agriculture, Climate Change, Corruption, Economy, El Salvador Government

Carlos Rosario School Returns to El Salvador with New Delegates

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Voices had the pleasure of hosting a delegation from Carlos Rosario, a public charter school for adult immigrants in Washington, D.C. Seven of their staff came down to El Salvador, where a majority of students are from, in order to learn about the country and better understand their students’ roots. The delegates’ objective was to explore the broad reality of Salvadoran culture, economics and education as well as the dynamic effects that migration has on individuals, families and communities.

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After receiving a detailed explanation of the people’s history of El Salvador, they met with the Vice Minister of Education, Teacher’s Union Leaders, a human rights defender, visited the National Cathedral, the UCA, toured the Museum of Words and Images and bought a lot of good reads at Equipo Maiz. Then they traveled to Morazán where they talked with the pastoral team of Community Segundo Montes about the 9 years they’d spent in the refugee camps in Colomoncagua, Honduras. They got a thorough overview of the civil war at the Museum of Revolution in Perquin and reflected heavily after visiting El Mozote. In the lower Lempa River region, they stayed with hosts families in Amando Lopez and experienced life in agriculture based communities there and along the coast. They visited with local community leaders and teachers to hear their perspectives on development and education in the region, they donated much needed supplies to three separate schools and before it was all done they taught a class!

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The group was delightful. They asked great questions, covered a lot of ground, offered helpful suggestions, participated in meaningful dialogue and gave a gift to nearly everyone they met.

Carlos Rosario, thank you and keep up the good work in D.C.  |  READ THEIR BLOG!

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Advocacy, agriculture, Climate Change, Corruption, Economy, Environment, International Relations, Public Health, Tourism, transparency, U.S. Relations, Uncategorized

The Case of Privatizing Happiness

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Dozens of reporters, spent an entire day, braving the heat to cover a story concerning one of the major issues Voices is currently working on. The story is about the implementation of mega-tourism, sponsored by the Millennium Challenge Corporation in the Lower Lempa Region of El Salvador. The main theme is it’s negative impacts on the communities living in and around the Jiquilisco Bay.

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IMG_0040 IMG_0055  IMG_0031 An article published by the Foreign Policy Journal said: “U.S. foreign aid is expected to promote poverty alleviation and facilitate developmental growth in impoverished countries. Yet, corporations and special interest groups have permeated even the most well-intended of U.S. policies.”

The United States has $277million in aid money to grant El Salvador and much of it will promote tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay by funding infrastructure projects like wharfs ans marinas in order to encourage private investment.

IMG_0116 IMG_0108 IMG_0092 IMG_0134Voices has been working extensively with communities and NGO’s in the Lower Lempa region to ensure that residents are bring represented, rights are being protected and those in charge are being held accountable for non-ethical practices. La Tirana and El Chile are two communities most affected by the plans and have expressed concerns about the potential threats to the land, the water, the culture and the economy of their communities. Voices even collaborated with them to create a detailed report on the situation.                >> Read the report here                                                                                                        >> Read the article here

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IMG_0149  IMG_0009“They are privatizing our happiness. They are stealing our smiles.”  La Tirana’s community leader said as he looked over the bay where kids were playing. Thanks to the efforts of leaders like him, many of these people here know what’s going on. They know that this isn’t free money coming into their communities and they are banding together to demand that their lives and rights be taken into consideration.

The day’s event was a great opportunity for exposure. Many diverse, national and international journalists were able to experience the reality these communities face. These communities have been taking good care of the natural resources through climate change, contamination and even flooding with little to no help from the government. To them, these resources are their lifeline. This is something that tourists who are primed to vacation here will never understand.

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Corruption, Organized Crime

50 kilos of Coke Decommissioned in Honduras

In recent years, El Faro has posted numerous articles and reports that document organized criminal activities, including drug trafficking, in El Salvador. A few days ago they published a detailed account of Istvan Zachary Sánchez and his August 2012 arrest in Honduras for transporting 50 kilograms of cocaine. The story indicates that Istvan is part of the Texis Cartel that operates out of Metapan and controls a trafficking route from Honduras, through El Salvador, and on to Guatemala.

