US Embassy El Salvador: Peace Corps Suspends Program in World’s New Murder Capital

Posted: 12:42 am EDT
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On January 11, Peace Corps announced the suspension of its program in El Salvador where there were 58 volunteers assigned.  The program was previously suspended in 1980 amid increasing violence prior to the civil war.  The government of El Salvador invited the Peace Corps to return to El Salvador in 1993 after the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the civil war.  In 1994, Peace Corps El Salvador invited new two-year Volunteers to serve in the project areas of Water Sanitation and Health, Agroforestry and Soil Conservation, and Small Business Development.  Volunteers have worked in El Salvador since then until this year’s program suspension. Below is the announcement:

The Peace Corps today announced the suspension of its program in El Salvador due to the ongoing security environment. The agency will continue to monitor the security situation in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to determine when the program can resume.

The Peace Corps has enjoyed a long partnership with the government and people of El Salvador and is committed to resuming volunteers’ work there in a safe and secure environment.

Volunteers’ health, safety and security are the Peace Corps’ top priorities. More than 2,300 Peace Corps volunteers have worked on community and youth development projects in communities throughout El Salvador since the program was established in 1962.

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USA Today recently called El Salvador the world’s new murder capital:

Government data show 6,657 people were murdered in the small country last year, a 70% increase from 2014. The homicide rate of 104 people per 100,000 is the highest for any country in nearly 20 years, according to data from the World Bank.

“Keep in mind, you’re talking about the national average,” Adriana Beltrán of the Washington Office on Latin America said about El Salvador’s homicide rate. “If you start looking at where the pockets of violence are, it’s shocking.”

A June 22, 2015 Travel Warning  continues to warn U.S. citizens that crime and violence levels in El Salvador remain high, and U.S. citizens traveling to El Salvador should remain alert to their surroundings.  The Travel Warning notes that there is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens are specifically targeted by criminals; however, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country.” Since January 2010, 34 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador including a nine-year-old child in December 2013. During the same time period, 419 U.S. citizens reported having their passports stolen, while others were victims of violent crimes.”

Last summer, the Guardian reported that “With one killing on average every hour, August is on course to be the deadliest month since the 1992 peace accord. On current trends, the homicide rate will pass 90 per 100,000 people in 2015, overtaking that of Honduras as the highest in the world (not including battlegrounds like Syria). This would make El Salvador almost 20 times deadlier than the US and 90 times deadlier than the UK.”

El Salvador has been a 15% COLA and 15% hardship differential since September 7, 2014. It  is not designated as a danger pay post.

The U.S. Embassy in San Salvador is headed by Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte, a noncareer appointee  who assumed charged in 2010. She has been nominated in July 2015 to be the Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the Organization of American States(OAS). That nomination is currently pending in the SFRC.  Her second in command is career FSO, Michael Barkin who was previously the Deputy Director of the Office of Canadian Affairs in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) and served as Principal Officer and Consul General in Matamoros, Mexico.

 

Related itms:

El Salvador Travel Warning | June 22, 2015

El Salvador 2015 Crime and Safety Report | May 20, 2015

 

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Burn Bag: A weekend on lockdown, whataboutyou?

Posted: 12:01 pm  EDT
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Via Burn Bag:

While the Danger Pay Working Group contemplates denying Danger Pay to Mexico border posts, consulate staff in Guadalajara spent the weekend on lockdown and the narco violence related security incidents in Matamoros have gone up fourfold.

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Argentina Prez Calls Embassy Message “A Provocation,” Claims ISIS, No, U.S. Plans to Bump Her Off?

— Domani Spero
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Don’t look now but it appears as if the situation in Argentina is about to get more than touchy serious.  On September 29, 2014, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires released a Security Message for U.S. Citizens on General Security Awareness (pdf):

The U.S. Embassy wishes to inform U.S. citizens living and traveling in Argentina that in recent months, U.S. citizens have reported a number of crimes to the embassy. Crimes reported include petty crime, taxi scams (especially at international airports), mugging, snatch-and-grab robbery involving motorcycles and bicycles, and occasionally more serious crimes such as express kidnapping, home invasion, carjacking, assault, and sexual assault using date rape drugs. We recommend that U.S. citizens traveling and living in Argentina always be aware of their surroundings, maintain a high level of vigilance, and take appropriate steps to enhance their personal security. Please consult reliable sources for information on transportation, lodging, and the general security of areas you are visiting.

