Obama Admin designates MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization”

On October 11, 2012, the Obama administration designated la Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) a “transnational criminal organization,” allowing federal officials to freeze the gang’s financial assets in the U.S. The goal is to weaken the gang and make their illegal enterprises less profitable. MS-13 is alleged to be involved in drug dealing, drug and human trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, and extortion in the United States and El Salvador. Gang members in the U.S. allegedly generate large profits from these activities and send money to gang leaders in El Salvador. These illegal ventures often entail violence and have earned MS-13 a high ranking among the world’s most violent gangs.

According to the “LA Times,” U.S. financial institutions “are obligated to immediately identify and freeze property or property interests of MS-13 and to report any such blocked assets to the Treasury Department,” said department spokesperson Hagar Chemali. This will make it more difficult to use banks and wire transfers to conduct gang activity. Police in Los Angeles and Washington DC hail the Obama administration’s decision as a necessary and positive step. They believe the scope of the gang’s activities will be diminished if they have fewer financial assets and are unable to use the banking system to transfer and launder money.

Only two other gangs have been labeled transnational criminal organizations: the Mexican Zetas and Japanese Yakuza, and MS-13 is the first gang to have originated in the United States to receive this label. One thing curious about the Obama Administration’s designation is that it targets MS-13 and not 18th Street, one of El Salvador’s other large gangs.

By requiring that banks identify and freeze M3-13 assets, Government officials seem to be giving the banks a lot of authority. They are going to have to have clear guidelines in place to help banks and financial institutions distinguish legitimate targets from hardworking Salvadorans sending money home to their families. Even if there is an appeals process in place for people who believe their assets have been wrongfully seized, many who send money to El Salvador are undocumented and may be afraid to step forward.

Seizing financial assets may prove important for cracking down on organized crime, but it won’t stop illicit activities such as drug trafficking and extortion. What is still lacking is a comprehensive approach to providing legitimate economic and social opportunities for youth so that they have options beyond joining gangs. It requires treating our drug habit as a public health issue and not just a criminal justice problem.

U.S. Beef with El Salvador!

The U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) reported this week that El Salvador has “lifted all age and product restrictions on U.S. beef, eliminating the need for an export verification program.”

USMEF regional director for Central America said El Salvador is “a potentially strong market, as it currently imports a significant amount of beef (about 28 million pounds last year) from Nicaragua.” The article reports that U.S. beef exports more than doubled between 2009 and 2011, totaling more than $1.2 million. Now that the restrictions have been lifted, exports of beef and beef products from the U.S. are expected to rise dramatically.

El Salvador’s age restrictions meant that beef and beef products had to be from cattle that were no more than 30 months old. This is a fairly common restriction meant to protect against the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). Japan has one of the more restrictive age-limits; beef and beef products have to be from cattle no more than 20 months old. So far in 2012, the U.S. has reported four cases of mad cow disease – the last was in April.

A report from the US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service says that since 2008 the USDA/FAS/San Salvador has been “in an intense negotiation with the Government of El Salvador [Ministry of Agriculture] to allow full access for U.S. bovine meat and its products to the local market.” The report says that until recently, El Salvador did not recognize the U.S. mad cow disease “controlled risk status granted by the World Animal Health Organization.” As a result, El Salvador restricted access of “bone-in beef, and beef and products of animals over 30 months of age.” These products were not completely banned; they just had to go through an Export Verification program that increased the cost of the products and made them less competitive with local products.

Last year, USMEF led a campaign to promote U.S. beef consumption in El Salvador. They set up stands in “18 high-end Super Selectos retail locations” throughout the country. USMEF told customers that the majority of their meat was produced domestically or in Nicaragua, meaning that it is grass-fed and therefore “severely lacking in tenderness.” But in the U.S., there is actually a movement to promote grass-fed beef. Whole Foods Market and many others have even organized campaigns of to inform their customers about the benefits of grass-fed beef and introduce customers to their producers. The Tallgrass Beef Company has even declared, “the grass-fed revolution is here.” So either the USMEF really only likes grain-fed beef or their campaign to educate Salvadoran consumers is more an effort to run their competition out of town and sell U.S. beef.

While doing away with the age restriction may increase competition for cattlemen in Nicaragua, it probably won’t have much of an impact on Voices’ local partners in the Lower Lempa who mostly raise dairy cattle. And as in most rural communities throughout El Salvador, beef sold in local markets is from local cattle. U.S. beef will mostly end up in higher-end grocery stores that are already full of goods imported from the U.S.

