Cherán, also in Michoacán, decided to battle illegal logging and drug violence by kicking out the police and running the town according to indigenous tradition. And 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, the self-defence indigenous movement that restored order and self-determination in Chiapas. As one Mexican writer described it, “self-defence is in the DNA of our people.”

Last year, in February 2013, the people of Michoacán said basta! – enough of the drug cartels and also enough of Mexico’s institutional inability to protect them. A year ago — when the temperature reached an average of 32 degrees in Tierra Calientes, a region that extends some areas of the states of Michoacán, Guerrero and Estado de Mexico — the self-defence movement arose once again from the annals of Mexico’s history.

Mexico’s self-defence organisations have an illustrious history. José Doroteo Arango Arámbula – better known by his pseudonym of Pancho Villa — is perhaps the embodiment of the tradition. Exhausted by the abuses of the powerful and the rein of impunity — his 14-year-old sister was raped by the owner of the ranch where they lived and worked — he took matters into his own hands. He killed the rancher and headed to the mountains where he formed a peasant self-defence organisation that would come to play a key role in the Mexican Revolution.

First with modest rifles and now with sophisticated weaponry today, self-defence organisations have recovered a large part of Michoacán from the drug cartels and have removed the local political elite and the chiefs of police, most of them corrupt and in collusion with criminals.

As Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach wrote in Foreign Affairs:

“Mexico has suffered staggering levels of violence and crime during the country’s seven-year-long war against the cartels. The fighting has killed 90,000 people so far, a death toll larger, as of this writing, than that of the civil war in Syria. Homicide rates have tripled since 2007.”

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto is getting anxious. Mexico is embroiled in a three-pronged civil conflict; the state against the cartels, the cartels against other cartels, and now self-defence organisations against the cartels. A four-pronged conflict is not a far-fetched scenario, the state against the self-defence organisations in an attempt to disarm them.

In the last few months, Peña Nieto has gone on the offensive. He visited Michoacán and announced — last December — that the federal government, having struggled to defeat the cartels using corrupt local police and an inadequate military, would create an elite national police force of 10,000 officers by the end of 2014.

However, he has failed so far to domesticate the vigilantes. Peña Nieto has been forced to yield to the demands of the self-defence leadership. In a scene reminiscent of the 1974 Sam Peckinpah US cult film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, they have demanded the head of Servando Gómez Martínez’s, nicknamed La Tuta (the Teacher), the brutal leader of the Knights Tempar. If Peña Nieto can’t oblige, the vigilantes won’t hand over their weapons.

La Tuta and his Knights Templar.

La Tuta and his Knights Templar.

The success of the vigilantes so far is not insignificant. They have not only made the Templars retreat from Michoacán, but have forced the Mexican government to pour an unprecedented level of financial assistance into the state. Peña Nieto has said his government would invest the equivalent of about $3.4 billion in social and infrastructure programs for the besieged state.

Peña Nieto is also reaching back into Mexico’s history to prevent an escalation of the conflict. He is following the path of two great Mexican presidents, Benito Juarez and Porfirio Díaz, who in the last decades of the 19th century incorporated the numerous self-defence organisations into the legal sphere. They became known as Guardias Rurales (Rural Guards) and became key actors in the post-revolution pacification of the country.

Despair and impunity are perhaps the two words that best explain the reappearance of self–defence groups in Mexico today. Nonetheless, in a country where every half hour somebody is murdered, and the expansion of cemeteries has become a highly lucrative business, the pacification of the country seems to be a long way off.

Posted in New Matilda

The Left Returns To Power In Chile

Chile’s presidential run-off was remarkable for many reasons – including the childhood friendship of the two lead candidates, split by Pinochet’s coup 40 years ago, writes Antonio Castillo.

Last weekend Chile experienced a remarkable event. In a country with a poor record of gender equality, two women contested the run-off for the Chilean presidential election. Centre-left Michelle Bachelet, who won an expected landslide victory over her right-wing opponent Evelyn Matthei, was returned to power for a second stint as President – she previously governed from 2006-2010.

What was not expected was the low turnout in the country’s first election with non-compulsory voting. 5.6 million ballots were cast, an estimated 41.5 per cent to 44.8 per cent of the eligible population. As the Chilean  independent news website El Mostrador.com put it, “it is a democracy of the few”.

Last weekend’s run-off followed the 17 November general election, when none of the record nine presidential candidates obtained the majority required by Chile’s presidential system.

The pool was narrowed down to Bachelet and Matthei. Coincidentally, the two are childhood friends, whose experience diverged after the 11 September 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet, that overthrew the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende.

Bachelet’s father Alberto was a General loyal to Allende, which brought his arrest and death at the hands of the military junta.

Matthei’s father Fernando was also a General. He took a different path after the coup, and became part of Pinochet’s regime, which ruled Chile until the end of the 1980s.

The election of Bachelet, 40 years after Pinochet’s coup, marks the return to power of the centre-left. It also puts an end to the four-year government of the right-wing tycoon Sebastián Piñera a kind of Chilean Silvio Berlusconi. As I wrote in NM in 2010, Piñera’s government was the first time since the military regime that the right was in power.

Piñera became an international name when 33 Chilean miners were hauled to the surface after 69 days trapped in a collapsed mine in 2010. He took the credit for the miners’ rescue, but his brief celebrity never reached the polling booths. The beginning of the end for his right wing parenthesis began last year, when when the right lost some of its safest seats in the country’s legislature.

Bachelet will be sworn in on 11 March next year. Her previous tenure as President was mediocre, she had few legislative achievements and dealt ineffectively with the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that devastated a large part of the centre and south of the country.

She relied instead on a populist approach, peppering her speech with colloquial Chilean Spanish and presenting a caring motherly figure. That may not be enough this time around. Since she lost power in 2010, Chileans have become deeply disaffected and radicalised by the so-called tareas pendientes (outstanding commitments).

Bachelet – who will lead the New Majority coalition that includes Christian Democrats and Communists – was spot on when, in her winning speech, she admitted that Chileans “have distrust and frustration with a state that doesn’t protect them”.

Perhaps the massive political absenteeism that marked last weekend’s run off is a resounding reflection of the Chilean disenchantment with their political class. Traditionally Chileans have had a strong civic and political commitment, and heading to the polls has been deeply inscribed in the Chilean political conscience.

But steady disengagement with traditional politics has diverted the spirit once felt for the ballot box into street politics. Massive street mobilisations over the last few years are spearheaded by a wide, cross-factional group demanding an improvement to the appalling education system, better healthcare, the democratisation of an authoritarian constitution left in place by Pinochet, reforms to the taxation system, improvement of pensions, commitment to environmental protection and justice for the indigenous people whose struggle has been systematically criminalised.

The greatest demand of all is to close the abysmal gap in Chile’s income distribution, long regarded as a stain on Chilean society and an obstacle to a truly consolidated democracy. Chile might well be an example to follow for other Latin American countries, as an orderly economically sound society. But this is not the whole story. The promised trickle down never eventuated: according to a study by the University of Chile, the richest 1 per cent of the population concentrates 31 per cent of the wealth.

These are some of the outstanding and urgent tasks President Bachelet will have to honour in Chile’s new political paradigm, in the “democracy of the few”.

Posted in New Matilda