Last 24 Hours: Ukraine battle over airport grows, food enters Syria’s Homs

The situation in eastern Ukraine is heating up as the battle for Donetsk airport grows in intensity. Eleven have been killed; control of the airport remains contested, the government claims it has troops holding positions there just as rebel flags have gone up.

Russia could move forward on running multiple Ukraine-sized operations, a U.S. general said. And Russia says Ukraine’s new troop deployment into the east won’t help in terms of peace.

As Boko Haram militants ramp up their efforts and control in West Africa, several leaders in the region are mulling a new force to fight the group. A meeting is planned next week under the African Union to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, Cameroon says Chad is sending a military contingent to fight Boko Haram.

Food has entered Syria’s besieged Homs city, serving tens of thousands, by way of a United Nations convoy after a truce was reached.

The Pentagon confirmed plans to send 400 United States trainers, hundreds more personnel to help train rebel forces in March train-and-equip mission.

Should know

Islamic State; 17 killed by ISIS members in Syria after hit-and-run attacks on them — Pakistan; 5 suspected militants killed by U.S. drone strike — Somalia; 2 police officers killed in rebel attack — Afghanistan; 2 police killed in Taliban roadside bomb — United States; Florida and Oklahoma execute convicted murderers

France; 12 arrested in suspicions of connection to Paris attacks — Belgium; 15 held by police, two killed after a dozen Belgian anti-terror raids — China; 60,000 arrested in drug sweep by police

Montenegro; Hundreds demonstrate against Kosovo official — Boston; Protests against police violence briefly shut down highway — Myanmar; Monks stage protest decrying UN envoy visit — Pakistan; Tear gas fired at French consulate protesters in Karachi — Hong Kong; Student leaders charged over pro-democracy protests

Saudi Arabia; Gov’t postpones activist’s flogging — Cuba; U.S. lessens measures on trade, travel — Afghanistan; Leader seeks to sideline with powerful bloc in break with past — United States; Seattle’s mayor proposes more tent cities to deal with homelessness.

To watch

Palestine/Israel; Sweden says Israel irritating allies over Palestine recognition, Arab states endorse new Palestinian move at UN Security Council — Iran; US’ Kerry and Iran’s Zarif set for Paris nuclear talks — Libya; Parties agree to more talks in Geneva next week

Congo; Government says offensive against FDLR rebels imminent —  Koreas; North Korea says South-U.S. exercises ‘open challenge’

Last 24 Hours: Libya talks start in Geneva, truce reached in Syria’s Homs

Libya is holding Geneva international talks on the ever-lasting deteriorating situation in its country, mediated by the United Nations. UN’s envoy to Libya says the talks will “take time” to end fighting and to agree upon on a peace settlement.

Syria rebels and the government reached a truce in besieged Homs Thursday. A ten-day truce will take place in the last opposition-held section of Homs for food to go through to civilians caught in battle.

Ukraine announced a new push to mobilize more troops to the east, warning of further Russian “aggression” as violence has intensified recently.

In the continuing aftermath of the attacks in France, leaders across the globe stood in the face of violence – and pushed for unity. President Hollande, on Thursday, tried to reassure the Muslim community of standing behind them, while demanding general respect for Jewish values.

Chancellor Merkel in Germany also declared her commitment to protecting both Muslims and Jews from extremism in a Thursday statement. President Obama joined in with Hollande by saying violence won’t shatter free speech rights.

Should know

Kashmir; 5 militants killed in gunbattle with India’s army — Iraq; Mass grave of 16 people found in northern Iraq — Hondoras; 3 bodies found at clandestine grave at youth lockup by gangs — Guantanamo Bay; 5 Yemenis transferred from U.S. custody, 4 to Oman, 1 to Estonia

Syria/Iraq; U.S. coalition launched 22 airstrikes against ISIS — Islamic State; A Syrian was beheaded as opposition grows in ISIS-controlled territory — United States; Ohio man arrested for alleged plot to attack U.S. Capitol

Libya; Warplane from internationally recognized gov’t attacked ship carrying gasoline — China; Citizens enlisted to guard border with North Korea

Bangladesh; Paramilitary states they will shoot protesters with firebombs — Washington D.C.; Protesters of police killings snarl traffic — Spain; Catalonia region to hold vote in September amid independence drive

To watch

Columbia; Peace talks with FARC members to discuss ceasefire — Palestine; Palestinian leader calls for Arab aid after Israel cut-off — Boko Haram; United States and Britain may set up scheme to deal with Boko Haram in Nigeria — United States; States to ask judge to block Obama immigration orders

Mexico: Arrival of UN Special Rapporteur puts spotlight on torture and impunity

This is a weekly roundup of events from 20 April to 26 April 2014.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Juan Méndez, arrived in Mexico to begin an investigation into the country’s penal reforms and other aspects of the country’s law enforcement and justice systems. His visit is expected to last until May 2.