While there are many unknowns about this case, it offers some details about how traffickers operate and how the authorities respond or fail to respond.

Instead of translating the whole El Faro article from Spanish – it’s pretty long – we thought it better to retell an abbreviated version. If you read Spanish and have the time, the original article is worth reading – here’s a link.

Police stopped Istvan while he was driving down a dirt road in rural Choluteca, Honduras, a province nestled between El Salvador to the west, Nicaragua to the east, and the Gulf of Fonseco to the south. When the police pulled him over they asked what he was doing so far off the main highway. He responded that he had been to the city of Choluteca to visit a girlfriend and was headed back to El Salvador. The police didn’t buy it because the Pan-American Highway would have been his most direct route.

They asked Istvan to step out of the 2005 Hyundai Terracan he was driving so they could search him and the car. At that point he handed the police officer an envelope with $600 (the equivalent to 1 ½ months salary for a Honduran police officer) and asked him to just let him get on his way. El Faro points out that there is a lot of corruption within the Honduran police department, but Istvan had the bad luck of getting pulled over by an officer who was not for sale.

They searched the Hyundai and found 50 kilos of cocaine wrapped in clear plastic and brown tape, and tucked into a hole between the trunk and chassis. The load was valued at $600,000 and $1.2 million. The police charged Istvan with trafficking and put him in the Choluteca jail. He has hired a private attorney and is supposed to have his first hearing before the end of October.

Salvadoran security officials had the Hyundai and license plate (P111-483) on their radar for a while. In April 2012 the Salvadoran Center for Police Intelligence drafted a three-page report in which both the car and the license plate were mentioned in relation to drug trafficking and money laundering, and members of the Texis Cartel, an organized crime network based out of Metapan and Texistepeque, Santa Ana. The report was part of a larger file that had been shared with the top levels of government including the Minister of Security and Justice. It discussed Roberto “El Burro” Herrera, José Adán Salazar (aka Chepe Diablo), and a series of vehicles and people used to transport money and drugs. In May 2011, El Faro published a series of reports/articles on the Texis Cartel – definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen them yet (here’s a link).

The April report says, “also, the vehicle license plate P111-483 has been observed in some transactions; the [Hyundai] was observed in agricultural fairs in which the subjects Burro Herrera and Chepe Diablo participated. The same plate was seen with other vehicles crossing the border at Poy [a border crossing near Metapan where the Texis Cartel is allegedly based].” This seems to directly tie the Hyundai that Istvan was driving and the 50 kilos back to the Texis Cartel in Santa Ana.

After the police arrested Istvan, Choluteca prosecutor Manuel Eduardo Díaz sent the case to the Honduran Office Against Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking, which is supposed to investigate drug trafficking. It’s not clear why, but the investigators sent the case back. Manuel Eduardo Díaz, however, decided to prosecute the case on his own. The situation got a little more complicated, and tragic, when last month assassins shot and killed him in downtown Choluteca. Police made arrests but deny any link between the murder and Istvan or the 50 kilos of cocaine.

Police on both sides of the El Salvador/Honduran border claim they are trying to figure out where the drugs were going, where they had come from, who Istvan was working with, and other questions. But so far the Salvadoran and Honduran authorities have yet to get too far or even discuss the case.

After the arrest, Salvadoran Police visited Istvan’s parents who live near the Cuscatlán stadium in San Salvador – he had listed their home as his permanent address. His family didn’t have any information, just a suitcase with some of his personal papers, which revealed that left for the US when he was 14. They also found that the US Drug Enforcement Agency had a file on him related to drug trafficking. Other documents indicated that Istvan had been incarcerated in the US but released in May 2009.

At the same time police were visiting with Istvan’s family in San Salvador they raided the home of Mario David Rodríguez Linares in San Miguel. In October 0211 he bought the 2005 Hyundai that Istvan had used. He sold it in May 2012 but didn’t register the sale with the Vehicle Registration Office so records indicate that he is still the owner. The search turned up a lot of sales records that have opened up the pool of suspects, but when investigators called Linares to come in to make a statement he never came. It still remains unclear how Istvan had possession of the car.

