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Posts tagged ‘Latin America’

Mexico: Latin America’s second-largest economy lags in digital accessibility.

Barely 17 percent of Mexicans have internet access at home, compared to 40 percent of Chileans. High costs are in part blamed for this digital divide.

Of all the numbers that demonstrate Mexico’s persistent inequality, the digital divide is one of the more surprising.

There are fewer than 41 million Internet users in Mexico, a country of more than 112 million people. That’s a connectivity rate of just 36 percent in Latin America’s second-largest economy.

Barely 17 percent have Internet access at home, according to the latest figures of the Americas Barometer, a survey by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion. Although the digital divide – the gap between those who can afford access and those who can’t – has narrowed in recent years, progress has been slow and Mexico still finds itself well below its peers.

More than 40 percent of Chileans have Internet at home, according to the barometer. Brazil ranks second with a home connectivity rate above 38 percent. Sixteen Latin American countries fare better than Mexico, including all ofCentral America.

RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Mexico? Take our quiz.

Many observers blame the high cost of broadband in Mexico – and the telecommunications dominance of billionaire Carlos Slim. (Yesterday, Mr. Slim was named Forbes’ richest man in the world for the fourth consecutive year.) His companies, including Telmex, control nearly three-quarters of Mexico’s broadband connections, according to Jeffrey Puryear, vice president for social policy at the Inter-American Dialogue. Fast access in Mexico costs almost twice as much as it does inChile.

Earlier this year, Slim announced he would invest $300 million in connectivity, digital libraries, and equipment for schools, as well as translations of Khan Academy online courses into Spanish. Telmex says its digital libraries will “create opportunities for development and education,” giving needy students access to 21st century tools.

The libraries mimic the free “cyber centers” Mexico City provides in metro stations as well as the work of nonprofits like Fundación Proacceso, whose network of “innovation and learning centers” offers access and free courses in marginalized communities.

Many have lauded Slim’s gift, but Mr. Puryear notes that the high cost still remains the heart of the issue.

“The most effective step that Carlos Slim could take to give poor children greater access to online courses would be to share his near-monopoly in telecommunications,” Puryear said in a recent Inter-American Dialogue newsletter.

The digital divide in Mexico has far-reaching consequences for education, too. As Mexico struggles to overhaul its education system – beginning with a major constitutional reform last week – it will be hard-pressed to close inequality gaps as long as only some students have access to digital tools.

The digital divide did narrow in recent years in Mexico, if only slightly. The number of users rose 14 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the latest figures from the Mexican Internet Association, or AMIPCI. Connectivity has been bolstered by a boom in smartphones, whose use doubled over the same period.

Still, Mexico has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to the rest of Latin America – and not get left behind in the Information Age.


By Lauren Villagran | Christian Science Monitor

Ecuador’s Correa breezes to 2nd re-election.


  • Supporters of Ecuador's President and candidate for re-election Rafael Correa gather to celebrate after presidential elections in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. Although official results had still not been released, Correa celebrated his second re-election as Ecuador's president after an exit poll showed him leading by a wide margin. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)View PhotoSupporters of Ecuador’s President …
  • Supporters of Ecuador's President and candidate for re-election Rafael Correa gather to celebrate after presidential elections in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. Although official results had still not been released, Correa celebrated his second re-election as Ecuador's president after an exit poll showed him leading by a wide margin. (AP Photo/Dominique Riofrio)View PhotoSupporters of Ecuador’s President …

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — A landslide second re-election secured, President Rafael Correa immediately vowed to deepen the “citizen’s revolution” that has lifted tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans out of poverty as he expanded the welfare state.

“In this revolution the citizens are in charge, not capital,” the leftist U.S.-trained economist said after winning 56.9 percent of the vote Sunday against 23.8 percent for his closest challenger, longtime banker Guillermo Lasso.

With 57 percent of the vote counted, former President Lucio Gutierrez finished third with 6 percent. The remainder was divided among five other candidates. Lasso conceded defeat late Sunday.

The fiery-tongued Correa has brought surprising stability to an oil-exporting nation of 14.6 million with a history of unruliness that cycled through seven presidents in the decade before him.

With the help of oil prices that have hovered around $100 a barrel, he has raised lower-class living standards and widened the welfare state with region-leading social spending.

The 48-year-old Correa dedicated his victory to his cancer-stricken friend President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who some analysts have suggested he could succeed as the standard-bearer of Latin America‘s left.

“We are only here to serve you. Nothing for us. Everything for you,” Correa told cheering supporters from the balcony of the Carondelet presidential palace Sunday shortly after polls closed.

Yet Correa has also drawn wide rebuke for intolerance of dissent and some analysts have questioned how sustainable his economic policies are. The number of people working for the government has burgeoned from 16,000 to 90,000 during Correa’s current term if office, Ecuador’s nongovernmental Observatory of Fiscal Policy reported in December.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, called Correa’s ramping up of social spending “simply applying the standard recipe for many populist governments in the region.” While it succeeds in building political support in the short term, he said, it is not clear whether it is sustainable.

And while Correa has shown himself to be the “undisputed rhetorical leader of Latin America’s left” — and should now see his standing enhanced there — Shifter said Correa’s consolidation of power have damaged Ecuador’s “already precarious institutions” and he lacks the clout, the ambition and the coffers to build a coalition that could curtail U.S. power in the region.

Correa’s result Sunday easily topped the 51.7 percent that he won in his first re-election in April 2009. He is barred by the constitution from another 4-year term.

While a practitioner of one-man rule in the Chavez mold, he is more respectful of private property.

Ecuador relies on petroleum for more than half of its export earnings, and he has used this oil wealth to make public education and health care more accessible, and lay thousands of kilometers (miles) of new highways.

Foreign investment has suffered, however, and Lasso, the former head of the Banco de Guayaquil, ran on a platform of guaranteeing multinational businesses more favorable terms, such as abolishing a 5 percent tax on capital removed from Ecuador.

Correa said he’s happy to have more foreign investment but “it’s better not to have it than to mortgage the country in the name of that pipe dream called foreign investment.”

He did not explain, meanwhile, how he planned to pay for efforts to “quicken and deepen” poverty reduction. Skeptical economists say the state can’t afford it without major new revenue sources.

Such talk doesn’t dim the enthusiasm for Correa of the likes of Jomaira Espinosa.

“Before (Correa), my family didn’t have enough to eat” and her father couldn’t find work, the 18-year-old said. Now her father has a job as a public servant and she expects to be able to study for free at a university thanks to Correa’s programs.

Since Correa took office in 2007, the United Nations says Ecuador’s poverty rate has dropped nearly five percentage points to 32.4 percent. In all, 1.9 million people receive $50 a month in aid from the state. Critics complain that the handouts to single mothers, needy families and the elderly poor, along with other subsidies, have bloated the government.