U.S. citizens should avoid areas of demonstrations and exercise caution in the vicinity of any large gatherings or protests. The majority of crimes reported to the Embassy occur in the major metropolitan areas but U.S. citizens should use an equal level of caution outside large population centers. While crimes happen at all times of day and night, they are significantly more frequent after dark.

The Embassy does not have evidence that victims have been targeted because of their U.S. citizenship. If you are the victim of a crime, please report it immediately to the police and inform American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy.

The message went out a few days after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints president David P. Robertson, of the Argentina Buenos Aires West Mission, was robbed and briefly held on the night of September 24. According to El Dia cited by a Provo newspaper, Robertson was driving his Toyota truck when he was stopped by armed bandits at an intersection in Ciudadela, a city in the Buenos Aires area. The assailants reportedly took his wallet, cell phone and vehicle, and then released him on the street.

The president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (or CFK), called the security message, “a provocation” and she knew exactly who to blame. Below via mercopress:

“The note is a provocation. Usually, when the embassy issues this type of warning messages, it focuses on specific events such as political rallies or hostage situations which can be dangerous to US citizens,” the Argentine president explained.

“In this case, the threat is not specific. It describes Argentina as if we were living in the far-west,” she added, and went on to doubt US interim ambassador in Buenos Aires Kevin Sullivan’s intentions with the note.

“We know who wrote it: the same person who announced the country was in default,” CFK said, referring to Sullivan’s remarks about the country needing “to exit default as soon as possible”.

“Maybe he thought: ‘I can provoke her with this statement, escalate tension and then they’ll kick me out of the country’. But we are not going to do this… because the person who comes to fill his position may be even worse. We know this one; we know who he is. I always say: If you know them, better leave them where they are,” the President stated.

Let’s see if we can get this straight …the Chargé d’Affaires (a.i.) Kevin K. Sullivan wrote the Consular Section’s security message to upset the host country president so that he, CDA Sullivan can be kicked out of the country where he has been boss-man at the U.S. Embassy since June 2013?  That make perfect sense, right?  If true, this might just be one of the nuttiest way of getting out of what we’d call a plum assignment in the diplomatic service.  Anybody out there who has successfully got himself/herself PNGed using this strategy?

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Chargé d’Affaires (a.i.) Kevin K. Sullivan (center) with Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov at Palacio Bosch, Argentina (photo via US Embassy Buenos Aires/FB)

Back in May, Diplomatic Security actually released its 2014 Crime and Security Report on Argentina where it calls crime a serious problem in the country. “Street and residential crime appears to be increasingly common,is more violent than in the past, and is often perpetrated with a firearm or other deadly weapon.“But the report also says that “Despite the negative perception of various U.S. government policies, Argentines are friendly to Americans, and visitors are unlikely to experience anti-American sentiment.”

Unless Mr. Sullivan is pulling double duty as the Regional Security Officer  (RSO) at Embassy Buenos Aires, we’re pretty confident that he also did not write that crime and security report.

We should note that the nominee to be the next permanent resident of Palacio Bosch is Obama bundler, Noah Mamet.  Mr. Mamet one of the more controversial political appointees is still stuck in the Senate.  If Mr. Mamet gets through the confirmation process, CFK may have to get to know him, too. Mr. Mamet speaks a little Spanish but has never been to Argentina, so there’s an opportunity for some work there.

In the meantime, as if all this is not convoluted enough, the  Guardian reported that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner  has now“claimed the US may be behind a plot to overthrow her government and possibly even assassinate her.” Whaaaat? Excerpt below:

[S]he gave a rambling televised address in which she claimed the US may be behind a plot to overthrow her government and possibly even assassinate her.

“If something should happen to me, don’t look to the Middle East, look to the North,” Fernández said during the address on Tuesday night, in which she alluded to an alleged plot against her by local bankers and businessmen “with foreign help”.

Fernández had previously claimed to have received death threats from Islamic State (Isis) because of her friendship with Pope Francis. In last night’s speech, however, she seemed to suggest the threats against her, received in three emails to Argentinian security officials, had come from the US.

Her claim comes in the wake of a rapid deterioration of Argentina’s already rocky relationship with the US after the country went into default in August.

This is the president of over 41 million Argentines who says “the first thing I demand is respect.” 

