Central America Theater

Belize: Caribbean court rules for Maya land rights

The Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) delivered a judgment Oct. 30 in a land-rights case brought by indigenous Maya elders in Belize, finding that the government violated communal rights. The case, Maya Leaders Alliance et al v the Attorney General of Belize, concerned indigenous communities in Toledo district whose lands have been usurped. The case was first brought in the Belizean courts more than 20 years ago. The country's Court of Appeal ruled in 2010 that the Maya do have communal land rights, but failed to order any restitution in the case. Maya leaders then brought suit before the CCJ. In its new ruling, the CCJ wrote that the Belizean government had "breached the appellants' right to protection of the law by failing to ensure that the existing property regime, inherited from the pre-independence colonial system, recognized and protected Maya land rights." It ordered Belize to take positive steps to secure and protect constitutional rights and to honor its international commitments, including its obligations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

Nicaragua: canal project advances —amid repression

Nicaragua's Canal Commission on Nov. 5 approved environmental and social impact assessments for construction of the inter-oceanic canal by Hong Kong company HKND. "We are officially authorizing HKND to now begin the structural design and construction processes," said commission president Manuel Coronel in a ceremony. The impact studies were undertaken by UK-based Environmental Resources Management (ERM) and handed in to the government in September after a year and a half of prerparation. The assessment found that the canal project "will have significant environmental and social impact," but that this can be mitigated if it is developed properly. Project adviser Bill Wild said the approval marked a "giant step" for the project, and assured rapid advancement in the construction. The studies had not yet been approved by the official groundbeaking on the project last December.

Guatemala threatens Belize?

A change of government in Guatemala and Belize is reviving long-simmering fears of war between the Central American neighbors. Media in Belize are reporting that a leaked document written by a senior officer in the Belize Defense Force apparently claims an ongoing campaign of aggression and confrontation from the Guatemalan military along the Sarstoon River, which forms the border between the two nations in the south. The leaked memo, dated Oct. 22, notes incidents as far back as 2003, with tension reaching dangerous point in 2006. The tension eased when the two nations' armed forces agreed on protocols for their border forces along the Sarstoon. But the memo says late 2009 saw another incident, in which a Guatemalan army vessel anchored on the Belizean side near the mouth of the Sarstoon, and raised a Guatemalan flag from a tree-top. BDF troops apparently removed the flag, but that the Guatemalan soldiers defiantly promised to replace it.

Honduras oligarchs busted for money-laundering

Three members of the ruling elite in Honduras were charged by US authorities with money-laundering this week. Yankel Rosenthal, a former minister of investment and president of the popular Club Deportivo Marathon soccer team, was arrested Oct. 6 upon landing at the Miami airport. His cousin Yani Rosenthal and uncle Jaime Rolando Rosenthal, a four-time presidential candidate and owner of El Tiempo newspaper, were also detained. Grupo Continental, owned by the Rosenthal family, is a pillar of the Honduran economy, with holdings in real estate, tourism, industry and telecommunications. US officials now say these businesses helped launder narco-profits, transfering dirty money from New York to Honduras over a period of more than 10 years. The three men provided "money laundering and other services that support the international narcotics trafficking activities of multiple Central American drug traffickers and their criminal organizations," said the US Treasury Department in a statement. Seven of their businesses were labelled under the US Kingpin Act as "specially designated narcotics traffickers." Yankel Rosenthal, who served in President Juan Orlando Hernandez's cabinet until stepping down unexpectedly in June, has won popularity in Honduras through his largesse. Among other public works, he built a new stadium in the city of San Pedro Sula, which was named after him. (El Heraldo, Oct. 8; BBC News, Oct. 7)

Nicaragua: Miskito Coast land conflict turns deadly

At least nine people have been killed and 20 more wounded in an escalating land conflict on Nicaragua's Miskito Coast over the past month. Hundreds of indigenous Miskito residents have fled their ancestral lands, in some cases seeking refuge across the border in Honduras. The crisis in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) pits indigenous Miskito and Mayangna communities against mestizo peasant colonists from Nicaragua's more densely populated west. Miskito political party YATAMA claims the peasants are illegally invading titled indigenous lands, sometimes after plots have been fraudulently sold by corrupt officials. Among the most impacted communities is Tasba Raya Indigenous Territory, where the communal president Constantino Romel was shot and wounded by National Police troops Sept. 16, allegedly after attempting to run a checkpoint. Community leaders deny police claims that officers were fired upon fmor the pick-up truck. Elvin Castro, traditional judge in the indigenous community of Francia Sirpi, has issued an ultimatum giving the colonists one month to to quit the community's territory. "If within one month they do not comply with this, then they will die," he announced. "The colonizers come to destroy the forests that we have cared for such a long time, destroying the watersheds, the plants and the animals... The government has supported the colonizers with firearms so that they can make problems."

Guatemala: activist slain in palm-oil region

An indigenous leader who opposed pesticide abuse on Guatemala's palm oil plantations was killed Sept. 18 outside a court that just one day earlier ordered the closure of a plantation against which he had led protests. Rigoberto Lima Choc was slain by two gunmen on a motorcycle near the civil courthouse at Sayaxche, in the northern rainforest department of Peteñ—now heavily colonized by palm plantations. The court had ordered a six-month closure local palm oil manufacturer Repsa due to unethical environmental practices. Lima, a municipal councilor with the National Union of Hope (UNE), was campaigning against contamination of the Río La Pasión with pesticide runoff from the plantation. He documented the death of thousands of fish, with numerous marine species now threaetened with extinction. The United Nations office in Guatemala recently described the situation as an "ecological disaster." Two other activists have been abducted since the court ruling. Repsa employees protested in Sayaxche after the ruling. Repsa (for Peteñ Palm Reforestation) is a member of the UN Global Compact "corporate sustainability initiative." (Siglo21, Prensa Libre, Guatemala, Sept. 19; AFP, Global News, TeleSur, Sept. 18; UN Global Compact)

El Salvador rules street gangs are 'terrorist groups'

The constitutional chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court of Justice on Aug. 24 ruled that the country's notoriously violent street gangs and those who support them financially will now be classified as "terrorist groups." The ruling came in a decision rejecting four challenges to the constitutionality of the country's Special Law Against Terrorist Acts (LECAT). The ruling defines terrorism as the "organized and systematic exercise of violence," placing the label on any group that attempts to usurp the state's monopoly on the use of force. The ruling upholds the freezing of funds for any persons believed linked to the named groups, and a ban on any negotiation with the groups. At issue are the rival Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs.

Guatemala: president resigns under scandal probe

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina sent a letter to both the country's congress and reporters early Aug. 3 announcing his resignation and his intention to "stand before justice." The congress had called an emergency session to meet that day to accept the letter of resignation. Several hours before resigning, the public prosecutor requested Pérez Molina's arrest on corruption charges and a trial judge ordered his arrest. Pérez Molina and 30 other government officials allegedly took millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for keeping low import duties. Vice President Alejandro Maldonado has assumed the presidency, and must compile a list of three names for consideration for vice president, to be chosen by congress. Maldonado replaced vice president Roxana Baldetti, who was arrested in August on corruption charges. Eight other government officials have already resigned over the allegations. Pérez Molina's resignation comes only three days before the Guatemalan general election.

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