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Colombia: FARC Agrees to Release General After Guarantors Intervene

The guarantors from Cuba and Norway announce that FARC will release captured soldiers (Photo via PazFARC-EP)

The guarantors from Cuba and Norway announce that FARC will release captured soldiers (Photo via PazFARC-EP)

The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) have agreed to release a kidnapped Colombian army general, clearing the path for the resumption of peace talks with the government.

International guarantors in the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC announced last night that the guerrilla group would return Rubén Darío Alzate and two other army personnel who were kidnapped on Sunday in the district of Chocó.

The representatives from Norway and Cuba also said that the FARC had agreed to release two other soldiers that had been kidnapped on 9th November. The liberation process will be supervised by the mediating countries and the International Red Cross.

Colombia president Juan Manuel Santos said he would “guarantee” the safe return of the soldiers. “The government will collaborate to guarantee the safe return of these people to their home, which we hope will be in the shortest time possible,” read a statement from the president. “One they are free, the government’s peace delegation will return to Havana.

General Alzate is the highest-ranking army officer to have ever been kidnapped by the FARC, which blamed the government for not accepting a ceasefire proposal while the peace talks continued. The guerrilla group says it has agreed to stop the kidnapping of civilians but consider the capture of Alzate and other military personnel to be an act of war.

Peace talks between the FARC and government began in Havana in November 2012. So far, the two sides have reached an agreement on three of the five key issues to be addressed before a final peace accord can be signed.

The current round of negotiation involve discussions over the victims of Colombia’s internal conflict.

Posted in News From Latin America, Round Ups Latin America0 Comments

Inside Argentina’s Blue Dollar Market

Inside Argentina’s Blue Dollar Market

“Cambio dólares cambio…”

On Florida street, the arbolitos are out in force. They are the public face of the blue dollar market – an exchange so ubiquitous, so open, and so important to the local economy, you could almost forget that it is illegal.

'Arbolitos' offering informal currency exchange on Calle Florida (photo/Shane Korpisto)

‘Arbolitos’ offering informal currency exchange on Calle Florida (photo/Shane Korpisto)

The blue dollar is unique: an unofficial currency bourse with the outward appearance of a legitimate exchange. The impression is supported by web sites and stories in the press covering daily fluctuations. Many cuevas – informal exchange houses – even have fixed addresses and business cards.

But it is still a black market, and the inner workings are opaque. If your local currency dealer tells you that the rate rose ten cents since yesterday – why did it rise? And why ten cents, instead of five? Or fifteen?

Is the blue dollar rate a matter of straightforward economics or is the entire market an elaborate sham stage-managed by a criminal conspiracy?

“Supply and demand,” people speculate —but since there is no central exchange, no single individual can ever know the available supply, or demand, on any given day. Even Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich recently challenged newspapers that publish the daily blue rate to include information on traders and volume. “If they can’t do it,” he concluded, “then it is not transparent and doesn’t constitute a market.”

Yet thousands of blue transactions do occur, every day. Many are initiated by tourists, or Argentines planning to travel, or protecting their savings against inflation. (There is a reason that the waiting list for safe deposit boxes in Buenos Aires is now over a year.) Others are by businesses making deals or skirting taxes, and moving large volumes. Each transaction begins with the same question: What is the rate today?

I had different questions: Who sets the rate? How do they do it? Who loses and who, if anyone, is making a fortune?

The Independent Operator

Pablo puts down his wine glass with an appreciative sigh.

He is balding, a husband and father, in every way the image of a hardworking businessman. Instead of socks, or train carriages of wheat, Pablo buys and sells money. Every day, he sets out across the city, meeting customers, and occasionally stopping to refill his backpack with bundles of cash.

Pablo is a tall step above the action in the street. No need to trek down to Microcentro – he will meet you in your favorite cafe and give you a higher rate than the arbolitos or your local cueva. Not by much but, since he will not venture out for less than US$600, the difference will be enough to matter.

Talking to Pablo was my first peek behind the blue dollar curtain, into the mechanism within. He gave up his last real job in late 2011, when President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner tightened currency controls and, almost overnight, turned a small side business into a thriving new industry.

