Category Archives: Latin America

US Embassy Venezuela: Local Employee Miguel Cartaya Killed in Caracas

– Domani Spero

We posted recently about the US Embassy Caracas where three embassy officials were given 48 hours to leave the country (see Venezuela (Where Almost No One Has Toilet Paper) Kicks Out Three U.S. Diplomats for “Flaming” Student Protests).

The anti-government rallies has been roiling Venezuela for days with people expressing their grievances against high inflation, crime, and the shortages of staple goods such as toilet paper, milk, rice and cooking oil.  According to CNN, four anti-government protesters and one government supporter have died in clashes around the country. 

Amidst these chaos, local news reported yesterday that a former official of the Bolivarian National Police (BNP) who worked for the security office of the US Embassy in Caracas was killed at 4:30 in the morning during an attempted  robbery.

Local reports identified the employee as Miguel Angel Borges Cartaya, 39. He reportedly was  found at the bottom of a ravine with multiple gun shots wounds.

One report says that the victim was working escort duties at the American Embassy in Caracas.  Relatives cited in the report also said that the victim was leaving his house when he was attacked by several armed men who were after his belongings.  He was reportedly shot when he resisted.

The Regional Security Office’s 2013 Crime and Safety Report notes that violent crime is the greatest threat in Caracas, affecting local Venezuelans and foreigners alike.

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We are so sorry to hear this news.  This has been a tough couple of weeks for local embassy staff.  On February 12, we blogged about the death of an FSN working at USCG Peshawar (see USCG Peshawar Employee Faisal Saeed Killed in Pakistan).  On February 13, we posted about the arrest and detention of an FSN working at US Embassy Cairo (see  US Embassy Cairo FSN Ahmed Alaiba Detained Since 1/25–State Dept Still Seeking “Clarity”).

We have sent an inquiry to the US Embassy Caracas but received no response.

Our unofficial source in the country confirmed to us that Miguel Cartaya was an FSN, working at the Embassy as a security guard.  At this point, there apparently is no reason to believe the shooting is related to his work at the Embassy, but rather a sad fact of daily life in Caracas, which has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. We will have a blog update if we learn more.

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Venezuela (Where Almost No One Has Toilet Paper) Kicks Out Three U.S. Diplomats for “Flaming” Student Protests

– Domani Spero

In October 2013, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro accused the top U.S. diplomat at the US Embassy in Caracas and two other embassy officials of “acts of sabotage” — allegedly, they caused the blackouts that plagued the country — and ordered them to leave (what career track is that?) U.S. Embassy Caracas Charge d’Affaires Kelly Keiderling and two diplomats, reportedly Consular Officer David Moo and Elizabeth Hoffman, who worked in Embassy Caracas’ political section were given 48 hours to leave the country. Soon thereafter, the AP reported that the State Department  expelled Venezuelan Charge d’Affaires Calixto Ortega Rios, Second Secretary Monica Alejandra Sanchez Morales at its embassy in Washington and Consul Marisol Gutierrez de Almeida at the Venezuelan consulate in Houston. (see Venezuela Kicks Out Top US Diplomat, Two Other Officials For … Wait For It ….Blackouts!).

This weekend, Secretary Kerry expressed deep concern over  “rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela.”  His statement also says, “We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.”Here is Leopoldo Lopez on YouTube. See WSJ Venezuelan Opposition Leader Says He Will Risk Arrest.

The Venezuelan government wasn’t happy with this “interference.” Now the Miami Herald is reporting that Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Elías Jaua has given three American diplomats 48 hours to leave the country as  he accused them of fanning the flames of student protests that have rattled the country for more than a week.

The El Universal reports that Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jaua identified the three officials as Vice Consuls Breeann Marie McCusker, Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristofer Lee Clark.  They’ve been accused of  “trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities under the cover of doing visa outreach.”We should note that the US Embassy Caracas has improved its visa wait time for Venezuelan visa applicants to 70 days in January but it is still #2 in Top Ten Visa Wait Time at U.S. Consular Posts (pdf) via Liam Schwartz’s Consular Corner.

We expect a reciprocal expulsion for three Venezuelan diplomats in the United States to follow. Today, the State Department denied these allegations releasing the following statement:

“The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false. We support human rights and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide. We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.”

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“To be Venezuelan today is to live on the edge of the apocalypse, convinced it will happen tomorrow,” said Alberto Barrera, a poet, screenwriter and biographer of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. According to Globe and Mail,  the oil engineers have emigrated to Calgary, the soap opera stars fled to Mexico and Colombia, and women “both rich and poor have cut back to just one blow-dry or manicure each week.”

The country where inflation has been running reportedly at over 50%, where television stations are state controlled,  and where billboards apparently boast that “Venezuela has never been stronger,” almost no one has toilet paper in their bathrooms.

Whether its blackouts, protests or lack of toilet paper in the world’s fifth-largest oil producer – some people claim that there’s always Uncle Sam to blame.  As long as the Mr. Maduro’s government  convinced itself that all the country’s ails come from its powerful neighbor and refused to acknowledge how poorly it has managed Venezuela’s  affairs, nothing will change. It can continue blaming the United States, but sooner or later it will be forced to faced up to reality.  Venezuela produced 2.45 million barrels a day in 2012.  It exports on  average 792,000 barrels a day in the first 11 months of 2013 to the U.S. according to Bloomberg (apparently, the lowest since 1985). The report also says that Venezuela’s export basket price rose to $97.18 a barrel in the week of Jan. 27-31.

