2014 Annual Report and 2015 Priorities

Last year was a very productive year for Voices on the Border, empowering communities and organizations in El Salvador to achieve their priorities and goals. Voices Grassroots Resource Center has struck an important balance between building local capacity and ensuring our Salvadoran partners have access to information and analysis about issues that affect them. Along with our small grants program, these activities make a real difference!

But Voices’ goal is that at the end of the day the communities and organizations we work with sit back and say “look what we did!” 2014 Annual Report

I invite you to take a few minutes and flip through our 2014 Annual Report/2105 Priorities (click on image to the right) – it details a lot of the successes we have had over the past year and what we have planned for this year.

If you like what we’re up to, please click on the Donate Now Button at the top of the column on the right. Everything we do is because people like you still believe peace and justice is possible in El Salvador.

The Legislative Assembly’s Environmental Debt

MontecristoThe current term of the Legislative Assembly comes to an end in a couple weeks and their inaction on environmental issues has left a huge debt to the people the were elected to serve.

When the Legislative Assembly began its 2012-2015 term, the body’s President Sigfrido Reyes said, “the debate in the current legislature requires a dignified position of the Parliament. As the Assembly begins, it is faced with some formidable challenges among them is reducing the environmental vulnerabilities.” A month later, Representative Francisco Zablath, President of the Assembly’s Environmental and Climate Change Commission, said, “What the Legislators do or fail to do affects millions of Salvadorans, and for that reason our task is to legislate responsibly and focus on the common good. So I promise to address water issues in a holistic manner and with the benefit of the population being the center focus.”

But three years later, the Legislative Assembly has accomplished little in protecting El Salvador’s environment and natural resources. Legislators managed to pass a ban on circus animals, extend an environmental emergency declaration in Sitio del Niño, and removed toxic chemicals from San Luis Talpa. These are important and necessary actions, but there are so many other big environmental issues the Legislature failed to act on.

The most emblematic is the General Water Law, which was first presented to the Legislative Assembly in 2006. It is incredibly irresponsible that in 9 years legislators have yet to approve a law that regulates the use of water. El Salvador is on the brink of a water crisis, and the government must take action, but the legislature seems paralyzed.

Carolina Amaya, an environmental activist at the Salvadoran Ecological Unit argues that the reason they have not passed the General Water Law is that business leaders have close ties to right-wing legislators. These private, for-profit interests want to control water resources through privatization, and their representatives in the Legislature have been holding up the bill on the their behalf. Ms. Amaya says that giving private businesses control over water management would be like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

The Legislature has also failed to ratify an amendment to Article 69 of the Constitution, which would recognize food and water as a basic human right. The amendment was passed in April 2012 just before the last legislative term ended. But to become binding, the Legislature had to ratify it in this term with at least 56 votes, which they were unable to do. It seems like a pretty non-controversial bill giving people the right to adequate nutrition and water, and requiring the State to manage water resources in a way that provides people with adequate access to each.

Twice, legislators have tried to ratify the amendment, but the two conservative parties have voted against it without making any good policy arguments as to why. The Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, recently asked the Assembly, “the right [to food and water] is nothing you can deny, and will all due respect, and with all the respect I can communicate to the honorable legislators, I want to ask that you not reject the amendment and give this your vote, because if you reject it, you deny Salvadorans of their most important and fundamental rights.”

The reality is, however, the Legislative term will end in a couple weeks and with it the opportunity to make a substantial contribution to the country – elevating the right to food and water to a constitutional right.

The legislature also continues to ignore the proposed ban on metallic mining. In a conversation with the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC), Representative Lourdes Palacios, the Secretary of the Environmental and Climate Change Committee, recognized that the ban on mining has not been on the Commissions agenda and that they have not looked at the issue.

There are several other environmental issues that are important to Salvadorans and the natural resources they depend on but that the Legislative Assembly has ignored this term. These include the prohibition of toxic agrochemicals, passage of a food sovereignty law, and needed reforms to the Risk Management Law.

The current legislature is leaving a lot of unfinished business for the next term, as well as a big debt to Salvadorans whose health and wellbeing hang in the balance. Water, food and nutrition, mining, toxic agro-chemicals, and risk management are all issues that the Legislature has to address. The next legislative body cannot be irresponsible as their predecessors were – they have a moral and ethical obligation to the people that elected them to office.

