In Central America, the escalating drug-related violence involving drug trafficking, transnational and local gangs and other criminal groups has reached alarming and unprecedented levels, significantly worsening security and making the subregion one of the most violent areas in the world. Crime and drug-related violence continue to be key issues of concern in Central American countries. Drug trafficking (including fighting between and within drug trafficking and criminal organizations operating out of Colombia and Mexico), youth-related violence and street gangs, along with the widespread availability of firearms, have contributed to increasingly high crime rates in the subregion. There are more than 900 maras (local gangs) active in Central America today, with over 70,000 members. According to a recent report by the World Bank, drug trafficking is both an important driver of homicide rates in Central America and the main single factor behind the rising levels of violence in the subregion. The countries of the so-called "Northern Triangle" (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), together with Jamaica, now have the world's highest homicide rates.
Just how bad is it? To put things in perspective, in Syria, where the the United Nations is debating imposing international sanctions and many are urging humanitarian intervention, an astonishing 7,500 people are estimated to have been killed in the last 11 months. With Syria's population, that's almost 37 deaths per 100,000 people.
By comparison, Honduras has a murder rate of 82.1 per 100,000, the highest in the world. It's followed by El Salvador at 66 and Jamaica at 60 -- all driven primarily by drug violence. With only 8.5 per cent of the world population, Latin America and the Carribean account for 27 percent of homicides.
I don't mean to minimize the tragic violence of the Middle East, but it's a bit astonishing how little this carnage closer to home gets in U.S. political circles, particularly since, as the world's largest drug market, North Americans are directly implicated in it.
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is visiting Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama this week where she faces the unenviable task of touting progress in the war on drugs.
ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images
In addition to suspiciously timed announcements of assassination plots, the Kremlin is also continuing with its tried-and-true strategy of equating voting for Putin to getting it on. In this new ad, a young woman is informed by a fortuneteller that her "first time" will be with the prime minister/soon-to-be-president himself. Her first time voting, you creeps:
This whole sexy United Russia thing seems to have gotten a bit out of hand. For a fairly dark and disturbing response to the trend, see this new parody video from socialite-turned-political commentator Ksenia Sobchak.
Iranian state TV is doing its thing, following A Separation's Oscar victory last night. The AP reports:
Iran's state TV described the country's foreign film Oscar win on Monday as a victory over Israel, in a gesture of official approval toward an Iranian movie industry criticized by hardliners.
The official reaction to the victory of "A Separation" in Sunday's awards ceremony was cast in nationalist terms and in the light of Iran's confrontation with its arch-foe, which also had a film, "Footnote," competing for the foreign language Oscar.
The broadcast said the award won by "A Separation" succeeded in "leaving behind" a film from the "Zionist regime." It emphasized that the film won several Iranian awards in 2011, too.
Yeah, because we all know that Hollywood is controlled by … wait, now I'm confused.
On a related note, I was wondering how director Asghar Farhadi's speech last night would go over back home. While not explicitly political, Farhadi did refer to Iran as a "rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics," which could be read as a subtle suggestion that his country's cultural life has been smothered by its government. As Global Voices' Fred Petrossian reports, the official Fars News simply changed the text of the speech.
"I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment"
… was changed to:
"Iranian people respect all cultures despite the western hostility with Iranian nuclear program."
I haven't had the chance to see A Separation yet, but from all I've read, Farhadi's Oscar sounds well-deserved. Iran has a rich film tradition, but the government seems to be doing its best to destroy it, judging from last month's decision to shutter the independent Iranian House of Cinema -- the country's directors' guild -- and the arrest of six documentary filmmakers working on a film about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in September. The country's two best-known directors are currently living abroad and in jail, respectively
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Prosecutors may still attempt to indict WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act, though their case will likely depend on exactly how he received his information. But, WikiLeaks aside, the Obama administration has made increasing use of the act to clamp down on whistleblowers.
Prompted by a question at a White House press briefing last week by ABC's Jake Tapper, David Carr explores the issue in his New York Times column:
The Obama administration, which promised during its transition to power that it would enhance “whistle-blower laws to protect federal workers,” has been more prone than any administration in history in trying to silence and prosecute federal workers. [...]
In case after case, the Espionage Act has been deployed as a kind of ad hoc Official Secrets Act, which is not a law that has ever found traction in America, a place where the people’s right to know is viewed as superseding the government’s right to hide its business.
In the most recent case, John Kiriakou, a former C.I.A. officer who became a Democratic staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was charged under the Espionage Act with leaking information to journalists about other C.I.A. officers, some of whom were involved in the agency’s interrogation program, which included waterboarding.