So the most important question — with that kind of money, how is it that there is a shortage of toilet paper in the country?

Early this year, LAT reported that U.S.-based American Airlines and United Airlines and Panama’s Copa Airlines were halting ticket sales in Venezuela in lieu of the government’s failure to pay arrears that has totaled $2.6 billion.  According to USA Today, Toyota Motor Co. said it would shut down its assembly operations in Venezuela due to  to the government’s foreign exchange controls.  The country is also running out of newsprint. Last week, the Guardian reported that El Impulso, the country’s oldest newspaper will be reduced to one section because it is running out of paper.

But to President Maduro this is all good since the late Hugo Chavez had reportedly appeared to him as a bird more than once telling him he was doing a good job.

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US Embassy El Salvador: Critical Crime Threat – Stay Off the Streets

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– Domani Spero

On January 14, 2014, the US Embassy in San Salvador sent an emergency message to U.S. citizens in the country with a reminder of the critical crime threat in El Salvador. At approximately 21,041 square kilometers, El Salvador is the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America.

This message is to remind U.S. citizens residing and traveling in El Salvador of the critical crime threat in El Salvador.  Most travelers to El Salvador experience no safety or security problems, but as noted in our August 9, 2013, Travel Warning for El Salvador, both random and organized violent crime is endemic throughout El Salvador. U.S. citizens are not normally singled out based on their nationality, but are subject to the same threats as all other persons in El Salvador.

Over the last several weeks, several joggers and pedestrians were robbed at gunpoint in the immediate area around U.S. Embassy San Salvador.  Blogs associated with local running and cycling groups have also reported on runners being targeted in the Santa Elena area as well as other affluent areas, such as Escalon and San Benito.  Due to these issues, U.S. Embassy security officials advise all U.S. Government personnel not to walk, run or cycle in the unguarded streets and parks of El Salvador, even in groups, and recommend exercising only in gyms and fitness centers.

Stay aware of your surroundings at all times when in public, and avoid carrying any valuables at all, including watches or smart phones/tablets, as these items are often targeted by thieves.  Be especially vigilant when entering or exiting your home or hotel, car, garage, school, and workplace.  Whenever possible, travel in groups of two or more persons.  Walking in many areas of El Salvador can expose you to crime, especially at night, and visitors and residents should not walk alone on or near beaches, historic ruins, or trails.

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The 2013 Crime and Safety Report published by  Diplomatic Security says that “El Salvador is considered one of the most violent countries in the world. The criminal threat in El Salvador is unpredictable, gang-centric, and characterized by violence directed against both known associates and targets of opportunity.”

Crimes of every nature occur 24 hours a day; daylight is not a deterrent. There are no areas that are deemed free of violent crime. Robberies and robbery attempts, home invasions, and extortions occur in the most affluent neighborhoods, and closely guarded officials, independent business persons, and diplomats are not immune from these attacks.
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Most U.S. citizens (close to 90 percent) die of natural causes in El Salvador. The leading cause of non-natural death is homicide. In 2012, U.S. fatalities included 11 non-natural deaths (seven homicides, two vehicle accidents, one suicide, and one drowning). 2011 saw eight non-natural deaths (four homicides, two vehicle accidents, and two drowning). And 2010 saw 13 non-natural deaths (11 homicides, one vehicle accident, and one drowning). Of 32 non-natural deaths from January 2010 to December 2012, 22 were homicides.

The effect and threat of violent crime in San Salvador, including the neighborhoods in which many Americans live and work, leads to isolation and the curtailment of recreational opportunities. Based on current statistics, violent crime remains significantly higher than U.S. and international rates. El Salvador has the second highest per capita murder rate in the world: 69 per 100,000 in 2012 (UNODC statistics) (by comparison the murder rate in Massachusetts, with a similar geographical area and population, was 2.6 per 100,000). Police statistics show there was an average of seven murders and three carjackings reported daily in 2012.

As of January 12, 2014, El Salvador is a 15% hardship and a 10% COLA post.

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Venezuela Kicks Out Top US Diplomat, Two Other Officials For … Wait For It ….Blackouts!

– By Domani Spero

Venezuela’s embattled President Nicolás Maduro accused the top U.S. diplomat at the US Embassy in Caracas and two other embassy officials of “acts of sabotage” and ordered them to leave the country.

In a fiery televised speech, Mr. Maduro says that the diplomats have 48 hours to leave the country, and for sound effects, adds the usual serving of “Yankees, go home!”.  According to BBC News, Mr. Maduro says he has evidence that the trio took part in a power-grid sabotage in September and had bribed Venezuelan companies to cut down production. (See BBC News – Venezuela expels three US diplomats over ‘sabotage’).

“We detected a group of US embassy officials dedicated to meeting the far-right and to financing and encouraging acts of sabotage against the electrical system and Venezuela’s economy,” the president said in a televised speech.