Abuses in Textile Maquilas and Hotels

Last Friday we posted that Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are proposing more neoliberal economic policies in order to create jobs and thereby address the emigration crisis and high levels of violence. Their plan, in part, is to attract more textile maquilas, agro-industries, manufacturing, and tourism. We think it’s a bad idea and will result in even greater inequalities and more emigration.

Over the past couple of days we came across a couple new articles that demonstrate why more sub-poverty minimum wage jobs in textiles, manufacturing, and tourism won’t address the serious issues that El Salvador and other Northern Triangle face.

Gangs and Maquilas

On Monday, the Inter Press Service (IPS) reported that employees of LD El Salvador, a Korean textile maquila that operates in San Marcos, just south of San Salvador, is using gangs and death threats to break up an employee union. One employee told IPS “They would call me on the phone and tell me to quit the union, to stop being a trouble-maker.” Another employee says, “they told me they were homeboys (gang members) and that if I didn’t quit the union my body would show up hanging from one of the trees outside the company.”

These are probably not empty threats. In January 2014 Juan Carlos Sánchez Luna, a member of SITS from the LD El Salvador maquila was assassinated. He began receiving threats at the end of 2013 after he participated in a press conference denouncing threats made against organizers at the LD El Salvador maquila. Less than a month later was gunned down in what officials classified as a “common crime.

Of the 780 employees at LD El Salvador, 155 used to belong to the Salvadoran Textile Industry Union (SITS, in Spanish). Since the threats began the number of union members has dropped to 60.

LD El Salvador is not the only company using gangs to prevent their workers from organizing. The IPS article references a report published in January 2015 by the Center for Global Worker’s Rights and the Worker Rights Consortium titled Unholy Alliances: How Employers in El Salvador’s Garment Industry Collude with a Corrupt Labor Federation, Company Unions, and Violent Gangs to Suppress Worker’s Rights. The report contains several accounts of maquilas using gangs to threaten and intimidate workers, and documents many other abuses.

As we pointed out last week, there is nothing in the Northern Alliance Plan that will protect workers rights and ensure that the very employers that are supposed to be part of the “solution” aren’t abusing workers and colluding with criminal organizations.

Tourism and Hotels

On Sunday, the Center for the Study and Support of Labor (CEAL, in Spanish) wrote an update on two hotels in Acajutla, Sonsonate. Both have long histories of abusing worker’s rights and the environment. The two hotels are the Vernaneros Hotel and Resort and the Decameron Salinas Hotel. Both tourism facilities have long histories of abusing workers rights and the environment.

Over the past several years, Vernaneros has faced several legal issues regarding the violations of El Salvador’s labor laws and the destruction of a valuable coral reef. In 2013, the Ministry of Labor found that Vernaneros owner Larry Alberto Zedán owed his workers $17,000 in compensation for not paying overtime, holidays, and overtime and other wages. Inspectors found that employees “worked most of the day, and in some cases 60 hours a week, but did not receive the minimum wage, did not have written contracts, and that [the hotel] operated informally with total disregard for labor standards.”

As a result of the abuses group of workers formed the Food, Restaurant, Hotel and Tourism Industry Union (SITIGHRA) with employees of The Decameron Hotel and other facilities. After they formed the union representatives wrote to the owners of several hotels and asked for a meeting. Larry Zedán responded by firing the 15 of his employees who had joined the union.

The Verdaderos has also received a lot of attention over the years for their destruction of a large reef off the coast from their resort. They destroyed the reef by installing a seawall to make their beach more pleasant for their guests. The reef, located in a region called Los Cóbanos, was the only place between Mexico and South America on the Pacific side, where coral grew.

The Decameron Hotel has its own share of labor disputes. In September 2013, the Decameron fired 145 workers for supporting the SITIGHR union, the same union that the Verdaderos employees had been fired for joining. One worker told Contrapunto in 2013 that they formed the union because “a lot of the bosses and supervisors treated us really poorly.”

These are just a couple of real examples in the news this week of what the globalized race to the bottom looks like. El Salvador needs solutions – economic inequality, emigration, and violence are all serious problems. But selling off the labor force and environment to the lowest bidder won’t resolve anything.