For those of you keeping score, none of the individuals who engaged in or authorized the waterboarding of terror suspects have been prosecuted, but Mr. Kiriakou is in federal cross hairs, accused of talking to journalists and news organizations, including The New York Times.
Another example was Thomas Drake, a former NSA employee who was prosecuted under the espionage act and faced a possible 35 years in prison for talking to reporters about a deal to buy digital data monitoring software uneccesarily violate privacy. The case against him eventually collapsed and he pleaded guilty to a minor misdemeanor charge. Some more examples here.
I'm no attorney, but these prosecutions do seem to have diverged pretty far from the original scope of the Act, which refers to people who transmit information to a foreign government or entity "with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation." It seems pretty clear that neither Drake nor Kiriakou were acting with intent to harm the United States. And they were communicating with well-established U.S. media organizations, not foreign government or militaries.
U.S. courts have left the door open to espionage prosecutions of this kind, however. The best known case on this issue is the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, which is best remembered for the Supreme Court's decision that the Government could not prevent the publication of Vietnam war documents leaked by analyst Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times.
However, the court actually ruled only that the Nixon administration had failed to demonstrate a compelling national security threat that warranted the prior prevention of publication. They left open the possibility that if a more compelling threat could be demonstration, such an injunction could be warranted. Moreover, it was suggested that the standard for a espionage prosecution after publication might not be as high as with prior restraint.
So, the law's not quite settled on how much of a threat to national security a media leak needs to be before it's considered espionage. But at the rate the Obama adminsitration is going -- it has already prosecuted more government officials for providing classified information to the media than every previous administration combined -- the Supreme Court may soon get the chance to provide some clarity on the matter.
It's early to say how credible the reported assassination plot against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is, but it is pretty clear that the Kremlin is taking full advantage of the timing of the announcement, just a week before the presidential election.
First, there's the fact that Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said the arrest of two men after an apartment explosion is January was "was absolutely a plot to kill the prime minister," even before the Ukrainian government had confirmed it. Then there's the confusion about when this arrest actually took place:
Channel One said the suspects were arrested on Jan. 4, but a statement released by the Ukrainian security services this month, which made no mention of an assassination plot against Mr. Putin, said the arrests were made on Feb. 4.
And as Miriam Elder notes, Russians have heard this tune before. Another attempt to kill Putin was "foiled" by authorities in Moscow the day Dmitry Medvedev was elected president in 2008. Many in the Russian opposition also believe that Putin may have been involved in a series of Moscow appartment bombings, blamed on Chechen militants, prior to his first election as president in 2000.
It's certainly not outside the realm of possibility that Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov might have plotted to kill Putin, as the suspects say in their videotaped confession, but the timing of this information being made public does seem awfully convenient at a time when the opposition is showing more life than ever before.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
A Wednesday-night debate in Arizona was the first time the candidates discussed the deteriorating situation in Syria at any length, though mostly in the context of what it would mean for Iran's nuclear program and global energy prices. Mitt Romney did suggest that the United States work "with Saudi Arabia and with Turkey to ... provide the kind of weaponry that's needed to help the rebels inside Syria." Newt Gingrich, as he often does, suggesting a policy of having "our allies covertly helping destroy the Assad regime."
The debate was widely covered as a test for the surging Rick Santorum, who was attacked repeatedly, often by Ron Paul, on his credentials as a fiscal conservative. On national security issues, Santorum touted his long record of urging aggressive polices against Iran and criticized the Obama administration for standing with "radicals" against "a friend of ours in Egypt" -- ousted president Hosni Mubarak. He also seemed to pivot away from his previous concerns about women serving in more combat roles in the military, though he did warn against "social engineering."
Gingrich on the attack
Seemingly eclipsed by Santorum's rise, onetime poll leader Gingrich has repeatedly made news this week for strident attacks against Barack Obama's foreign policy. Gingrich referred to Obama as the "most dangerous president in modern American history" during a speech in Oklahoma, accusing him of putting political correctness above U.S. national security in his administration's response to Islamist terrorism. Appearing on CBS's "This Morning," Gingrich called Obama's energy policies "outrageously anti-American'' and ridiculed the idea that the electric car "is going to liberate us from Saudi Arabia."
On Thursday, Gingrich again lashed out at Obama following the president's apology to Afghan authorities for the burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base. "He is consistently apologizing to people who do not deserve the apology of the United States," Gingrich said. The candidate went on to demand that the Afghan government apologize to the United States for the killing of two American soldiers in the riots that followed the burning.
Romney against the world
The AP's Steven Hurst examined Romney's foreign-policy rhetoric in a news analysis this week, writing that "It often appears that Romney is targeting the rest of the world as fiercely as he does his rivals for the party nomination and President Barack Obama." Referring to Romney's attacks on European socialism, Chinese currency manipulation and Russian duplicitousness, the article asks whether the tone of Romney's rhetoric will hurt him in the general election, or with the governments in question should he become president.