The Caracas Chronicles calls the proof the “Smoking Squirt Gun”; video here complete with a pirated soundtrack featuring the three diplomats.

The top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela is Charge d’Affairs Kelly Keiderling. The other two diplomats asked to leave are reportedly Consular Officer David Moo and Elizabeth Hoffman, who works in the Embassy Caracas’ political section.

Below is Charge Kelly Keiderling with her goodbye:

Late Tuesday, the AP reported that the State Department  was expelling Venezuelan charge d’affaires Calixto Ortega Rios and Second Secretary Monica Alejandra Sanchez Morales at the Washington embassy and Consul Marisol Gutierrez de Almeida at the Houston consulate. In the spirit of reciprocity, it gave the Venezuelan diplomats 48 hours to leave the U.S.

“It is regrettable that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel U.S. diplomatic officials based on groundless allegations, which require reciprocal action. It is counterproductive to the interests of both our countries,” the State Department said.

Back in early September when Venezuela was crippled by a massive power failure that left 70% of the country without electricity, President Maduro insisted that the blackout was “the result of a plot by the extreme Right to mount an “electrical strike” against the country.”

According to the WSJ, Venezuela opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost April elections to Mr. Maduro as Hugo Chavez’ successor said that the power failure underscored mismanagement at state companies.

“The blackout today demonstrates one more time the terrible incapacity of this government,” Mr. Capriles said in a post on his official Twitter account. “Now they’ll come up with another story to try to cover up the failure.”

But really  – why stop at blaming the Yankees for just the blackouts? If he’s smart as he think he is, Mr. Maduro could solve his whole problem of things falling apart with a simple strategy — just blame the Yankees for everything!  Because why not? It’s free.

The thing is —  “Yankees, go home!” is really, really getting old.  It has lost its pizzazz and shock value, no?  So below are some helpful hints so Mr. Maduro has something else to talk and shout about:

Hyperinflation at 45.4%:  When somebody asks about the country’s 45.4% inflation rate, don’t answer the question. Presidents do not have to answer questions! Instead, ask this: Who are engaging in economic “sabotage”? Since you’re the president, you are allowed to answer your own question, too!  Here’s the cheat sheet: “The Yanquis and enemies of the people are teaming up with greedy Venezuelan shopkeepers to undermine the country’s currency.  They plan to push the inflation to 50% before the year is over.”  Get that?  Then you sit and wait until the inflation spikes to 50% around December, and you tell everyone, “I told you so.” Or you can shout – Yankees! ¡Te lo dije!

Scarcity Index:  The Venezuelan Central Bank’s scarcity index, a measure of products missing from store shelves edged up to 20% in August. Now this one is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.  Two things you can do: One, say that the Yankees obviously sends their agents routinely all over the country to buy up cooking oil, powdered milk, toilet paper, and all other products to keep the shelves empty.  Remember, these Yankees sent men to the moon, of course, they can make food items disappear, silly.  Two, if this doesn’t work, go ahead and declare all news related to shortages as war propaganda. Media outlets which report shortages should be punished or nationalized.  Go shout – “Shut up! The stores are not empty!” That should shut everyone upCállate!  Las tiendas no están vacías! Try it, try it, it works.

Violent Crime:  Venezuela remained one of the deadliest countries in the world in 2012, with a record number of homicides reported by both official and non-official sources. Venezuela had approximately 21,692 homicides in 2012, a rate of 73 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants; more than double Colombia’s rate, and triples Mexico’s homicide rate five years into its “drug war.”  Crazy, right? Don’t worry.  You can always say that whoever came up with these number do not know anything about math. Yankees – no saben matemáticas!  Repeat often, even if not needed.

Carjackings:  According to government statistics, in 2012 Caracas saw more than 3,300 carjackings and 2,800 forcible motorcycle robberies. These numbers are in addition to the approximately 2,800 cars and 2,900 motorcycles that were surreptitiously taken. Carjacking victims in 2012 have included business executives and foreign diplomats in Caracas.  Also skyrocketing numbers in kidnappings, home invasions, street gangs, blah, blah, blah.  Well, if you’re confronted with these numbers, just deny, deny, deny.  Of course, the Yankees must have paid these statisticians to over count these cases, too. Arrest them!  With feelings, you should shout, according to Google Translate, “arrestarlos inmediatamente!”  

Now that should help keep things spicy a bit.

One last thing though, and this is sorta important. We think the Venezuelan Government should stop declaring American diplomats persona non grata.  If President Maduro kicks out any more embassy official, there won’t be any American diplomat left in Caracas.

You don’t think this is going to be a problem?

Who is he going to blame for the shortage of toilet paper in the country?

(ñ_ñ)

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US Embassy Caracas: Two American Officials Wounded at “Some Sort of Social Spot”

The State Department has confirmed that 1) “two members of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas were injured during an incident early this morning” (May 28); 2) their injuries do not appear to be life threatening; 3) Embassy security and health unit personnel are at the hospital and have been in touch with the two individuals and their families; 4) that the incident occurred at “at some sort of social spot or somewhere outside of the Embassy grounds;” and 5) these are “other agency personnel.”

QUESTION: Were they Foreign Service – or are they Foreign Service officers, or are they other –

MR. VENTRELL: No, my understanding is that they are other agency personnel, not from the State Department. But if we’re able to confirm later in the day more about their status, we’ll do that for you.