Related to these issues:

With regard to tourism, we came across a short peice on Cancun and what tourism development has done to local Mayan populations and environment. This is relevant for a lot of reasons, including that developers in El Salvador have proposed turning the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America. Here is a link:

Our friends at CISPES are hosting an event in the DC area this week – Estela Ramirez, the General Secretary of the Salvadoran garment workers’ will be in DC this week to talk about their work. This will be a good opportunity to hear from on-the-ground organizers.

More Neoliberal Economic Policies Will Not Stop Unaccompanied Minors From Seeking Refuge

DSCF0020March 2-3, Vice President Joe Biden was in Guatemala with leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). Their agenda was to “accelerate the implementation of the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle (the Plan).” The meeting came just a month after Vice President Biden announced that the Obama Administration would ask Congress for $1 billion in aid for the region.

The purpose of the Alliance’s Plan, $1 billion fund, and the March meeting is to address the surge of unaccompanied minors leaving the Northern Triangle for the U.S. It’s an important goal. In FY2014, more than 60,000 youth were caught trying to enter the U.S. and government officials expect more than twice that in FY2015.

While the Plan arguably contains some constructive approaches towards decreasing violence, the emphasis is on implementing neoliberal economic policies. The proposal reads more like CAFTA-DR 2.0 or a World Bank structural adjustment plan, than an effort to stem the flow of emigration. The Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are proposing that foreign investment, more integrated economies, and free trade – and a gas pipeline – will provide the jobs and opportunities necessary to keep youth from seeking refuge in the U.S.

Income inequality and violence are the driving forces behind youth seeking refuge in the U.S., but its hard to imagine how more neoliberal economic policies, which many cite as the reason for inequality over the past 25 years, will do anything except ensure the region’s rich will remain so. A skeptic might even argue that the U.S. and Northern Triangle governments are using the “crisis” of violence and emigration in order to implement policies that further their own economic interests.

Increasing Foreign Investment and Investing in Our People

The Alliance Plan and other related documents emphasize that the solution to emigration, violence and inequality has to be economic – attracting foreign investment, unifying regional economies, increasing competitiveness in global markets, and training the workforce. The Plan, which was first published in September 2014, offers four Strategic Lines of Action. The first, and most detailed, is to stimulate the productive sector. The second is to develop opportunities for our people. Of the $1 billion grant from the U.S., $400 million will support these two lines of action.

Stimulating the productive sector means “attracting investment and promoting strategic sectors capable of stimulating growth and creating jobs… we will make more efficient use of our regional platform to reduce energy costs that stifle our industries and the national treasury, overcome infrastructural and logistical problems that curb growth and prevent better use of the regional market, and harmonize our quality standards to put them on par with what the global market requires.”

The Plan identifies four productive sectors: textiles, agro-industry, light manufacturing, and tourism, none of which are new to the Northern Triangle. Textile maquiladoras, sugarcane producers, factories, and tourism have exploited the region’s labor force and natural resources for years. They have created jobs, but ones in which workers are paid a sub-poverty minimum wage and endure a myriad of human rights abuses. Saskia Sassen wrote in 1998, and other since then report that so far the global economy has produced “a growing supply of poorly paid, semi-skilled or unskilled production jobs.” That has not changed in the past 17 years. When unions and workers try to negotiate better wages or working conditions, manufactures and investors simply leave. The environmental impacts of these sectors have been equally devastating, and will get exponentially worse if large-scale tourism, a gas-pipeline, and other industries are allowed to move forward.

While CAFTA-DR pretends to address labor and environment, and the “race to the bottom”, Northern Alliance governments provide detail about the concessions they will give to foreign investors. These include lower energy costs, infrastructure, and “harmonization” of standards, which some believe means an agreement on a very low bottom.

The U.S. and Northern Alliance countries have been implementing neo-liberal economic policies since the early 1990s; the same period that crime and gang violence began to proliferate. Privatization, dollarization, free trade agreements, maquiladoras, Millennium Challenge Corporation grants, Partnership for Growth, Public-Private Partnerships, and more have all been implemented over the past 25 years. The same period that crime and violence has skyrocketed.

As academics (good articles here and here) and campesino leaders in rural El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have articulated for years – globalization and neoliberal economic policies are the reason for the high rates of inequality that has resulted in the high levels of crime and violence, and lack of opportunities that have forced youth to flee. Poverty and inequality are nothing new in the Northern Triangle, but Globalization and neoliberalism is simply the latest tools the elite use to maintain and grow their wealth.