Over his first coffee of the day, Pablo checks DolarBlue.net. Not because he will offer their rate, but because his clients will have checked before calling and he may need to manage expectations…

The official dollar rate following a devaluation in January.  (Photo: Tito La Penna/Télam)

The official dollar rate following a devaluation in January. (Photo: Tito La Penna/Télam)

DolarBlue.net

DolarBlue.net‘s success has been phenomenal. Since it opened, in 2011, every money changer, broker and tourist checks the site to keep up to date with the latest blue market happenings.

In my imagination, it was run from a back room filled with accountants in green eyeshades, like in the old films, picking up phones and shouting numbers across the desks. The truth is simpler, smarter, and ultimately less relevant.

The published blue, or parallel, rate, is based on stock prices in the US and Argentina, and calculated entirely by algorithm. The process is untouched by human hands, and therefore beyond anyone’s ability to rig for personal gain. [See box out below for a full explanation.] Think of it as the ‘pure’ rate from which all other rates descend.

 

Calculating the Blue

In countries where currencies are convertible (i.e. most of them), the relative values of currencies are determined by the costs of an equivalent good in two different places. For instance, if a Big Mac costs $1 in the US, and $10 (pesos) in Argentina, then the exchange rate would be 10:1, or US$1= $10.

The trick is to find equivalent goods and current prices in different countries. DolarBlue.Net neatly solves this issue by tracking stocks of eight major companies offered on both Argentine and US exchanges. Every twenty minutes, their computers check the prices in both locations, take the average, and publish it as the blue, or parelelo, rate.

The companies used to calculate the blue rate (and their stock ticker in US/Argentina market) are:

Grupo Financiero Galicia S.A. (GGAL/GGAL)
Tenaris S.A. (TS/TS)
BBVA Banco Frances S. A. (BFR/FRAN)
Banco Macro S.A. (BMA/BMA)
Pampa Energía S.A. (PAM/PAMP)
Petrobras Argentina S.A. (PZE/PESA)
Petroleo Brasileiro S.A. (PBR/APBR)
Telecom Argentina S.A. (TEO/TECO2)

The blue rate is the best-known alternative to the official exchange, but there are others: rates described by colour (grey, light-blue), by city (Miami, Colonia), a rate for individual savers, and another just for soy exporters.

The myriad of rates highlights a quandary of Argentina’s currency underground. Most illegal markets, such as drugs (everyone’s favorite comparison) are closed systems that work on a simple supply-and-demand basis. Every weed smoker knows that when supply goes down, the price goes up.

The blue dollar – as we shall see – responds chiefly to demand stimulated by the government’s economic policy, and expectations of it, which can be stimulated by other forces. However, since the blue is also directly tied to the international stock market, and affects exports and other basics of the economy, it is, as any Argentine will tell you, a bit more complicated.

DolarBlue.Net does not take these intricacies into account when calculating the basic blue rate. This is the reason that you will never receive that rate, nor even the supposed street prices that they list, which are still merely figures on a website that do not affect real transactions. It does, however, provide a useful guide to the overall movement of the market.

Which leaves the question: if DolarBlue does not set Pablo’s rate, who does?

The Role of Wholesalers

Pablo’s first call of the morning is to his wholesalers, known as mayoristas, to check their rates on a few thousand dollars or a few hundred thousand pesos. These are the numbers that matter, and even among wholesalers, the rate may vary a few cents from one to the next.. “I call two or three wholesalers. Usually, I buy where they give me the best price, but if that is across town, I might buy closer to save time, even if it costs a bit more.”

Sometimes, a customer will balk, holding out for a higher rate because they saw it on the web. “But I have to make a profit,” Pablo says, “or there is no point. They are not taking the risk, I am. If a tourist is caught, nothing will happen to them. I could be in big trouble.”

He certainly could. The unofficial buying or selling of foreign currency can be punishable by up to eight years in prison (for repeat offenders), according to existing currency exchange laws, or even more if deemed to be part of an operation to destabilise the economy. Crackdowns are rare, but they happen. For one entire week during September, shortly after the blue reached a historic high of $16, the arbolitos were absent from Florida. They were soon back – most only earn from commission so business must go on – but trading has again been heavily restricted by a series of raids in the financial district since mid-October.

Most of Pablo’s clients are Argentines who call, each month, to buy dollars with whatever they have been able to keep from their monthly income. Unlike a dealer in other substances, he says he offers a valuable service – protecting their hard-earned savings against inflation.

