International Relations, Organized Crime, Politics, U.S. Relations, violence

OAS Meeting is the Latest Regional Effort to Combat Organized Crime in Central America

The Organization of American States is currently holding its 41st General Assembly in San Salvador, the theme of which is “Citizen Security in the Americas.” The agenda includes discussions on combating organized crime.  These discussions will include consideration of a draft proposal for fighting transnational crime, drawn up by El Salvador.  The Secretary General Miguel Insulza said that he expects “concrete results, because [they] are not going to confront the topic of transnational organized crime in [Latin America] with declarations alone.” This meeting will set the perimeters for an action plan that will be finalized for the November meeting in the Dominican Republic.

The OAS General Assembly in San Salvador

The OAS is not the only group to discuss the growing lack of citizen security and the problem of organized crime.  A recent meeting in Managua, Nicaragua of the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama produced a new level of regional ownership of Central American organized crime.  The presidents met to affirm their commitments to collaboration in the fight against drug trafficking and trans-national crime.  Additionally, they recognized each nation’s respective weakness in the face of increasingly well-organized and -funded criminal syndicates.  Unfortunately, no specific actions were planned, but the budding cooperation between the countries is a positive step towards promoting greater security.

The United States Has pledged support and acknowledged that citizen security in the region is a “shared responsibility,” through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). The State Department describes CARSO as an initiative to achieve five goals in Central America: 1) Create safe streets for the citizens of the region; 2) Disrupt the movement of criminals and contraband within and between the nations of Central America; 3) Support the development of strong, capable and accountable Central American governments; 4) Re-establish effective state presence and security in communities at risk; and 5) Foster enhanced levels of security and rule of law coordination and cooperation between the nations of the region.

Focusing on counternarcotics efforts (drug trafficking is at the center of organized crime), the U.S. spent $260 million on the CARSI initiative alone during 2008-2010 and President Obama pledged another $200 million during his meetings with Funes in March 2011.  Beyond financial support, several U.S. agencies are on the ground in El Salvador, including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and USAID, all of which are partnering with Salvadoran ministries to fight organized crime.  The DEA, through their Drug Flow Attack Strategy, aim to intercept drug trafficking.  DEA agents recently played an instrumental role in a gun trafficking bust and confiscated 28 tons of ethyl phenyl acetate, a chemical used to make crystal meth.  The U.S. Military works in the region to combat drugs as well, coordinating their activities from the Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras.

In April of 2011, Panama inaugurated the Central American Integration System’s Operative Center for Regional Security (COSR-SICA), intended to be a cooperative center for the coordinated fight against organized crime.  It’s a network through which Central American agencies can share information and technology on drug trafficking, organized crime, human smuggling, gang activity, and other security threats.  It will also receive logistical support from a similar information-sharing center in Key West, Florida, where 31 U.S. agencies operate.  Each Central American nation will be sending experts to work in the Center to organize the coordinated efforts for citizen security.

The recent creation of cooperative bodies to ensure citizen security in Central America, and the increased focus on the issue by existing organizations is an indication of the growing threat that organized crime poses to individual security.  The highest levels of government are finally talking about organized crime, and that is a good first step.  But it will be important for the citizens of each of these countries to continue applying pressure so that the discussions grow into concrete actions.


Advocacy, El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, News Highlights, Politics

INSTITUTIONAL COUP IN EL SALVADOR

Photo Credit: El Faro's Mauro Arias

As of Friday, June 2nd, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly and the Presidency succeeded in sabotaging the Judiciary. A legislative initiative led by the National Coalition Party (PCN) proposed to change the process by which the Constitutional Court operates, requiring unanimity among the five magistrates on the bench to approve a decision. Such consensus is rare and would essentially prohibit the court from producing new decisions. Without deliberation, debate or amendments, the legislation passed Thursday afternoon and PCN representative Elizardo González Lovo left the assembly before the session was over to take the reform directly to the presidential palace to be approved or vetoed.  To the dismay and shock of many, President Funes signed the reform within hours and it was made effective immediately.

The reform is an overt attack against four of the Constitutional Court magistrates whose term began in July 2009 following the election of current President Mauricio Funes. Their three-year term will expire in July 2012, and the drafters of the legislation included a sunset provision so that the unanimity requirement will expire in July 2012, after the four are off the bench.

Since becoming magistrates in 2009, Belarmino Jaime, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González y Sidney Blanco have chosen strategic cases to strengthen national institutions and target corruption within government agencies. Over the past two years, the four magistrates have passed down some very important decisions, while the fifth magistrate, Nelson Castaneda, has mostly abstained from votes. In one example, the Court condemned a law that reallocated funds left over from the general budget to the President’s discretionary account.  They also declared as unconstitutional the practice of limiting voters to elect only a political party and then allowing the party leadership to select the people who would fill legislative or other representative seats. In a related issue, the Constitutional Court struck down a ban on independent candidates, weakening the power that political parties have over the electoral process. Members of the Constitutional Court also declared unconstitutional the absolute control that the Attorney General’s Office has over what cases are investigated and prosecuted. The decision that caused the greatest controversy in recent weeks was their declaration against the 2005 reforms that allowed the PCN and PDC parties to continue participating in elections despite their in ability to secure the number of votes necessary to be put on the ballot or have representation on the Supreme Electoral Court.