Secretary Clinton With Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton poses with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner following a press conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina March 1, 2010. [State Department Photo/Public Domain]

Secretary Clinton With Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton poses with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner following a press conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina March 1, 2010. [State Department Photo/Public Domain]

According to the Guardian, Elisa Carrió, the UNEN party presidential candidate has called President Fernández “completely out of touch with reality”. “

“Since she doesn’t resist reality, with unemployment, high inflation, the rising dollar, she says it’s no longer Isis trying to kill her, but the US,” said Carrió. “She’s inventing conspiracies.”

In related news, CFK on September 30, also publicly criticized the country’s Central Bank “for allegedly leaking inside information” according to Bloomberg News. Central Bank President Juan Carlos Fabrega officially resigned yesterday which resulted in deepening Argentine bond and stock markets losses.

No, it’s not useful to revisit that INR (Bureau of Intelligence and Research) cable; that one only has questions, and none of the answers. And we’d really like to know who is CFK going to suggest of plotting to kill her next.

Hey, what’s gong going on with Arturo, the only polar bear in Argentina?

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Malian National Alhassane Ould Mohamed Indicted for 2000 Murder/Attempted Murder of US Embassy Niger Staffers

–By Domani Spero

On September 18, the USDOJ announced the indictment of Malian national, Alhassane Ould Mohamed for the alleged murder/attempted murder of U.S. Embassy Niamey’s personnel in Niger back in 2000. The individual allegedly killed DOD’s William Bultemeier, the Defense Attache System Operations Coordinator and wounded Staff Sergeant Christopher McNeely, the Marine Detachment Commander for U.S. Embassy Niger at the time.  Mr. Bultemeier was killed on the day he was scheduled to return to the United States.

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Via USDOJ:

Malian National Indicted In Brooklyn Federal Court For Murder Of U.S. Diplomat | September 18, 2013

An indictment was unsealed today in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging Alhassane Ould Mohamed, also known as “Cheibani,” a Malian citizen, with the murder and attempted murder of United States Embassy personnel stationed in Niamey, Niger in December 2000.   In addition, a reward of $20,000 was announced for information that leads to the defendant’s capture.

The charges were announced by Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York; George Venizelos, Assistant Director-in-Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), New York Field Office; Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; and Greg Starr, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State.

According to the indictment, in the early morning hours of December 23, 2000, the defendant and a co-conspirator accosted a group of employees of the United States Embassy in Niger as they left a restaurant in Niamey, Niger.  Carrying a pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle, the two men approached Department of Defense official William Bultemeier as he was about to enter his car, a white sport-utility vehicle bearing diplomatic license plates clearly indicating that it belonged to the United States Embassy.  The defendant demanded that Mr. Bultemeier turn over the keys to the diplomatic vehicle and used the pistol to shoot Mr. Bultemeier.  Staff Sergeant Christopher McNeely, the Marine Detachment Commander for the United States Embassy in Niger at the time, ran to Mr. Bultemeier’s aid.  The defendant’s co-conspirator then fired his AK-47 at Mr. Bultemeier and Staff Sergeant McNeely, hitting them both.  After rifling through Mr. Bultemeier’s pockets to get the car keys, the defendant and his fellow assailant drove away in the United States Embassy vehicle.

Mr. Bultemeier died of the injuries inflicted by the gunshot wounds.  Staff Sergeant McNeely survived the shooting, and later retired from the Marine Corps as a Master Sergeant.

On September 13, 2013, a grand jury in the Eastern District of New York returned a sealed indictment charging the defendant with one count of murdering an internationally protected person, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1116(a), and one count of attempting to murder an internationally protected person, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1116(a).  The indictment was unsealed earlier today.

“U.S. diplomat William Bultemeier lost his life while representing his country overseas, and U.S. Marine Christopher McNeely was gravely wounded trying to protect him, all during the brazen armed carjacking allegedly perpetrated by the defendant and his confederate.  The sacrifice of Mr. Bultemeier and the courage of Staff Sergeant McNeely in service to their country will not be forgotten.  The United States will work ceaselessly to bring those who harm our diplomats and military personnel to justice,” stated United States Attorney Lynch.  Ms. Lynch expressed her grateful appreciation to the governments of Niger, Mali and Algeria for their substantial assistance and cooperation in connection with this investigation.  The FBI and the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security are currently coordinating with foreign partners to apprehend the defendant.

“As alleged in the indictment, Mr. Bultemeier was representing the United States Government in Niger when he was callously murdered by the defendant.  U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant McNeely, who courageously attempted to come to Mr. Bultemeier’s aid, was seriously injured in the ambush.  An attack on U.S. Government personnel, whether domestically or abroad, is an attack on the United States. The perpetrator of these crimes should always be looking over his shoulders; it is only a matter of time before he is apprehended.  The FBI will continue working with its partners overseas to ensure that the defendant is captured and brought to justice,” stated FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Venizelos.