Is he getting rich? To hear Pablo tell it, no. He works long hours, six days per week, to provide for his family. Trade has been good, up to now, but you never knew when it could change. When the government allowed limited dollar purchases in January, 2014, he was afraid for a few weeks. “It turned out that it did not affect business much at all,” he said. “They made it too difficult to get dollars legally, and then the government knows that you have them.”

And if the government knows that you have dollars, the government can take them away, as they did during the crisis of 2001 – still a painful memory for many people who saw their life savings converted to pesos at a miserly exchange rate.

This is another reason that Argentine citizens turn to the blue market for dollars – it is more expensive than going through official channels, but easier and, in the long run, possibly safer. Of course, keeping it off the books also means away from the reach of the tax office, AFIP.

The High-End Operation

“I would prefer to do everything by the book – that way you sleep easier at night. But they’ve made it impossible with these excessive controls.”

I meet Diego (not his real name) downtown, mid-morning, at a cafe on Sarmiento street. Over coffee and toast – enough, he says, to get him through the day – he speaks openly about the blue dollar. Assured of anonymity, he only lowers his tone when he mentions the ‘parallel market’ by name.

Currency exchange, he tells me, is not his true profession. He runs a legitimate financial company and trading dollars is an additional service for trusted clients and friends seeking to park savings in hard currency and out of AFIP’s reach, whether in or out of the country. (“A lot of money heads to Miami.”)

Diego’s operation is yet another step up in scale and sophistication. At his office, in a modern glass tower, the receptionist calls you by name. Large amounts, or uncommon currencies, are no problem. If you need cash discreetly transferred from an overseas bank account, also no problem. Or if you have surplus pesos, you could drop off a bundle and the equivalent will appear as dollars in New York, or euros in Paris, three days later.

After some small talk, Diego reveals that his office handles around US$200,000-300,000 in currency exchanges per day. It is serious money, yet he still considers his operation to be relatively small in a market that he estimates to move some US$15m daily (others suggest a market double that size, entirely believable when you consider that in October police confiscated nearly US$1m in undeclared dollars from a financial house in Microcentro). “I’m not interested in growing much bigger, because that’s when they come looking for you,” says Diego. “It’s better to remain small, so nobody bothers you and you don’t get pulled into anything dodgy.”

For the same reason, he serves mainly Argentines protecting their savings, and does not accept business from strangers bringing large quantities from abroad or if they cannot explain the origin. “Those who get greedy and try and do too much will end up in legal trouble sooner or later. Everyone has to reach an agreement with the police, but if the gendarmerie come, they will turn your office upside down and take everything.”

Even at his level, Diego has a currency broker that provides a reference rate for daily transactions. There are ten to fifteen of these brokers, who operate in both the official and parallel markets, and each may offer a slightly different rate depending on which group of wholesalers they supply. The brokers, known as corredores de cambio, can connect him with a wholesaler if he needs dollars to meet short-term demand on any given day.

When I ask where the supply of blue dollars comes from, Diego shrugs, and suggests the big banks themselves. I am curious to learn more, but he is either unable or unwilling to explore further. We have been talking for over an hour, and it is time to go.

AFIP officers lead a series of raids in 71 addresses suspected of being involved in illegal financial activities. (Photo: Victoria Egurza/TELAM/)

AFIP officers lead a series of raids in 71 addresses suspected of being involved in illegal financial activities. (Photo: Victoria Egurza/TELAM/)

Knowns and Unknowns

My next stops are with a currency operator and a partner in a real estate firm, both active players in the blue dollar market. Without prompting, they echo many of Diego’s assertions.

First – The big players in the blue dollar market also have legitimate financial businesses which far outweigh their undeclared transactions (“about 10% of the business,” estimates Diego). They see their ‘blue’ side deals as a natural response to tight restrictions and high taxes, and argue that most companies cut corners by underreporting income, paying employees ‘en negro’, or a thousand other tricks to navigate complicated regulations shot through with loopholes and corruption. Police and inspectors are easily persuaded to turn a blind eye. The existence of a parallel currency, illegal but accepted everywhere, makes this even easier.

Second – They all believe that the administration, at some level, condones and regulates the blue market. They cannot eliminate it, since currency controls do not stop the demand for dollars, only drive it underground. Until the most recent crackdown, the government had only closed down a few cuevas, now and then. Squeezing too tightly risks the opposite effect of generating yet more demand for hard currency, and pushing the blue rate even higher.