Another Misleading O’Grady/Wall Street Journal Article about El Salavdor

Friday afternoon we posted about last week’s protest of Sanchez Cerén’s visit to Freeport, NY. In the post we mentioned recent op/ed pieces published by the Wall Street Journal were a little hyperbolic in their discussion of the FMLN and the threats against democracy.

The author of those pieces – Mary O’Grady – published another op/ed piece in the WSJ this morning. Using the same Cold War language, she echoed the same grossly misleading if not outright dishonest allegations that Cerén and the FMLN led an anti-American protest in the days after 9-11.

The only reason it matters what Mary O’Grady thinks and writes is that some people still read the Wall Street Journal. In the comments under the article, one reader thanked O’Grady for keeping people informed about what’s happening “down there” and that it sounded as if things are “getting worse.”

If the WSJ and Mary O’Grady are your only source of news about El Salvador, then things may appear to be getting worse. Fortunately, there are some other sources of news in English that provide a more accurate account of the situation in El Salvador.  We thought now might be a good time to share some of our favorite online news sources – please share with your friends and family, especially if you suspect they might be reading the WSJ.

English Blogs:

Tim’s El Salvador Blog  – Tim provides great news and analysis of current events in El Salvador in English.

Grit and Grace

Linda’s El Salvador Blog

A few of news agencies and blogs that have provided good coverage on El Salvador in English include:

Insight Crime

Latin Times

Al Jazeera

Huffington Post

Spanish news agencies:

El Faro

La Prensa Grafica

Diario CoLatino

Contrapunto

And for more information on Mary O’Grady, here is an entertaining writeup from NACLA. O’Grady also spoke at a conference in Puerto Rico earlier this year.  Amazingly, she argues that its the intellectuals that are responsible for undermining development and progress in Latin America over the past century.

Salvadoran VP Sanchez Cerén Greeted by Protesters in Freeport, NY

Sanchez Cerén – El Salvador’s Vice President and 2014 presidential candidate for the FMLN party – drew a crowd of protestors this past Monday when he visited the Long Island town of Freeport, New York. Vice President Cerén was in town to celebrate Salvadoran American Day with the over 100,000 Salvadorans that live on Long Island.

It appears that protestors were out for a couple of reasons. One, some residents don’t seem to like the current Freeport government and welcome any opportunity to say so. More specifically, protestors were upset that their local representatives would meet with Sanchez Cerén who they called a terrorist for participating in anti-American, flag burning protests four days after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Calling Cerén a terrorist is nothing new. U.S. politicians and members in the conservative media frequently use the post-911 incident as justification for supporting for ARENA candidates and denouncing the FMLN as terrorists. As campaigning for the 2014 elections gets heated up, its surely going to be a story repeated again and again.

Ceren’s involvement in the rally has to be taken in context, however. September 15th is Independence Day in El Salvador – a day when many groups hit the streets to celebrate independence from Spain and even demad independence from the U.S. It happens every year.  September 15, 2001 Sanchez Cerén and other FMLN activists used Independence Day to protest El Salvador’s adoption of the U.S. dollar as its currency, which many people saw (and still see twelve years later) as a way the U.S. maintains control over El Salvador.

Many other groups were protesting in San Salvador on September 15, 2001 as well, including a radical student group that burned a U.S. flag. It’s dishonest and wrong to say that because Sanchez Cerén and others were speaking out against dollarization and privatization a few days after 9-11 that they are anti-American terrorists that support Al-Qaeda. In fact, before participating in the rally, Cerén led a delegation of FMLN officials to the U.S. Embassy to convey their condolences for the attack on the U.S. – hardly the act of an anti-American flag-burning protester. After the rally, Cerén told reporters that he and the FMLN were marching to condemn dollarization and privatization.

The distortion of Cerén’s activities on September 15th is similar to recent op/ed pieces posted in the Wall Street Journal discussing this summer’s constitutional crisis in El Salvador. Just like Cerén’s detractors have resorted to name calling instead of engaging in policy debates, the WSJ chose to use the important struggle between the judiciary and other branches of government to characterize the FMLN as anti-democratic Chavistas (Tim’s Blog wrote a great analysis of the WSJ and a similar Washington Post article).

The FMLN and its leadership are not perfect and there is plenty of reason to engage them in policy debates, but no one is served by the kind distortions and name-calling reminiscent of cold war and post-911 paranoia.

Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte Finally Secures Senate Confirmation and Will Return to El Salvador

A follow-up on yesterday’s post – the U.S. Senate just confirmed President Obama’s nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte as the new Ambassador to El Salvador. The Senate voted 62-37 to end debate on the nomination and was confirmed just an hour later.