Civil liberties, meantime, have suffered.

Correa has been widely condemned for using criminal libel law against opposition news media and for such strong-arm tactics as seizing Ecuador’s airwaves virtually at will to spread his political gospel and attack opponents.

German Calapucha, a 29-year-old accountant, said he voted against Correa because he’s tired of the president’s imperiousness.

“He thinks that because he wins elections he has the right to mistreat people,” Calapucha said.

Correa has eroded the influence not just of opposition political parties but also of the Roman Catholic Church and independent news media. He has stacked courts with friendly judges and prosecuted indigenous leaders for organizing protests against Correa’s attempt to open up Ecuador to large-scale mining without their consent.

Meanwhile, Correa has been unable to stop a growing sensation of vulnerability in a country where robberies and burglaries grew 30 percent in 2012 compared with the previous year.

The graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gained an early reputation as a maverick, defying international financiers by defaulting on $3.9 billion in foreign debt obligations and rewriting contracts with oil multinationals to secure a higher share of oil revenues for Ecuador.

He has also kept the United States at arm’s length while upsetting Britain and Sweden in August by granting asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the online spiller of leaked U.S. government secrets who is wanted for questioning in Sweden for alleged sexual assault.

Correa has, meanwhile, cozied up to U.S. rivals Iran and China. The latter is the biggest buyer of Ecuador’s oil and holds $3.4 billion in Ecuadorean debt, according to Finance Minister Patricio Rivera.


Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru



Pope, near abdication, says pray “for me and next pope”.


  • Followers flock to hear pope’s penultimate AngelusReuters Videos  1:18Thousands fill Saint Peter’s Square to hear one of Pope Benedict’s final addresses ahead of his abdication …


VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict asked the faithful to pray for him and for the next pope, in his penultimate Sunday address to a crowded St. Peter’s Square before becoming the first pontiff in centuries to resign.

The crowd chanted “Long live the pope!,” waved banners and broke into sustained applause as he spoke from his window. The 85-year-old Benedict, who will abdicate on February 28, thanked them in several languages.

Speaking in Spanish, he told the crowd which the Vatican said numbered more than 50,000: “I beg you to continue praying for me and for the next pope”.

It was not clear why the pope chose Spanish to make the only specific reference to his upcoming resignation in his Sunday address.

A number of cardinals have said they would be open to the possibility of a pope from the developing world, be it Latin America, Africa or Asia, as opposed to another from Europe, where the Church is crisis and polarized.

“I can imagine taking a step towards a black pope, an African pope or a Latin American pope,” Cardinal Kurt Koch, a Swiss Vatican official who will enter the conclave to choose the next pope, told Reuters in an interview.

After his address, the pope retired into the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace for a scheduled, week-long spiritual retreat and will not make any more public appearances until next Sunday.

Speaking in Italian in part of his address about Lent, the period when Christians reflect on their failings and seek guidance in prayer, the pope spoke of the difficulty of making important decisions.

“In decisive moments of life, or, on closer inspection, at every moment in life, we are at a crossroads: do we want to follow the ‘I’, or God? The individual interest, or the real good, that which is really good?” he said.


The pope has said his physical and spiritual forces are no longer strong enough to sustain him in the job of leading the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics at a time of crisis for the Church in a fast-changing world.

Benedict’s papacy was rocked by crises over the sex abuse of children by priests in Europe and the United States, most of which preceded his time in office but came to light during it.

His reign also saw Muslim anger after he compared Islam to violence. Jews were upset over his rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier. During a scandal over the Church’s business dealings, his butler was convicted of leaking his private papers.

Since his shock announcement last Monday, the pope has said several times that he made the difficult decision to become the first pope in more than six centuries to resign for the good of the Church. Aides said he was at peace with himself.

“In a funny way he is even more peaceful now with this decision, unlike the rest of us, he is not somebody who gets choked up really easily,” said Greg Burke, a senior media advisor to the Vatican.

“I think that has a lot to do with his spiritual life and who he is and the fact he is such a prayerful man,” Burke told Reuters Television.

People in the crowd said the pope was a shadow of the man he was when elected on April 19, 2005.

“Like always, recently, he seemed tired, moved, perplexed, uncertain and insecure,” said Stefan Malabar, an Italian in St. Peter’s Square.

“It’s something that really has an effect on you because the pope should be a strong and authoritative figure but instead he seems very weak, and that really struck me,” he said.

The Vatican has said the conclave to choose his successor could start earlier than originally expected, giving the Roman Catholic Church a new leader by mid-March.

Some 117 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to enter the secretive conclave which, according to Church rules, has to start between 15 and 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant, which it will on February 28.

But since the Church is now dealing with an announced resignation and not a sudden death, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Vatican would be “interpreting” the law to see if it could start earlier.


Cardinals around the world have already begun informal consultations by phone and email to construct a profile of the man they think would be best suited to lead the Church in a period of continuing crisis.

The Vatican appears to be aiming to have a new pope elected and then formally installed before Palm Sunday on March 24 so he can preside at Holy Week services leading to Easter.

New details emerged at the weekend about Benedict’s health.

Peter Seewald, a German journalist who wrote a book with the pope in 2010 in which Benedict first floated the possibility of resigning, visited him again about 10 weeks ago.

“His hearing had deteriorated. He couldn’t see with his left eye. His body had become so thin that the tailors had difficulty in keeping up with newly fitted clothes … I’d never seen him so exhausted-looking, so worn down,” Seewald said.

The pope will say one more Sunday noon prayer on February 24 and hold a final general audience on February 27.

The next day he will take a helicopter to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, where he will stay for around two months before moving to a convent inside the Vatican where he will live out his remaining years.

(Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)


By Philip Pullella | Reuters

Ecuador’s political juggernaut faces re-election.

  • People attend a rally of Ecuador's President and candidate for re-election Rafael Correa, next to an image of him, right, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Presidential elections in Ecuador are scheduled for Feb. 17. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

    View PhotoAssociated Press/Dolores Ochoa – People attend a rally of Ecuador’s President and candidate for re-election Rafael Correa, next to an image of him, right, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Presidential …more 


  • Ecuador's President and candidate for re-election Rafael Correa, second from the left, and vice presidential candidate Jorge Glass, third from the left, greet supporters during a rally in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Presidential elections in Ecuador are scheduled for Feb. 17. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)View PhotoEcuador’s President and candidate …
  • People attend a rally of Ecuador's President and candidate for re-election Rafael Correa, not in picture, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Presidential elections in Ecuador are scheduled for Feb. 17. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)View PhotoPeople attend a rally of Ecuador’s …

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — On a campaign stage, Rafael Correa is a dancing, singing, swirling tornado of energy. Ecuador’s president doesn’t make promises. He’s way past that.