Though volume on the blue market is a small fraction of the official exchange market, which moves around US$1.3bn daily, the symbolic significance is far greater. A widening gap between official and blue rates adds more pressure to the legal economy by generating expectations of another devaluation. For instance, soy farmers refused to sell at the official rate earlier this year and held out for a better deal, in turn restricting official dollar inflows from exports and increasing the pressure on the domestic economy. Real estate brokers in Recoleta and Puerto Madero, meanwhile, are giving steep discounts for dollars. Since the government cannot intervene officially, the thinking goes, they attempt to regulate via other means. For example, DolarBlue.net still quotes the ‘Dólar Moreno‘ rate ($6.50), named after the former Domestic Trade Secretary who in 2013 would allegedly order cueveros to bring down the blue rate to a more ‘tolerable’ level.

Third – The blue chip swap rate, or ‘contado con liqui‘, may not be as well known as the blue, but it is critically important to the workings of the market. This is the implied rate derived when businesses buy dollar-denominated bonds in pesos, then sell them on international stock exchanges for dollars, which are deposited in an offshore account. It is a legal method to convert large amounts of pesos to dollars, many of which find their way back to Argentina off the books (and into the blue market), or as payment for imports. The conversion rate – also known as the ‘capital flight dollar’ (dolar fuga) – is used as a reference for the blue dollar market, which is why the government has been putting downward pressure recently by flooding the market with dollar-denominated bonds.

Lastly – Several interviewees claimed that the Chinese supermarkets are among the largest players in the blue market, converting the huge volume of pesos they receive in sales to pay debts, or send dollars home, or save. In 2012, economist Alejandro Bercovich, writing in Diario BAE, estimated that they purchased up to US$10m per day. Was there any proof of these claims? None that I saw. Which does not make it false, either.

Is the Blue Market Really a Black Market?

In a standard economy, money is money. Whether you carry a briefcase of crisp hundreds into a bank in New York, or a sack filled with small bills into a branch in Nebraska, the deposit to your account will look exactly the same. The commodity (money) has a single value – the amount printed on the bill.

Not so in Argentina’s blue dollar market. New hundreds will always command a better exchange rate than old, wilted twenties and tens, which are more of a problem to move or to pass along inconspicuously. Like other commodities, volume also matters. On a recent afternoon on Lavalle street, while DolarBlue.Net listed the buy rate at $13.5, arbolitos were offering anything from $13 for US$100, which rose to $13.2 if you were willing to sell US$1,000 in a single trade.

Likewise, tourists short on pesos in Patagonia, or the far north, will receive an unpleasant shock if they are used to rates in Buenos Aires. One money changer I visited in a small southern town looked up the official rate, then the blue rate, then split the difference. I refused. He just shrugged. When you are the only game in town, you can set your own terms.

Currency possesses another quality unique among illegal commodities – it does not always remain contraband. A kilo of cocaine will always be cocaine, but blue dollars find a variety of creative ways to return to circulation as legitimate pesos (a laundering process known in Argentina as blanquear). Many property transactions, for example, are documented as a mix of dollars and pesos – only the dollars change hands in reality, but it is a convenient way for individuals or companies to justify their spending of pesos earned on the blue market.

As a result, though blue dollar transactions support legitimate activities, the more you look, the more it appears to work like a traditional black market.

In the blue market, crisp US$100 bills demand a better rate than small denominations.

In the blue market, crisp US$100 bills demand a better rate than small denominations.

Corredores de Cambio

While researching this article, every conversation eventually circled around to the same place: the corredores (brokers). The number is always the same – around a dozen at the top level, perhaps a few more. Their job is to keep tabs on the need for dollars, and the amount available, and connect the two sides where necessary.

Each has a distinct market serving different wholesalers, and the prices between them may vary slightly. Taken together, they are a series of mini-markets that form a single overlapping market. In Buenos Aires, they all converge in Microcentro, where the competition effectively regulates the rates offered.

So, in a way, the supposition that the rate is a matter of supply vs. demand, is correct. Instead of a computerised exchange, the brokers are where the two sides meet, providing a reference rate for large – as in large – amounts. From there, wholesalers set the best rate they think they can get, depending on volume, geography and the prevailing mood in the economy. When panic is in the air, a rush to grab dollars provides a temporary opportunity to defy traditional market dynamics and set a hefty premium without upsetting demand. This is behind some of the wild daily swings we have seen in the blue dollar market of late.