Just this week, El Faro published an article titled “The Neoliberal Trap: Violent Individuals or Violent Situations ” that is based on 2013 study in El Salvador. The authors found that communities that are more isolated from the global community and depend sustenance agriculture were less likely to experience social isolation, gangs, crime and violence. Communities that have a greater market mentality are more socially isolated and prone to crime. The article argues, “The neoliberal reconstruction has renewed and amplified the conditions of alienation. Meanwhile, some elites embrace neoliberal reconstruction as a means of assuring their position in the new “transnational capital class of global capitalism, while a large part of the population is left out and has to fend for themselves.”

Colette Hellenkamp drew a similar conclusion in her piece War and Peace in El Salvador. She concludes, “The wealthy few in [the El Salvador] do whatever is necessary to maintain their riches and quench their thirst for comfort and power. Their status and wealth will not be threatened as long as they ensure that the masses remain uneducated and in chaos.” The crime and violence in El Salvador has certainly caused such chaos that instead of opening small shops and providing services the region’s otherwise hard-working and industrious workforce is leaving en masse.

Academics also point out that proponents of neo-liberal ideologies believe their model is perfect – “everyone benefits, not just some, all.” Those that don’t are referred to as the “underserving poor or the underclass that demonstrate two characteristics – they are underserving and predisposed to unlawful behavior. Proponents argue that free market, neoliberalism is perfect and if people don’t benefit, its not the market’s fault, it’s because people are lazy and prone to violence.

The Northern Alliance Plan is to double down on the neoliberal policies that sustain the same economic inequalities they say they are want to correct. Bur more sub-poverty, minimum wages will only serve to further stratify the economic and social classes.

Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” But that’s what the Northern Triangle Plan seems to want to try and do.

Violence and Security

Instead of focusing on more neoliberal economic policies, the Plan must focus on putting an end to the high rates of crime and violence.

Analysts agree that most of the youth detained on the U.S. border were fleeing violence. A report published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that 58% of the minors interviewed “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” The report identified two sources of violence – “organized armed criminal actors and violence at home.” A report written by Fulbright Fellow Elizabeth Kimberly found, “59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of Salvadoran girls list crime, gang threats, or violence as a reason for their emigration. Whereas males most feared assault or death for not joining gangs or interacting with corrupt government officials, females most feared rape or disappearance at the hands of the same groups.” Other reasons for leaving included the lack of economic opportunities and reunification with family members in the U.S. But of those youth, “most referenced crime and violence (the chaos) as the underlying motive for their decision to reunify with family now rather than two years in the past or two years in the future.”

The proposal for decreasing violence in the Northern Triangle is a mixed bag at best. The Plan wants to invest more money into the same heavy-handed, militarized, law enforcement policies that have been failing for 25 years. Alexander Main provides a good critic of these policies in his Truthout article, Will Biden’s Billion-Dollar Plan Help Central America.

But its not all bad. There are some proposals in the Plan that focus on alternative conflict resolution, safe schools, trustworthy community policing, modernizing the justice system, and giving civil society and churches a greater role in prevention and rehabilitation. There are also needed reforms for ensuring better governance and addressing organized crime. One of the more positive ideas is to “improve prison systems, including infrastructure based on prisoner risk profiles, the capacity of prison staffs, and rehabilitation programs, including those focused on juvenile offenders and their prison conditions.”

El Salvador has even proposed an ambitious $2 billion plan that proposes similarly progressive policies for ending violence at the national level. The plan “promises parks, sports facilities, education and training programs for the country’s 50 most violent municipalities, as well as improvements to the worst prisons where the country’s biggest gangs – Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and Calle 18 – have proliferated over the past decade.”

If implemented, these projects could help decrease levels of crime and violence, and calming the chaos that helps maintain high levels of inequality. But if academics and campesino leaders are right, and globalization is the cause of the inequality, these positive steps are unlikely to have any lasting impact. The undeserving poor will still be limited to working sub-poverty wages and have little if any social and economic mobility.

If Not More Neoliberal Economic Policies…

Stemming the flow of emigration is a complex task, and the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are right to consider a multi-faceted approach that aims to provide economic opportunities, end violence, and address other deficiencies.