According to CNN,  the two who were shot at a nightclub in northeast Caracas are U.S. military officials who worked with the embassy’s Defense Liaison Office.  A police spokeswoman said the shooting occurred at the Antonella 2012 club. The attending physician at a hospital in Caracas said one was shot in the abdomen and the leg, and the other in the abdomen,

Rodrigo@RodrigoEBR via CNN en Español tweeted that the U.S. Embassy staffers wounded were Roberto Ezequiel Rosas and Paul Marwin and that both are in stable condition after the shooting in Caracas.
Although not named, the two made it to the New York Times page:  2 American Embassy Officials Are Shot in Venezuela Strip Club.

“Some sort of social spot” is really a strip club?  Apparently it is. Some days we just feel sorry for the guy on the podium.  Heavy.com has an interesting piece:  US Embassy Employees Shot After Brawl inside Caracas Strip Club — includes a statement from a club rep saying in part:

“Two men were shot. Who cares what they were doing here. It sure as hell isn’t our fault. Why does the media wants to ruin these guys lives – these guys who probably have a family and a wife – with this news that they were in our club? Its dumb. I have had to deal with police officers and with people from the embassy all day.” … Last week three people were killed in the mall. May 1st two people were killed and nobody came. Why do people only care when its not Venezuelan people who are dying and getting shot….I saw a man get killed in front of my house. He died and they took 20 bucks from him. Do you think the police came? No. Venezuela is worse than Afghanistan. Its worst than Iraq. This violence is our daily bread.”

The April 2013 report from the Regional Security Officer on Crime and Security in Caracas indicates that several neighborhoods of Caracas are off-limits to American employees of the Embassy. The Embassy has also mandated that all employees travel in an armored vehicle to and from Simón Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia as it judged the airport road especially dangerous after receiving numerous reports of robberies and murders in the areas around the terminal (street, parking lot, etc.). Here is a quick summary:

The U.S. Department of State rates the criminal threat level in Caracas as “Critical.” Much of Caracas’s crime and violence can be attributed to mobile street gangs and organized crime groups. A number of factors explain the pervasive criminality in Caracas, including criminals’ disdain for official reprisal; a poorly paid, under-armed, and sometimes corrupt police force; an inefficient and politicized judicial system; a system of violent and overcrowded prisons, frequently managed with impunity by prison gang leaders themselves; and (according to some sources) as many as six million illegal weapons spread out across the country.

Our embassy in Caracas has been problematic for years not just in relation with the host country but within the mission itself.  Almost as if its been forgotten by the bureaucratic gods.  Between July 2010 and October 2011, US Embassy Caracas had two interim chargés, and relied upon a series of acting DCMs. This contributed, according to the OIG, to inconsistency and confusion regarding internal direction within the mission.  In February 2012, we blogged this – US Embassy Caracas: Where do I begin, to tell the story of how bad a post can get?.  In May last year, there was something else – US Embassy Caracas: Former FSN Pleads Guilty for Receiving Illegal Gratuity. In January this year, remember that carjacking?

Letter From Caracas: Did You Hear About the American Diplomat Carjacked in Venezuela?

On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, at approximately 7:50 p.m. an American employee of Embassy Caracas was carjacked in the Sebucan neighborhood of Caracas. The perpetrators were three or four men armed with handguns. The victim’s house keys, wallet, and cell phone were in the cup holders located between the vehicle’s two front seats at the time of the carjacking. They were taken with the car. The victim was unharmed, and with the aid of friends living in a nearby building, was able to contact the Regional Security Office which then dispatched an embassy roving patrol to pick up the victim.

As of this writing, Caracas is a 42% COLA, 20% hardship post and a 0% danger post.

– DS

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Where dangerous conditions are not/not created equal …

We have blogged recently about the critical crime and violence in El Salvador (see State Dept Issues El Salvador Travel Warning:  Critical Crime and Violence.  We have also blogged about the carjacking of a US Embassy employee in Caracas. (see Letter From Caracas: Did You Hear About the American Diplomat Carjacked in Venezuela?)  By the way, The Telegraph reported in December 2012 that “There are more murders in Venezuela than in the United States and the 27 countries of the European Union combined.” San Salvador (El Salvador) and Caracas (Venezuela) are both considered critical crime posts but are not designated danger pay post.

We’ve checked the State Department’s Allowances website and here is what it says about danger pay:

*The danger pay allowance is designed to provide additional compensation above basic compensation to all U.S. Government civilian employees, including Chiefs of Mission, for service at places in foreign areas where there exist conditions of civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or wartime conditions which threaten physical harm or imminent danger to the health or well-being of an employee.  These conditions do not include acts characterized chiefly as economic crime.

Note the last line of that explanation.

Danger pay factors used in determining the allowance include post evacuation/operating status, acts of violence, and post environmental conditions (see Danger Pay Factors (DS-578).

Under operating status, factors assessed include: the evacuation status (ordered or authorized), percentage of Eligible Family Members (EFMs) remaining at post during an authorized departure and whether or not post is on unaccompanied status or if limited family members are allowed at post.