This, then, is the answer. No single person, organisation or exchange sets the actual rates. Instead, the dozen or so brokers keep tabs on demand in their separate sub-markets and continually adjust the rates to wholesalers to keep dollars and profit flowing.

Wholesalers continually communicate rates to their downstream networks of cuevas and arbolitos, who have some leeway, but are constrained by local competition.

In the big picture, the rate rises and falls in response to demand, driven in turn by currency controls, inflation fears, and speculation (the government says this last factor is the most influential, and blames the opposition media for fomenting expectations of a crisis). There are many other external factors, also, including the contado con liqui and the risk of government crackdowns. (See side article below for more on the impact of these factors)

At every level of the market, it pays to shop around. It pays even more to be one of the big players. Out of the entire structure, the group in the best position to take advantage of the blue market is not the guys working the street; it is the banks and large financial institutions who are legally entitled to move money in pesos and dollars, and have countless ways to keep some extra currency off the books.

Making It In The Blue

Just as a sailboat’s course is the sum total of all forces acting upon it, the various unofficial dollar rates chart major currents in the Argentine economy, including manipulation by the government and other economic powers, plus financial activity and court decisions made thousands of miles away.

Like any underground economy, the rules evolve and there are always opportunities for the nimble, the risk-takers, and the unscrupulous, to profit. The critical difference is that the blue market, though outside the law, is not typically tied to traditional vice. Few Argentines would find it remarkable that, in addition to a hair stylist and local grocer, upscale households and businesses also have a money changer on call.

In this climate, the blue dollar has inadvertently become a viable source of income for thousands of people. “This system makes people seek out ways to make money with financial manouevring and not by producing goods or investing,” one city operator told me, on condition of anonymity. “Many people turn to selling dollars because they can make money more easily than if they run a kiosk or small business.”

And though routine financial transactions, for savings or travel, turn upstanding men and women into “criminals”, when enough people participate, attitudes toward the laws change.

Earlier this week, the government created a new body to monitor external trade transactions, the latest in a series of measures and controls introduced recently to rein in the parallel market. Yet despite their efforts, without a change in the underlying causes, Pablo, Diego, and legions of arbolitos, are in no real danger of their industry disappearing any time soon.

*@jeff_herz. Additional reporting by Marc Rogers (@marcdrogers).

 

Posted in Analysis, TOP STORY2 Comments

Twenty-Five Injured After Small Fire on Mitre Train Line

A train on the Mitre Line (Photo via Wikipedia)

A train on the Mitre Line (Photo via Wikipedia)

At least 25 people suffered injuries – including nine who were taken to hospital – after a small fire broke out on a train on the Mitre commuter line.

The incident occurred shortly after the train had left the Villa Urquiza station, heading towards José León Suárez.

Head of the ambulance service SAME, Alberto Crescenti said that the injuries – which included at least two compound fractures – most likely occurred as panicked passengers jumped from train. Crescenti added that none of the injured were in grave danger.

According to Corredores Ferroviarios, which operates the service, a “metal object” dragging along the electrified rail tracks had caused sparks and smoke underneath the carriage.

When the train stopped, passengers forced the doors open and jumped for safety. The operator said that the electric current running through the line had been cut as a safety precaution as soon as the incident occurred.

The Mitre line is one of seven suburban rail lines connecting Buenos Aires with nearby towns and cities. Earlier this month, the government presented 120 new passenger cars that will run on the Mitre line between Retiro and Tigre from 25th November.

Posted in News From Argentina, Round Ups Argentina0 Comments

Peru: Report Condemns Activist Killings Ahead of UN Climate Talks

Edwin Chota was one of four Ashaninka leaders killed in September 2014

Edwin Chota was one of four Ashaninka leaders killed in September 2014

A new report from Global Witness has condemned the killing of environmental activists in Peru, just two weeks before the country hosts the 2014 UN Climate Conference.

The report, called ‘Peru’s Deadly Environment‘ highlights how at least 57 activists had been killed defending land or the environment since 2002. 60% of these killings occurred in the last four years, with the majority caused by conflicts over mining projects and with police suspected of being the perpetrators.

This makes Peru the fourth most dangerous country to be an environmental or land defender, according to the report.