"Other governments are not naive, and they understand the rough-and-tumble of U.S. politics just as we understand the rough-and-tumble of politics in other countries," responded Amb. Richard Williamson, a top Romney foreign-policy advisor.
Obama: I'll get to immigration next term
The president came into office promising comprehensive immigration reform, but the issue has largely fallen by the wayside during congressional battles over health care and the economy. In an interview with Univision Radio this week, the president promised to make the issue a priority if he is reelected for a second term. "I've got another five years coming up. We're going to get this done," he said.
At Wednesday night's debate, both Santorum and Romney held up Arizona's tough immigration policies and the harsh tactics employed by controversial Maricopa Country Sherriff Joe Arpaio as models for how to address the issue.
Santorum's Dutch disease
Santorum has left many scratching their heads with comments made several weeks ago in which he suggested that 1 in 20 deaths in the Netherlands result from forced euthanasia. Santorum continued to claim that elderly people in the Netherlands often wear bracelets that say "do not euthanize me" and "don't go to the hospital, they go to another country, because they're afraid because of budget purposes that they will not come out of that hospital if they go into it with sickness." The Dutch government declined to comment on the claim this week, but provided the New York Times with documents showing that there is no provision in Dutch law for forced euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia has been legal there since 2002 and accounts for around 2 percent of deaths in the country.
The Netherlands wasn't the only European country Santorum has taken a shot at this week. At a national security focused speech in Ohio, he took aim at the president's relationship with France: "He actually went to France a year or so ago and was with Nicolas Sarkozy and said that, 'Here I am with the French prime minister, our best ally in the world.' Now think about this. Name one time in the last 20 years that the French stood by us with anything."
The remark was given a "pants-on-fire" rating by Politifact.
What to watch for
Arizona and Michigan voters head to the polls on Tuesday. RealClearPolitics's latest poll average shows Romney with a 9-point advantage in Arizona. He also seems to have retaken the lead in his birthplace state of Michigan, but still leads Santorum by less than two points.
Tuesday's victor will have little time to rest on his laurels. The 10 Super Tuesday contests are right around the corner on March 6. The biggest delegate prizes of the day will be Ohio, where Santorum currently leads, and Georgia, where native son Gingrich has the advantage.
The latest from FP
Scott Clement looks at why polls are so all over the map when it comes to attacking Iran.
Joshua Keating rounds up the foreign-policy highlights from Wednesday's debate.
Uri Friedman examines Gingrich's not-so-covert love of covert ops.
Michael Cohen argues that campaign-trail rhetoric touting American exceptionalism is obscuring the real causes of decline.
It might seem a little odd that Chinese president-in-waiting Xi Jinping chose Ireland as the one European country to visit following his U.S. trip last week, but as the Herald Tribune explains, he's the latest in a long line of Chinese leaders fascinated with the Emerald Isle:
A key reason may be a kind of free-trade pilgrimage - to the Shannon Free Zone, first visited by Jiang Zemin, the former Communist Party chief but then a vice minister of the State Imports and Exports Administration, in 1980.
Chinese officials often say the free-trade area, set up in 1959, was a model for their own successful Special Economic Zones in southern China, which powered economic reform here starting in 1980. China now wants to upgrade its industries, and the high-tech Shannon Free Zone is of interest as a regional model, Irish commentators said.
Other leaders who have visited Shannon include two prime ministers, Wen Jiabao and Zhu Rongji, and two vice prime ministers, Huang Ju and Zeng Peiyan. During his own visit, Mr. Xi requested a personal briefing from Dr. Vincent Cunnane, the chief executive of Shannon Development, which runs the zone, the company said in a statement.[...]
Over the last 15 years, Ireland achieved something that fascinates Chinese officials — a transition from a poor, agricultural nation to a rich, high-tech one.
Even as Mr. Xi’s Air China 747-400 landed in Shannon, a statement by him was distributed to waiting journalists describing Ireland as “a success story of moving, in a short period of time, from an agro-pastoral economy to a knowledge economy.”
Whatever the reason, the vice president's hosts also seem to have lined up the most stereotypically "oirish" set of photo-ops possible for him. More photos of Xi doing Irish things below the jump:
Billionaire presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov -- the seven-foot assassin with the roughneck business -- gets down on a Russian talk show. Somehow I don't think his business partner Jay-Z will be offering him a guest verse on Watch the Throne II:
President Dmitry Medvedev once promised to "hold press conferences in the rap style". Perhaps a battle is in order?
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