With characteristic bravado, Correa instead reminds the enthusiastic crowd in a northern Quito suburb of the nearly 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) of highway he’s improved, of the schools and hospitals built during his six years in office.

Loathed by civil libertarians and free-market champions, but embraced by beneficiaries of state largesse, the leftist economist appears ready to coast to a second re-election on Sunday.

Correa, 48, has brought political stability to a traditionally unruly nation that cycled through seven presidents in a decade, from 1997-2007. If re-elected, this four-year term will be his last unless the constitution is changed.

Correa’s “21st-century socialism” is a tamer variation of that practiced by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Yet Correa has been just as intolerant of dissent as Chavez, keeping a tight lid on public discourse and the press.

Meanwhile, Correa has overseen Latin America‘s most generous public spending regime, keeping his support high by introducing low-interest mortgage for new homeowners, state-bankrolled study abroad and welfare payments that now reach nearly one in five Ecuadoreans.

The bulk of his backers are poor and lower-middle class Ecuadoreans who in 2010 represented 37 and 40 percent, respectively, of the country’s population according to the World Bank.

Correa doesn’t take those supporters for granted.

Every Saturday and a few nights a week, Correa pre-empts commercial TV and radio stations to spread his “citizen’s revolution” and verbally skewer his “oligarch” enemies. It’s the kind of prerogative of power wielded regularly by Chavez’s government and Argentina‘s president, Cristina Fernandez.

Opposition journalists, meanwhile, have been slapped with criminal libel charges for calling Correa a dictator. Indigenous leaders have been prosecuted for sabotage for protesting the government’s refusal to consult with native peoples over water rights and its insistence on opening Ecuador to large-scale precious metals mining.

Correa has set back the rule of law two decades by packing the courts with loyalists and politicizing them, said Grace Jaramillo, an Ecuadorean political scientist studying in Canada.

“Without an independent judiciary, anyone who opposes the government runs the risk of becoming prey,” Jaramillo said.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International say Correa has criminalized peaceful protest. Yet only a handful of activists could be considered political prisoners, and they get scant local attention.

The media instead has focused most of its attention on Correa as the number of news organizations in state hands has grown under his leadership from just one, Radio Nacional, to five television stations, four radio stations, two newspapers and four magazines.

Correa also typically draws a lot of attention from supporters, with a crowd of 5,000 fixated on the tall, dynamic leader at the January rally in northern Quito.

“Do you want the old country of school and hospital strikes to return?” the president asked in a typical call-and-response exchange. “Do you want a country run by the very people who ruined the country?

“Nooooooooooooo,” they replied.

“You know that here are the people who have always kept their promises, who will never fail you,” Correa said.

Veronica Bermudez, a 53-year-old housewife at the rally, is among the enthusiastic supporters.

“He gives us money. He gives us free health care. He worries about the education of our kids,” she said. “How can I not love him?”

In all, 1.9 million people receive $50 a month from the state: single mothers, the elderly poor and needy families. Children get free school supplies and uniforms. Medical care at public hospitals, including medicine, is free for poor people.

The state handouts have helped keep Correa’s popularity rating high. Currently, it stands at 56 percent.

Heading into the election, opinion polls show Correa leading a field of seven candidates with at least 40 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Guillermo Lasso, has not achieved 20 percent support.

Lasso, who stepped down as executive president of the Banco de Guayaquil to run against Correa, says he would lower taxes on job-creating companies and abolish a 5 percent tax on capital removed from Ecuador, one of a slew of tax reforms enacted under Correa that has discouraged foreign investors and weakened banks.

But at the same time, unemployment has dropped from 9.82 percent when Correa took office in January 2007 to 4.71 percent in November, the latest statistics available. Economic growth, meanwhile, registered 5.2 percent last year.

Oil prices hovering around $100 a barrel have been a blessing for Ecuador, where petroleum resources have accounted for more than half of the country’s export earnings in recent years.

Petroleum revenues have contributed $5 billion a year, or 20 percent, to the national budget.

That allowed Ecuador to lead the region in 2011 in public spending as a portion of gross domestic product at 11.1 percent, according to the U.N., with Bolivia following at 10.8 percent.

While spending on social programs has kept many Ecuadoreans happy, Correa has been dogged by an inability to ease an increasing sense of vulnerability to crime.

And he has been criticized by rights groups including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for blunting the influence of opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church and the banking industry after pushing through a 2008 constitutional rewrite that let him overhaul the government.

An additional law barred private news media owners from owning stakes in other industries.

A virulent critic of bankers whose profligacy led Ecuador to near ruin in the late 1990s, Correa has also defied international financiers, defaulting on $3.9 billion in foreign debt obligations after taking office.

He has also kept the United States at an arm’s length, and upset Britain and Sweden in August by granting asylum at Ecuador’s London embassy to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the online spiller of leaked U.S. government secrets who is wanted for questioning in Sweden for alleged sexual assault.

Correa has chosen instead to cozy up to U.S. rivals Iran and China, the latter of which is Ecuador’s chief oil purchaser and holds $3.4 billion in Ecuadorean debt, according to Finance Minister Patricio Rivera.

Correa’s only serious crisis has been domestic: A one-day Sept. 2010 revolt by police over an attempt to trim their benefits. At least 12 people were killed, and Correa was rescued by army commandos from a hospital where he had been ringed by insurgent officers.

The enduring image of that day was of Correa, standing at a window and baring his chest to the police, daring them to kill him.

Such boldness has helped cement his popularity among people such as Manuel Sigcha, a 26-year-old Quito kabob vendor.

“He is the best president we’ve had in my lifetime,” said Sigcha. “I will vote for Correa until I die because he’s the only one who has remembered the poor, the only one who has done things for the poor.”


Gonzalo Solano on Twitter:


By GONZALO SOLANO | Associated Press

Who’s in the Running for Pope? 12 Names to Watch.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan
Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden announcement that he would resign by the end of the month took the church and the world by surprise, in large part because it was a move without precedent in the modern world.

But what comes next is as old and familiar as the papacy itself: Speculating about who will succeed to the Throne of St. Peter.

Indeed, within months of Benedict’s own election in 2005, church insiders and online oddsmakers were trying to figure out who might be next, given that Benedict—now 85—was already aging, increasingly frail, and had himself declared that he did not expect his reign to be a long one.

So what will happen when the world’s cardinals gather before the splendor of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope? Who are the “papabile,” as the Italians say, the “pope-able” cardinals?

Will the conclave make the epochal break with the European monopoly and pick a cardinal from Latin America or Africa? The Catholic Church is booming in the Southern Hemisphere, as opposed to Europe and North America, where it is on life-support or barely treading water.

“In my eyes it would be a good thing if a candidate from Latin America or Africa were elected at the next conclave,” Cardinal Kurt Koch, a Swiss prelate who is the Vatican’s top official for dialogue with other churches, said in December.