The report was released two months after four tribal leaders were shot dead as they travelled to a meeting to discuss how to combat illegal logging on their territories.

It also comes six months after another report by Global Witness revealed how 80% of environmental activist killings occur in Latin America, with Brazil topping the world rankings of the most dangerous states.

The latest report concluded that in Peru, “the government’s recent legislative measures aimed at kick-starting investment in the extractives sector have weakened key environmental safeguards and threaten to stoke the fires of discontent yet further.”

It called on the government and international community to take urgent action to protect those on the front line of environmental defence.

Posted in News From Latin America, Round Ups Latin America0 Comments

Brazil: Rousseff Says Petrobras Investigation Will ‘End Impunity’

250px-Petrobras_horizontal_logo_(international).svgBrazilian president Dilma Rousseff said yesterday that the investigation into alleged bribery and money laundering at state-run oil giant Petrobras could “change Brazil forever” by putting an end to impunity.

Speaking on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Australia, Rousseff said that this was not the first scandal to hit Brazil, but “the first scandal to be investigated.”

“This is first real investigation into corruption in Brazil that involves both the public and private sectors, and it will get to the bottom of it,” said the president.

Rousseff’s comments came after 18 people were arrested on Friday as part of the police probe into the suspected channelling of illicit funds to political parties, including the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT).

Those arrested include a former Petrobras executive and directors of leading Brazilian construction and engineering companies, who are suspected of being involved in what the prosecutor says was a R$10bn scheme.

More than 20 people have been detained as part of the operation that began in March, including Petrobras’ ex director of supplies, Paulo Roberto Costa, who has agreed to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a lighter sentence and reportedly named around 50 politicians suspected of being involved.

Earlier today Petrobras Chief Executive, Maria das Graças Foster, said that the company was conducting its own full investigation into the allegations, as well as implementing new control measures to ensure that staff were “complying with internal and external laws.”

However, Petrobras shares tumbled by more than 6% over fears that the company may have to write down some of its assets if they are found to have been artificially inflated in value.

On the weekend Rousseff, who was chairwoman on the Petrobras board of directors between 2003 and 2010 but is not facing any charges, urged investigators and media to focus on the individuals responsible rather than “demonise” the companies involved. “Not everyone [is involved],” she said. “The absolute majority of Petrobras members are not corrupt.”

However, Aécio Neves, Rousseff’s defeated rival in the recent presidential election run-off, said that the company was now branded with the “wicked mark of corruption”, adding that the investigation was “getting close to the highest levels of government.”

Posted in News From Latin America, Round Ups Latin America0 Comments

AFIP Leads Series of Raids as Crackdown Intensifies

AFIP officers lead a series of raids in 71 addresses suspected of being involved in illegal financial activities. (Photo: Victoria Egurza/TELAM/)

AFIP officers lead a series of raids in 71 addresses suspected of being involved in illegal financial activities. (Photo: Victoria Egurza/TELAM/)

Tax office AFIP today led coordinated raids in 71 different addresses in the city and province of Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Córdoba, as part of an investigation into irregular financial and currency dealings.

The raids were ordered by a judge after a request from AFIP, which said in a statement released today that it had detected tax and budget “inconsistencies” in four companies. “AFIP detected bank deposits and financial transfers from these four companies with budget inconsistencies, and without the economic or financial capacity to operate with those sums,” read the press release.

The tax office said that the companies “could be acting as a screen to hide the real beneficiaries and allow capital flight,” adding that dozens of banks, currency exchange houses, and stockbrokers may have collaborated in the scheme.

The operation comes amid an intensifying crackdown by authorities on suspected illegal financial activities such as tax evasion, unlawful capital flight, and operating in the parallel currency market.

Today’s raids come a day after AFIP suspended 30 companies from operating in the currency exchange market after they were found to be paying overseas companies for transport services in amounts that were “incompatible” with their fiscal situation.

In addition, the Central Bank said yesterday that it had summoned nine businessmen and four companies to answer questions over their alleged activities in the parallel currency market (commonly known as the blue dollar market).

At the same time, the National Securities Commission (CNV) suspended two stock brokerage firms – Arpenta and JR Bursátil -for not complying with the established laws and norms.

Last week, AFIP suspended Proctor & Gamble’s license to operate in Argentina over suspected tax fraud and illegal capital flight worth over US$150m.

