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Friday, June 2, 2023

The 8 most fascinating Central America stories of the year

The news in the most violent region in the world outside of war zones often goes underreported by the international press. When the media does take notice, it’s – not surprisingly – the gore and corruption that grab the world headlines. But in recounting the most fascinating international news stories from Central America (outside of Costa Rica), we could identify some amusement in the absurdity.

The Panamanian president tweeted a photo of Soviet-era missiles discovered on a North Korean ship passing through the canal. Nicaragua hosted a glittery and overdone tribute to fallen ally Hugo Chávez. At the Honduran Embassy in Colombia a shameless orgy featured a literal party pooper. 

The year at least gave us plenty of inanity to highlight alongside the usual bloodshed and political controversies. We almost had a major victory, too. One of the region’s most hideous figures faced a life sentence for alleged war crimes committed in the early 1980s. But success proved all-too-brief in a land where absurdity and farce retain too much power. 

The Tico Times’ looks back at 8 key news stories from Central America in 2013:

8. Honduras ambassador forced to resign after wild embassy sex party

U.S. Secret Service agents aren’t the only ones stirring up mischief while on duty in Colombia. In January, Honduras’ ambassador to Colombia, Carlos Rodríguez, resigned after reports surfaced of a wild alcohol-fueled orgy with prostitutes at the Honduran Embassy in Bogotá the previous month. Rodríguez appeared to have been out of town during the incident. However, his close friend and a bodyguard threw a bash where prostitutes ended up stealing embassy computers and cellphones – and someone defecated on the ambassador’s desk. 

7. 35,000 bikers pay homage to Guatemala’s ‘Black Christ’

In Guatemala, Jesus’ modern-day pilgrims ride Harleys and venerate a statue of “Cristo Negro,” or Black Christ, in the city of Esquipulas, near the Honduran border. In February, 35,000 bikers – many of them accompanied by their wives and children – rode 200 kilometers east of the capital to the sweltering town that Pope John Paul II once called the “spiritual center of Central America.” The Basilica of Esquipulas attracts thousands of pilgrims each year who flock to the statue of Cristo Negro, carved in 1595. Even President Otto Pérez Molina participated in this year’s ride, sporting a sleek, black biker jacket.           

6. Panama finds missile gear on North Korea ship bound from Cuba

If you wanted to smuggle Cold War-era surface-to-air missile systems, where would you hide them? The North Koreans thought they could fool Panamanian officials last July by stashing the material under 220,000 pounds of sugar aboard a ship bound from Cuba. But Panamanian officials discovered the contraband – a Soviet-made radar-control system and missile parts built in 1957 – as the North Korean ship passed through the Panama Canal on its way to Pyongyang. The shipment violated a U.N. arms embargo on North Korea, and the communist country was slapped with a $1 million fine. Three of the ship’s crew members, including the captain, remain locked up.

“You can’t go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal,” Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said, after tweeting a photo of the seized war toys.

5. Latin American leaders mourn Chávez’s death   

His politics were divisive, but there’s no arguing that late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was one of the most charismatic leaders in Latin American history, and his death at 58 from cancer in March captivated the world. Latin American leaders including Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla traveled to Venezuela to attend his funeral. Cuba declared three days of national mourning for the man who was hailed as the “true son” of 87-year-old revolutionary icon Fidel Castro. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa – among Chávez’s ideological allies – joined in praising their fallen comrade, who governed the South American country for 14 years.

In July, Nicaragua’s First Lady and spiritual guru Rosario Murillo dedicated the “Hugo Chávez Eternal Comandante Rotunda,” a flamboyant glowing monument erected in Chávez’s honor at a downtown traffic circle. Describing the tribute, Nicaragua Dispatch’s Tim Rogers noted “the chintzy, Las Vegas-like homage to the founder of ALBA features an illuminated bust of the former president, flanked by two fallopian trees of life, and a bit of other swirlygig stuff.”

Speaking of the man who at the end of his life had only lukewarm relations with the Nicaraguan president, yet helped him maintain his political grip through fuel subsidies, Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega said, “God gave us Chávez.”

4. Honduran elections do little to ease a nation’s woes

Honduras has enough problems with its designation as the murder capital of the world. And the presidential elections in November served only to exacerbate tensions within the fragile democracy. When the Nov. 24 vote tallied in favor of National Party candidate – and now president-elect – Juan Orlando Hernández, his top rival Xiomara Castro refused to accept the results.

