Monday, February 7, 2011

Southern Sudan votes to split from the north

Final results of last month's referendum show that an overwhelming majority of southern Sudanese voted to split from the north, a result that will lead to the creation of the world's newest nation, the referendum commission said Monday.

The chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, which organized the vote, said 98.83% voted for separation, while 1.17% voted for unity.

"It was a peaceful process," said chairman Muhammad Ibrahim Khali at a ceremony in Khartoum attended by Sudanese politicians, international diplomats, U.N. staff, academics and others. "It was a transparent process."

"Not a single person" showed up to appeal the results, he said.

The commission met Monday with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and First Vice President Salva Kiir to present the final results, state TV reported earlier.

Al-Bashir has stated his commitment to the results and said he will accept them, state TV said.

Sudan's north and south have been at war for two decades in a conflict that has left 2 million people dead.

The referendum on whether to declare independence from the north-based government is part of a peace agreement reached six years ago that helped end the conflict. The war pitted a government dominated by Arab Muslims in northern Sudan against black Christians and animists in the south.

A majority of Sudan's oil reserves are in the south, another flashpoint in the war.

Several million voters, including expatriates in the United States and seven other countries, cast ballots.

The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission includes members from both the north and south.

If the preliminary results are validated and no other obstacles emerge, Southern Sudan would become a new nation in July.

The two sides would have to address various issues including currency, citizenship, national debt, and how to divide the majority of oil reserves found in the south. The Abyei region -- which straddles the border between the regions -- remains a disputed area between the two sides.

As the world's newest nation, Southern Sudan would face daunting obstacles.

There is a desperate need for development in the south and a lack of a robust educated class to control the new levers of power.

A flood of refugees, eagerly returning to an independent homeland, could complicate matters in a place that already lacks enough schools and clinics and has few paved roads.

Longstanding grievances among rival southern groups could erupt in violence; several hundred southerners already have been killed in such fighting in the last year or two. Or the north could refuse to accept the results or stir tensions by trying to pit one southern faction against another.

The concerns run so deep that a year ago, Dennis Blair, then the U.S. director of national intelligence, warned the U.S. Congress of possible genocide.

"A number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing" in the next five years, he said. "Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan."

Al-Bashir, wanted for war crimes after mass killings and rape in the country's western Darfur region, has said a southern vote for independence would be like "cutting off a part of the nation's body, but not the end of the world."

Still, al-Bashir has said he won't hesitate to accept the results, because peace with the south is the ultimate goal.

People in Southern Sudan have long felt dominated by the north, ever since slave-raiding parties from the region penetrated the south around 1840. The raids instilled a collective hostility toward northerners that successive generations in the south nursed until they erupted in open war.

Britain ruled Sudan from 1899 through 1955 and administered north and south as separate entities, preventing travel from one region to the other. The imbalance that resulted sparked southern fears of northern domination when the British announced plans to leave.

Southerners took up arms against the north in August 1955, six months before Sudan's independence. Most jobs in the new national government went to people from the north, which also dominated the process of drafting a constitution.

The insurgency that started in 1955 killed several hundred thousand people and forced many more from their homes, until a peace deal silenced the guns in 1972. Barely a decade later, though, war resumed after the Sudanese president split the south into three regions and sought to impose Islamic law on non-Muslims.

The 1989 coup that brought al-Bashir to power let him steer the ship of state by the compass of Islamic extremism. He praised the 1979 Iranian revolution and offered shelter to many groups the United States views as terrorist organizations.

Osama bin Laden arrived in Sudan in 1991, long before he became a household name. The United States added Sudan to its list of state sponsors of terrorism two years later.

Peace talks to end the war were well under way in 2003 when a mostly unrelated conflict erupted in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. Marginalized non-Arab Muslims there rebelled against the government by attacking a military garrison.

The Sudanese government responded by arming and cooperating with Arab militias that killed, tortured and raped thousands, mainly targeting tribes from which the rebels drew strength, according to the United Nations, Western governments and human rights organizations.

The United Nations says 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in Darfur, though the government of Sudan says the toll is lower.

Al-Bashir's role in Darfur led the International Criminal Court to indict him in 2009 for war crimes.

Even as the killing continued unabated in Darfur, al-Bashir's government made progress in negotiations with southern rebels. That progress resulted in a landmark agreement in January 2005 between the Sudanese government and the main rebel group in the south, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement called for the referendum that took place last month.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Looking Back on 2010 and Mexico's 'Year That Was'

The year 2010 is now behind us.  The arrival of a new calendar year often brings with it reflection upon the year which has just passed.

