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Pussy Riot vs. Putin

In Communist Czechoslovakia it was the Zappa-inspired absurdism of Plastic People of the Universe. In military-ruled Brazil it was the whimsical psychedelia of Os Mutantes. In Ben Ali's Tunisia it was the aggressive political hip-hop of El General

Now it seems, the anti-Putin opposition may have found its musical standard bearer in the masked, riot grrrl provocateurs of Pussy Riot. The 20-ish anonymous members of the punk-feminist collective have become known for spontaneous stunts like appearing in Red Square to perform a song called "Putin Pissed Himself."

Other songs include "Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest", and "Fuck the Sexist, Fuck Putin's Henchman." But Pussy Riot took things to the next level at the end of February, shortly before Russia's recent presidential election, with an unauthorized "Punk Prayer" inside Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral that included lines like "Mother Mary, drive Putin away":

The performance was meant to highlight the Orthodox church's close ties to Putin.  Three members of the band have been arrested and charged with hate crimes and disturbing public order. They have been jailed for at least 60 days pending an investigation. They could face up to seven years behind bars if convicted. The three have reportedly begun a hunger strike in prison.

While some prominent church leaders have called for the court to go easy on the three women, two of whom are mothers of small children, Patriarch Kirill I was not so lenient in a statement this week:

Patriarch Kirill told Russian TV he was sickened by their protest and saddened that Russian orthodox believers would defend the band.

"Those people don't believe in the power of prayer, they believe in the power of propaganda, in the power of lies and slander, in the power of Internet and mass media, in the power of money and weapons. We believe in the power of prayer. I call on the whole Russian Orthodox Church for passionate and diligent praying for our country, for our trust, for our people, for God to forgive us our sin," Kirill said.

According to Putin's press secretary, the president-elect also reacted "negatively" when told about the performance.

Not that the more established leaders of Russia's opposition seem particularly thrilled to have these women, one of whom was previously criticized for taking part in an orgy at a biology museum in 2008, be their standard bearers. Blogger Alexey Navalny thought that jailing the members of the band was excessive, but has described them as "silly girls" who committed a "very stupid but small offense."

It may not be so easy to dismiss the group, however. More than 2,000 people have signed a petition asking the church not to press charges. Three supporters, including a member of the radical art group Voina -- itself known for an NSFW brand of protest -- were arrested at a rally at the courthouse where the women were being tried on March 15. 

Established activists like Navalny might prefer that the Russian opposition not be derailed by skirmishes like the ongoing Pussy Riot trial. But hey, revolutions don't always get to pick their soundtrack. 

(Head over to Democracy Lab for more on Russia's dissident artists.)

ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

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Did El Salvador cut a deal with the gangs to bring down violence?

With the world's second-highest homicide rate, (around 66 per 100,000 people) it's not surprising that El Salvador might take drastic measures to stop the killing. But a sudden drop in homicides is raising questions about just what the infamous MS-13 gang is getting in return:

An intelligence report prepared in February and provided by the government official asserts that top members of the ministry “offered, if it is necessary, to make deals or negotiate with subjects who have power inside organized crime structures to reduce homicides.”

There is no dispute that, in an unprecedented move, 30 of the top leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 criminal gangs were transferred on March 8 and 9 from a maximum-security prison, where many had been for over a decade, to prisons with perks including family visits.

In the ensuing days, killings in El Salvador dropped to five a day, and sometimes even fewer, from the typical 14. All told, homicides nationwide dropped to 186 in the first 21 days of March from 411 in January and 402 in February.

Zero-tolerance crime fighting strategies generally seem to be going out of favor in the region. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who had vowed on the campaign trail to crush the cartels, was in the news last week for hosting a regional conference on drug legalization.  

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images