As we mentioned yesterday, the Senate considered her nomination back in December but the Democrats did not have the 60 votes necessary to end the Republican-led filibuster. Today, nine Republicans joined Democrats to secure her confirmation.

The vote is a victory for the Obama campaign, which is courting the Latino vote in order to win swing states such Florida, Nevada, and others. The Administration has been fighting Republicans over the nomination since December 2009, and in 2010 even used a recess appointment to get Carmen Aponte into her position.

Senate May Reconsider Mari Carmen Aponte’s Nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador

Roll Call reported yesterday that Senate Democrats might bring up the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to be ambassador to El Salvador again, as early as this week.

In 2009, President Obama appointed Carmen Aponte to the post in El Salvador, but Senate Republicans have blocked her confirmation. When the Senate failed to confirm her in 2010, President Obama used a recess appointment that allowed her to serve until December 2011. Senate Democrats brought her nomination up for a vote in December, but failed to get the votes necessary to override the Republican filibuster.

According to the Washington Post, the difference this time may be Florida Republican Marco Rubio. They report that Senator Rubio voted against the nomination during the last vote, but later changed his mind and promised to get other republicans on board. He never did, however, and her nomination has been stalled ever since. This time around, Senator Rubio says he will support her nomination but is not going to whip other Republicans to support her.

The Washington Post article hints at the politics behind the nomination and the timing of the vote. Florida is a key state in President Obama’s plan for reelection, and mobilizing the Latino vote is a must. He is planning to be in Orlando next week and would like to be able to “tout the success of a Puerto-Rican-born ambassador, or blast the Republicans for blocking one.”

On a side note, a Huffington Post article posted last night argues that the Latino vote is a “sleeping giant” that may cause trouble for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. They report that in 8 states there are an estimated 21.5 million Latinos who are eligible to vote in November. If those voters or any portion of them registered and voted in the Presidential elections, they could have a tremendous impact on the outcome. The article reports that the 21.5 million potential voters are more than Obama’s margin of Victory in 2008. Since mid-April, the Obama campaign has spent $1.7 million on ads in Spanish in Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, while the Romney campaign has spent only $13,000. The article points out that while the Latino population is Democratic leaning, they should not be taken for granted. It’s not that President Obama and the Democrats have a great record on immigration and other issues important to Latino voters, but its not tough to have a better record than the tough-talking, Arizona-supporting Republicans.

We’ve written several articles about Ambassador Carmen Aponte. For more information about this long, drawn out drama, click here, (Senate Holding up Nomination) here, (Recess Appointment) here, (Re-nomination) and here (Senate filibustered nomination).

Oxfam Petition on El Salvador and Mining

Word on the street is that the ICSID (International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes) tribunal hearing Pacific Rim Mining Company’s lawsuit against El Salvador will hand down a decision on the second round of preliminary objections before the end of the month. (Here is an article and a webpage with good information on the case).  Pacific Rim, a Canadian firm based out of Vancouver, filed suit against El Salvador over three years ago for not granting them the permits necessary to extract gold from their Cabañas properties. Between 2002 and 2008, Pacific Rim allegedly invested $77 million in exploring properties in Cabañas and other parts of El Salvador. When the government and people of El Salvador said the mining company could not mine, Pacific Rim sued to recover their investment, lost profits, and damages. If Pacific Rim wins, they could receive a judgment worth more than $100 million.

El Salvador responded to the lawsuit by filing two rounds of preliminary objections, asking the court to dismiss Pacific Rim’s claim on procedural grounds. The first round of objections was unsuccessful, and we should hear about the second round in the next week or so. If the Tribunal finds in favor of El Salvador, they could dismiss part or all of Pacific Rim’s case. If they find for Pacific Rim, the mining company’s suit lives to see another day.

Oxfam is currently organizing a petition asking U.S. citizens to demand that the U.S. end their support for Pacific Rim and their claim against El Salvador. The petition reads:

Act Now: Speak up for El Salvador’s Right to Decide

In El Salvador, communities are fighting for their right to decide how companies can use their lands. Many of them have made a decision: they don’t want the metal mining industry to continue to destroy the environment they live and farm in. And they’re paying the price – each day, community leaders and activists face threats of violence and death because they’re standing up to metal mining companies.

What’s making this fight even harder? Right now, Canadian mining company Pacific Rim is trying to force El Salvador to keep metal mines in business by suing El Salvador for $77 million under the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This case could not only cost El Salvador a significant portion of its GDP, but it could prevent citizens from deciding which industries develop in their country.

A win for El Salvador in this case means that El Salvador could choose to stop metal mining – for good. The US government’s support for El Salvador over Pacific Rim in this case has been crucial. That’s where you come in. Will you help us make sure the US supports El Salvador in this case?