Acts of violence includes killing, risk of death or severe injury, aggravated battery, kidnapping, sabotage, property damages, extortion, rioting, and hijacking.

Post environmental conditions includes terrorism conditions and civil war, civil insurrection and warfare conditions.

While “attempted hijacking of a privately owned vehicle” and “the hijacking of a privately owned vehicle has become a commonplace occurrence” are some of the factors to be considered under the Danger Pay Factors (DS-578), it is also appears that for purposes of danger pay designation, these incidents are not considered relevant if they are economically motivated and if committed for reasons not related to terrorism, civil insurrection, and/or war.

In fact the danger pay description clearly notes that *“These conditions do not include acts characterized chiefly as economic crime.”

Okay. So kidnapping and carjacking incidents in Iraq or Afghanistan probably contribute to its danger post designation but kidnapping and carjacking in say Venezuela or El Salvador where they would be considered an economic crime, would not?

But then you get Haiti,  designated as 5% danger pay post as of 12/2010; that was down from 20% earlier that year. The embassy there also recently went on an embassy-imposed curfew due to security conditions.

Let’s note for the record that there are no civil wars or insurrection in Haiti or Venezuela.

That leave us with terrorism.

The Crime and Security Report for Haiti says that “The USG rates Haiti as LOW in the threat category of indigenous terrorism. There have been no terrorist acts specifically targeting American interests or citizens in Haiti.”

The Crime and Security Report for Venezuela says “Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are designated by the Secretary of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Both groups use Venezuela as a safe haven. The State Department has stated that the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah is using Venezuela mainly for fundraising. However, Venezuelan media reports suggest Hezbollah is also active in training, money laundering, and arms trafficking.

So this is a tad perplexing, no? How is it that Haiti with crime and security problems (but no terrorism, civil insurrection, and/or war) gets a 5% danger pay designation and Venezuela with crime and security problems (but no civil insurrection, and/or war, and is a terrorist safe haven) gets zero. Since we are not privy to the documents submitted, we have no way of knowing exactly the reason for this.

But you can perhaps understand why folks in Caracas might be troubled by this treatment.

We can think of a few possible reasons for this dissimilar treatment, pardon the speculation since no one would talk about this on the record for this blog:

Front Office Leadership? Somebody has to submit the Danger Pay Factors before any designation can be done. US Embassy Haiti during and after the earthquake has a chief of mission.  US Embassy Venezuela has been without an ambassador since July 2010 and is short staffed in key areas. According to the 2012 OIG report “Between July 2010 and October 2011, the two interim chargés [...] relied upon a series of acting DCMs, which contributed to inconsistency and confusion regarding internal direction within the mission and interactions with Washington.”

Skills and Collaboration? The person responsible for putting together the Danger Pay Factors is without a doubt the Management Office at post in collaboration with the Regional Security Office. So the Management Officer’s writing skills and excellent cooperation with the RSO who has to dig up the supporting stats and documentation is crucial in making a compelling case. The most recent OIG report on Venezuela says that “Management services are incoherent and customer service is poor.” Not only that, the inspectors reported that “weak management section leadership has exacerbated the situation.”  So while Management Officers were not spotlighted in the recent recruitment video from the State Department, they are the most important component of an effective mission. Next to excellent Front Office leadership, of course.  Our unscientific review indicates that the effectiveness and responsiveness of the management section has a direct correlation to the morale and performance of the mission.

Regional Bureau Attention? We do not know what kind of support US Embassy Venezuela get from the WHA bureau and its assistant secretary. But we can readily tell what kind of support has been extended to the US Embassy in Haiti, a post that even has its own Special Coordinator.  We do think that special care and support is necessary when a mission does not have the leadership of a Senate-confirmed ambassador, when post has more than the usual staffing gaps, when post has a good number of entry level officers working in upstretched positions in a host country with 19.9 percent inflation rate.  Particularly if post is also the receiving end of prolong official animosity towards the United States.  When  taken together, these can have a significant impact in the proper functioning of a mission.   The question then becomes — If US Embassy Caracas is getting the appropriate care and support it needs given its many challenges, how is it that its morale is in the mud and we’re getting love notes from there?

Danger Pay Office Out to Lunch? Would you please knock over there and check it out. Please?

Because somebody’s gotta ask why.

One of our readers just sent a question asking, “Where do Mexican border posts that have danger pay fit? Civil insurrection? Isn’t drug/gang violence for economic gain/profit?”  

And that’s why you’re looking at somebody just as confused.  Is it possible that the folks out to lunch also went off the tracks on this?  Something for the Secretary’s Sounding Board, anyone?

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State Dept Issues El Salvador Travel Warning: Critical Crime and Violence

On January 23, 2013, the State Department issued a new Travel Warning for El Salvador detailing the crime and violence in the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America.  For a while there, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world. It was  dislodged from the #1 spot by Honduras in 2010. In 2011, there were 82.1 murders per 100,000 people in Honduras.