The future of the church “does not lie in Europe,” Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, a German who Benedict tapped last year to serve as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, said in a separate interview in December. “I know a number of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the entire world Church.”

Age is also a consideration: Will the conclave look to a younger cardinal? The last decade of John Paul II’s reign was focused on his declining health, to the point that it was almost a death watch, and Benedict’s tenure has always been as much about his age as his policies.

Here is a look at some of the candidates whose names have been discussed, publicly and privately, in recent months, and their chances.

An Obama for the Papacy?

Catholicism in Africa is booming, and the idea of an African pope has long captured the imagination of many inside and outside the church. A pope from Africa would be such a visible sign of change in an institution that marks time in centuries, and yet it would also be a return to the church’s roots in the Middle East and northern Africa, where it flourished in the early centuries. It would be a clear bet on the church’s future.

If the cardinals in the conclave turn to an African, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana seems most likely to get the nod. Turkson is a media-friendly, multilingual 64-year-old who has the requisite Roman experience and connections, having served as head of Benedict’s Justice and Peace Council–sort of the Vatican’s human rights commission–since 2009.

At the time of his Vatican appointment, Turkson was asked whether he thought the time was right for a black pope, given that America had its first black president in Barack Obama. “Why not?” Turkson replied. But Turkson has also made impolitic statements about Islam, which many view as the great threat facing African Christianity, and some think the time is still not ripe for a pope from the continent.

An Italian Restoration?

The Italians view the papal throne as their birthright, and having lent it to a Pole and now a German for 35 years, many say it’s time for an Italian Restoration. The favorite among the Italians would beCardinal Angelo Scola, 70, the Archbishop of Milan. Milan has traditionally been a stepping stone for future popes, and Scola, often associated with the conservative Communion and Liberation movement, is a favorite of Benedict’s.

Scola is an intellectual, but also open to the media. Asked in October 2003 by CNN to identify the main challenge facing the church, Scola said the principal one was the “fracture” between the church and contemporary culture.

Other Italian options are Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 69, the strong-willed head of the Italian bishops since 2007. Bagnasco is close to Benedict and has learned to navigate the treacherous waters of both church and worldly powers. Or there is Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 69, an affable scholar who peppers almost every sentence with quotations from a staggering array of classical and modern writers and philosophers. He lacks international standing, however, and has never headed a large diocese.

A Papal Samba? Or a Tango?

Latin America is home to the greatest concentration of Catholics in the world, and Brazil has the most baptized Catholics of any country. Rio de Janeiro is  hosting World Youth Day, a huge Catholic jamboree that the pope traditionally presides over, this July. It could also be a homecoming of sorts if the cardinals choose Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, currently archbishop of Sao Paolo. The arguments are strong: Scherer, 62, is a German-Brazilian who has headed the largest diocese in the world’s largest Catholic country since 2007, and he studied and worked in Rome.

But Scherer could have some in-house competition from Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 65, who has headed the Vatican’s congregation that oversees the world’s religious orders of priests and nuns since January 2011. He has curial credentials but also  showed he wanted to change the way Rome managed its relations with religious men and women worldwide, aiming at dialogue and collaboration rather than confrontation.

Then there is Cardinal Leonardo Sandri. If the cardinals want to turn to a Latin American without leaving Rome, they could pick Sandri. He’s an Argentine, yes, but since 2000 he has been in the Roman curia, the papal bureaucracy, and is considered the ultimate Roman insider. He would be seen as a “safe pair of hands” to steer the church in difficult times and restore order to the Curia. The lack of experience at the head of a large diocese could set him back, however, and cardinals who don’t live in Rome – or love Rome, as many don’t–may not be so enamored.

The once bright star of Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 69, has dimmed considerably since the media savvy prelate was the favored Latin American option at the last conclave. Still, he enjoys strong name recognition in the Catholic world.

An Asian Tiger?

Asia is a small but potent source of growth and strength for the Catholic Church. Of all the bishops in this diverse continent, one stands out: Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila in the Philippines. At 55, he is something of a “baby bishop,” and he would be the youngest pope in centuries. But Tagle is very appealing: smiling, humble and perceptive, Tagle impressed many of his fellow bishops during the 2012 Synod on New Evangelization in Rome. He called for a more humble church that puts more effort in listening to its flock; just a few days later, Benedict made him a cardinal. Tagle–who studied at Catholic University of America in Washington – has also taken a strong approach to the sexual abuse crisis, warning his fellow bishops from Asia that they must not dismiss it as a Western phenomenon.

Still, his relative youth, and his brief experience as the head of a major diocese (he was appointed to Manila in 2011), will probably make him an outsider in this conclave.

The Dark Horse?

Everyone loves a long shot—the dark horse who comes out of nowhere to win by a nose. And even the cardinals do the unexpected at times. Could they go with a non-cardinal for the first time in centuries? A popular favorite would be Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. Martin is 67, and spent nearly three decades working in the Roman curia, which gives him serious standing. But he also got the most thankless job in Christendom when John Paul sent him to Dublin a decade ago to clean up the clergy sex abuse scandal and start a reformation in the church. He has done a remarkable job, but has stepped on lots of sensitive toes in the hierarchy, even as he has won the hearts of many Irish Catholics. His outspokenness is seen by many as one reason he’s never won a cardinal’s red hat.


Papal resignation opens door to many contenders.


VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation opens the door to an array of possible successors, from the conservative cardinal of Milan to a contender from Ghana and several Latin Americans. But don’t count on a radical change of course for the Catholic Church: Benedict appointed the majority of cardinals who will choose his successor from within their own ranks.

There’s no clear front-runner, though several leading candidates have been mentioned over the years as “papabile” — or having the qualities of a pope.

So, will the papacy return to Italy, after three decades of a Polish and a German pope? Or does Latin America, which counts some 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, deserve one of their own at the church’s helm?

Will a younger cardinal be considered, now that future popes can feel freer to resign? Or will it again go to an experienced cardinal for another “transitional” papacy?

The 110-plus cardinals who are under age 80 and eligible to vote will weigh all those questions and more when they sequester themselves in the Sistine Chapel next month to choose Benedict’s successor, a conclave that will likely produce a new pope by Easter.

Some said Benedict’s resignation presents an opportunity to turn to Africa or Latin America, where Catholicism is more vibrant.

“Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived,” said Monsignor Antonio Marto, the bishop of Fatima in central Portugal. “You don’t see that in Africa or Latin America, where there is a freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith.”

“Perhaps we need a pope who can look beyond Europe and bring to the entire church a certain vitality that is seen on other continents.”

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa agreed.

“I think we would have a better chance of getting someone outside of the Northern hemisphere this time, because there are some really promising cardinals from other parts of the world,” he said.