Instead of more neoliberal economic policies, the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments, and the IADB should focus their plan on making the region safe from crime and violence. There are very smart, informed civil society leaders who have put forth some very reasonable proposals. The governments should do more to work with them to implement their ideas and proposals on a large scale. The plan articulates some of these ideas, but instead of taking second place to more neoliberalism, they should be at the heart of the proposal.

The solution should include creating economic opportunities, but that does not require foreign investors or selling out the region’s workforce and environment. Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans are known as hardworking and industrious. Instead of building infrastructure and providing incentives to multinational corporations, the governments should focus those investments on supporting and incentivizing local, small businesses. That does not mean small business loans, but it might mean making it more difficult for international corporations like Walmart to run all the mom-and-pop shops out of business. Family businesses do more than provide jobs; they build neighborhoods and social networks.

Instead of promoting agro-industry and exports, as proposed by the Plan and Partnership for Growth, governments should support communities in their efforts to promote food security and sovereignty. El Salvador’s family seed program, for example is an example of a relatively low cost government action that supports small family farmers that are trying to feed their family and contribute to their local economy. In 2013, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development called for a “rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

There are solutions. The only question is motive and whether policy makers are really interested in addressing emigration, violence, and economic inequality, or using the chaos and “crises” as means to further their own economic interests. This month, President Sanchez Cerén and the Legislative Assembly declared March 26 as the National Day of Peace, Life and Justice – a day in which all Salvadorans will unite and demand an end to the violence and chaos. But even this simple idea of bringing people together was too much for the business class. ANEP (El Salvador’s Chamber of Commerce) came out against the Day of Peace, Life, and Justice, argues that celebrating a National Day of Peace would cost El Salvador $56 million in lost economic opportunities. ANEP representatives argue, “the suspension of just one day of work will cost Salvadorans more that 56 million dollars, and could result in the loss of contracts from export businesses, and thus the employment of workers.”

Their position could be one of pure practicality. More likely it is a true reflection of their priorities – money and profits over peace, life, and justice.

Is Selling Sugar to China Really Such a Sweet Deal for El Salvador?

Salvadoran government officials recently announced a deal to export 52,000 tons of sugar (12% of the country’s annual production) to China in a deal worth $15-20 million to local producers. El Salvador has sold sugar to South Korea, Taiwan, the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Indonesia, and the European Union, but this is the first time exporting to China.

Sugarcane burning in the Bajo Lempa

Sugarcane burning in the Bajo Lempa

With Partnership for Growth pressing El Salvador to produce more exports, sugarcane has become a larger part of the country’s economic plan. Already, sugarcane production has created 50,000 direct jobs and 200,000 more indirect jobs. This week Vice President Oscar Ortiz said “This is the key, this is the solution for our country: to diversify our production of exports. We are unable to be alone in a market, we have to be open to a variety of markets and in this direction we have to have the ability to improve our process of commercialization.”

Exporting $15-20 million of sugar to China and creating 250,000 jobs may sound like a sweet deal, but El Salvador is paying a substantial price. In addition to labor, agrochemicals, machinery, processing, and shipping, there are enormous costs related to the environment, public health, food sovereignty, and local culture. The individuals and corporations profiting from sugarcane exports don’t pay these costs. Instead they pass the debt on to the country’s poor who earn sub-poverty wages, suffer from chronic renal failure and other diseases, live in depleted ecosystems, struggle to feed their families, and are forced to migrate to urban areas.

DSCF0037Last year, Voices staff spoke with a team of migrant workers from Santa Ana cutting cane in a field in Usulután. They said they earn the agricultural minimum wage for cutting sugarcane 14-hours a day during the hottest months of the year. In 2014, the minimum wage for agricultural workers was $3.79/day. In 2015, it is up to $3.94/day. That is less than half of what is needed to feed a family. When these migrant workers arrive in a field of ripe sugarcane, they begin by burning the field to defoliate the cane, making it faster and cheaper to harvest, transport and process. The next day, as the field smolders, workers use machetes to cut the cane and pile it into rows. A tractor then loads the cane into tractor-trailers that deliver it to a processing plant. Yes, these and others workers have jobs, but they still live in abject poverty.