Tell Secretary of State Clinton: Support the people of El Salvador.

Please visit the Oxfam site and sign the petition!

The petition is important because some within the US State Department associate anti-mining with being anti-development. They argue that if El Salvador passes a law that bans mining, it means the country is hostile to foreign investment. In 2009, Former Chargé d’Affairs Robert Blau wrote a cable to the U.S. Secretary of State with the Subject line: “New Environment Ministry Moves to Ban Mining, Sends “Anti-Development” Signals.” A ban on mining is not anti-development, it is respecting the wishes of the people who would be most affected by its disastrous environmental impacts.

The cable is worth a read. We recognize that Robert Blau has a pretty extreme view of U.S. foreign policy and that his view may not represent everyone within the Embassy (Blau is no longer at the Salvadoran Embassy). His view, however, exemplifies how neoliberalism affects policies in countries like El Salvador. The same people who want to gut the EPA and remove the environmental regulations that protect air, soil, and water in the U.S., also want to remove any barriers that might prevent them from pillaging resources around the world. Any efforts to protect the environment and the communities where people live are called anti-development.

The petition is important because we have to make sure the State Department understands that Salvadoran communities said no to mining because they want to protect their very limited natural resources. They are not anti-development, rather they don’t want their vision of development trumped by an international corporation that is only interested in profit. The U.S. should not support Pacific Rim and other corporations, but ought to respect the wishes of the affected communities.

Oxfam’s petition is not the only anti-mining news to report. Yesterday the MESA (Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador) released a statement expressing their frustrations with the Salvadoran government’s inaction on mining. , the government commissioned a Strategic Evaluation of the Mining Sector to determine whether mining was feasible in El Salvador. The report was supposed to inform the Legislative Assembly and government ministries on how to manage mining, and whether they ought to pass an all out ban on mining, which is what the MESA has been advocating.

The MESA is frustrated with the lack of transparency in completing the study and the release of its findings. They recently filed a request for information about the report under El Salvador’s relatively new Law on Access to Public Information. They also requested information about what mining companies have applied for or hold mining permits. Lina Pohl, the Vice-Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources recently said the only possible scenarios are the suspension of mining permits (so far for just exploration, no mining company currently has an exploitation permit), and not granting new ones. The MESA believes this to be insufficient and that the study fails to take on the most important issues concerning the impact that mining would have on the country. They call on the government to be more proactive in defending Salvadorans and banning mining altogether. The MESA has posted several interviews on Youtube detailing these issues. If you speak Spanish, they are worth watching.

Please sign the petition today!

Climate Change Education in the Schools: El Salvador and the U.S.

The climate change debate has made its way into U.S. classrooms, as school boards and legislators try to force teachers to present “both sides of the issue.” In El Salvador, however, schools are taking a different approach. Government officials and educators have moved way beyond questioning the reality of climate change and are implementing a curriculum that teaches the science behind the resulting extreme weather patterns and how to mitigate the associated risks.

In January, a writer for the Wall Street Journal Law Blog posted about “a new battle brewing in America’s classrooms” – climate change. As U.S. schools have begun teaching climate change to their students, state legislatures and school boards have reacted by requiring teachers to also present the other side of the debate.

In Texas and Louisiana, state boards of education now require classrooms to teach climate change denial as a valid scientific position. In Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Kentucky, state legislators have proposed bills that would require teachers to dedicate equal time teaching climate change and climate change skepticism.

In El Salvador, however, schools have adopted a climate change curriculum that goes beyond an academic discussion about whether or not it’s a reality. Salvadoran teachers, instead, are now tasked with the more serious task of preparing their students for future extreme weather events caused by climate change.

According to an article posted on Alertnet, the government now mandates that all public and private schools in El Salvador teach the science behind climate change as well as how students can deal with the increased risks caused the extreme weather.

In October 2011, Tropical Storm 12-E dumped 55 inches of rain on El Salvador in 10 days, causing the worst flooding in the country’s history. The storm and its aftermath were a wakeup call for many Salvadorans. Communities along the coast, especially those in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután and San Vicente, have experienced regular flooding for the past several years. Tropical Storm 12-E, however, was the first storm since Hurricane Mitch in 1998 that affected multiple regions throughout the country. In the days after the storm, government officials, including the Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources, attributed the storm to climate change and warned that because of it, these weather events are the new norm.

The Salvadoran schools system is responding by joining the effort to teach more than the science of climate change. Government officials are using the schools to teach environmental safety. According to the Alertnet article, “in math, biology, and physics, students will undertake exercises that estimate potential damage from climate-linked extreme weather, and explore how to counteract and reduce its effects.”