Despite that enthusiasm, more than half of those eligible to vote in the College of Cardinals hail from Europe, giving the continent an edge even though there’s no rule that cardinals vote according to their geographic blocs.

It’s also likely the next pope won’t radically alter the church’s course, though surprises are possible.

“Given the preponderance of cardinals appointed by popes John Paul and Benedict, it is unlikely that the next pope will make many radical changes,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author. “On the other hand, the papacy can change a man, and the Holy Spirit is always ready to surprise.”

A handful of Italians fit the bill, top among them Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan. Scola is close to Benedict, has a fierce intellect and leads the most important archdiocese in Italy — no small thing given that Italians still dominate the College of Cardinals.

On Monday, Scola, 71, donned his bishops’ miter and appeared in Milan’s Duomo to praise Benedict’s “absolutely extraordinary faith and humility.”

“This decision, even though it fills us with surprise — and at first glance it leaves us with many questions — will be, as he said, for the good of the church,” Scola said.

Other leading Italians include Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s culture office and another intellectual heavyweight who quotes Hegel and Neitzsche as easily, and almost as frequently, as the Gospels. He has climbed into the spotlight with his “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project, an initiative to enter into dialogue with the worlds of art, culture and science — and most importantly atheists.

Veteran Vatican analyst John Allen Jr. has labled the 70-year-old Ravasi as quite possibly “the most interesting man in the church.” Raising his profile further: Benedict appointed him to lead the Vatican’s spiritual exercises during Lent, giving Ravasi a visible forum in the weeks leading up to the conclave.

Benedict’s onetime theology student, Viennese Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, 68, has long been considered to have the stuff of a pope — multilingual, affable and, most importantly, Benedict’s blessing.

He has been dealing, however, with a difficulties in Vienna, where a revolt of dissident priests has questioned church teachings on everything from women’s ordination to celibacy for priests. His decision to let a gay Catholic serve on a parish council raised eyebrows among some conservatives, who said the move clearly sealed his fate as too liberal for today’s College of Cardinals.

There are a handful of candidates from Latin America — and by Monday their backers were in full force touting their attributes.

“It’s time for there to be a Latin American pope, because Latin America has the greatest number of Christians,” said the Rev. Juan Angel Lopez, spokesman for the Catholic Church of Honduras. His man, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, however, is considered far too liberal to be elected by such a conservative bloc.

Leading Latin American possibilities include Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, the 63-year-old archbishop of Sao Paulo, and Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 69, head of the Vatican’s office for Eastern rite churches. Sandri earned fame as the “voice” of Pope John Paul II when the pontiff lost the ability to speak because of his Parkinson’s disease.

Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 65, has earned praise as head of the Vatican’s office for religious congregations, even though he’s only held the job since 2011. He has had the difficult task of trying to rebuild trust between the Vatican and religious orders that broke down during his predecessor’s reign.

His deputy took that effort too far in reaching out to U.S. nuns who were the subject of a Vatican doctrinal crackdown, and was subsequently sent back to the U.S.

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana is one of the highest-ranking African cardinals at the Vatican, currently heading the Vatican’s office for justice and peace. But he is prone to gaffes, though, and is considered something of a wild card.

Cardinal Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, is a rising star in the church, but at at 56 and having only been named a cardinal last year, he is considered too young.

North America has a few candidates, though the Americans are considered longshots. These include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Raymond Burke, an arch-conservative and the Vatican’s top judge.

Canadian Cardinal Marc Oeullet is a contender, earning the respect of his colleagues as head of the Vatican’s office for bishops, a tough and important job vetting the world’s bishops.

Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist who studies the church, said no “radical transformation” is expected in the direction of the church and that a “tweak” here and there would be more likely than an overhaul.

“The church obviously is well regarded for its continuity,” Dillon said. “I’m not personally expecting a transformative change, but change is always possible.”


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By NICOLE WINFIELD | Associated Press

Latin America would like a Latin pope, odds slim.

  • FILE - In this Feb. 19, 2012 file photo, Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz is congratulated by a faithful prior to a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican a day after installing 22 of them as cardinals. After the resign of Pope Benedict XVI, announced on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, Cardinal Braz de Aviz allegedly is among the contenders to be the pope's successor. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito, file)

    View PhotoAssociated Press/Pier Paolo Cito, file – FILE – In this Feb. 19, 2012 file photo, Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz is congratulated by a faithful prior to a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s …more 


  • FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2007 file photo, Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paolo is applauded during an audience with Pope Benedict XVI and the new cardinals in the Paul VI hall at The Vatican. After the resign of Pope Benedict XVI, announced on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, Cardinal Scherer allegedly is among the contenders to be the pope's successor. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, file)View PhotoFILE – In this Nov. 26, 2007 file …
  • FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2007 file photo, Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri poses for a picture during a meeting with relatives and friends at the Vatican. After the resign of Pope Benedict XVI, announced on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, Cardinal Sandri allegedly is among the contenders to be the pope's successor. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, file)View PhotoFILE – In this Nov. 24, 2007 file …

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Latin America is home to the world’s largestRoman Catholic population, but hopes that the next pope will come from the region appear faint, experts said Monday.

The predominance of Europeans on the College of Cardinals means that the odds are stacked against a Latin American pope, even though the names of a number of high-ranking churchmen from the region have been bandied about, analysts said. The 118-member college, with 62 European members and only 19 from Latin America, will elect a successor for Pope Benedict XVI, who announced Monday he will resign due to age.

Still, hope springs eternal.

“Since Latin America is a fortress for Christianity during these rough times, it would be healthy for us to get a Latin American pope,” said Fernando Reyes, 57, a professional violinist, who prays daily at the La Merced church in Santiago, Chile.

Crossing himself before leaving the church, Reyes noted, “I would be proud. We’ve had Italian, Polish, German. It’s time for a Latin American.”

Brazilian Cardinals Joao Braz de Aviz, a 65-year-old who has earned praise as head of the Vatican’s office for religious congregations, and Odilo Pedro Scherer, the 63-year-old archbishop of Sao Paulo, have been mentioned as possibilities.

Other Latin Americans posited as possible popes include Argentina’s Leonardo Sandri and Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Sandri is head of the Vatican’s office for Eastern rite churches. He earned fame as the “voice” of Pope John Paul II when the pontiff lost the ability to speak because of his Parkinson’s disease.

Also mentioned in 2005, when Benedict was chosen, was Honduran Archbishop Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga.

But it is unclear whether any one of them could gain traction.

“To see the possibilities for a Latin American pope, you have to look at the makeup of the College of Cardinals,” said Bernardo Barranco, an expert at Mexico’s Center for Religious Studies. “From the get-go, I see it as difficult for a Latin American … because the college has not only been “re-Europeanized,” it has also been “re-Italianized.”