Another issue with sugarcane exports is way it is grown – large-scale monoculture production that relies on agrochemicals and is burned before harvest. Monoculture production of any crop destroys local ecosystems and displaces or kills the wildlife and people that once depended on them. When an ecosystem is destroyed, soil structures and natural defense systems deteriorate, requiring inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and many other toxic agrochemicals that contaminate local communities, rivers, streams, fields and forests. Many of these chemicals are linked to high rates of chronic renal failure, cancer, and other diseases common where sugarcane is produced.

Perhaps the most egregious practice with sugarcane production is burning the fields before harvest. Once alight, sugarcane burns quickly, flames and smoke snapping acre to acre, throwing thick black smoke, ash, and soot high into the air before snowing down on schools, soccer fields, homes, farms, and communities. The particulates include residues of all the agrochemicals that had been sprayed on the fields the months before. In addition to contaminating surrounding communities, burning sugarcane emits large quantities of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

The use of toxic agrochemicals and burning of fields motivated residents of La Tirana, Monte Cristo, San Juan del Gozo and other communities to oppose large-scale sugarcane production next to mangrove forests on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula. Residents fear that Glyphosate and other agrochemicals would have an adverse affect on their health and destroy the valuable and fragile ecosystem that they depend on.

In addition to the environmental impacts, large-scale sugarcane production also disrupts the local economy and culture. Rural communities in El Salvador have traditionally supported themselves by growing corn, beans, rice and other crops. Farmers generally keep a portion of what they grew to feed their family and sell the rest at local markets to generate a modest income. While small-scale farming will not generate the kind of concentrated wealth that large-scale monoculture can, it is a more sustainable way to live. And the campesino culture has always been one of humility, respect, and simplicity.

In 2013, the UN Commission on Trade and Development published a report titled “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late”. One of the report’s findings is “the world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

El Salvador’s focus on producing more sugarcane and other export crops does just the opposite. It is doubling down on monoculture production at the cost of small-scale farming. Monocultural production displaces families when they rent, sell, or otherwise lose their land sugarcane producers. There has been a long trend of farming families moving to urban areas where at best they work for minimum wage jobs. Idle youth lack access to education and are subject to the violence and gang culture that El Salvador has become famous for.

Selling $15-20 million in sugarcane may be good for a few Salvadorans, but the money does not pay for or trickle down to people who are bearing the environmental, health, economic, and cultural impacts. The demand for sugarcane is going to grow and the Salvadoran and U.S. governments will continue to promote it as a way to develop the stagnant economy. But Salvadorans should have to an informed debate about whether they are willing to pay the real costs of sugarcane.

Las 17: Women Convicted of Murder for Having a Miscarriage

The application of El Salvador’s complete ban on abortion is among the most draconian in the world.

One thing that makes it so barbaric is that women who miscarry can be convicted of murder and be sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison. Right now there are at least 15 women (called Las 17) living in El Salvador’s notoriously over-crowded, violent prisons just for having a miscarriage.

Approximately one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, so in El Salvador every woman who gets pregnant is at risk of ending up in jail.

Actually, its not every woman – those who can afford it go to private hospitals and clinics where they receive proper care (including abortions) and privacy. Poor women, however, must rely on the public hospitals and clinics where they may receive good care, or be treated as criminals.

In recent months, the case of Carmen Guadelupe Vasquez has gotten some international attention. After a long battle, advocates secured her release after she miscarried and was convicted for murder. Guadelupe served more than 7 years of her 30-year sentance. Guadelupe’s is not an uncommon story. At the age of 18 she was working as a maid for a family in San Salvador. The family’s neighbor raped Guadelupe and she became pregnant. She miscarried and sought care at a public hospital where a nurse or doctor called the police. Guadelupe was arrested and handcuffed to her bed.

The Salvadoran Supreme Court recently recommended to the Legislative Assembly that Guadelupe be pardoned due to the manner in which the courts handled her case. It took the Legislative Assembly two votes but in January 2015 they finally voted to release her.

One incredible aspect of these cases is how easy it is to convict women accused of violating the abortion ban or homicide. The impunity rate for violent crimes against woman (including rape and murder) is between 95 and 97%. That means if a man rapes or kills a woman, he’s got a good chance of getting away with it. Prosecutors and judges, however, have no problem convicting women for having a miscarriage, and basing that conviction on little or no evidence.

Last year National Public Radio did a story on Christina Quintanilla who was convicted for murder after having a miscarriage. Her conviction was over-turned when an attorney argued that her original conviction was not based on any evidence.