Despite thousands of reports of torture committed by Mexican security forces over the past decade, not a single person has been found guilty of the crime. A report presented to Méndez claimed that “despite [the Attorney General’s office] having found evidence of torture in 128 cases, there were no convictions.” The Attorney General’s office confirmed that from 2002 to 2012 there were only 39 preliminary investigations into torture and that no criminal proceedings or warrants were issued.

Earlier this month, Enrique Hernández, the leader of an autodefensa in Yrécaro, Michoacán was arrested along with 18 others on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Gustavo Garibay, the Mayor of Tanhuato. The State Human Rights Commission in Michoacán said that Hernández had sustained injuries consistent with his claims that he was tortured by the police.

Mexico’s Senate unanimously approved legislation that would allow military personnel accused of crimes against civilians to be tried in civilian rather than military courts. The legislation still has to be approved by the lower house, but it is widely considered a step in the right direction. A study from the Wilson Center released last month concluded that 90% of Mexican citizens feel they cannot trust the police. This lack of trust likely contributed to the rise of vigilante self-defense groups known as autodefensas, which are proving to be a major security challenge for the government.

Michoacán Federal Safety Commissioner Alfredo Castillo said that 44 “pseudoautodefensas” were arrested. Those who were detained were allegedly linked to organized crime groups, but were attempting to pass themselves off as members of the self-defense forces.

Federal police and military intelligence documents obtained by Proceso show that the government believes many autodefensas are infiltrated by criminal groups, something a number of observers have long suspected. Documents the magazine reported on last week indicated that the low-profile leader of a self-defense force in Michoacán, Miguel Ángel Gallegos Godoy (alias “El Migueladas”), is “the real boss” of the Knights Templar organization.

Following an agreement reached by leaders of the self-defense groups and the government last week, Castillo announced that the process of disarming unregistered autodefensas in Michoacán will begin on Monday. For more on the agreement, see our previous post.

Headlines:

97 police in Michoacán were fired this week for failing confidence exams.

Mexico’s public safety agency reported a continuation in an upward trend of serious crimes, including homicides, kidnappings and violent robberies. A new report from the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security modified homicide statistics from Veracruz state to account for 299 previously-unreported murders. The report also noted that kidnappings in Veracruz increased by 51% over the first quarter of 2013.

According to business groups in Monterrey, extortion in the area rose by 49% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2014.

Mexico has experienced a dramatic increase in domestic heroin consumption, likely due to increased production of the drug in that country. Farmers who previously grew marijuana appear to be replacing cannabis crops with opium poppies, potentially in response to a price drop in the marijuana market.

The Director General of Mexico’s National System for the Comprehensive Development of the Family, Laura Vargas, said that according to a study by the UN, nearly 70,000 children in Mexico have been victims of sex trafficking.

The government closed a saw mill and a steel plant in Michoacán that allegedly belonged to organized criminal groups.

The arrests of the two highest-level members of the Los Rojos gang, Antonio Reina Castillo and Ismael Castillo Marino, earlier this month probably won’t ameliorate the ongoing violence in Guerrero state, where the group is based. Los Rojos are one of several groups that grew out of the Beltran Leyva Organization and have been vying for dominance in an increasingly bloody turf war.

An attack by armed civilians on security forces in Mier, Tamaulipas left one civilian dead. Government troops seized various weapons and tactical gear and arrested two people in connection with the attack.

Federal and regional forces, working off of an anonymous tip, rescued 60 migrants who were captured by organized crime groups in Tamaulipas, near the Texas border. According to the National Commission on Human Rights, some 10,000 migrants have been kidnapped in Mexico over the last six months.

Seven people were killed in separate shootouts between police and armed gunmen in Tamaulipas.

Arturo Gallegos Castrellón, alias “El Farmero,” was handed 10 life sentences by an El Paso court for his role in the murders of three people associated with the US consulate in Juarez in 2010.