While some see Latin America’s estimated 40 percent of the world’s 1.2-billion Catholic population as a bulwark of the faith, the church is also facing challenges in the region from evangelical churches.

In Mexico, the percentage of the population who identify themselves as Catholics dropped from over 90 percent in the 1980s to 84 percent in 2010, the latest year for which data is available.

In Brazil, home to a number of charismatic or evangelical churches, the drop has been even more precipitous, from 84 percent in 1995 to 68 percent in 2010.

“In numerical terms, Latin America is majority Catholic, in broad terms, but these aren’t the best times for the church,” said Barranco. “On the contrary, it is going through a severe crisis the like of which it has never seen before.”

Still, some see Latin America’s still-large Catholic population as a decisive force.

“It would be a central argument for electing a Latin American pope, because the future of the church is in the Southern Hemisphere,” said R. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of Religious Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University. “I am not going to make any predictions, but I think there will be a contingent of European cardinals who would support an African or Latin American candidate.”

For Rosita Mejia, 44, who has sold religious items for 25 years outside the La Merced church, the next pope’s country of origin is less important than his vigor, energy and proximity to the people, none of which were distinguishing characteristics of Benedict VXI.

“In five years, only one person has asked me for a Benedict prayer card. In comparison hundreds of people have asked for John Paul II,” Benedict’s more charismatic predecessor, she said. “I would like for the next pope to be younger, and have more time to travel the world, and perhaps come to Chile like John Paul did.”


By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO | Associated Press

Pope Benedict XVI retires: Will the next pope come from the ‘global south?’.

With the surprise announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will resign at the end of this month, many in the so-called “global south” are hopeful that a new pope might finally hail from AsiaAfrica, orLatin America.

Latin America is home to 40 percent of the world’s 1 billion Catholics: Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, andMexico is the second largest.

There has never been a non-European pope, and naming a leader from Latin America, Africa, or Asia would be considered a radical new direction for the Eurocentric Vatican. But it would also reflect a new, and to many a long overdue, pragmatism within the institution. While nearly three-quarters of Latin Americans identify as Catholic, for example, only a quarter of Europeans do.

After the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, similar expectations for a non-European pope simmered. And when Pope Benedict, a German, was selected for the post, a sense that the church headquarters does not understand the reality of today’s faithful was palpable in places such as Latin America. But Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, says he believes the chances of having a pope from the global south now “are stronger than ever.”

RECOMMENDED: Catholicism in Latin America: 5 key facts

While many argue that the next pope should hail from westernEurope, precisely to revitalize the epic lost ground of the church there, he says, “the greater realization is that you must go where the future lies.

“The future of the global church is in Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America,” Mr. Chesnut says.


While Catholics have been leaving the church in Europe, numbers are still strong in Latin America. Seventy-three percent of the region is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center.

But Catholicism still faces a test in this part of the world, as many have left faith altogether or, in many countries in Central America and Brazil, joined a growing movement of Protestantism, especially of Pentecostals. In HondurasGuatemala, and El Salvador, for example, Prot­es­tants represent more than 35 percent of the population.

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On a sunny Monday morning in Mexico City, Liliana Lopez, a lifelong Catholic, was heading home from her morning walk when she saw her local congregation completely empty. “How sad it is that theaters and movies are filled but churches are empty,” Ms. Lopez says.

“Having a pope from this part of the world could help renew our faith. We need an extraordinary rejuvenation [in the church].”

Pope Benedict was hailed, upon his selection, by conservative Catholics across the globe while liberal Catholics worried about him taking a hard line. In Latin America, while issues such as gay marriage and abortion have come to the fore in urban pockets, posing a problem for local Catholic leaders, such “culture wars” have not yet created the wedges with the church that have formed in the US and western Europe.

But Latin America was disappointed in the choice of a more staid leader, who lacked the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II. The widely loved pope visited Mexico five times in the 20th century, each time amassing huge crowds. Benedict’s visits to the region, most recently in March last year to Mexico and Cuba, energized the deeply faithful but not the population at large.

Ms. Lopez looks up at a portrait of John Paul II that hangs in her Mexico City church. “We just need a pope with charisma, even if he’s not Mexican, someone who can recuperate our faith.”


In recent months, there have been hints that a next pope might be a Latino. For example, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in December: “I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church,” reports Reuters. “The universal Church teaches that Christianity isn’t centered on Europe.”

Some of the frontrunners could be Odilo Scherer, archbishop of the diocese of Sao Paolo, Brazil, or Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Vatican department for Eastern Churches, and is Italian-Argentine. There are also candidates touted from Ghanathe Philippines, the US, and Europe.

Brenda Car­ran­­­za, a religious studies expert at the Pontifícia Uni­ver­­sidade Católica de Campinas in Brazil, says that it would be symbolically important for a new pope to hail from Latin America, since it’s the “huge bastion of Catholics in the world,” Ms. Carranza says. But in reality, it might not make much of a difference for the continent.

Factions of the church in Latin America were at a divide with the Vatican in the 1980s, over the left-leaning liberation theology, which centered on social justice but that was accused of promoting Marxist politics.

A Catholic leader with such leanings wouldn’t be considered, and the problems that are so stubborn here – such as poverty, corruption, and crime – would take a backseat to what Rome considers a priority, Carranza says. “I think a pope from Latin America with thinking aligned with Rome would not make much of a difference,” she says. “They will be preoccupied with what Rome is preoccupied with… numbers, problems with priests, priest training.”

But it could make a difference for the way Catholicism is practiced, giving more of a role to lay movements that are fertile in Latin America, notably the Catholic charismatic renewal, says Dr. Chesnut. It is a Catholic version of Pentecostalism – notably animated services and spirited music that speaks to Latin American sensibilities.

“I think the Vatican has seen charismatic renewal as their greatest hope in competing with surging Pentecostalism not just in Latin America but in Africa and Asia too,” he says.

RECOMMENDED: Catholicism in Latin America: 5 key facts

A pope from this part of the world would be a significant first, but Chesnut says that it also would show the institutions’ pragmatism, underscored in and of itself in the resignation of Benedict. He’s the first pope in 600 years to resign from the post.

In a statement, the pope said in order to govern “…both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.

“For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter,” he said.

The resignation sets the stage for a new pope to be selected in March.


By Sara Miller Llana | Christian Science Monitor

US military expands its drug war in Latin America.


The crew members aboard the USS Underwood could see through their night goggles what was happening on the fleeing go-fast boat: Someone was dumping bales.

When the Navy guided-missile frigate later dropped anchor in Panamanian waters on that sunny August morning, Ensign Clarissa Carpio, a 23-year-old from San Francisco, climbed into the inflatable dinghy with four unarmed sailors and two Coast Guard officers like herself, carrying light submachine guns. It was her first deployment, but Carpio was ready for combat.