Lieutenant General Flynn expressed his deep gratitude for the long and dedicated service of the FBI, Department of Justice, and Department of State personnel involved in the effort to bring Mr. Bultemeier’s alleged murderers to justice.

“The Bureau of Diplomatic Security has been working with our domestic and international law enforcement partners to locate, pursue, and apprehend Mohamed since his prison escape.  With agents in more than 270 U.S. diplomatic missions around the world, Diplomatic Security is uniquely positioned for this effort,” stated Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Starr.

The charges in the indictment are merely allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Zainab Ahmad, with assistance from Trial Attorney Jennifer Levy of the Justice Department’s Counterterrorism Section and Trial Attorney Dan Stigall of the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs.

The Defendant: ALHASSANE OULD MOHAMED | Age: 42

According to stripes.com Mohamed was arrested in Mali two days after the killing, citing U.S. authorities. He remained in custody there until he escaped in 2002.  In late 2009, Mohamed was arrested again in Mali in the killings of four Saudi Arabian nationals in northern Niger. He was sent back to Niger where he was convicted of the murders and sentenced to 20 years behind bars. He escaped from prison a second time in June.

Related items:

Unseald Indictiment Alhassane Mohamed 
Photograph of Victim-William Bultemeier 
DOJ/FBI Wanted Poster

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US Embassy Bogota: DEA Special Agent James “Terry” Watson Killed in Colombia

—By Domani Spero
On June 21, DEA announced the death of Special Agent James “Terry” Watson, who was murdered in “what appears to have been a robbery attempt” Thursday night in Bogota, Colombia. At the time of his death, Special Agent Watson was assigned to the DEA Cartagena, Colombia office and was on temporary duty in Bogota.

“We are all saddened by this devastating loss of a member of the DEA family,” said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart. “Terry was a brave and talented DEA Special Agent who served our agency for 13 years. These are the worst days for anyone in law enforcement and we grieve Terry’s loss.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Terry’s wife and family, and we will forever carry his memory in our hearts.”

According to the DEA, Special Agent Watson had served in Honolulu, Hawaii and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Prior to his assignment in Bogota, he also served on three deployments to Afghanistan conducting dangerous counter-narcotics missions as a member of DEA’s FAST program.  Special Agent Watson previously worked for the U.S. Marshals Service and served in the United States Army.

NBC News reports that the U.S Ambassador to Colombia Peter Michael McKinley told Caracol Radio that this appeared to be a run-of-the-mill robbery gone wrong and it did not appear that the agent was targeted.  Special Agent Watson reportedly had been watching the NBA finals with friends in the city’s fashionable Parque de la 93 district and had jumped into a taxi after the game.

Local media described this incident as a “paseo millonario,” a term for an express kidnapping. Although the OSAC Crime and Security report did not use this term, it details this crime as follows:

A common trend in cases of taxi-related crime is when the victim has been riding alone and has hailed a taxi on the street. Usually, the taxi driver will stop abruptly to allow a counterpart to enter the vehicle. The two individuals will then rob the passenger and in some cases bring the passenger to as many ATMs as possible.

The latest Crime and Security report says that Bogotá is rated “High” for terrorism, residential crime, non-residential crime, and political violence.  Post is rated 20% for cost of living, 5% for hardship and 15% for danger.

According to the embassy’s security office, the most prevalent threat to Americans on a daily basis is street crime. The most common types of crime include, but are not limited to, muggings, assaults, general thefts, credit card fraud, and burglaries. Criminals are quick to resort to physical assault and commonly use knives and firearms in the commission of crimes.

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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

US Mission Iraq: War Over, Danger Pay and Hardship Pay Go Down, Oh, But It’s Confusing

According to the State Department’s allowances website, all State Department posts in Iraq have been designated 35% danger pay and 35% post (hardship) differential pay posts.  The US mission in Iraq designation at the top 35% danger/35% hardship pay bracket has been in effect since March 5, 2006.  All of 2004 and 2005 it was at 25%/25%.  All of 2003, it was between 20%-25%.