The price of the so-called ‘blue dollar’ has fallen sharply amid the crackdown by monetary and tax authorities, trading below $13, compared to nearly $16 at the end of September.

Posted in News From Argentina, Round Ups Argentina0 Comments

Seven Officers Charged Over Shooting of Nine-Year-Old Boy

Kevin Molina was nine when killed in a shootout in Villa Zavaleta (Photo via La Poderosa)

Kevin Molina was nine when killed in a shootout in Villa Zavaleta (Photo via La Poderosa)

Seven coastguard (prefectura) officers have been charged for failing to act during a prolonged shoot out between drug gangs that ended the life of nine-year-old Kevin Molina last year.

According to prosecutor Adrián Giménez, the officers are charged with “failing to perform the duties of a public servant” for not responding to repeated calls from locals in Villa Zavaleta informing them of the shoot out taking place barely 100m from their station. The officers sent to the location in two vehicles repeatedly reported to radio operators that no shots were being fired.

“It was unequivocal that shots were being fired,” wrote Giménez in his report, adding that the emergency calls “coincided (in their description) and came from different phone numbers.”

The seven officers will now face questioning from a judge.

Kevin was hiding under a table in his house during the shootout on 7th September 2013, when a stray bullet hit him in the head. His relatives and neighbours say the security forces are to blame for his death for deliberately allowing the shootout to continue.

Luciano Ortiz Almonacid, the lawyer representing Kevin’s family, said that “the response of the officers, who made radio statements that cannot be justified like ‘negative to shootings’ or ‘the panorama is normal’ points to the most awful part of our history, as they clearly had created a ‘free zone’ to allow crime to go on under their noses.”

Ortiz Almonacid celebrated the decision in a statement published yesterday by La Garganta Poderosa, a magazine run out of Villa Zavaleta that has been leading the campaign to demand justice for Kevin.

However, he added that the time taken just to summon the officers showed a clear “disinterest” from the judiciary. “This apathy could only be overcome thanks to the determined work of the locals who are part of ‘La Poderosa’, who report the truth and reveal what was being hidden even when faced with intimidating actions… [cases like this] expose how the state abandons the most impoverished through the security forces that it doesn’t know how to control.”

Posted in News From Argentina, Round Ups Argentina0 Comments

Mexico: Protests After Prosecutor Says Missing Students ‘Likely Dead’

Federal prosecutor Jesús Murillo Karam gave details about the case to press on Friday (Photo Omar Torres/AFP/Télam)

Federal prosecutor Jesús Murillo Karam gave details about the case to press on Friday (Photo Omar Torres/AFP/Télam)

Protests broke out across Mexico during the weekend, after the federal prosecutor said that the 43 missing students in Guerrero state had most likely been murdered by members of an organised crime gang.

Peaceful marches were staged in several cities over the weekend, as protesters blamed the government for its role in the case. Some turned violent as a minority group attacked government buildings and set cars alights in the state capital, Chilpancingo, while in Mexico City a group of protesters were detained after starting a fire at the entrance of the presidential palace.

The latest protest were fueled by declarations made by federal prosecutor Jesús Murillo Karam on Friday evening. In a televised press conference, Murillo said that several detainees had confessed to killing a “large number” of people and then burning their bodies before dumping the remains in a river.

Murillo played video testimonies given by the detainees – members of the Guerreros Unidos gang – providing graphic details about how they had taken the youngsters to a rubbish tip in the town of Cocula, where they killed them and then incinerated the bodies in a blaze that lasted for 14 hours.

The students had been previously attacked and kidnapped by police in the nearby city of Iguala, and were killed by the gang on police orders, according to Murillo.

The confession led to the discovery of several bags full of bone fragments and ashes, and Murillo said that there were “indications” that these belong to the students. The remains will be sent to Austria for a full DNA analysis to try and confirm if they match that of the students’ families.

Murillo said that the investigation would remain open, with the students classified as “disappeared” until there was confirmation of the identity of the human remains.

The press conference came after Murillo held a private meeting with the families of the missing students. A group of parents also spoke to the press, saying they would not give up hope of finding their children until there is irrefutable scientific proof.

“As parents we do not accept these declarations [by Murilla], because even he said they could not be certain,” said one of the parents, Felipe de la Cruz. “We demand that the search be intensified and that international organisations get involved, as the president promised us, to make the search more efficient, as we have found that our country has been overwhelmed by this.”

