All posts by Lino Miani

Green Beret, Author, Entrepreneur...Worldwide. CEO, Navisio Global

Sandra Torres: Under the Electoral Weather

On Monday, 2 September 2019, Guatemalan police executed a warrant for the arrest of Ms. Sandra Torres on charges of illicit and unreported campaign financing. Her arrest came just a few days after losing the immunity granted to presidential candidates in Guatemala. The presence of the press on the daytime raid amplified the spectacle of the former first-lady’s arrest at her lavish home in Zone 15 of Guatemala City. The announcement that she would be put in pretrial confinement in the Mariscal Zavala detention center to prevent her from fleeing the country was, unlike her arrest, a surprise. Zavala Prison is located on a military base and has become the home of dozens of powerful former officials, judges and politicians convicted of corruption and abuse of power, including ex-President Otto Pérez Molina. Ms. Torres will certainly be in infamous company as she prepares for the trial she calls a political maneuver.

The Symptoms

Sandra Torres has had a unique political career to say the least. She was Guatemala’s first lady during the term of her then husband, President Álvaro Colom from 2008 to 2012. She attempted to succeed her husband by running for his office in 2011, but was disqualified by the courts in accordance a constitutional provision barring immediate family members of the President or Vice President from running for those positions. Later that year she divorced Colom in order to be eligible for the office and tried again in 2015; a race she lost to current President Jimmy Morales. It was during these earlier campaigns that she built a reputation as a champion for rural and indigenous Guatemalans, a base that served her well during the 2019 election. Again she came in second but only after she forced a runoff against the eventual winner, Alejandro Giammattei.

Official certification of Giammattei’s electoral victory marked the end of Torres’s immunity and just days later, a judge issued the warrant for her arrest. Some see Torres’s detention last Monday as a bold strike against a common flaw in Guatemalan politics: the secret financing of candidates by anonymous donors. In the case of Ms. Torres, she stands accused of accepting more than USD $3.6 million of illicit funding associated with her 2015 campaign. The history of those charges however, could be their undoing.

The investigation that resulted in charges against Sandra Torres and four of her colleagues was a joint effort of the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), an anti-corruption agency intended to work with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG); a United Nations body given a mandate by the Guatemalan legislature in May 2007 to investigate and prosecute “illegal and clandestine security bodies that commit crimes against fundamental human rights.” During its twelve-year mandate, CICIG made great strides in prosecuting organized criminals and violations of rights. Its investigators prosecuted 96 cases involving everything from murder of journalists to environmental fraud and pollution. The vast majority of these cases, including the one against Ms. Torres, were referred through FECI for prosecution by the Public Ministry.

Seen as effective and good for Guatemala, CICIG’s mandate was renewed five times until the office made the fatal mistake of investigating President Morales himself. He subsequently blocked further renewals leaving CICIG’s mandate to expire last Tuesday, the day after Ms. Torres’s arrest. Perhaps recognizing its mandate was nearing an end, CICIG filed the case against Torres in April 2019 after she had already began her campaign. Extraordinarily, the complaint noted that as a candidate for President, she was already immune from prosecution. Now that CICIG’s mandate has indeed expired, FECI is left to prosecute an already sensitive case without a co-plaintiff.

Electoral Illness

The health of Guatemala’s electoral system hangs in the balance. Prior to the end of its mandate, CICIG seemed to have worn out its welcome with some of the country’s power brokers. Though President Morales and President-elect Giammattei have stayed relatively silent on the arrest of their former opponent, neither was supportive of CICIG’s mandate and are unlikely to view Torres’s arrest as good news for the status quo. Their willingness and ability to influence the outcome of her trial however will depend on their calculations of the political costs involved.

Morales will likely leave it to Giammattei who will have to balance the popularity of both CICIG and Ms. Torres among rural and indigenous Guatemalans, against the temptation to let her take the fall. Doing so could expose anonymous donors that are so influential they still remain anonymous despite all the legal attention the case has brought to their donations. Though the rural poor have some impact on security and electoral success, Giammattei managed to win the Presidency largely without their support in the first place. Campaign donors on the other hand, are likely to be in command of Guatemala’s rapidly developing economy. A defensive move by either constituency could cause a great deal of trouble for the new administration which will have to tread very carefully to find a workable cure for Guatemala’s electoral illness.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC which now has a presence in Guatemala City.

Islands of Conflict: Where Trade and Security Collide

On Tuesday, July 23rd, a combined Sino-Russian air operation nearly sparked a four-way air battle over the Sea of Japan by coming provocatively close to the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands. Sometime in the middle of the day, the Republic of Korea scrambled fighters to intercept a large flight of Russian and Chinese bombers plus fighter escorts and a control aircraft that approached the sensitive airspace. The Korean jets fired warning shots, causing the intruders to change course. A few minutes later however, the package returned and was again intercepted by the Koreans. This time, Japanese fighters also responded, leading to a very dangerous situation and a formal protest from Tokyo. 