The Crime and Security Report for 2012 issued by the embassy’s Regional Security Office says that “El Salvador is considered one of the most violent countries in the world. The effect and threat of violent crime within San Salvador, including the neighborhoods in which many Americans live and work, leads to greater isolation and the curtailment of recreational opportunities.”  Part of that report described the robbery at gunpoint of an embassy officer and spouse while stuck at a traffic circle near the embassy:

“In 2011, armed robberies continued at the accelerated 2010 pace and arguably could be the single greatest security threat facing U.S. embassy staff and business persons. As an example, in April 2011, an embassy officer and spouse were robbed at gunpoint at a traffic circle less than a mile from the embassy while stuck in late rush hour traffic. In this instance, two unidentified men approached the driver’s side of the car, pointed a gun at both occupants, and demanded their belongings. The couple complied with their demands, and the attackers fled the scene on foot. In another example, a U.S. tourist was robbed at night by two individuals with machetes directly outside a popular private beach club that is frequented often by embassy staff and other Westerners.”

US Embassy San Salvador, El Salvador

US Embassy San Salvador, El Salvador

Below is an excerpt from the new Travel Warning:

The Department of State has issued this Travel Warning to inform U.S. citizens about the security situation in El Salvador.

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, business, and volunteer work. However, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country. In 2011, El Salvador had the second highest murder rate in the world: 71 per 100,000 people (by comparison, the murder rate in Massachusetts, with a similar geographical area and population, was 2.6 per 100,000). In 2012, a truce between El Salvador’s two principal street gangs contributed to a decline in the homicide rate. However, the sustainability of the decline is unclear, and the truce had little impact on robbery, assaults, and other violent crimes. Most of these crimes go unsolved. In March 2012, as a result of an administrative review of the security situation, Peace Corps El Salvador substantially reduced the number of its volunteers in country.

U.S. citizens do not appear to be targeted based on their nationality. However, 22 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador since January 2010. During the same time period, 230 U.S. citizens reported having their passports stolen. Armed robberies of climbers and hikers in El Salvador’s national parks are common, and the Embassy strongly recommends engaging the services of a local guide certified by the national or local tourist authority when hiking in back country areas, even within the national parks. In 2000, the National Civilian Police (PNC) established a special tourist police force (POLITUR) to provide security and assistance to tourists, as well as protection for the cultural heritage of El Salvador. It has officers located in 19 tourist destinations.

A majority of serious crimes are never solved; only five of the 22 murders committed against U.S. citizens since January 2010 have resulted in convictions. The Government of El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter violent crime. The PNC is still developing into a modern and effective police force that can protect the public. While several of the PNC’s investigative units have shown great promise, routine street level patrol techniques, anti-gang, and crime suppression efforts are limited.

Transnational criminal organizations conduct narcotics, arms trafficking, and other unlawful activities throughout the country and use violence to control drug trafficking routes and carry out other criminal activity. Other criminals, acting both individually and in gangs, commit crimes such as murder-for-hire, carjacking, extortion, armed robbery, rapes, and other aggravated assaults. El Salvador, a country of roughly six million people, has hundreds of known street gangs totaling more than 20,000 members. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely day and night, targeting affluent areas for burglaries, and gang members are quick to engage in violence if resisted.

Extortion is a particularly serious and common crime in El Salvador. Many extortion attempts are no more than random cold calls that originate from imprisoned gang members using cellular telephones, and the subsequent threats against the victim are made through social engineering and/or through information obtained about the victim’s family. U.S. citizens who are visiting El Salvador for extended periods may be at higher risk for extortion demands. Hitting its peak a few years ago, extortion has dropped in the last two years; however, recent reports show that there is an increase in the level of violence associated with extortion cases, including media reports of extortion victims and witnesses being killed. Extortion attempts can be transnational in nature and can include kidnapping of victims. For example, in 2011, a 2 year old U.S. citizen was kidnapped from the home of his grandparents in El Salvador by 8 to 10 armed men. Ransom demands made to family members in both El Salvador and the United States were traced back to a local prison used exclusively to incarcerate gang members.

Read in full here.

In 2011, police statistics also show an average of 12 murders and three carjackings reported daily to the police. While  El Salvador is a 10% COLA and 15% hardship differential post, it is as of this writing not listed as a danger pay post.

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US Mission Mexico: Mexican Federal Cops Shot at Embassy SUV and Kept Shooting

You’ve heard the news. Two US Embassy Mexico employees were wounded in the shooting of an embassy SUV with a diplomatic plate on August 24.  The wounded were described as “US Embassy officials” here. The LAT calls them “U.S. government employees” here. CNN originally described the injured as “three U.S. Marines” here.

We’ve been waiting for an official statement from the US Embassy in Mexico.  A statement finally came out late August 24, 2012. See below:

Mexico City, August 24, 2012 – This morning two U.S. Government personnel and a Mexican Navy captain were in a U.S diplomatic vehicle driving to a training facility, when they were ambushed by a group of individuals.

The vehicle attempted to escape, was pursued and sustained heavy damage.  They called for assistance from the Mexican armed forces, who responded.  The two U.S. wounded personnel were taken from the scene, given medical treatment and are in stable condition.  The Mexican Navy captain sustained no serious injuries.

The Government of Mexico has acknowledged that members of the Federal Police were involved and fired on the U.S. Embassy vehicle.  The Government of Mexico has begun an investigation and detained members of the Federal Police who were involved.

The Government of Mexico has stated it will conduct a full and thorough investigation of this incident.  The Embassy has been cooperating closely with the Mexican authorities and will assist in every way possible.