In the case of Mexico, what happened in 2010?

The ongoing drug cartel war raged on, with more casualties than ever before.  The official narco war death count for 2010 was 12,456, though another source put it at 15,000 plus. Either way, it’s horrendous.

The drug war was one of the topics commented upon in the U.S. diplomatic dispatches released by WikiLeaks. 

In the quoted cables, not originally intended for public consumption, U.S. and Mexican diplomats and officials asserted that the Mexican government’s campaign against the drug cartels was lacking a clear strategy, and that there is a turf war between Mexican security agencies.  U.S.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was concerned with how the stress of it all affects Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s “personality and management style.”  Mexico’s corruption and low prosecution rate were discussed, and the Merida Initiative was said to be cobbled together too quickly to be effective.

The Mexican Army was reported to be too slow, risk-averse and not taking advantage of intel received from the U.S.  On the other hand, the Mexican Navy received high marks in its performance.  Overall, though, the assessment of the Mexican cartel war in the WikiLeaks was not positive.

Nevertheless, there was good news in Mexico on the job creation front. In calendar year 2010 there were 850,000 jobs created in the formal economy. This is significant and hopefully can be sustained. It’s been estimated that about a million Mexicans enter the work force annually. As of 2007, the report was that a third of the new job seekers entered the formal economy, a third entered the informal economy (which isn’t taxed) and a third emigrated. The 850,000 figure thus goes a long way towards closing the employment gap in Mexico. That’s good news indeed.

Illegal aliens from Central American countries that are poorer than Mexico continue to cross Mexican territory with the goal of reaching the U.S.A.  In 2010 the government of Mexico deported 70,000 illegal aliens, 93% of them from Central America.  Many illegal aliens were robbed, raped, kidnapped or killed by criminals, sometimes with the collusion of Mexican officials.  Amnesty International released a scathing report on the situation entitled “Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico,” which describes a major humanitarian disaster.  In the month of August, 72 illegal aliens were massacred at one site, apparently by the Zetas, in northeastern Tamaulipas state.

During the year 2010, the world’s attention was drawn to the spectacular rescue of 33 trapped miners in Chile.  In Mexico, this brought back bitter memories and an unfavorable contrast with the disaster at the Pasta de Conchos mine in northern Mexico, in 2006.  The contrast, however, wasn’t entirely fair, as they were two different kinds of mines and two different types of mine disasters.  The Pasta de Conchos situation, however, had been very poorly handled.  Be that as it may, mining is still, in the 21st century, a dangerous occupation.

Same-sex marriage, legalized by the government of the Federal District (Mexico City) in December of 2009, came into effect in March of 2010.  The law was opposed by the Mexican federal government.  The dispute went all the way to the 11-member Mexican Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court upheld the Mexico City same-sex marriage law as being constitutional.  It also decreed that same-sex marriages performed in Mexico City are valid marriages throughout all of Mexico, though the court did not require Mexican states to perform their own same-sex marriages.

In the world of sports, Mexico’s soccer team competed in the World Cup in South Africa, heavily covered by the Mexican media.  The Mexican team was eliminated in the second round.  Spain's team ultimately won the Cup, defeating the Netherlands 1-0 in extra time (overtime).

The past year also saw the retirement of Mexican Lorena Ochoa, the world’s #1 woman golfer.

And, in the year 2010, Mexico celebrated its dual Independence Bicentennial and Revolution Centennial.  The Bicentennial celebrated the beginning, in 1810, of the movement which became the Independence movement.  The Centennial celebrated the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

Gang's terror felt far from drug war on US border

A priest who shelters stranded migrants needs police protection. A chopped-up body turns up with a threatening message. Beheadings are on the rise. The local press is too frightened to write about any of it.

This is not northern Mexico, where drug gangs fight for turf along the U.S. border and the Mexican government wages an open battle against them. This is the south, where the brutal Zetas cartel is quietly spreading a reign of terror virtually unchallenged, all the way to the border with Guatemala — and across it.

Just as they have done in the north, groups claiming to be Zetas have set up criminal networks to control transit routes for drugs, migrants and contraband such as pirated DVDS, intimidating the populace and committing gruesome murders as an example to the uncooperative.