According to the Institute of Social Security for the Mexican Armed Forces, the government spent roughly $110,000,000 on life insurance for military personnel between 2008 and 2012, putting a strain on finances.

The Gulf Cartel launched a campaign in the streets of Mexico City to recruit youths to join their group.

To Watch:

Mexico’s National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia said that the newly formed Gendarmerie will not be infiltrated by organized crime groups, claiming that the selection process for cadets was “very careful.”

In the wake of anti-censorship protests, Mexico’s ruling party appears to be stepping back from proposed legislation that would have given authorities the power to “temporarily block, inhibit or annul telecommunications signals at events and places deemed critical for the public safety.”

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed a desire to expand defense cooperation between the US and Mexico during a visit to the later country. The US  State Department announced the planned sale of 18 Black Hawk transport helicopters to Mexico.

The Council of the European Union is mulling an agreement between the European police agency Europol and Mexican authorities to cooperate on issues of organized crime and violent radical groups. However, the European Parliament recently rejected such a proposal due to concerns about the security of information that would potentially be shared with Mexican law enforcement, which has a reputation for corruption and infiltration by criminal elements.

Extra:

Two articles this week highlighted the dangers facing migrants traveling on “La Bestia” (“The Beast”), a freight train that many migrants from Mexico and Central America ride illegally in an attempt to reach the United States. Fusion and Vocativ both take a look at some of the migrants’ stories, which often include injury, kidnapping, robbery, rape and even death. Migrants from Central America marched to the presidential residence in Mexico this week and requested a meeting with President Peñã Nieto to demand that the government “ensure the right to free passage across the country without humiliation or violence, on our way to the northern border.”

Colombia: Peace talks with FARC enter 24th round

This is a weekly roundup of events from 20 April to 26 April 2014.

On Thursday, the 24th round of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC commenced in Havana. The previous round ended on April 11 without an agreement on the issues of illicit crop cultivation and drug trafficking, which are expected to be the focus of the new session. President Santos said earlier that he expects to reach a deal with the FARC regarding their involvement in the drug trade “in the near future.”

The FARC reiterated their desire for the government to commit to forming a truth commission “to clarify the history of the conflict” before they will discuss reparations for victims. The government has previously said it is willing to form such a commission only after a final deal is reached.

The chief negotiator for the Colombian government in the ongoing peace negotiations, Humberto de la Calle, pushed back against reports that the government was negotiating a drawdown of military and police forces or a demilitarization of the “peasant reserve zones” as part of the talks. “I say categorically that none of this is true,” he said during a statement to the press.

Messages obtained by El Universal appear to show the top leader of the FARC, “Timochenko,” venting his frustration with the “apathy and indolence” of some of the group’s members to other guerrilla leaders. The messages seem to acknowledge that the government’s military efforts against the rebels are succeeding. The FARC “are being beaten every day,” reads one message.

A pamphlet allegedly produced by the FARC was discovered, which threatened members of former President and Senator-elect Alvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center party as well as a radio station and workers for multinational corporations in the department of Arauca.

The Colombian government claims that emails found on confiscated FARC computers indicate coordination between the FARC and the ELN for attacks planned in the next month. According to one message the plan was “to select feasible military objectives and that they impact…and seriously affect the economy.”

Headlines:

The closure of the Caño Limon-Coveñas pipeline in northwestern Colombia due to a series of attacks allegedly carried out by the ELN has cost the government $136 million in royalties, taxes and dividends. The U’wa indigenous group have refused to allow workers access to their land in order to repair to the pipeline. Negotiations with the group ended in failure for the government with the group’s spokesperson saying “The proposals they offered weren’t close to what we were demanding…We will continue to not authorize the repair of the oil pipe.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reinstated ousted Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro following a court order requiring him to do so. However, Santos has promised to challenge the decision in a higher court. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights lauded the ruling in favor of Petro, noting that the organization will “continue to monitor the situation.” The IACHR previously made a similar ruling, which was ignored by Santos.

One Colombian soldier was killed and thirteen others were wounded when an army convoy set off mines allegedly laid by FARC guerrillas in the Norte de Santander region.

Colombian rancher and union leader Luis Alberto Álvarez, who was kidnapped by the ELN last week, was found dead near the Venezuelan border. Álvarez’s death may have an impact on the agricultural strike planned for April 28.