The April 2012 report ties the license plate on the Hyundai (no P111-483) to a business that helps traffick drugs north and money (from drug sales) south. The police have been watching a car lot in Santa Ana owned by Roberto Antonio Escobar Martínez. He allegedly hides money (millions of dollars) in shipments of cars that are headed for Costa Rica. The car lot is on the same block where earlier this year police arrested Jesús Sanabria (former councilman of Metapan) for trying to sell five kilos of cocaine. The report also says, “Roberto Antonio Escobar Martínez is linked criminally with Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernández, alias El Burro.”

Salvadoran prosecutors say they trying to connect all the pieces and identify how Istvan and his 50 kilos of cocaine fit into the drug trafficking/money laundering networks. Prosecutors investigating the case in El Salvador say they have solicited information from their counterparts in Honduras, but officials in Choluteca say that during the months that they’ve had Istvan no Salvadoran has reached out to them.

El Faro’s article is interesting because it provides a glimpse into the world of trafficking in El Salvador. We hear and read that drug trafficking and money laundering are big problems, but this story provides some insight into what this looks like. It demonstrates that trafficking can be as nondescript as a grey Hyundai driving down a back road.

The article also illustrates how hard it is to stop trafficking. Top ranking security officials in El Salvador have reports that detail who is trafficking, who is laundering money, and when and where shipments are arriving. They have details about the cars they use and the police even caught a guy with a 50-kilo shipment. But not much happens. Istvan got unlucky and got pulled over by a cop who wouldn’t take a bribe. But the Honduran agency that is supposed to take drug trafficking cases refused to investigate and the local prosecutor who was investigating was assassinated. The Salvadoran officials who are “investigating” on one side of the border haven’t even gone to interview Istvan or called to get information about his case.

Corruption, El Salvador Government

Three years of Resistence to the Coup in Honduras

This morning, activists gathered outside the Honduran Embassy in San Salvador to protest the third anniversary of the coup d’état that toppled the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. In the days, months, and now years since the coup, the Honduran government has violently repressed the resistance movement that opposed the coup, and other human rights activists. The protests in front of the Embassy will continue tomorrow, June 28th, the actual anniversary of the coup.

The 2009 coup’s aftershocks rippled throughout Latin American democracies and continue to influence countries such as El Salvador. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes had been in office less than a month when the Honduran Military left Zelaya on a runway in Costa Rica. Rightwing extremists in El Salvador used the coup as an opportunity to warn Funes what would happen if he and the FMLN tried to exercise their new power in an extreme manner. Many of Funes’ actions over the past three years indicate that he took their message to heart.

This article will provide an overview of what happened three years ago and the constitutional crisis that led up to the coup. It will then discuss the international community’s response and arguably oversimplified accounting of what happened. The article then provides an overview of the human rights and social justice issues that have plagued Hondurans since the coup, and concludes with a brief discussion about how the coup continues to affect Salvadoran domestic policies.

Events 3 years Ago

On Monday June 29, 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that early the day before Honduran soldiers surrounded the Presidential Palace and removed then President Zelaya from his room and flew him to Costa Rica. The article quotes Zelaya’s version of the events, which he shared with reporters while still in his pajamas standing at the airport.

“I was awakened by shots, and the yells of my guards, who resisted for about 20 minutes. I came out in my pajamas, I’m still in my pajamas… when [the soldiers] came in, they pointed their guns at me and told me they would shoot if I didn’t put down my cell phone.”

A recent NPR article quotes President Zelaya recalling the coup, “[t]he shooting started around 5:20 a.m. I went downstairs and there were about 250 masked soldiers around my house. All you could see was their eyes.” Speaking about his arrival in Costa Rica, he continued, “they took off, and there I was. The democratically elected President of Honduras, standing in my pajamas in the middle of a runway in Costa Rica.”

With President Zelaya ousted, the Honduran military took to the streets in Tegucigalpa to suppress opposition to the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported that the police issued warrants for some of Zelaya’s cabinet members and other supporters, forcing them into hiding. The police and military broke up pro-Zelaya demonstrations, killing and injuring numerous people.

