All posts by Mike Allison

Protests rattle Nicaragua

Ten Nicaraguans have been killed and over 100 injured since Wednesday in "clashes between police and opponents of changes to the pension system." Nicaraguans protesting the government's decision to increase worker contributions to their pensions while simultaneously decreasing the benefits of those pensions.  According to the New York Times, students from the public universities and retirees have made up the majority of the protesters.

Electoral shenanigans, moderate economic growth, low levels of crime and insecurity, Ortega's cult of personality, a fractured opposition, and the selective use of repression have provided relatively stability to Nicaragua even as the country's democratic political system disintegrated.

Longtime Nicaragua-watcher Tim Rogers has a sense that today's protests are somehow different from those of earlier years, particularly those of 2009.
But this week's street protests have revealed a chink in Ortega's armor. Suddenly, his control over the country—and even Sandinismo—is being challenged like never before. Students from universities that have been bastions of Sandinista strength are now leading the pushback against Ortega's government. Sandinista revolutionaries in the heroic town of Monimbó, the cradle of insurrection in the 1970s, clashed wildly with pro-government forces in a block-by-block street fight on Thursday afternoon.
The situation now threatens to get entirely out of hand. Events are happening fast—almost too fast for the country to fully comprehend. Sometimes history lurches forward after years of stasis. Nicaraguans have lived through it before. Some think it's happening again.
While the Ortega government says that it is open to dialogue, its rhetoric has rejected the legitimacy of the protesters' concerns. Vice-President Rosario Murillo has said that the protesters are being manipulated and she has blamed the violence on "vampires" and "tiny groups that inflame and destabilize to destroy Nicaragua." While it is early, the regime's survival is at stake. Murillo's statement seems to make that crystal clear.

Salvadoran journalist murdered

According to authorities, Salvadoran journalist Karla Lisseth Turcios was kidnapped and killed on Saturday. Turcios worked for El Economista, which is part of La Prensa Grafica media group. 

A motive for the attack is not yet clear. Prosecutors are pursuing three hypotheses for her murder but have not made those hypotheses public. However, police chief Howard Cotto does not believe that her journalistic work was related to her murder. 

Turcios' husband said that he and his son had left her at home around 12:30 pm Saturday afternoon. Her body was found along the side of the road in Santa Ana hours later.

Salvadoran journalists have been on the receiving end of numerous death threats in recent years and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalist, three Salvadoran journalists have been murdered since 1992 - one each in 1993, 2009, and 2011. 

The new attack dogs of Guatemala’s elites: Net Centers

Technology can be used as a force for democratization when it allows citizens to become more aware of their elected officials and candidates' work and when it provides them with new opportunities for civic engagement. However, two stories out of Latin America have demonstrated the use of modern technology to undermine democracy in countries like Guatemala, countries that were already struggling to deepen democracy. The first article came from 2016's coverage of Andrés Sepúlveda's alleged effort to rig elections throughout Latin America.
Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small—mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.
His teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela. Campaigns mentioned in this story were contacted through former and current spokespeople; none but Mexico’s PRI and the campaign of Guatemala’s National Advancement Party would comment.
An update of sorts to the election rigging comes from Danielle Mackey and Cora Currier for The Intercept with The Rise of the Net Center: How an Army of Trolls Protects Guatemala’s Corrupt Elite.
It was the Guatemalan version of a form of information warfare now familiar the world over, with a homegrown name: the net center. Interviews conducted in Guatemala with researchers, journalists, activists, and other sources, as well as reports in the Guatemalan press, show how net centers are now used routinely and relentlessly to harass and intimidate opponents of Guatemala’s entrenched elite. They also reveal what precious little intelligence has been gleaned on the ground about these shadowy operations, which leave little or no paper trail and which appear to operate with protection from the nation’s powerful business interests, long allied with the military.
Details vary, but net centers often involve dozens of young men managing hundreds of fabricated accounts, are often attached to more conventional online marketing businesses based in Guatemala City — and usually operate on behalf of the far right. The name net center is a riff on “call center,” which is a big business in Guatemala, especially for English-speaking deportees from the U.S. The ultimate funding of the net centers remains murky, but they’ve come to stand for the latest technologically-enabled iteration of Guatemala’s long experience with violent campaigns to crush democratic organizing. And despite the fact that well under half the country’s population is online, the falsehoods still quickly contaminate the broader public discourse, observers say.
According to Mackey and Currier, the targets of the net centers are usually journalists and activists. Nomada and Martín Rodríguez Pellecer have had their Facebook and Twitter accounts hacked.

In the 1950s, the US sought to destabilize Guatemala through a disinformation campaign using radio and mass distribution of pamphlets. The activities laid the groundwork for the 1954 invasion. During the civil war, the Guatemalan military spread dangerous rumors about foreign agitators who were allegedly organizing the guerrillas. These efforts to discredit foreigners escalated in the 1980s and 1990s to involve robachicos. Blonde-haired foreigners were not just guerrilla leaders, but they were now there to steal babies. Talking to foreigners, whether they were aid workers or journalists, could get you killed and your babies taken.

Separating fact from fiction in Guatemala has never been easy. The country's political, economic, and military elites have used that knowledge to protect themselves, with the use of net centers their most recent tool.

Carlos Alvarado wins presidency in Costa Rica

On Sunday, Costa Ricans went to the polls to select an Alvarado as their next president. In the end, Carlos Alvarado defeated Fabricio Alvarado in an upset. With 95 percent of the vote in, novelist and former government minister of the incumbent party Carlos Alvarado Quesada leads with 61 percent of the vote counted.

Pre-election polls had given evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado a lead. Fabricio had launched into the lead as a result of his opposition to gay marriage, leading to a flurry of articles about upstart conservative politicians in the region.

As president, Carlos Alvarado will need to address "a soaring deficit, high unemployment, an increase in homicides and allegations of government corruption."