The article quotes a 12-year-old student who believes “the teaching approach will be well-received in the classroom, particularly as so many families in El Salvador have had first-hand struggles with the country’s recent extreme weather.”

Since Hurricane Mitch, government agencies and civil society have prepared communities to deal with extreme weather events. Since President Funes took office in June 2009, the government has strengthened the Civil Protection network, which they elevated to a government Ministry. Their success over the past few years are measurable. Hurricane Mitch, the previous high-water mark, claimed over 240 deaths. Tropical Storm 12-E produced more rain and more severe flooding, destroyed more crops, and affected many more communities, but the loss of life was limited to 34 people.

If predictions are accurate, El Salvador will see more storms like Tropical Storm 12-E, and efforts to prepare the population is a matter of life and death. In theory, there is still time to reverse or decrease the impacts of climate change over the long-term, but that would require principal polluters such as the U.S. and China to reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Its hard to imagine how the U.S. will ever cut emissions voluntarily, considering that the teachers can’t even talk about climate change without interference from politicians.

Peace Corps Pulling Out of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the US Government is suspending training for new Peace Crops volunteers in Guatemala and El Salvador while they “reassess security concerns.” The volunteers currently in place will remain and Peace Corps officials report that they are all safe and accounted for.

A new group of volunteers was to arrive in January 2012, but their training has been cancelled and they are being reassigned to other countries.

The BBC is reporting that the Peace Corps is completely putting out of Honduras, bringing all 158 current volunteers home in January.

According to the Peace Corps website, there are currently 122 Peace Corps volunteers in El Salvador and over 2,186 have served in El Salvador since 1962. Volunteers work in areas of community organization and economic development, rural health and sanitation, sustainable agriculture, agro-forest and environmental education, and youth development.

The reason for the withdrawal is security. The New York Times quoted Kristina Edmunson, a Peace Corps spokeswoman in Washington, who said the move stemmed from “comprehensive safety and security concerns” rather than any specific threat or incident. The Times article, stated, however, that Peace Corps Journals, an online portal for blogs by Peace Corps volunteers, has an entry referring to a volunteer who was shot in the leg during an armed robbery on a bus.

Central America has become the most violent region in the world, and Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have recently posted the highest murder rates in the world. Part of the reason for the uptick in violence is the increased presence of international organized criminal networks that are trafficking drugs from South American producers to North American markets.

Ambassador Aponte Coming Home?

Mari Carmen Aponte, the interim Ambassador from the US to El Salvador, may be coming home in the next few weeks as her recess appointment expires at the end of the month.

President Obama nominated Mari Carmen Aponte when he took office in 2009, but Senate Republicans blocked her confirmation over her past relationship with a Cuban-American they believe was a Cuban spy. She finally arrived in El Salvador in September 2010 when President Obama circumvented the Senate with a recess appointment, which expires at the end of the month. President Obama re-nominated Ambassador Aponte this year, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmed her nomination this week, but Republicans are again preventing the Senate from bringing her nomination to the floor for a vote.

Ambassador Carmen Aponte fueled Republican opposition in June when she published an op/ed piece in the La Prensa Grafica supporting the gay rights movement in El Salvador. Opposition to her final confirmation is led by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), who claims that she is “strongly promoting the homosexual lifestyle” and attempting “to impose a pro-gay agenda” on El Salvador. The article praised Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes for signing a law prohibiting anti-gay discrimination by the government, as well as the UN pledge to eliminate violence against LGBT people. She also said that all people have the responsibility to break the cycle of violence and discrimination.

According to The Hill,

The White House is blasting Senate Republicans for playing politics with President Obama’s nominated ambassador to El Salvador, saying a hold on the diplomat would severely hurt US ties in the region.

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing this week, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) spoke out on behalf of Ambassador Aponte, saying that she has done a“solid job in her capacity as ambassador,” and “I have not heard of or seen any substantive rationale for her not continuing in this post.”

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) pointed out that since 1998, when Aponte was nominated to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic from which she withdrew herself from consideration, she has twice received top security clearances.

Ambassador Aponte also has the support of Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), who also serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. During a hearing last week he pointed out that since 1998, when Aponte was nominated to be ambassador to the Dominican Republic from which she withdrew herself from consideration, she has twice received top security clearances. He argues that any questions regarding her past relationships were answered during those processes, and are no longer an issue.

Barring any last minute support from Senate Republicans, Ambassador Aponte will be leaving El Salvador at the end of December and the US will be without an ambassador.