The Constitutional Crisis

The coup was organized by the Supreme Court and National Congress, which at the time issued a statement, “the military had acted to defend the law against those who had publicly spoken out and acted against the Constitution’s provisions.”

In the weeks and months before the coup, Honduras was embroiled in a constitutional crisis. President Zelaya had proposed that Hondurans reform their Constitution, which had been in place since 1982. President Zelaya wanted to include a referendum on the November 2009 presidential ballot to initiate the process. After getting pushback, he scheduled a non-binding referendum for June 29, 2009 to determine whether or not Hondurans wanted to have the referendum that November.

Opponents of the constitutional reforms accused President Zelaya of trying to amend the Constitution to allow him to serve a second term as President. In May 2009, Roberto Micheletti, the President of the Congress accused the President of treason pointing out that the Constitution prohibits changing constitutional term-limits by referendum pr plebiscite. The day before the coup, Al Jazeera quoted President Zelaya saying in a speech before Congress, “Congress cannot investigate me, much less remove me or stage a technical coup against me because I am honest, I’m a free president and nobody scares me.”

In a September 2009 interview with Time Magazine, Zelaya said the allegation that he was trying to change the presidential term limit was a “false pretext for a coup.” He explained the reason for reforming the constitution was “to better help the 70% of the population who live in poverty.”

In May 2009, the Attorney General of Honduras recommended that the judicial branch declare Zelaya’s referendum illegal, which it did. President Zelaya, however, went ahead with his plan and on May 29, 2009 ordered the military and police to provide logistical support for the referendum. The Supreme Court responded by ordering the military and police not to support Zelaya or the referendum, and they complied with the Court’s order. On June 24th President Zelaya fired the Military Joint Chief of Staff General Romeo Vasquez and the Defense Minister for their refusal to help with the referendum. The Supreme Court said the firing was illegal and ordered Zelaya to reinstate them, which he did not. The chiefs of the Honduran army, navy, and air force all resigned in protest.

According to Aljazeera, President Zelaya did not have the support of the military but labor leaders, farmers, and civic organizations agreed that the constitution needed to be reformed to improve the lives of the majority.

The referendum was scheduled for June 28th. Before the polls opened, however, the Military stormed the presidential palace, arrested Zelaya and flew him to Costa Rica, and confiscated the referendum materials. The Supreme Court said the Military had executed an arrest warrant they had issued for the President for his non-compliance with the judiciary’s ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional. Similarly, the National Congress passed a decree removing Zelaya from office and replacing him with Roberto Micheletti, who was the President of Congress and next in line to the Presidency. Micheletti served out the remainder of Zelaya’s presidency, which ended on January 27, 2010.

A Gallop poll taken in early July found that 46% of Hondurans opposed the coup while 41% thought it was justified.

The International Response to the Coup

The international community immediately condemned the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported, “the international reaction was swift and surprisingly united.” A Congressional Research Service report said the United States, European Union, and United Nations condemned the coup and called for Zelaya’s immediate return. “Countries throughout Latin America and Europe withdrew their ambassadors… isolating the de facto regime.” The day of the coup, the Organization of American States issued a statement condemning the coup and calling for the unconditional return of President Zelaya to his constitutional duties.

In 2011, a truth commission concluded what most had been arguing from day one – the coup was illegal. Recognizing that both President Zelaya and the Honduran Congress were responsible for the events that led up to the coup, the commission concluded that Honduras did not have clear procedures to resolve power conflicts, and that the Congress and Supreme Court had overreached their power by ordering his arrest and forcing him into exile. Even if President Zelaya had broken the law, there were other processes in place to check his power. Artile 102 of the Constitution, however, says that authorities may not expropriate any Honduran to another country. But that’s what the military did – they arrested him and dropped him off in Costa Rica, and refused him re-entry.

Though U.S. officials condemned the coup, many in the international community thought the response was insufficient. The day after the coup, The New York Times wrote on July 29, 2009,

“President Obama on Monday strongly condemned the ouster of Honduras’ president as an illegal coup that set a ‘terrible precedent’ for the region,’ as the country’s government defied international calls to return the toppled president to power and clashed with thousands of protesters.