Castro, of the leftist Libre party, is still stinging from the 2009 right-wing coup d’état that ousted her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, and the ongoing elections row can only worsen an already extremely politically polarized country. Meanwhile, poverty, violence related to gangs and drug trafficking, and widespread impunity paint a bleak picture for the future of this Central American country.

Following two stories we recently published about the violence, one reader tweeted: “As a Honduran I’m tired of reading about it. Why don’t you try reporting something positive about the country for a change?”

3. CIA pilot confirms drugs and arms trafficking to support Contra war

Younger readers won’t remember the terrible wars – and the shadowy characters involved in them – that gripped most of Central America in the latter half of the 20th century. To those who lived through that era, and especially the reporters who covered it, the Central American conflicts are still fresh. Thanks in part to the persistence of reporters like Tico Times contributor John McPhaul, answers are being uncovered for some of the most complex riddles surrounding the wars. McPhaul and other news outlets in Central America, Mexico and the U.S. re-examined the 1984 murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena at the hands of Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero. Events surrounding that murder appear to have led back to the Reagan White House.

Going further, McPhaul interviewed a former CIA contract pilot, who confirmed he had trafficked an estimated 30,000 kilograms of cocaine from Colombia into and out of a clandestine airstrip in northwestern Costa Rica. Both the pilot and former DEA officials informed on operations that had been reported about but denied for decades: The Reagan administration seemed to have been involved in trafficking illicit drugs to U.S. consumers in order to fund and arm the Contras in Nicaragua.

“All this is very well documented, but no one has put the pieces together,” former DEA agent Celerino Castillo said. Until now.

2. Somoza 2.0: Daniel Ortega rewrites one-fifth of Nicaragua’s constitution

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega made his final moves in a contracted game of political chess to solidify his grip on the Western Hemisphere’s second-poorest country. In November, the Sandinista leader and his political cronies in the National Assembly proposed sweeping changes to one-fifth of Nicaragua’s constitution. One of those changes included repealing a constitutional ban on presidential re-election, essentially paving the way for Ortega to become president for life.

Luckily, a power-sharing agreement between the ruling Sandinistas and Nicaragua’s business sector helped scale back some of the more egregious reform proposals, including one that would have written First Lady Rosario Murillo’s political power into the constitution. But the one allowing re-election will likely stand. 

1. Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt convicted of genocide, a sentence that didn’t stick

It happened so fast it almost seemed like a dream. In a packed Guatemala City courtroom on May 10, Judge Jazmín Barrios uttered the words that no Guatemalan observer will ever forget: Culpable. Culpable, culpable, culpable.

In declaring a guilty verdict in the landmark genocide case against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, now 87, Barrios struck a historical blow to the word that for too long had become synonymous with the land of the quetzal: impunity.

“The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide. The corresponding punishment must be imposed,” she said to an outpouring of emotion from the Ixil Mayan victims and surviving family members, human rights workers, attorneys, journalists and others in the courtroom that day. It was, perhaps, the first time since the bloody 36-year civil war began in 1960 that real justice for the hundreds of thousands of victims – most of them Mayan – seemed like something tangible.

Barrios instructed that Ríos Montt, who ruled Guatemala from 1982-83, be taken directly to prison. A brief pause in the rapid-fire presentation of the verdict allowed the courtroom to burst into a raucous applause and shouts of “¡justicia!”

Sentencing a man who once was the most powerful politician in Guatemala to 80 years in prison for genocide and war crimes was an arduous task. The case involved the steadfastness of many people who refused to let war crimes, brutality and injustice stand. It was a testament to the courage of a Mayan people forced to relive those abominable years so that the truth would be known to the world. It was triumph. 

But it was short-lived. 

Ten days later, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court struck down the verdict on an alleged technicality. It’s unclear if another trial will be held, or even if one is possible. If Ríos Montt is tried again, Judge Barrios won’t be there. And the victims, who confronted intimidation and threats while recalling the alleged war crimes, would be required to testify again.

Still, what took place in those remote Guatemalan villages that were burned to the ground cannot be obscured again. The names of those tied to the genocide – and their victims – will not be forgotten.


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