The Reuters report cites a Mexican government security official saying that the federal police had thought the vehicle belonged to a group of suspected kidnappers they were pursuing, and had opened fire on it.

“This was all because of a mix-up,” the official said.

CNN has more details:

The incident occurred at 8 a.m. Friday, when the two embassy employees and the Mexican were en route through the mountainous area to a navy facility in the municipality of Xalatlaco, according to a statement issued Friday by the Mexican Navy, which gave the following account:

The black SUV bearing a diplomatic license plate had just left the main highway that connects Mexico City with Cuernavaca and were driving on a dirt road that connects the small towns of Tres Marias and Huitzilac when a vehicle approached. When the occupants brandished firearms, the driver of the diplomatic vehicle tried to evade them and return to the main highway. At that point, the occupants sprayed bullets into the black SUV with diplomatic plates.

Moments later, another three vehicles joined the chase and fired shots at the embassy vehicle. The Mexican in the SUV called for help from the Mexican Navy personnel in nearby El Capulin who arrived after the shooting had ended and cordoned off the area.

Federal police, who were in the area working on a criminal investigation, participated in these acts, the statement said, but did not specify which vehicle or vehicles they were in.

Both embassy employees were taken — under federal police guard — to a hospital.

Photographs of the SUV showed the embassy vehicle pockmarked with more than a dozen holes and at least three of its tires flat.

Click on image to see video report

Potential to Get Swept Under the Rug?

Sylvia Longmire, a drug war cartel analyst and author of “Cartel: the Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars” told CNN that the long-term impact of the shooting will depend on how aggressively the Mexican government pursues the investigation.

“I’m somewhat skeptical that anyone will be brought to justice in this attack,” she told CNN Saturday. “Remember, nobody knows who shot the Americans. They’re still going to have to do ballistic reports.”

Though federal police have a reputation for being among the least corrupt of Mexico’s security forces, “I’m concerned that there is a potential for this to get swept under the rug,” she said.

Read in full here.

Attacks on USG Personnel in the Last 3 Years

This is not the first incident involving shooting and death of US mission personnel in Mexico.

In February 2011, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was killed and another wounded while driving through northern Mexico.

In March 2010, three individuals connected to the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez were killed in broad daylight. The AP says that the 2010 incident as “A drug-gang shooting in 2010 in the border city of Ciudad Juarez [that] killed a U.S. consulate employee, her husband and another man.” We still haven’t been able to connect those dots. The Barrio Azteca leader was extradited from Mexico in June this year, but the case remains toner dark.

How, where, when U.S. Consulate employee Leslie Ann Enriquez Catton, her husband Arthur Redelfs and Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, the husband of a U.S. Consulate employee were dot–connected to a drug-gang that caused their deaths, we still don’t know.

And we may never know.

Domani Spero

 

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Secret Service Scandal Slides Over Embassy Gate, Creeps into US Embassy Brasilia, US Embassy San Salvador and the Where Else Bar

Even under a rock, we managed to hear about the 24 Secret Service and military personnel accused of misconduct in the prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia.

Then on April 25, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and told the panel that the incident involving as many as 20 women appeared to be an isolated case. She said the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility had never received previous complaints in the past 2 1/2 years. We don’t know why 2 1/2 year is significant.  But it’s good to know since apparently, according to the Secretary Napolitano, the Secret Service has provided protection on more than 900 foreign trips and 13,000 domestic trips.

In a closely watched developing news, Defense Secretary Panetta was in Brazil on April 24 and had a joint presscon with Brazilian Minister Amorim in Brasilia.  They entertained three questions and the first one was about U.S. Marines from the US Embassy in Brasilia allegedly injuring a prostitute in December last year.

U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Thomas A. Shannon Jr. greets U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta upon his arrival in Brasilia, Brazil, April 24, 2012. Panetta is on a five-day trip to the region to meet with counterparts and military officials in Colombia, Brazil and Chile to discuss an expansion of defense and security cooperations (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley)

A reporter from TV Global asks: “Is the U.S. government going to act to punish the Marines involved here in Brasilia with prostitutes?”

Here is Secretary Panettta’s response:

“With regards to what you mentioned, obviously this incident was fully investigated and those that were involved have been punished and held accountable.  They are no longer in this country.  They were reduced in rank and they were severely punished for that behavior.  I have no tolerance for that kind of conduct, not here or any place in the world.  And where it takes place, you can be assured that we will act to make sure that they are punished and that that kind of behavior is not acceptable.”

Brazil’s News G1 globo.com has a report of this incident (in Portuguese) and aired a video with an interview of Romilda Aparecida Ferreira, the alleged victim and the subject of the question posted to Secretary Panetta.

From best we could tell from translated text, the woman was allegedly assaulted by officers of the U.S. Embassy at the end of last year. The case occurred four months ago after she met four embassy staffers in a nightclub where she worked as a dancer. The woman reportedly had an argument with the driver and she got dumped off the car and she fell and was injured.

Globo.com also says that the U.S. embassy through a statement (which we have difficulty locating online) acknowledge the case, said it had cooperated with the investigation and that the Americans involved in the case are no longer in Brazil. No charges were reportedly filed by the Brazilian authorities. The Foreign Ministry said it was not notified about the case.