Two Hondurans, two Venezuelans and one Colombian national were detained by Colombian security forces in Caribbean waters. They were carrying 750 kilos of cocaine as well as fuel, communications equipment and firearms. Authorities claimed the cache belonged to Víctor Ramón Navarro, alias “Megateo,” a member of the People’s Liberation Army (EPL).

To Watch:

The ministers of Interior, Agriculture and Finance held a meeting to discuss new efforts to head off a strike planned by Colombian farmers on 28 April. Some of the proposals included subsidy policies, debt refinancing plans, a halt to confiscation of debtors’ farms and social investments. Colombia’s Coffee Federation (Fedecafe) has announced that it will pay stipends to 74,000 coffee farmers who had not received the payments promised after a nationwide strike last August that resulted in five deaths and hundreds of injuries as police clashed with demonstrators. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón claimed that organized crime groups are involved in the organization of the planned agricultural strike.

Colombia may do away with its aerial cocaine eradication program as part of its efforts to reach an agreement with the FARC over the drugs issue. The United States suspended its fumigation program last year after two US pilots were shot down by FARC guerillas.

Colombia’s largest daily newspaper, El Tiempo, has reported in further detail on how recently-reinstated Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro’s lawyers received government contracts in the lead-up to his dismissal. Petro has consistently denied that the contracts had any link to his legal defense.

Chiquita Brands International, a multinational fruit and vegetable company, has asked a US Federal Court to dismiss a lawsuit against the company brought by families of victims of paramilitary violence, arguing that the company cannot be directly linked to the killing of over 4,000 people by the illegal armed groups. In 2007, Chiquita was found guilty of paying paramilitaries $1.7 million from 1997 to 2004 and was fined $25 million.

Colombia: Vitriol, violence and threats of strikes as election approaches

This is a weekly roundup of events from 13 April to 19 April 2014.

report from the Washington Office on Latin America entitled “Ending 50 Years of Conflict” expressed confidence in the potential of ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC to realize a final deal by the end of this year. The report also called on the US to increase financial and diplomatic support to ensure that Colombia can meet post-conflict challenges, such as “bringing government into lawless areas; demobilizing and reintegrating combatants; assisting displaced populations’ return; protecting rights defenders; helping to fulfill accords on land, political participation, and victims.” US aid to Colombia has been declining by an average of 10-15% per year for the past few years.

Colombia’s military spending rose by 13% in 2013, one of the largest increases in the region. Military spending throughout all of Latin America increased by 2.2% in 2013, bringing the total regional increase since 2004 to 61%. Colombia spends more than any other country in the region on its military as a percentage of GDP, and is second only to Brazil – the largest country in the region – in total expenditures. The majority of Colombia’s military spending is directed at fighting armed groups like the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as violent organized crime groups.

President Santos reaffirmed his commitment to the peace negotiations with the FARC in an interview with W Radio. He criticized the FARC for ongoing attacks during the negotiations, saying “What objective are you seeking? What military advantage does it give you? None, it only undermines the confidence of the people in the peace process.” The FARC were suspected of bombing another section of the Panamerican highway this week after a similar attack on April 1. Last week, three policemen were killed in an ambush by FARC forces.

Santos also criticized opponents of the peace process as “lords of fear,” perhaps referring to one of his main rivals in the upcoming presidential election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who (along with his highest-profile supporter, former President and senator-elect Alvaro Uribe) has been critical of the negotiations.

In an interview with a Colombian news outlet, the leader of the ELN, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (alias “Gabino”), said that his group is seeking peace talks with the government. The ELN is not party to the ongoing negotiations between the government and the FARC. Gabino slammed the Santos administration and Colombia’s “oligarchy” saying that they have “no desire” for peace, “they are thirsty for blood and violence” and they “get rich with war…They are selfish, arrogant, warmongering. They despise the humble and only look at them as a work force that enriches [the powerful].”

Two policemen were killed in the northeastern department of Arauca. RCN Radio attributed the attack to the ELN, which is known to be active in the area, but neither that group, nor the FARC have claimed responsibility for the killings. An unidentified group intimidated a work crew making repairs to an oil pipeline in the northeastern region of the country and torched their truck. Last week, repeated ELN attacks on an oil field in that area forced roughly 500 employees to be put on leave.

In the interview, Gabino also expressed outrage over the political dismissals of former Senator Piedad Cordoba and former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro and admitted that there were minors associated with his group. Colombia’s Ombudsman’s office demanded that the ELN disclose the number of minors in their ranks.