Four years ago they started preying on the south, Mexico's poorest region. They moved into Oaxaca, Chiapas and other southern states and then northern Guatemala, where attacks on townspeople became so commonplace that the government last month sent in 300 troops to regain control of the border province of Alta Verapaz.

In towns on the Oaxacan isthmus and the center of Oaxaca city, the capital, the wealthy as well as street vendors and migrants have been kidnapped and subjected to extortion.

Then last month, the gang blamed for massacring 72 migrants in the summer in the northern state of Tamaulipas became suspects in the disappearance of more than 40 Central American migrants in Oaxaca. The abduction drew international attention when the El Salvadoran foreign ministry reported the crime, but the Mexican government initially denied it happened.

The travelers were last seen Dec. 16 near the city of Ixtepec, along the sun-scorched transit route for thousands riding northbound freight trains. Twenty escaped and took refuge at a migrant shelter run by the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, who says he has learned the kidnappers have ties to the Zetas.

The Mexican Attorney General's Office announced the arrest this month of a Nicaraguan and a Mexican on suspicion of being involved, but said nothing about Zetas or the missing migrants.

The Mexicans say the Zetas have hired Guatemalan former counterinsurgency soldiers to train new recruits, and a Zetas training camp for hit men was uncovered on the Guatemalan border last year.

Alejandro Poire, Mexico's government spokesman for security issues, said the reported scope of Zetas activity in southern Mexico is hardly comparable to the turf battle raging between the Zetas and their competitors in the north, where a split from their former employers, the Gulf Cartel, has sparked regular grenade attacks and daylight shootouts.

But to Solalinde, the Zetas "are a terrible de facto power."

"Unfortunately, we have a very corrupt country, with law enforcement agencies infiltrated" by organized crime, the priest said.

Four days after Solalinde reported the kidnapping and named the Zetas, he was visited by a burly, shaven-headed man whom police identified as a known hit man.

Police now patrol outside the shelter of unfinished cinderblock rooms, where migrants sleep on cardboard or blankets and stray dogs and cats wander about.

"There is danger," Solalinde said. "But imagine if every single person in Mexico kept silent, if all looked the other way, if no one did anything? That would be terrible for Mexico."

The Zetas rule by fear, threatening police, city officials, journalists and anyone else who gets in their way.

In November, on a much-visited cliff overlooking the picturesque center of Oaxaca City, police found a severed head in a gift-wrapped box. A threatening message left with the head was signed "Z," apparently for Zetas.

In the Oaxacan city of Juchitan, a decapitated man was dumped by a road in November and another was found chopped up in May with a note saying he was killed for posing as a Zeta.

"There are places, cantinas, where we all know they sell drugs, where the Zetas get together. Everybody knows, but nobody does anything," said a local journalist who requested anonymity fearing reprisals.

Authorities, however, contest the notion they are doing nothing. In Chiapas state, on the Guatemala border, more than 240 local and state police officers have been fired or arrested since 2008 for having links to the Zetas, according to the state Public Safety Department.

The Zetas formed in the late 1990s from a small group of elite soldiers based in Tamaulipas who deserted to work for the Gulf drug cartel.

They earned their notoriety by becoming the first to publicly display their beheaded rivals, most infamously two police officers in April 2006 in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco. The severed heads were found on spikes outside a government building with a message signed "Z'' that said: "So that you learn to respect."

That year, the Gulf cartel, emboldened after retaining control of the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo, sent the Zetas to take over the south, which they kept after their boss, Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was extradited to the U.S.

By 2008, the Zetas had operations in 28 major Mexican cities, according to an analysis by Grupo Savant, a Washington-based security think tank.

They operate unchallenged in the south, the think tank says. While other cartels are preoccupied with maintaining their Pacific coast ports and northern border transit routes, the Zetas make hundreds of millions of dollars from extortion and trafficked goods coming overland via Guatemala.

Mexico's federal government acknowledges that Zetas have no geographic concentration like other cartels and therefore have shown up in disparate parts of the country. They operate almost like franchises, sending one member to an area they want to control to recruit local criminals.

For Central Americans migrating north, there are few options but to risk their lives crossing Zetas-controlled territory.

At the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Denis Torres, a 24-year-old bricklayer from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said he set out on his journey despite his family's pleas to stay. He said he was determined to join his uncle in Miami, where he had been promised a construction job.

"You do travel in fear, thinking they can kidnap you and torture you or kill you just because you came pursuing the American dream," he said.