At least fifteen women remain incarcerated for murder after having a miscarriage. While advocates like Morena Horrera of the Feminist Collective and Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion celebrate Guadelupe’s recent release, they continue to seek justice for the others. Advocates have petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of all 15 women. The court has denied six of these petitions and has yet to decide on the other nine. Advocates have asked the United Nations and other international agencies to intervene.

The Center for Reproductive Rights is currently circulating a petition asking that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intervene on behalf of Las 17 – please go to their site and sign the petition… and stay informed – El Salvador won’t be repealing the abortion law anytime soon, and more women are likely to be convicted.

Civil Society Marches for Public Health, Food, and Water

This morning 5,000 Salvadorans from 150 civil society organizations and communities took to the streets in San Salvador to demand that the Legislative Assembly ratify a Constitutional Amendment recognizing food and water as a basic human right.

In 2012, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed an amendment to Article 69 of the Constitution recognizing access to food and water as basic rights to be protected by the State. If the current Legislature ratifies the amendment, Article 69 will include the following language:

“All people have the right to adequate nutrition. The State is required to create food sovereignty and nutritional policies for all inhabitants. A law will regulate this issue.

Water is a resource essential for all of life, and as such the State is required to protect and preserve water resources and provide it for all inhabitants. The State will create public policies that regulate this issue.”

The Legislative Assembly first approved the amendment on April 19, 2012, just 12 days before the current legislature took office. To complete the process, this Legislature has to ratify the amendment before their 3-year term expires on April 30.

When the marchers reached the Legislative Assembly this morning, Diputados (Representatives) Lourdes Palacios and Yoalmo Cabrero greeted them and declared that all 31 representatives from their leftist FMLN party would vote in favor of the amendment. They pointed out, as did many marchers, that it was the right-wing ARENA, PCN, and PDC representatives that have blocked ratification. During a meeting last month with members of MOVIAC, Representative Palacidos said that they have brought the ratification vote to the floor twice and both times ARENA, PCN, and PDC [representatives] blocked its passage. She also said that they have yet to give a valid argument for their opposition.

A statement released by MOVAIC (the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change), declared that “water and food, like air, are elements essential for human life and other creatures of the biosphere. Human beings are unable to live without food and water.

“It seems like a lie and its shameful that in the twenty-first century, fifty years after we put a man on the moon and reached high levels of scientific and technological development, that we still are fighting for the recognition of such fundamental rights as access to food and water.”

The holdup seems to be privatization. MOVIAC and others believe that the ARENA, PCN, and PDC Representatives blocking ratification of Article 69 are backing the corporations and investors that want to privatize and control water and food. Representative Palacios confirmed that the opposition from the conservative parties is strong.

In addition to calling for the ratification of the amendment, marchers ask Salvadorans to vote against any legislator or party that has refused to support ratification (on March 1, El Salvador will hold elections for the Legislative Assembly and Municipal governments).

Water resources in El Salvador are scarce and for years Salvadoran organizations have fought to ensure that all Salvadorans have access to potable water. Currently, 20% of Salvadorans do not have access to potable water. That means they have to get water for drinking and to run their household from surface waters, 90% of which are contaminated with agrochemical runoff, untreated industrial waste, raw sewage and other pollutants.

Access to adequate food and nutrition has become more difficult in recent years. Neo-liberal economic policies prioritize using El Salvador’s farmland for growing exports like sugarcane instead of corn, beans, and vegetables for local consumption. U.S. policies such as Partnership for Growth, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and others have made it increasingly difficult for families to feed themselves or make a living farming.

Ratifying Article 69 of the Salvadoran Constitution will not mean that everyone will have access to water and food, but it will require the executive and legislative branches to take affirmative steps in that direction – like passing the water law that has been lingering in the Legislative Assembly for 10 years.

News out of El Salvador is generally bad – gangs and violence, and 60,000 youth showing up on the U.S. border. That won’t change with the government doubling down on “mano duro” policies and tougher law enforcement. Things will only get better when the government is ready to engage in long-term solutions that ensure Salvadorans have what they need to survive, and nothing is more fundamental than access to food and water.

The inability for some politicians to recognize that people should have the right to access food and water indicates just how far El Salvador has to go before it can resolve its more complicated issues.