Though the scramble of fighters is not uncommon in these waters — Japan did so 390 times in 2017 — the discharge of weapons is a very serious incident, especially over disputed airspace. What remains uncertain however is whether the intrusion was an accident or a deliberate act intended to cause discord between two US allies. Russia initially denied culpability, accusing the Koreans of “hooliganism in the air” and questioning the legitimacy of the Korean air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Later that day however, Moscow blamed it on a technical glitch and promised to launch an investigation. Statements from the Chinese defense ministry on the other hand, contradicted the Russian stance; claiming the flight was executed as planned and insisting their aircraft did not violate Korean air space. Deliberate or not, the incident exposed widening cracks in US-led security arrangements in Northeast Asia and exacerbated a growing trade dispute between Japan and the Republic of Korea.

The Dokdo/Takeshima Islands

The tiny islands called Dokdo by the Republic of Korea and Takeshima by Japan have been an irritant in Japanese-Korean relations since the Second World War. Occupied by Korea but claimed by Japan, the rising economic and military power of Korea in the past 20 years increased the islands’ importance as a symbol of national sovereignty and pride. As a result, the frequency and intensity of squabbles over them also increased. Depending which source one consults, the islands were officially recognized as Korean in the 17th century but annexed by Japan during their colonization of the Korean kingdom beginning in 1905. Though not specifically mentioned in the San Francisco Treaty that ended American occupation of Japan, the islands were mostly forgotten until Korean forces occupied them in 1952 where they remain to this day. Despite recognizing the islands as Japanese, the US-led occupation government (still operating at that time) in Tokyo muted Japanese protests in order to maintain a unified front in Northeast Asia against the rise of Communism there. 

The islands became important again in 1994 when the UN convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) came into force. UNCLOS drastically increased the economic importance of even the smallest of maritime terrain features as states all over the globe used them to delimit the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Since then, Dokdo/Takeshima has become more than just a point of pride, it is the key to some of the world’s best fishing grounds and any other economic riches that may lie within the 200 nautical mile EEZ surrounding it.

The Sino-Russian air operation on Tuesday also touched on how Beijing and Moscow believe boundaries should be drawn and security administered in Northeast Asia. The Korean ADIZ, for example, is not completely recognized by China or Russia, though they have different reasons to dispute the boundaries of that airspace management tool. For its part, China also has territorial disputes with both Japan and Korea in the East China Sea. By ensuring their air patrol also came close to the Socotra Rocks in the East China Sea (disputed with Korea), China and Russia managed to irritate the allies on a number of touch points simultaneously.

Routes followed by Chinese and Russian aircraft on 23 July
The Japanese Ministry of Defense released this map depicting the routes flown by Russian and Chinese aircraft on 23 July. Note their proximity to disputed islands.

Connections

The incident over Dokdo/Takeshima took place at a time when Japan and Korea are involved in an escalating trade dispute. Faced with an upper house election last week and falling tech exports due to the ongoing US-China trade war, Japan tightened its approval process on tech-related chemicals critical to Korean manufacture of memory chips. The Koreans, whose semiconductor industry makes 2/3 of the world’s memory chips for smart phones, accused the Japanese of retaliating for a Korean court decision demanding compensation to victims of forced labor during the Second World War. Japan rejected this claim but took steps to prevent World Trade Organization (WTO) sanctions by invoking national security, citing cases of inappropriate export of the chemicals in question to North Korea. Tokyo then doubled-down on their position by threatening to remove South Korea from a “white list” of countries with whom Japanese companies can trade with minimal oversight. Korea argues, with some justification, such a move would have devastating impact on the global supply chain that supports smart phone manufacture.

All these complex escalations took place in the two weeks leading up to the incident at Dokdo/Takeshima. Whether or not Japanese trade sanctions and the Korean responses to them are actually connected to ongoing disputes over wartime labor or a tiny set of islands, the dangerous incident in the skies over the Sea of Japan puts the convergence of all this disruptive maneuvering into a very disturbing context. If nothing else, it highlights the connections between politics, trade, and security in Northeast Asia. To the extent this was the intent of Russia and China, it will be interesting to see whether the United States plays a constructive role in cooling the temperature amid its own contentious trade disputes in the region. 


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC

El Salvador’s Combative New President Faces A Perilous Balancing Act

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

With a style and pedigree different from that of his modern predecessors, El Salvador’s new president came out swinging against the status quo almost as soon as his inauguration ended on June 1. Nayib Bukele’s supporters see his willingness to break with politics as usual as a sign that El Salvador may finally shake off the lingering vestiges of its 1980-1992 civil war. Until now, every Salvadoran president has been associated with one of the main protagonists in that brutal conflict, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Part of Bukele’s appeal is that he represents a break with the past, but change will come at a price in one of the world’s most violent countries. Unbalancing power dynamics too quickly in El Salvador could provoke a violent and destabilizing response.