“’We do not want to go back to a dark past,’ Mr. Obama said, in which military coups override elections. ‘We always want to stand with democracy,’ he added.”

In the days and weeks after the coup, the U.S. cut off aid to Honduras and revoked the visas of Honduran officials involved in the coup. But that hasn’t stopped many from accusing the U.S. government of supporting the coup. One Guardian editorial asked, “does the U.S. back the Honduran coup?” while calling President Obama’s statements following the coup “weak and non-committal.” The article compares Obama’s measured response to stronger statements made by Lula de Silva, then President of Brasil, and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, both of which denounced the coup and called for Zelaya’s return. The U.S. received even more criticism over the past couple of years as they helped Honduras re-enter the OAS.

Similarly, a North American Congress of Latin America (NACLA) article criticized the U.S. media for its “pro-coup bias, inaccuracies, and incomplete coverage.” The NACLA article criticized coverage for incorrectly reporting that Zelaya had been trying to reform the constitution so that he could run for a second term. They also disputed reports by the Wall Street Journal and other publications that a plurality in Honduras supported the coup, when the Gallop poll found the opposite – that 48% opposed the coup and 41% supported it. The NACLA article also alleges that the media under-reported opposition of the coup by members of the U.S. Congress, while giving Congressional support for the coup significant coverage. Finally, the article raises the important point that the U.S. media has failed to cover the human rights abuses and repression under the coup.

NACLA’s point that Zelaya was not trying to run for a second term and that the U.S. media presented a very pro-coup bias is echoed in an August 2009 Foreign Policy in Focus article. The authors summarize,

“the story most U.S. readers are getting about the coup is that Zelaya – an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – was deposed because he tried to change the constitution to keep himself in power.”

The article then says this presentation of the coup is “a massive distortion of the facts,” and that

“all Zelaya was trying to do is to put a non-binding referendum on the ballot calling for a constitutional convention, a move that trade unions, indigenous groups, and social activist organizations had long been lobbying for.”

Human Rights and Repression in Post-coup

Repression and human rights abuses against those who opposed the coup and otherwise advocate for social justice have become dramatically worse over the past three years. In July 2009 Amnesty International sent a delegation to investigate reports that the Honduran security forces were aggressively repressing those who opposed the coup. They found that an

“increasingly disproportionate and excessive use of force being used by the police and military to repress legitimate and peaceful protests across the country. Female protesters are particularly vulnerable and some women and girls taking part in the demonstrations are reportedly suffering gender-based violence and abuse at the hands of police officers. At least two protesters have died as a result of gunshot wounds.”

In August 2009, Ester Major from Amnesty International said,

“We’re seeing a deterioration in the whole respect for human rights on the whole situation in Honduras right now. People cannot count on having their rights protected if they go out on the streets. The police are sending a message, and the de facto government are sending a message to people, saying, “If you come out on the streets and peacefully demonstrate, this is what happens. We will arbitrarily detain you. We will beat you.” This is the signal they’re sending out.”

On the one-year anniversary of the coup, Gerardo Torres, who is an independent journalist and member of the National Front of Popular Resistance in Honduras, told Democracy Now “the repression is getting harder.” In May 2011, almost two years after the coup, the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras reported, “a dramatic increase in the ongoing violent repression of human rights in Honduras.”

In May 2011, Jesse Freeston produced a series of video reports that detail numerous aspects of the government repression of the growing opposition movement. The four-part video series is worth watching and can be found on the Upsidedownworld.org site. The videos detail abuses against rural populations who are advocating for access to land, attacks on teachers unions, and more.

Several people who opposed the coup were forced to flee Honduras and live in other Central American countries. They live in countries such as El Salvador where they are unable to receive refugee status, study, or get jobs.

Similarly, human rights activists report that since the coup an estimated 24 journalists have been killed.  Alfredo Villatoro, for example, was a radio reporter who as abducted and murdered in May 2012. His death came days after the assassination of journalist and gay rights campaigner Erick Martinez.