So far, 72 people have been arrested in connection with the case, including Igual Mayor José Luis Abarca and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, who are accused of ordering the police attack on the students.

Posted in News From Latin America, Round Ups Latin America0 Comments

Cristian Ferreyra Murder Trial Begins in Santiago del Estero

Victim Cristian Ferreyra, and his baby child (Image via MOCASE-VC)

Victim Cristian Ferreyra, and his baby child (Image via MOCASE-VC)

The trial of seven men accused of being involved in the murder of indigenous farmer Cristian Ferreyra in 2011 began today in Monte Quemado, Santiago del Estero.

Ferreyra, 23, was gunned down in a rural farm on 16th November 2011 as he prepared a gathering with friends and other local farmers. The meeting was to discuss how to defend an area of land belonging to his indigenous community Lule Vilela that was under threat from encroaching agribusiness interests.

Ferreyra, a member of the Farmers Movement in Santiago del Estero (MOCASE-VC), died on the way to the nearest town, 50kms away, while his friend and colleague Darío Godoy was badly wounded.

In the trial, Javier Juárez is accused of murdering Ferreyra and injuring Godoy. Jorge Ciccioli, a local businessman that claimed to own the contested land, and Demetrio Palomo are charged with being accomplices. Four other men face charges for causing injury, threats, and abuse of firearms.

The trial is considered “historic” as it marks the first time a local businessman has been charged with a murder amid an ongoing conflict over lands in northern Argentina.

“The violence used against members of MOCASE-VC are part of a long territorial conflict in Argentia’s Gran Chaco region, including Santiago del Estero,” wrote the Centre for Social and Legal Studies (CELS) in a statement today. “The encroaching agricultural frontier and insecure land ownership creates a context of increasing human rights violations against farmers and indigenous communities, especially in terms of land rights, food supply, and the right to a dignified life.

“During an extended conflict over lands in this region, no political, judicial, or police authorities in the province have intervened to end the land clearings, or the attacks and threats towards the farming communities,” continued the statement.

In the last few weeks MOCASE-VC have reported several instances of threats made against them, including one video in which a landowner make a direct threat with a gun.

Posted in News From Argentina, Round Ups Argentina0 Comments

Courts Acquits Two Accused of Inciting Indoamericano Takeover

Police approach the blocked road (Escalada) and pass through the barrier to the Parque Indoamericano in 2010. (Photo: Kate-Sedgwick)

Police approach the blocked road (Escalada) and pass through the barrier to the Parque Indoamericano in 2010. (Photo: Kate-Sedgwick)

Two activists accused of inciting the occupation of Parque Indoamericano by hundreds of families in 2010 were acquitted today by a Buenos Aires court.

Diosnel Pérez and Luciano Nardulli were charged with organising the takeover of the land in the neighbourhood of Villa Soldati on 6th December 2010. Later that day there were violent clashes as police evicted people from the park, ending with two people dead and six injured.

Though the park was cleared, it was occupied again two days later, leading to an uneasy standoff that lasted for several days while the city and national government debated who should take charge of the situation.

In the trial prosecutors had recommended the two men be handed a two-year suspended sentence. However, several police officers were unable to identify the suspects as those organising the occupation.

“The only thing that has been irrefutably proven is the occupation of Parque Indoamericano, that this park belongs to the City of Buenos Aires Government…, that on 6th December there was an eviction, and that on 8th December it was violently occupied again,” read Judge Cristina Lara on acquitting the two suspects.

“This is a partial victory,” Nardulli told Infojus Noticias after the verdict. “The victory will be complete when those responsible for the murder of our colleagues are brought to justice.”

Earlier this year cases against 41 Metropolitan and Federal police officers were dropped, though this has been appealed.

The Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) had previously criticised the trial against Pérez and Nardulli, saying it represented the “criminalisation of protest”

“The decision to take Pérez and Nardulli to trial sets a serious precedent of criminalising social leaders and makes clear the discriminatory and violent manner in which the City Government has adopted in conflict like the one in Parque Indoamericano,” the organisation published in a statement.

Posted in News From Argentina, Round Ups Argentina0 Comments

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On the 4th anniversary of the death of former president Néstor Kirchner, we revisit Marc Rogers' 2011 article analysing his legacy.

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