The ELN is Colombia’s second-largest armed group after the FARC, with about 2,000 troops. President Santos has indicated his willingness to begin a peace dialogue with the ELN in the past.

Headlines:

According to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Colombia has the 10th highest murder rate in the world, even though the country’s homicide rate has dropped by nearly half since 2002.

Colombia is the eighth-worst country in the world for impunity in attacks on the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Members of the U’wa indigenous group met with Colombia’s ministers of mines and energy, the interior and the environment after refusing to allow repairs to the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline following attacks from rebel guerrillas that had damaged it.

Four members of the Colombian military were sentenced to decades in prison for killing civilians and presenting them as combat fatalities in order to boost their “body count” in the country’s armed conflict. The ongoing “false positives” scandal has involved hundreds of members of Colombia’s military. In an July 2013 report, the Prosecutor General’s Office said it had found that the armed forces and civilian collaborators had killed 3,896 civilians since 1986.

Two young men were found dismembered in Buenaventura, the port city considered to be one of the most dangerous areas of Colombia. The deaths were the first murders reported since the army took over security operations in the city in late March. For more on the situation in Buenaventura see our previous post.

Seven members of the Urabeños gang were killed in an army operation in the department of Antioquia.

Colombian miners said they will join with farmers in a nationwide strike planned for April 28, less than a month before the country’s presidential elections. For more on the planned strike, see our previous post.

Colombian authorities arrested 15 members of the criminal group known as “La Línea” who were accused of assassinating a businessman last year for failing to make a $50,000 extortion payment.

Colombian police arrested 5 men wanted for extradition to the United States to face charges of cocaine trafficking.

Members of a neo-Nazi group known as Tercero Fuerza (“Third Force”) allegedly vandalized a Bogotá graffiti mural honoring the thousands of victims of violence committed against the Union Patriótica (Patriotic Union or “UP”), the political party co-founded by the FARC in the 1980s. The UP performed better during the 1986 elections than any other leftist party in Colombian history. However, after the election, a brutal campaign of assassination and murder by right-wing paramilitaries brought about the massacre of 4,000-6,000 UP members, including the party’s leader, Jaime Pardo.

To Watch:

Colombia’s success in combating the production of cocaine within its borders is likely pushing drug traffickers to use product sourced from Peru. “We are seeing the same phenomenon as 30 years ago, when coca base arrived from [Peru and Bolivia] and they produced [cocaine] hydrochloride here,” said the chief of the Anti-Narcotics Police General Ricardo Restrepo. Restrepo said that the port of Cartegena is particularly affected because of its status as a major point of departure for containers, especially those destined for European markets.

One of the oldest crime syndicates in Medellín, the Oficina de Envigado, apparently wants to lay down its weapons. According to two of the group’s self-proclaimed leaders, the demobilization “won’t happen overnight” but their desire to dismantle the gang is fueled by the feeling that “those who have been victimized most are [their] own families.”

The FARC may be selling coca plantations and cocaine labs to the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel in anticipation of a peace deal with the Colombian government. The FARC are estimated to control a majority of the country’s cocaine trade.

Extra:

Acid attacks against women in Colombia are receiving increased attention after a wealthy woman was victimized. According to Colombian officials, more than 900 cases of acid attacks have been recorded in the last 10 years.

Criminals in the US, Central America and even Colombia appear to be using homemade guns more often. As Fusion puts it, these weapons are “unserialized, unregistered and totally legal – and they’re being used to kill people.”

World-renowned Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away this week. President Santos declared three days of national mourning for the “most loved and most admired compatriot of all times.”

Mexico: Questions and doubts surround deal with autodefensas

This is a weekly roundup of events from 13 April to 19 April 2014

The Council of Self-Defense Forces of Michoacán (CAM), made up of leaders from 20 autodefensas, has agreed to a deal with the government, but as InSight Crime noted, “[t]he deadline is so far the only clear point” of the agreement. Despite the characterization of the deal in many reports, La Jornada clarified that the actual text does not make any explicit reference to the groups’ “disarmament.” Instead it states only that “[s]elf-defense groups are obligated to register their weapons with the Secretariat of National Defense no later than May 10, 2014, determining their possession and use, according to established legal parameters.”