These political murders and human rights abuses are part of a general trend in Honduras since the coup. In 2009, Honduras’ murder rate was 46 per 100,000 – third highest in the world. In just two years, Honduras became the most violent country in the world, registering over 80 murders per 100,000 people. During that time, drug trafficking and organized crime have flourished, making security the number one issue. Just last month, the Honduran police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in helicopters killed four people, including two pregnant women and a 14-year girl, and injured four others when they fired upon a boat that was taking them to their rural community. The massacre is just the latest example of the violence and insecurity that has swept through Honduras over the past three years.

The Honduran Coup and El Salvador

A few weeks before the military ousted President Zelaya in Honduras, Mauricio Funes was sworn in as President of El Salvador – the first leftist administration to control the executive branch. Military leaders and conservative power brokers use the coup to warn the new administration that they would not tolerate extremist actions.

A NACLA article published in 2009 identifies several military leaders who justified the Honduran coup, arguing that the military did what it needed to do to uphold the constitution, and that similar actions would be justifiable in El Salvador. Former general Mauricio Ernesto Vargas went as far to say that if President Funes were to repeal the amnesty for military officials, he would face an uprising (Benjamín Cuélla, The Honduran Coup: View From El Salvador, NACLA Report on the Americas, p. 38-43, Nov/Dec 2009).

President Funes seems to have heeded their warning, and many of his more extreme actions have erred towards supporting more right-wing positions. And pacifying the Military seems to have been a top priority. Early in his presidency, Funes integrated the military into his security plan, allowing them to patrol “gang-controlled neighborhoods” and previously unmanned border crossings. In January 2012, President Funes went so far as to appoint former military leaders to top positions within the National Police and Ministry of Defense.

Funes even generated his own constitutional crisis last year by signing a law that would have crippled that Constitutional Court. Though the real reason for his going after the Constitutional Court remains somewhat unclear, Funes seems to have been trying to prevent the more progressive judges from striking down the amnesty law that protects former military leaders from being charged for crimes committed during the civil war.

Over the past 20 years, most Latin American countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, have at least tried to maintain a democratic façade, electing presidents and congressional leaders, and functioning under a constitution. Every once in a while events like the Honduran coup, and the more recent coup in Paraguay, demonstrate how thin these facades can be. Funes seems to have understood this well. Though his efforts to keep the military busy and happy have been unpopular, it may ensure that his presidency doesn’t end on a runway in Costa Rica. 

Corruption, El Salvador Government, violence

A New Approach to Youth Violence?

The number of students murdered in El Salvador more than doubled from 52 students in 2010 to 126 in 2011. In January 2011, even before the increase of violence in Salvadoran schools, the Ministry of Education (MINED) and the National Civil Police (PNC) began developing a plan that would, in-part, put police patrols in the schools most affected by gang violence. In late January 2012, Sub-director of the PNC, Manuel Ramírez Landaverde, announced they would begin implementing the new programs for the 2012 school year, with the goal of reducing student violence and the murder rate.

One of the new programs is “Discipline through Sports,” which aims to bridge the divide between students and police officers. According to an expert on Salvadoran youth and gangs, there is a very common belief in El Salvador that the police are “corrupt to its core.” The source, which requested anonymity, said that many communities, rural and urban, believe the PNC has “been infiltrated by gangs, by organized crime, by narco-trafficking, and you name it.” The source also said, “police brutality is common,” and they also “extort kids in the gangs so they don’t beat them or their families, or investigate them.”

It is unclear what the new program, which police officials tout as both preventative and protective, will look like, but the goal seems to be to get police officers active in coaching or even playing sports with the kids. Through direct interactions with students, the PNC hopes to be more than just a police presence. Landaverde said that the program “will allow us to detect, before any warning or situation, a problem developing within any group of students.”

While it is important that the police recognize the divide between the police and youth, Discipline through Sports seems to do little  to address the reason for the divide – the perception that the police are the actual “bad guys.” Instead of addressing accusations of abuse and corruption, police officials seem more interested in gathering information and detecting issues early, rather than strengthening their relationships with youth.