We recently learned that the State Department has nudged four Iraq regions down for both danger and hardship pay:

Danger/Hardship Pay, February 2012

Danger/Hardship Pay, February 2012

Our understanding is that these new rates are now in effect but the Allowances website has yet to catch up.  This would be the first time in almost 7 years that US Mission Iraq is not at the top danger/hardship differential bracket.  This would also leave just the posts in two countries at the top danger rate bracket of 35%, one officially a war zone, while the other is not:

  •  Afghanistan: Kabul, Others
  •  Pakistan: Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi (except Quetta which remains at 25%)

The State Department’s Office of Allowances does say on its website that “since conditions at Danger Pay posts are reviewed periodically to ensure that the Danger Pay continues only during the existence of conditions justifying such payment, it is possible for the Danger Pay designation to be removed or modified at any time.”

The when of that is what is curious.

We have previously blogged about the perplexities with State’s danger pay designation (see Where dangerous conditions are not/not created equal … and  State Dept’s New High Threat Posts Are Not All Danger Posts).

Below is a table of Iraq casualties between 2003-2012

Iraq Body Count (2003-2012)

Iraq Body Count (2003-2012)

Danger Pay Rate

2003   3004  2005   2006   2007   2008   2009   2010   2011   2012

20%     25%     25%     35%     35%       35%     35%     35%      35%     35%

We understand that State has its own danger pay factors and since we have no access to that, we’ll have to make do with publicly available information on just how dangerous Iraq was since 2003 based on casualties.  Note that when casualties in Iraq started going up in 2003, the danger pay rate was between 20-25%.  It remained at 25% the entire year of 2005.  It went up to the maximum rate of 35% in March 2006 and remained at the top bracket until this year. The U.S. military pulled out of Iraq in December 2011.  The casualties that year and 2012 remained above 4,000 but below the 12,000 casualties at the beginning of the war. The danger rate stayed at 35%.

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While the casualties have gone down, the country remains dangerous.  Here is what the embassy’s  2012 Crime and Security Report had to say about Iraq:

Iraq is rated as a critical threat for terrorism and political violence by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Despite the general decline in terrorist-related violence, the security situation in Iraq remains fluid. In December 2011, U.S. forces completely withdrew from Iraq. Terrorists and insurgent groups continue to conduct large-scale, lethal attacks that often target personnel and facilities associated with both American organizations and the Government of Iraq.  Insurgents also continue to carry out effective small-scale attacks throughout Iraq that cause fewer casualties but hinder free movement and influence public opinion regarding safety and security.
/snip/
While total attacks against U.S. personnel have decreased over the last three months, the threat of kidnapping, rocket attack, and small arms fire against U.S. interests in Iraq remains high and subject to flux based on domestic political, regional, and international developments.
/snip/
Since the U.S. military has withdrawn from Iraq, the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Iraq have an extremely limited ability to assist Americans in the event of an emergency. Many services which many existed in the past, such as U.S. military-provided medevacs, transportation, convoy support, lodging, Quick Reaction Forces response to incidents, and monitoring of Personnel Security Details, are not generally available via the U.S. Embassy or Consulates.

In August 2012 IRIN/UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had this to say about the situation in Iraq:

Assessments of security trends in Iraq vary wildly depending on who you speak to, how you count the statistics, and which period of time you study. But one thing is clear: bomb blasts, targeted killings or improvised explosive devices are still a daily occurrence in Iraq.

Last week’s coordinated attacks – leaving more than 100 people dead – set a record for the highest number of deaths in a single day in more than two years, displaying the continued ability of insurgent groups to strike. A double bombing in the capital yesterday brought July’s death toll to 245, according to a count by Associated Press.

While the US and the Iraqi government insist that security gains have been made in recent years, UN and independent analysts characterize the situation as having stabilized at an unacceptably high level of violence, albeit now concentrated in more specific areas.

One might argue that the departure of the U.S. military has made working in Iraq more challenging, thus justifying keeping the mission at 35% in 2011 and 2012. But the U.S. military has not returned to Iraq in 2013, so what has changed to merit bumping down the rates?

Is the reason the danger rate is a notch lower due to improved security? Really?  Or is this due to the looming sequestration? Whatever it is, it is muddy as heck.

Here is another interesting example — Yemen.

The US Embassy in Sana’a was a 20% danger post in 2006,  2007 and part of 2008.  On September 17, 2008, the embassy was attacked which resulted in 19 deaths and 16 injuries.  According to Wikipedia, six attackers, six Yemeni police and seven civilians were killed.   On October 26, 2008, the embassy’s danger rate went up to 30% where it remained to-date.

