Friday, August 22, 2008

The disappearance of José Rubén Zamora

The car of José Rubén Zamora, the founder of three of Guatemala's most important newspapers - El Periódico, Siglo Veintiuno and Nuestro Diario - was found abandoned early this morning in Guatemala City. I found out the news from a member of Zamora's family as I was trying to set up an interview with him for later today in connection with an article I am writing on the grupos clandestinos, criminal organizations that represent perhaps the greatest threat to Guatemala's fragile state and an end to the culture of impunity that has dominated here for so long.

My arrival in Guatemala City last evening marks my first return to this beautiful and terribly troubled land since the fall of 2003, when I spent several months here reporting on the presidential candidacy of Efraín Ríos Montt, a former military dictator who seemed in danger of winning the highest office in the land through means fair or foul. Ríos Montt, whose government Amnesty International estimated killed over 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers during a single four-month period in 1982, was eventually defeated by former Guatemala City mayor Óscar Berger, who has since been succeeded by Álvaro Colom.

Despite the change in governments and the increasing marginalization of Ríos Montt’s Frente Republicano Guatemalteco political party, the threat posed by the grupos clandestinos and other parallel powers, many composed of both former and active-duty members of the country’s security services deeply enmeshed in a web of drug and weapons trafficking and human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s long civil war, continues and in fact appears to have expanded and deepened in the five years since my last visit.

I sat and spoke with Zamora in his office at El Periódico one fall day in 2003, and listened to why he had found it necessary to make his newspaper a forum for detailing the links between government figures and the country's criminal underworld. His decision came at no small risk, as he well knew, as earlier that year, he had been held captive along with his family as a dozen armed individuals brandishing the identification of a government ministry and the national police stormed his home, stripped him, and beat his two teenage sons.

Zamora, who was awarded the 1995 International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the 1994 Maria Moore Cabot Prize, vowed to me that day that “"I will continue on in Guatemala.”

Hours have passed since José Rubén Zamora’s disappearance, without word or ransom demand, and Guatemala’s brave civil society is understandably plunged once again into a fearful and tense time, as has so often been the case here.

My hope is that José Rubén Zamora, one of Guatemala’s greatest lights and a fearless champion of press freedom, will be returned to his family and his desk at El Periódico to continue on with his brave work. Dark forces seek to keep the free press in Guatemala from operating, and to continue with the stranglehold of impunity over the country. It is my solemn hope that they do not succeed.

Update 22 August 2008

The Prensa Latina agency is reporting that José Rubén Zamora was found, unconscious but alive, in the city of Chimaltenango, 50 kilometers west of Guatemala City.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Congo: Between Hope and Despair

My new article on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo: Between Hope and Despair, has appeared in the Summer 2008 edition of the World Policy Journal and can found at newsstands or read in PDF format here.

Friday, August 08, 2008

TRADE-AFRICA: New Technology to Sever Timber's Link to Conflict?

TRADE-AFRICA: New Technology to Sever Timber's Link to Conflict?

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

NEW YORK, Aug 8, 2008 (IPS) - While conflict diamonds or blood diamonds, as they are known, have gained attention the world over in terms of the role illicit gems play in fuelling warfare, the role that the timber trade has played in abetting conflict has received considerably less consideration. That may be beginning to change.

The world over, though particularly in West Africa, both legal and illegal commerce in timber has played a substantial role in the enabling of conflicts in countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The ruin globally wreaked on forests is having wide-ranging consequences.

According to the 2007 World Bank report ''At Loggerheads: Agricultural Expansion, Poverty Reduction, and Environment in the Tropical Forests'', nearly 70 million people—many from an indigenous background —live in remote areas of closed tropical forests, while an additional 735 million live in or near trop¬ical forests and savannas. Both groups rely heavily on forested areas for fuel, food and income.

The World Bank report went on to warn that tropical forests were shrinking at a rate of five percent a decade and that ''by the middle of the 21st century only shreds of this once-vast forest may be left''. This trend, the report noted, will have a dramatic effect on climate change, adding three billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, something that would affect people far beyond forest-dwelling communities.

Stepping into this contentious landscape, Helveta, a firm based in the United Kingdom, is marketing software that it says will help regularise the fragmented supply chain for timber. It should also lessen the risk for companies of purchasing wood that has been illegally procured.

Read the full article here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

La Gran Sultana

We arrived in Granada, Nicaragua, a few days ago, passing through the over-touristed and sterile climes of Costa Rica and leaving behind Panama’s rainy Bocas del Toro and its capital’s enchanting San Felipe district. Now in the land of Rubén Darío and Augusto Sandino, but also of Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the disgraceful pacto between the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional and the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista, we have found something lacking Nicaragua’s more affluent neighbor to the south: A country with a great soul and a sense of its own history.

Granada, a city modeled on its eponymous namesake in Spain and so elegant that it earned the nickname La Gran Sultana, skirts the edge of Lago de Nicaragua beneath the looming rise of the Volcán Mombacho outside the city. Lovely one-story Spanish adobe buildings front lanes on which both horses and automobiles roll by at a leisurely pace. Once burned to the ground by the American adventurer (privateer might be a better word) William Walker, the city rebuilt itself splendidly and remains a fine place to enjoy a sip of 18 year-old Flor de Caña rum or the delicious chocolates produced by the city of Matagalpa, just to the north. My novia and I have enjoyed wandering its streets in advance of several days of hard reporting work this week and a journey to the Región Autónoma del Atlántico Norte starting this weekend. A trip to the surrounding pueblos blancos yesterday brought us into contact with the noted spiritualist Andrea Peña Aguirre and the natural healer William Mena in the historic village of Diriomo. All in all, my first trip to Nicaragua, a country I have long wanted to visit, has already proven greatly rewarding from both a historic and aesthetic perspective.

High noon has arrived and the flâneur in me calls.