VOA reported here that Defense officials say three U.S. Marines stationed at the U.S. embassy in Brazil and an embassy staffer picked up two prostitutes at a nightclub last December. One of the prostitutes says the men pushed her out of the car, and when she tried to re-enter the vehicle, she fell to the ground and was injured.

According to Secretary Panetta the Marines were “were reduced in rank.” The VOA report says that the U.S. embassy staff member was removed from his post and that injured prostitute has filed a lawsuit against the embassy in the wake of the Cartegena scandal.

The Brasilia incident, of course, made it to the Daily Press Briefing of April 25.

QUESTION: — for what Americans might consider the ongoing soap opera involving the Secret Service, except this doesn’t involve the Secret Service. We’re talking about three U.S. Marines who apparently have been punished as well as an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia who apparently were implicated in tossing a prostitute out of a moving car sometime last year. And I wanted to find out, since we know that the Marines have been punished, who was the employee of the Embassy? Was this person an American? Was this person a local hire? What can you say about a pending lawsuit now, apparently, against the Embassy?

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, your report of the incident in question is not accurate in terms of what actually happened. Second, this is something that happened back in December. There was a State Department employee involved. The – we did cooperate fully with the appropriate Brazilian authorities, including with the civil police. None of the Americans involved in the incident are still in Brazil. The civil police, as I understand it, are still working on their case, and no charges have been brought by the Brazilian authorities.

We’ll come back to the DPB later in a separate post because it is interesting all in itself.

This story has now taken on a life of its own like, well, like a fast-sprouting magic tree with many limbs.

Late Wednesday, Kirotv.com out of Seattle claims it has an exclusive about strippers and the Secret Service advance team (snipers, K-9 and explosives sweeps) in San Salvador prior to President Obama’s trip there in March of 2011.

The bar owner reportedly told kirotv’s investigative reporter Chris Halsne (oh, he got names) that his club routinely takes care of high-ranking employees of the U.S. embassy in San Salvador as well as visiting FBI and DEA agents. The owner says his reputation for “security” and “privacy” makes him a popular strip club owner with “those who want to be discreet.”  Kirotv.com says it is currently writing and editing-together a series of television stories for air beginning at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 26.

Next stop, the Where Else Bar … but hey, there’s a mad cow in California!

Domani Spero

 

Update: 4/16@10:18 pm
We’ve now seen the KiroTV exclusive – hey, they’re squeezing the juice out of that San Salvador trip; it’s like a drip, drip, drip of the same story. It is rather annoying.  It blares “New evidence expands Secret Service scandal” here. In Chris Halsne Reveals More on Secret Service piece, we get to see an interview with a retired Secret Service agent who boils this down to terrorism, and of course, there has to be footage of half naked dancing girls because it is the Lips Strip Club, and you just gotta show them half naked people doing the boogie. Sorry, no pole dancing included.

The reporter is shown talking to the strip club’s Salvadoran guard in English, he responds in Spanish, and we’re left to imagine what he said to the reporter.  The source is reportedly a bilingual subcontractor of the U.S. Secret Service whose identity has been kept confidential. Obviously, if he was a subcontractor of the Secret Service, they know who he is, so what’s the motive for his anonymity?  His face is fuzzy, and he’s now called a whistleblower. The news report also cites multiple witnesses but we only hear from the sub-contractor. We’re told that the owner of the strip club is an American named, DJ Ertel, who gave an interview but did not allow video footage. Since the club has a reputation for “security” and “privacy” and prides itself for being discreet, the interview does seem like reverse public relation.  The report did not even include important details such as hours of operation: 12:00pm-2:30am, daytime cover: $3.50; nighttime cover: $7.00; dance prices: $9; drink prices: $3. So no free advertising there (we did note that all prices are under $28).

As for the strip club not being too far from the embassy — if I heard it right, Lips is located on Paseo General Escalon, one of the main areas in San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America. It’s so small that you can drive from end to end in a matter of hours! So yeah, the embassy and the club are practically neighbors. The end.

 

 

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US Consulate General Cd. Juarez Warning: Threats of Violence Against USG Interests

Ciudad Juarez lies on the border between Mexic...Image via WikipediaThis was issued today, July 15. Chihuahua is the largest state in Mexico by area.  The three most important economic centers in the state are: Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, the state capital; and Delicias.

Threats of violence against U.S. government interests in Chihuahua

The U.S. Consulate General in Ciudad Juarez is issuing this Emergency Message for U.S. citizens in the state of Chihuahua (“Emergency Messages” were formerly known as “Warden Messages”).  The Consulate has distributed the following message to our staff:

Mexican authorities have captured key members of the cartels active in Juarez. These successes also bring with them the potential for an increase in violence. The cartels may seek to retaliate and increase their attacks against rival cartel members, Mexican law enforcement and/or the public in general.

Information has come to light that suggests a cartel may be targeting the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez or U.S. Ports of Entry.  In the past, cartels have been willing to utilize car bombs in attacks.  We ask American citizens to remain vigilant.

If the Consulate should receive any credible threat information that provides a specific time and place, that information will be disseminated immediately.

Read the whole thing here.

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