CAM spokesman José Manuel Mireles had previously strenuously resisted calls for the vigilantes to disarm. Estanislao “Papa Smurf” Beltran, the leader of an autodefensa in Buenavista, also denied that the groups were disarming, saying that instead they would continue the process of integrating with official security forces under the existing legal framework. According to Mireles, “We are not going to surrender the weapons [to the government]. We are going to put them away.” Mireles said that the only weapons that would be given up were “superheavy” ones, such as “land-air missiles, M-60 and M-70 rifles and grenade launchers.” For his part, Michoacán security commissioner Alfredo Castillo said, “On May 10, the legitimate autodefensas will disappear and those who say ‘we are autodefensas and we will continue’ will be arrested as false autodefensas.”

Also in contrast to some reports, the deal does not necessarily guarantee the release of autodefensa members who were detained for carrying weapons. Instead, the text states that “[i]ndividuals belonging to self-defense groups who, in addition to carrying a weapon, are being prosecuted for other serious crimes, will continue their criminal proceedings in accordance with the law.” Security commissioner Castillo pushed back against suggestions made by autodefensa leaders that the deal included a promise to release members of the vigilante groups who are suspected of having committed “serious crimes,” such as Hipólito Mora, the man accused of orchestrating the killing of two members of a rival self-defense group.

The deal also includes provisions for the protection of militia leaders and promises by the government to continue the fight against criminal groups that have terrorized the state. However, the government’s inability to provide adequate security was the original impetus for the formation of the vigilante groups. Many top figures in the area’s main cartel, the Knights Templar, have been arrested or killed recently – some with the help of the autodefensas – but the group remains very powerful.

It is basically impossible to predict how all this will play out. As long as citizens feel they cannot trust the government and official security forces, they will seek other means of defending their communities. Self-defense militias have begun to spring up in urban areas of Guerrero state, where the presence of the Gulf Cartel-linked criminal group “Los Rojos” has been blamed for an increase in assaults and kidnappings. Last week, the mayor of Chilpancingo, the state’s capital, said that 70% of the municipal police in the city had failed certification exams.

Despite the deal, the presence of vigilante groups is all but certain to remain an ongoing challenge for the Mexican government. This week, 17 members of an autodefensa from Yurécaro in Michoacán were charged with “organized crime in the category of terrorism” for the murder of Tanhuato mayor Gustavo Garibay Garcia on March 22. Enrique Hernández, who is not mentioned in the article linked above, was also implicated in Gariba’s murder and has alleged that he was tortured following his arrest.

A report from Mexico’s federal intelligence services obtained by Proceso magazine indicates that the low-profile leader of a self-defense force in Michoacán, Miguel Ángel Gallegos Godoy (alias “El Migueladas”), is “the real boss” of the Knights Templar organization. José Manuel Mireles, the leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Michoacán, has claimed in the past that the autodefensa movement is split between those who “fight against drug trafficking” and “criminal infiltrators.”

While the recently-announced agreement provides a sliver of hope, the preponderance of evidence suggests that dealing with the autodefensas could indeed be “the greatest security policy test” of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration.

Headlines:

Members of an autodefensa took over the town of Tingambato in Michoacán. The vigilantes detained the town’s mayor and eight members of the municipal police who reportedly attacked the group earlier this month. Suspected Knights Templar gunmen later attacked members of the autodefensa that had taken the town.

An autodefensa led by José Manuel Mireles took the town of Nuevo Urecho. Mireles called for the people of the town to join his movement.

The mayor of Apatzingan in Michoacán state, Uriel Chavez Mendoza was arrested on extortion charges. Prosecutors allege he pressured city councillors to hand over $1,500 of their monthly salaries to the Knights Templar cartel, more than one-third of their pay. Chavez Mendoza is the nephew of now-deceased Knights Templar leader Nazario Moreno (alias “El Chayo”) who was killed by Mexican security forces on March 9.

In an interview with Milenio, Jose Martin Gomez Ramirez, Apatzingan’s councilor for industry and business, claimed that when city councilors protested the extortion, they were taken to a remote area where they met with Chavez Mendoza and local Knights Templar boss Rigo Diaz Sato, who were accompanied by armed men and a municipal police patrol. The former mayor allegedly introduced Rigo as “more than my friend, he is my brother.” Rigo told the politicians that they would have to acquiesce to the extortion demands. According to Ramirez, he lived in fear for the next two years, with criminals and municipal officials making threats against his family and anyone “not supporting the movement.”