The PNC and MINED have identified 300 schools as “high risk,” 166 of which are also considered the “most vulnerable.” The program will assign 160 officers to work on sports programs in the 300 schools, which is just over 1 officer for every 2 high-risk schools. The 160 officers will join another 400 officers who are patrolling the 166 schools that are already marked as the most vulnerable. Sub-director Landaverde also said that thousands of other personnel would continue supporting schools around the country with “patrols, control, education, and road security, regulating vehicle traffic around the schools.”

The program is part of the PNC’s effort to reduce El Salvador’s extremely high murder rate (66 per 100,000, second highest in the world). Police officials recently said they would reduce the murder rate by 30% in 2012, in part by reducing the levels of violence among youth. According to David Munguía Payés, a retired General who is now the Minister of Justice and Public Security, and other government officials, violence perpetrated by youth gangs accounted for 90% of El Salvador’s 4,223 murders in 2011. El Salvador’s Government Forensics Institute, former PNC officials, and several civil society organizations, however, assert that youth gangs account for only 10-20% of the nation’s murders. They attribute the majority of El Salvador’s violence to international organized criminal networks involved in trafficking drugs, guns, and people, money laundering, and other illicit activities. Though the 126 student victims only account for 3% of the murder in 2011, the PNC is focusing on schools because they believe them to be recruiting centers for the gangs. They hope that by increasing the police presence, active gang members will no longer have the access that they once did, and youth will focus more on their studies instead of turning to gangs and violence.

The focus on murdered students may also be a good public relations move for the PNC and Funes Administration. Highlighting the tragic murders of these students,  the PNC and other officials are able to continue casting youth gangs as the heinous enemy and justify the same kind of draconian security plans implemented in the past (Mano Duro, 2003 and Super Mano Duro, 2004 – both laws were found to be unconstitutional by El Salvador’s Supreme Court). In just the past month, the Funes Administration has militarized the country’s domestic security institutions in a manner not seen since the Peace Accords were signed in 1992.

In 2011, the Funes Administration proposed to steer youth away from gangs by requiring “at risk” youth ages 16-18 to participate in a military training program. Activists and experts rejected the plan arguing that the youth would emerge from the program as skilled laborers for the gangs and drug traffickers. Instead of putting youth into a military program, the PNC’s latest idea puts the police into the schools.

Teachers, organizations and other experts, however, have criticized the PNC’s proposal fearing that it will only lead to more police brutality. A spokesperson for Bases Magisteriales, a teacher’s union, shared a recent story from the Joaquín Rodenzo school in downtown San Salvador as an example. He said that police would hit students and even put their service weapons to the student’s heads. The Bases Magisteriales spokesperson said that schools simply don’t have the resources to support the PNC presence and protect the rights of the students.

Salvador Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador’s Vice President and Minister of Education, signed off on Dicipline through Sports on January 30, 2012, and Security Minister David Munguía Payés hopes to see the plan in place within two months. Whether putting police officers into school sports programs and patrolling the hallways is something new that will deter involvement in gang activities or just another heavy-handed security measure that will result in more abuse remains to be seen. But with such uncertainty about who is responsible for the violence and the motive behind the crimes, there is plenty of reason to doubt the plan will help reduce El Salvador’s murder rate by the 30% officials are hoping for.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, International Relations, Mauricio Funes, Organized Crime, Partnership for Growth

Decriminalization and the Impact of Drug Trafficking in Central America

Decriminalization, or legalization, of drugs in Central America is a hot topic in El Salvador and Guatemala right now. Last Friday, Inside Story Americas, an Al-Jazeera news program, ran a program on the effects of drug trafficking on Central America, touching on the pros/cons of decriminalization.

The program was in response to comments made last week by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who said he would be open to decriminalizing drugs in an effort to address Guatemala’s security issues. The comments came after a meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes who also said he is also open to the idea. President Funes stated,

“Our government is open to discussion on any proposal or measure which achieves a reduction in the high levels of consumption in our countries, but particularly (to reduce) the production and trafficking of drugs. As long as the United States does not make any effort to reduce the high levels of (narcotics) consumption, there’s very little we can do in our countries to fight against the cartels, and try to block the production and trade in drugs.”

After returning to El Salvador from his meeting with President Perez Molina, President Funes backtracked a bit, saying that he does not favor decriminalizing drugs.