Fighting drug traffickers was precisely what she’d trained for.

In the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War, the U.S. has militarized the battle against the traffickers, spending more than $20 billion in the past decade. U.S. Army troops, Air Force pilots and Navy ships outfitted with Coast Guard counternarcotics teams are routinely deployed to chase, track and capture drug smugglers.

The sophistication and violence of the traffickers is so great that the U.S. military is training not only law enforcement agents in Latin American nations, but their militaries as well, building a network of expensive hardware, radar, airplanes, ships, runways and refueling stations to stem the tide of illegal drugs from South America to the U.S.

According to State Department and Pentagon officials, stopping drug-trafficking organizations has become a matter of national security because they spread corruption, undermine fledgling democracies and can potentially finance terrorists.

U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, pointing to dramatic declines in violence and cocaine production inColombia, says the strategy works.

“The results are historic and have tremendous implications, not just for the United States and the Western Hemisphere, but for the world,” he said at a conference on drug policy last year.

The Associated Press examined U.S. arms export authorizations, defense contracts, military aid, and exercises in the region, tracking a drug war strategy that began in Colombia, moved to Mexico and is now finding fresh focus in Central America, where brutal cartels mark an enemy motivated not by ideology but by cash.

The U.S. authorized the sale of a record $2.8 billion worth of guns, satellites, radar equipment and tear gas to Western Hemisphere nations in 2011, four times the authorized sales 10 years ago, according to the latest State Department reports.

Over the same decade, defense contracts jumped from $119 million to $629 million, supporting everything from Kevlar helmets for the Mexican army to airport runways in Aruba, according to federal contract data.

Last year $830 million, almost $9 out of every $10 of U.S. law enforcement and military aid spent in the region, went toward countering narcotics, up 30 percent in the past decade.

Many in the military and other law enforcement agencies — the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FBI — applaud the U.S. strategy, but critics say militarizing the drug war in a region fraught with tender democracies and long-corrupt institutions can stir political instability while barely touching what the U.N. estimates is a $320 billion global illicit drug market.

Congressman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who chaired the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere for the past four years, says the U.S.-supported crackdown on Mexican cartels only left them “stronger and more violent.” He intends to reintroduce a proposal for a Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission to evaluate antinarcotics efforts.

“Billions upon billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent over the years to combat the drug trade in Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said. “In spite of our efforts, the positive results are few and far between.”


At any given moment, 4,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Latin America and as many as four U.S. Navy ships are plying the Caribbean and Pacific coastlines of Central America. U.S. pilots clocked more than 46,400 hours in 2011 flying anti-drug missions, and U.S. agents from at least 10 law enforcement agencies spread across the continent.

The U.S. trains thousands of Latin American troops, and employs its multibillion dollar radar equipment to gather intelligence to intercept traffickers and arrest cartel members.

These work in organized-crime networks that boast an estimated 11,000 flights annually and hundreds of boats and submersibles. They smuggle cocaine from the only place it’s produced, South America, to the land where it is most coveted, the United States.

One persistent problem is that in many of the partner nations, police are so institutionally weak or corrupt that governments have turned to their militaries to fight drug traffickers, often with violent results. Militaries are trained for combat, while police are trained to enforce laws.

“It is unfortunate that militaries have to be involved in what are essentially law enforcement engagements,” said Frank Mora, the outgoing deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs. But he argues that many governments have little choice.

“We are not going to turn our backs on these governments or these institutions because they’ve found themselves in such a situation that they have to use their militaries in this way,” Mora said.

Mora said the effort is not tantamount to militarizing the war on drugs. He said the Defense Department’s role is limited, by law, to monitoring and detection. Law enforcement agents, from the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection or other agencies are in charge of some of the busts, he said.

But the U.S. is deploying its own military. Not only is the Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Atlantic, but the Marines were sent to Guatemala last year and the National Guard is in Honduras.

The Obama Administration sees these deployments as important missions with a worthy payoff. Hundreds of thousands of kilograms (pounds) of cocaine are seized en route to the U.S. every year, and the Defense Department estimates about 850 metric tons of cocaine departed South America last year toward the U.S., down 20 percent in just a year. The most recent U.S. survey found cocaine use fell significantly, from 2.4 million people in 2006 to 1.4 million in 2011.

Aboard the Underwood, the crew of 260 was clear on the mission. The ship’s bridge wings bear 16 cocaine “snowflakes” and two marijuana “leaves,” awarded to the Underwood by the Coast Guard command to be “proudly displayed” for its successful interdictions.

Standing on the bridge, Carpio’s team spotted its first bale of cocaine. And then, after 2 1/2 weeks plying the Caribbean in search of drug traffickers, they spotted another, and then many more.

“In all we found 49 bales,” Carpio said in an interview aboard the ship. “It was very impressive to see the bales popping along the water in a row.”

Wrapped in black and white tarp, they were so heavy she could barely pull one out of the water. Later, officials said they’d collected $27 million worth of cocaine.


The current U.S. strategy began in Colombia in 2000, with an eight-year effort that cost more than $7 billion to stop the flow from the world’s top cocaine producer. During Plan Colombia, the national police force, working closely with dozens of DEA agents, successfully locked up top drug traffickers.

But then came “the balloon effect.”

As a result of Plan Colombia’s pressure, traffickers were forced to find new coca-growing lands in Peru and Bolivia, and trafficking routes shifted as well from Florida to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Thus a $1.6 billion, 4-year Merida Initiative was launched in 2008. Once more, drug kingpins were caught or killed, and as cartels fought to control trafficking routes, increasingly gruesome killings topped 70,000 in six years.

Mexican cartel bosses, feeling the squeeze, turned to Central America as the first stop for South American cocaine, attracted by weaker governments and corrupt authorities.

“Now, all of a sudden, the tide has turned,” said Brick Scoggins, who manages the Defense Department’s counter-narcotics programs in most of Latin America and the Caribbean. “I’d say northern tier countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize have become a key focus area.”

The latest iteration is the $165 million Central America Regional Security Initiative, which includes Operation Martillo (Hammer), a year-old U.S.-led mission. The operation has no end date and is focused on the seas off Central America’s beach-lined coasts, key shipping routes for 90 percent of the estimated 850 metric tons of cocaine headed to the U.S.

As part of Operation Martillo, 200 U.S. Marines began patrolling Guatemala’s western coast in August, their helicopters soaring above villages at night as they headed out to sea to find “narco-submarines” and shiploads of drugs. The troops also brought millions of dollars’ worth of computers and intelligence-gathering technology to analyze communications between suspected drug dealers.

Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, head of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, predicts the balloon effect will play out in Central America before moving to the Caribbean.