We understand that until last year, embassy personnel were driving their own vehicles, traveling around the country, taking taxis, and living in their own apartments.  For security reasons, they now  live in the old Sheraton Hotel Sanaa (apparently also known as the New Green Zone Sanaa) which has been leased by the US Embassy reportedly until January 2018.  The staff is not allowed to travel anywhere with one exception and only with armored vehicles.  Of course, the embassy lost a good number of its armored vehicles during the mob attack.  Unlike the US Embassy Tunisia where there were publicly available photographic evidence of the damages, the US Embassy Sanaa reportedly kept a tight lid on photos of the embassy damages in the aftermath of the attack.  For what reason, we do not know.  Perhaps they did not want to upset the host country?  In the meantime, the U.S. ambassador and American soldiers at post have a bounty on their heads until June 2013 (see US Embassy Yemen: AQAP Offers Gold Bounty for Ambassador Feierstein). And the danger rate remains at 30%.

Can somebody please grab the tail on what’s going on here? People need to understand the whys of this process. Whether they volunteered or were voluntold, they deserve a good explanation. C’mon guys, don’t make this rocket science.

Also we’re hearing that the priority bidding season for Afghanistan/Iraq/Pakistan or AIP is about to expand to include Libya and Yemen. One of our blog sources wondered out loud if the new bidding season might be called iPLAY.

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

Jon Lee Anderson has a piece on What has Hugo Chávez wrought in Venezuela? (see Letter From Caracas, Slumlord, New Yorker, Jan 28, 2013). Anderson reports:

“Caracas has deteriorated beyond all measure. It has one of the highest homicide rates in the world; last year, in a city of three million, an estimated thirty-six hundred people were murdered, or about one every two hours. The murder rate in Venezuela has tripled since Chávez took office.”

That New Yorker piece prompted a note to this blog about the carjacking of an American diplomat in Caracas last October.  Did I know about that? No, I did not. Fortunately, the criminals only took the vehicle and the FSO was not harmed. Here is what we’ve learned about that incident:

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. The victim stayed the night in the home of another embassy employee.

Apparently, the neighborhood of Sebucan, where the carjacking took place, is notorious for its difficult to navigate narrow streets. The victim had stopped his/her vehicle in front of a friend’s apartment building on one of these narrow streets, waiting for his/her friends to come down, when he/she saw another vehicle coming down the street. The victim attempted to maneuver his/her vehicle closer to the curb, in order to allow the other vehicle to pass, in effect boxing his/her own vehicle in. Instead of passing, the other vehicle pulled right up to the victim’s bumper, and three or four men got out of the vehicle, brandishing handguns. The whole time the attackers had their weapons pointed at the victim. The victim was divested of his/her cell phone and later frisked as if searching for weapons.  The attackers then got into their own and the victim’s vehicles, and drove both vehicles away.

After the carjacking, the US Embassy in Caracas reportedly sent out a notice to all mission employees with several suggestions to “help future potential victims stay safe” and with the following interesting tidbit:

“Being forced from your vehicle at gunpoint by multiple armed men and left on the side of the road is a harrowing experience. It is the criminals who conduct these crimes, not their targets, who should be held responsible, and RSO has no interest in “blaming the victim.” 

Uh-oh! If that got into the notice, does that mean “blaming the victim” went around the block five times over and round and round within the mission that the RSO had to distance itself from it?

Our Caracas note writer had some rather strong words for the mothership, which we are reprinting in part below:

“The State Department has not done much to assist the community in Caracas in dealing with issues like this, and Caracas is still a ZERO percent danger post.[…] The 20% hardship pay is also low considering the difficulty of living here, the security no-go areas, the government’s open hatred of the US, the crazy artificial exchange rate and highest inflation in world, and the lack of infrastructure. The department has not done anything to boost the low morale.”

As of January 27, 2013, Caracas is a 42% COLA, 20% hardship post and indeed, a 0% danger post.

We’ll have a related post later on danger pay designation because it has been coming up with more frequency. In the meantime, maybe one of our readers from Foggy Bottom can flag this post for WHA A/S Roberta Jacobson  and please tell her there are stuff going on in her Caracas shop?

For sure, WHA is aware that between July 2010 and October 2011, US Embassy Caracas had two interim chargés, and relied upon a series of acting DCMs, which contributed to inconsistency and confusion regarding internal direction within the mission. This was in the 2012 IG inspection report.  But of related concern to that, the embassy has a good number of first tour officers.  This potentially can be a most memorable tour for those officers, but not in a good way meriting fondness and inspiration.

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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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