Saving the discussion about the pros and cons of decriminalization or legalization for another blog post, an interesting point of these recent conversations is the growing emphasis on the failure of the U.S. to curb its demand for drugs. Al Jazeera cited a recent government report that found that 22.6 million Americans used illicit drugs in 2010, nearly 9% of the population. While the number of users dropped from 2.4 million in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010, the U.S. remains the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

The Inside Story panelists said the heads of state in Central America, and even Mexico and Colombia who have talked about decriminalization, may be discussing decriminalization in order to pressure the U.S. into taking more actions to decrease demand. Experts from around the world agree that the “war on drugs,” as it has been fought over the past 40 years, has failed. Even President Obama has acknowledged that the U.S. needs to address the demand issue, and treat the issue as a public health problem.

U.S. policies have yet to change, though. In 2011, the National Drug Control Strategy had a budget of $15.5 billion, and the expenditures were roughly the same as in previous years. Approximately 1/3 ($5.6 billion) of the federal budget for the war on drugs was allocated for treatment and prevention – an increase of $0.2 billion from the 2010 budget. The remaining $9.9 billion was allocated for law enforcement, interdiction, and international support, the same as previous years.

In addition to the well-documented affects on Mexico and South America, the U.S. demand for illicit drugs produced in South America and trafficked through Central America and Mexico have very real consequences in Salvadoran communities.

El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala now comprise the most violent region in the world. While police officials blame 90% of the murders on local youth gangs, other government agencies, recently demoted police officials, and civil society organizations believe the violence is the result of international organized criminals who are trafficking drugs, guns, people, and laundering money. They estimate that only 10-20% of El Salvador’s murders are attributable to local gangs. The high murder rates have resulted in such insecurity in El Salvador that the U.S. aid program, Partnership for Growth, indentified it as one of the country’s two primary barriers to economic growth.

Traffickers use border communities, coastal villages, and other regions to move shipments from South American producers to North American markets. But they don’t just use these communities quietly – they often take them over, corrupting local government and police officials, making sure that local citizens and law enforcement do not interfere with their activities.

Along the coast, traffickers use small villages, ports and tourist destinations to refuel the small boats they use to transport drug shipments by sea. They also use these villages to transfer shipments that arrive by boat to cars and trucks, which then continue the journey north via land routes. Traffickers use communities along El Salvador’s borders with Honduras and Guatemala to move shipments without interference from border agents.

The cartels control these towns by putting local government and police officials on their payrolls. In turn these officials arrange for locals to move and provide security for shipments, and make sure that law enforcement agencies do not interfere. The local government and police officials maintain a culture of lawlessness that prevents political opposition and limits civil society.

One of the best examples of how traffickers work in El Salvador is the Texis Cartel, which was exposed in a report put together by El Faro in May 2011 and a companion video produced by the Washington Office on Latin America. The Texis Cartel ran a land route that trafficked drugs and other contraband from Honduras through northern El Salvador and on to Guatemala.

While it remains unclear how decriminalization or legalization would affect Central American communities, experts and even President Obama agree that the long-term solution must include a decrease demand in the U.S. Unfortunately, U.S. officials have yet to shift their priorities, forcing Central and South American governments to discuss other options. And until the U.S. can kick its cocaine problem, the violence will continue and the cartels will continue to control communities throughout the Americas.

Advocacy, Cabanas, Corruption

“Extermination” group threatens Radio Victoria Reporters Again

Yesterday six Radio Victoria reporters, including a North American, received a death threat in their e-mail boxes.  The threat comes after a rally in Victoria City where community members from Santa Marta demanded transparency from their Mayor Juan Antonio Ramos; and 2 months before mayoral and congressional elections.

The text came from the e-mail address “exterminiottrr@hotmail.com” and says, “Warning f*@! at Radio Victoria you keep screwing around as you like filling your mouths with the sh@* you talk, like the day that those mother f*#@rs leaders of Santa Marta tricked those people to talk sh#@ in Victoria.”

The reporters have been denouncing the threat on local radio stations and are adament that the authorities investigate these threats, especially now that they are clearer than ever in their motives and possible authors.