The goal, he said, is to make it so hard for traffickers to move drugs to the U.S. that they will eventually opt out of North America, where cocaine use is falling. Traffickers would likely look for easier, more expanding markets, shifting sales to a growing customer base in Europe, Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Brownfield said almost all Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine goes east through Brazil and Argentina and then to Western Europe. Cocaine that reaches North America mostly comes from Colombia, he said, with U.S. figures showing production falling sharply, from 700 metric tons in 2001 to 195 metric tons today — though estimates vary widely.

When the drug war turns bloody, he said, the strategy is working.

“The bloodshed tends to occur and increase when these trafficking organizations, which are large, powerful, rich, extremely violent and potentially bloody, … come under some degree of pressure,” he said.

Yet the strategy has often backfired when foreign partners proved too inexperienced to fight drug traffickers or so corrupt they switched sides.

In Mexico, for example, the U.S. focused on improving the professionalism of the federal police. But the effort’s success was openly questioned after federal police at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport opened fire at each other, killing three.

In August critics were even more concerned when two CIA officers riding in a U.S. Embassy SUV were ambushed by Mexican federal police allegedly working for an organized crime group. The police riddled the armored SUV with 152 bullets, wounding both officers.

The new strategy in Honduras has had its own fits and starts.

Last year, the U.S. Defense Department spent a record $67.4 million on military contracts in Honduras, triple the 2002 defense contracts there well above the $45.6 million spent in neighboring Guatemala in 2012. The U.S. also spent about $2 million training more than 300 Honduran military personnel in 2011, and $89 million in annual spending to maintain Joint Task Force Bravo, a 600-member U.S. unit based at Soto Cano Air Base.

Further, neither the State Department nor the Pentagon could provide details explaining a 2011 $1.3 billion authorization for exports of military electronics to Honduras — although that would amount to almost half of all U.S. arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere.

In May, on the other side of the country, Honduran national police rappelled from U.S. helicopters to bust drug traffickers near the remote village of Ahuas, killing four allegedly innocent civilians and scattering locals who were loading some 450 kilograms (close to 1,000 pounds) of cocaine into a boat.

The incident drew international attention and demands for an investigation when the DEA confirmed it had agents aboard the helicopters advising their Honduran counterparts. Villagers spoke of English-speaking commandos kicking in doors and handcuffing locals just after the shooting, searching for drug traffickers.

Six weeks later, townspeople watched in shock as laborers exhumed the first of four muddy graves. At each burial site, workers pulled out the decomposing bodies of two women and two young men, and laid them on tarps.

Forensic scientists conducted their graveside autopsies in the open air, probing for bullet wounds and searching for signs the women had been pregnant, as villagers had claimed.

Government investigators concluded there was no wrongdoing in the raid. In the subsequent months, DEA agents shot and killed suspects they said threatened them in two separate incidents, and the U.S. temporarily suspended the sharing of radar intelligence because the Central American nation’s air force shot down two suspected drug planes, a violation of rules of engagement. Support was also withheld for the national police after it was learned that its new director had been tied to death squads.

As the new year begins, Congress is still withholding an estimated $30 million in aid to Honduras, about a third of all the U.S. aid slotted for this year.

But there are no plans to rethink the strategy.

Scoggins, the Defense Department’s counter-narcotics manager, said operations in Central America are expected to grow for the next five years.

“It’s not for me to say if it’s the correct strategy. It’s the strategy we are using,” said Scoggins. “I don’t know what the alternative is.”


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Dario Lopez aboard the USS Underwood in the Caribbean, Garance Burke in San Francisco, Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, along with Romina Ruiz-Goiriena in Guatemala City.


By MARTHA MENDOZA | Associated Press

Missionaries Battle Prince of Darkness in Guatemala.

guatemala pastor
Guatemalan pastor and OMer Nathan Schmutz (Debbie Meroff )

A quarter of Guatemala‘s population call themselves evangelicals, and churches are as plentiful as tortillas. But for many of the indigenous population of this Central American country, ancient Mayan beliefs lie just below the surface. Jesus and Mary are equated to the Sun God and Moon Goddess. Shamans or witches wield great power as healers and casters of spells in rural communities, and it’s not uncommon to see individuals wearing protective amulets against the “evil eye.”

When four Operation Mobilization (OM) volunteers were assigned to work with the pastor of a tiny church in the mountains of Guatemala this past November, they had little idea of what they’d be up against.

God had led Pastor Noé Godoy to the town of Trapiche 10 years before. He was aware that the territory had already been claimed by the Prince of Darkness. Violence, drinking, sickness and death oppressed the residents. A number of young people were using insecticides to take their own lives. During his first years there, local witches performed supernatural “miracles” and incited people to attack the pastor with boiling water and machetes. Evangelism was forbidden. And even though the roof of the tiny building he used for a church was ready to collapse, it wasn’t until after his main opponent’s death that he was allowed to make repairs.

“Yet,” affirmed Pastor Noé, who has elected to remain single rather than bring danger upon a wife and children, “our church has seen great miracles of healing and protection as well. And as our people shared the evidence of God’s power with other families, they too came to Christ.”

Although church members owned very little, they actively began to help some 200 widows and single mothers, as well as 225 orphans. “We have the vision and even the plans for a dormitory, kitchen and dining room to help these women and children but so far, no way to make it a reality. Meanwhile, we do what we can in the midst of the difficulties and keep trusting that God will accomplish His purposes here.”

For OM’s four “Love Guatemala” volunteers, Trapiche provided a dramatic first exposure to spiritual warfare. At night villagers threw stones at the house where the girls were trying to sleep. And while going house to house during the day, one of the men, Otto, found himself in the home of two witches. What could he say to them? After silently asking God for help Otto opened his Bible. His eyes immediately fell on Revelation 22:14-15, a passage condemning those who practice magic arts. Otto boldly delivered God’s message.

The Lord had a very different message for the team: “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—the Most High who is my refuge—No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” (Ps. 91:9-10)

Swiss team member Nathan Schmutz was one of the few non-Guatemalans to take part in the outreach. He admitted, “I wasn’t prepared for such a confrontation with evil! But I learnt a lot about the power of prayer.”

Guatemala’s 10 million people suffer the highest chronic malnutrition rate in Latin America and the fourth-highest rate in the world. On average, about one out of two residents are malnourished. Concerned by the obvious poverty of Trapiche church members, OM Guatemala staff made an extra trip to deliver used clothing, shoes, food parcels and even toys for Christmas. The pastor couldn’t hide his personal delight at finding a suit that fit. A young mother named Nora had given her life to the Lord through the team’s visit a few days before. She had five children and they were barely subsisting in a nearby hovel. The unexpected provision of food, clothing and toys gave the family new courage.

At the end of the outreach Pastor Noé voiced his gratitude. “Some unbelievers opened their doors to the OM team, and we hope they have helped to change the mind of this community. They have been a big blessing to us. We have no way to pay them back, but God will!”


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