A former legislator from the state of Michoacán, José Trinidad Martínez Pasalagua, was released from custody for a lack of evidence. Martínez Pasalagua remains under investigation for possible links to the Knights Templar cartel, as does the Secretary General of the Government in Michoacán, Jesús Reyna, who was arrested last week. Both men are suspected of having attended meetings with Servando Gómez Martinez (alias “La Tuta”), one of the founding members of the Knights Templar. 

Police reportedly arrested “La Borrega,” the leader of the Gulf Cartel-linked gang known as “Los Rojos” (“The Reds”), in the municipality of Martir de Cuilapan in Guerrero state. According to the police, Borrega’s group was “one of the principal producers and distributors of drugs” in the municipality and was also responsible for kidnappings and extortion in the area.

Mexico’s finance minister Luis Videgaray announced a plan to develop a “black list” of drug traffickers to block them from the country’s financial system. The list will include individuals designated for sanctions by the US and the UN as well as those designated by Mexico’s own government.

Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam confirmed that the American government has not made a formal request for extradition to the Mexican government for the extradition of recently-arrested Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and that the Mexican government has “no intention of sending him [to the United States].” Guzman is wanted on multiple indictments in the US.

Guatemalan police arrested Rafael Atilano Baños Macdonald, a suspected member of the Sinaloa cartel who had been wanted by authorities since 2013.

Another associate of El Chapo, Edgar Manuel Valencia Ortega, pled guilty to drug trafficking charges in Chicago, further indicating that Vincente “Mayito” Zambada-Niebla may be providing law enforcement authorities with information on Chapo loyalists who could pose a threat to his father, Ismael Zambada-Garcia, the man assumed to have taken Chapo’s position as kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel.

The Colombian rebel groups known as the FARC may be selling coca plantations and cocaine labs to the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel in anticipation of a peace deal with the Colombian government.

Mexican authorities captured Arnoldo Villa Sánchez (aka  Erick Rene Calderón Sánchez), the man considered to be the number two leader of the Beltran Leyva cartel. The current boss of the organization, Hector Beltran Leyva is considered to be still at large. The fact of the arrest runs counter to rumors that the Peña Nieto administration “plays favorites” with the Beltran Leyva organization.

The Zetas, an organized crime group engaged in a bloody turf war with its former partner, the Gulf Cartel, issued an online message promising to turn Tamaulipas state into “hell itself” as they fight a “battle to the death” against their rivals. This week, hundreds of residents of Tampico in Tamaulipas marched in protest against the recent wave of violence that has left dozens dead in their state. For more on the Tamaulipas turf war, see our previous post.

Four people were killed in various shootouts following law enforcement operations in eastern Mexico. According to officials, there were “no reports that policemen or civilians were affected.”

Mexico’s Secretary of National Defense said that 410 members of the armed forces have died since the escalation of Mexico’s drug war in December 2006. The Mexican Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI) has reissued its request for a complete list of military personnel killed since that time, saying the original request was not limited solely to deaths attributable to the drug war.

Lupe Trevino, the former sherif for Hidalgo County, Texas on the Mexican border, pled guilty to money laundering for covering up campaign contributions paid by Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez, a convicted drug trafficker. In January 2013, Trevino’s department came under scrutiny when members of its drug task force, including Trevino’s son Jonathan, were accused of possessing and distributing illegal drugs.

The Secretary of National Defense’s office claimed that the Mexican Army destroyed nearly 15 tons of marijuana in March alone.

Migrants traveling on a train known as “La Bestia” (“The Beast,” also known as the “Train of Death”) were robbed and killed in Oaxaca. Three of the victims were identified as Mexicans and the fourth was identified as a Honduran. Mexican federal prosecutors recently filed a criminal complain against Mexican rail line Ferrosur, alleging that the company’s employees may be complicit in such attacks.

In a series of operations across Tamaulipas state, security forces rescued 179 undocumented immigrants from Central America who had been kidnapped and arrested five people in connection with the crime.

Kidnapping in Mexico remains a major problem, with the number of kidnappings increasing fourfold since 2007. Because many wealthier Mexicans have the means – and the motivation – to hire private security to protect themselves, middle- and lower-class Mexicans are increasingly being targeted by criminals.

Mexico’s prosecutor general, Jesús Murillo Karam, met with US senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) to discuss cooperation between the two countries to combat illegal human trafficking.