A Hard Place

El Salvador is a tough place to govern. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and most of its people are poor. The country’s gross domestic product per capita is a paltry $3,900, and fully 29 percent of Salvadorans survive on half that amount. The economy is rooted in resource extraction, which is vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. It is also heavily dependent on remittances from overseas, which account for 21.3 percent of GDP. Years of expensive infrastructure development and high levels of corruption have left El Salvador with a debt-to-GDP ratio that averages around $2,550 per person — a high number that will have serious consequences if it remains unchecked.

Though the economics of governance in El Salvador seem daunting, violence is perhaps a more urgent problem. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 50.3 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2018. The country is home to some of the world’s most notorious gangs. When organizations like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 fight over territory, the resultant violence interrupts development and corrupts politics at every level. Inadequate funding and limited resources hamper the ability of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) to respond effectively to the threat. Though the PNC has respectable investigating arms, it lacks the confidence of the population. The justice system is in even worse shape. Judges and prosecutors who manage to avoid corruption are often intimidated. The prison system is underfunded and overcrowded, with some facilities operating at 320 percent capacity. Inmates in overcrowded prisons eventually establish their own order, turning what is meant to be a physical manifestation of state power into a secure communications and operations base for the gangs.

Breaking Rocks

Bukele will find it difficult to achieve prosperity for El Salvador while breaking with political tradition. Though he won the presidency with a resounding majority, FMLN and ARENA still dominate the Legislative Assembly, holding a combined 60 of the 84 seats. Bukele will need to act in a cooperative manner, yet so far he shows little inclination to do so. Little more than a week into his presidency, he accused the FMLN of funding gangs to destabilize his government. He followed that explosive statement with another, threatening to “attack the criminality” of the FMLN’s senior officials. Though observers of Salvadoran politics say this is not a new phenomenon, acknowledging it in such a public way is not something a Salvadoran president has done before.

The Legislative Assembly is not the only institution uncomfortable with Bukele’s new approach. Leading families and their associates, so accustomed to wielding influence in El Salvador, have found themselves on the receiving end of termination notices delivered via Twitter. The social media-savvy Bukele used Twitter to announce the firing of 30 relatives and associates of former President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the FMLN. They are already pushing back, calling the firings an abuse of power and preparing lawsuits that could cause leadership crises in the agencies involved.

More dramatically perhaps, Bukele’s first order of business as president was to order the army — again via Twitter — to remove the name of Col. Domingo Monterrosa from its 3rd Infantry Brigade barracks in San Miguel. Monterrosa was the commander of the forces responsible for the infamous El Mozote massacre during El Salvador’s civil war. That incident claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 villagers accused by the army of sympathizing with FMLN guerillas. The massacre played a central role in the negotiations that ended El Salvador’s civil war because the army insisted on amnesty as a condition for peace. Since then, the army has honored Monterrosa as a hero. Though the army acquiesced to Bukele’s demand, it is unclear what the president’s relationship with the military will be going forward.

Striking the Balance

Without a legislative majority or support from the oligarchy or the army, Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador. His critics in ARENA and particularly in the FMLN, a party he once belonged to, know how to attack him. They’ve highlighted some of his expensive failures as mayor of San Salvador and pointed out that despite his attacks on cronyism and corruption, Bukele appointed dozens of relatives and associates to take the place of those he’s fired. Though he commands the support of a growing majority of Salvadoran voters, he could quickly lose their adoration if FMLN pays the gangs to destabilize the country as he claims.

Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador.

Bukele’s combative approach to entrenched interests in El Salvador may win him the support of the voters but it leaves him with few allies in his quest to change his country’s reputation for violence and backwardness. Though he’s burning bridges at home, the right foreign backers may allow him to attract enough investment and maintain enough security to address his serious fiscal and political concerns, but this is far from assured. Recognizing this, he is rearranging some of El Salvador’s traditional alignments in ways that will appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration. For example, Bukele declined to invite the leaders of Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela to his inauguration, telling President Nicolas Maduro to “say goodbye” to Venezuela’s alliance with El Salvador. Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s focus on Central American migrants makes the United States a challenging partner.

However, the United States is not the only superpower with interests in the region. China also wields significant economic influence over El Salvador’s foreign policy. After some early suggestions he may reestablish relations with Taiwan, Bukele reaffirmed his country’s “complete” and “established” relations with China on June 27 and said his government would look “wherever we have to look” to develop El Salvador. While it is unclear what caused him to seemingly change his stance, the best Bukele can hope for in these circumstances is to provoke a developmental bidding war between China and the United States — a balance few leaders have been able to manage.

Ultimately, Bukele has a choice to make. The climate in San Salvador is not conducive to establishing populist dominance over his rivals and unless he finds a way to cooperate with his country’s other power brokers, El Salvador is on course for gridlock and pain. If Bukele fails, he may find it difficult to contain a violent reaction against him and his supporters, a consequence that could cause a deterioration in security in the wider region. The extent to which he can manage the balancing act between the will of the people, the vested interests of his still powerful rivals and the desires of global stakeholders to move El Salvador forward may ultimately be the central feature of his presidency.


Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He is a regular contributor to Stratfor’s Worldview.