According to Juan Martín Pérez García, director of the Network for the Rights of Children in Mexico (REDIM), tens of thousands children have been victims of various crimes at the hands of members of organized crime groups, including most frequently rape and sex trafficking, but also forced labor in the drug trade.

A new study released by the University of San Diego reports that “the total number of homicides [in Mexico] appears to have declined by 15 percent in 2013…[but] these findings should be viewed with caution” due to questions raised by analysts over “possible withholding or manipulation of data.” President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration recently claimed that the country’s homicide rate had fallen by 16% in 2013, but questions about the government’s figures were also questioned by Mexican journalist Alejandro Hope, who called the statistics “more confusing than illuminating.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico falls behind only Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Philippines, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka in impunity for attacks against the press. By the groups count, 16 journalists were killed with “absolute impunity” in the past ten years. Mexico ranks 152nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Border’s press freedom index and by the group’s count 89 journalists have been killed in that country since 2000, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. For more on the press freedom situation in Mexico, see our previous post.

To Watch:

Police around Mexico staged demonstrations against what they consider the unfair dismissal of officers for failing loyalty tests.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture will visit Mexico next week to investigate and evaluate the implementation of new legislation intended to reform the penal system. He will also look into the used of forced confesssions and “arraigo” detention, by which citizens can be held without charge for weeks.

So-called “narco-deforestation,” the felling of trees to make way for illicit airstrips or overland drug smuggling routes – or simply for the money to be made from illegally-felled timber – is creating an “ecological disaster” in Central America, according to Ohio State University geographer Karen McSweeney.

Mexican authorities seized 10,000 tons of illegally logged timber in Michoacán worth more than $1 million. Security forces also confiscated 13 sawmills, two wood shredders, 11 vehicles, and other machinery and equipment. While the seizure has not been officially attributed to a specific criminal group, the Knights Templar cartel controls much of the illegal activity in that state, including having a major stake in the iron and steel industry, which lost over $1.3 billion to theft and illegal mining in 2013.

Organized crime groups in Mexico, especially the Knights Templar cartel, are deeply involved in the mining industry, either by selling “security” to corporations or illegally conducting their own mining operations. As a previous report from Vice put it, “what the gang now earns from illegal mining and mineral smuggling makes its illegal drug profits look like chump change. ”

Despite a string of legislative successes including reforms in the country’s energy, banking and education sectors, President Enrique Peña Nieto remains unpopular with Mexico’s citizens, with a favorability rating in the low 40 to high 30% range. Many commentators blame slow economic growth combined with tax hikes on middle-class Mexicans for his unpopularity.

Extra:

InSight Crime profiles Rafael Caro Quintero, a man once described by a Mexican newspaper as the “narco of narcos.” Caro Quintero headed the Guadalajara Cartel during the 1980s, which at the time was the only drug trafficking organization in Mexico. He was arrested in 1985, but released last year when his conviction was overturned on a technicality. In June 2013, shortly before his release, the US Treasury Department released information linking Caro Quintero to Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” an alleged high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Federation, suggesting that Caro Quintero may still be a major player in the country’s organized crime scene. According to agents who spoke with recently-captured Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the fallen cartel boss recently had a meal with Caro Quintero, who expressed his desire to stay out of the drug trafficking game. Nevertheless, a former DEA official recently told the El Paso Times that ruling out Caro Quintero as the “jefe de jefes” (boss of bosses) was impossible given the influence he had in the past. The US State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Caro Quintero’s capture and the Mexican Attorney General’s Office also issued a new warrant for his arrest.

Truthout reviews the story of Juan Francisco Kuykendall Leal, better known as Kuy, a long-time activist who died in January, more than a year after being shot with a rubber bullet while taking part in a mass demonstration against the inauguration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. 

Criminals in the US, Central America and even Colombia appear to be using homemade guns more often. As Fusion puts it, these weapons are “unserialized, unregistered and totally legal – and they’re being used to kill people.”

A little-known Mexican terrorist group known as Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje (Individuals Tending to Savagery) had gone quiet for about a year, but appears to have resurfaced recently. The group released a manifesto online last month reiterating its longstanding opposition to bio- and nanotechnology, which it believes to be an existential threat to humanity. The group has claimed responsibility for multiple violent attacks against researchers working on such technology in the past.

Vice takes a look at the booming demand for bullet-proof cars and clothes in Mexico.