While these sentences establish clear separation of powers and support transparency, they each considerably affect the powerful grip that the country’s respective political parties have held over Salvadoran governability.

The new law requiring unanimous consent to issue a ruling essentially takes away the court’s ability to take on any of these controversial issues. The timing of the law is not accidental. The Court was about to take up the issue of the “Dividend System” that guarantees seats in the Legislative Assembly for minority political parties, specifically the PCN and PDC.

As the reform was being rushed through the legislative process ARENA representative Ávila Qüel exclaimed, “The reform doesn’t favor institutionalism at all!” and reminded the Assembly that the Constitutional Magistrates are who dictate whether the Magna Carta has been violated, and even if he isn’t in agreement with their sentences, they must be respected.  Before leaving the Assembly in protest, he cried, “Somebody should interpret the Constitution!”

This law and Funes’ support of it is wrong for many reasons. It is a settled principle of democracy that the Judiciary be independent of the Legislative and Executive branches, and left to interpret the constitution and law free from political interests. This new law is an overt action to protect political interests from actions of the court, and punish magistrates for taking on entrenched political and economic interests, as well as corruption. The law also sets a dangerous precedent that subjects the Judiciary to the will and interests of the Legislative and Executive branches.

Debate and dissent are at the very heart of democracy. El Salvador has a civil law system, yet their judicial code has always stipulated voting by majority.  Unanimous voting closes the door to dissenting opinions, because the court must present only one opinion.  Dissenting opinions create a dialogue between past, present, and future courts, in that it allows courts to rely on their predecessors when overturning precedent.

Civil society from all sectors of the political spectrum have expressed their concern.  Also, the Organization of American States is meeting in San Salvador this weekend, and civil society will present a report to the Secretary General to demonstrate that the law violates the Inter-American Democratic Letter. Tomorrow there will be a demonstration at Salvador del Mundo at 3pm, and Monday morning there will be workshops at the UCA.

Advocacy, U.S. Relations

Call to Action: U.S. Prevents Anti-Mining Activist from Testifying before 
Inter-American Human Rights Commission

On October 18, the United States Consulate in El Salvador refused to allow Hector Berríos to travel to Washington D.C. and appear before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) to give testimony on mining-related violence in El Salvador.  He is the fourth anti-mining activist to be denied a travel visa to the United States th is month.  By denying Mr. Berríos the right to appear before the IAHRC, the U.S. is denying the people of El Salvador access to a justice system to which they are entitled to as a member country of the Organization of American States (OAS). Mr. Berríos is scheduled to appear before the IACHR on Monday, October 25 – please take action immediately!

TAKE ACTION TODAY! DEMAND THAT THE U.S. CONSULATE IMMEDIATELY AUTHORIZE HECTOR BERRÍOS’ TRAVEL VISA! See below for sample email and call script.

Background information: Mr. Berríos, who was victim to mining-related violence in 2009, is a member of the Francisco Sanchez 1932 Unified Movement (MUFRAS-32)—a member organization of the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador.  He was invited by the OAS to give testimony before the IAHRC in a hearing entitled “Environmental Defenders in Danger: the situation in Mexico and Central America in the scope of the mining industry” that is scheduled for this Monday, October 25.  The anti-mining movement in El Salvador saw three of its activists murdered in 2009; death threats and kidnapping and murder attempts against activists, priests and journalists continue.

While material authors of the crimes have been arrested and even sentenced to prison time in a few of the cases, the Attorney General has not investigated the intellectual authors or the role played by mining companies like Pacific Rim.  Salvadoran and other Central American activists are turning to international courts and institutions like the IAHRC to seek justice, legal avenues which the U.S. is currently blocking by denying travel visas.

Send a message to the U.S. State Department  in Washington and San Salvador TODAY: The U.S. cannot block Salvador’s access to international bodies like the OAS!

1. Call Melanie Bonner at the El Salvador desk at the State Department (202) 647-4161. Sample script below.

2. Send an email to Consul General in San Salvador, Kathryn Cabral (congensansal@state.gov) and copy the El Salvador desk at the U.S. State Department (bonnerml@state.gov). Sample email below.

SAMPLE PHONE CALL:

Hello, my name is ______________.  I am very troubled to learn that the U.S. Consulate in San Salvador denied a travel visa to Mr. Hector Berríos, who was invited by the Organization of American States to give testimony before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission about the human rights situation of environmental defenders in El Salvador.  It is completely unacceptable for the U.S. government to deny Mr. Berríos the opportunity to denounce human rights violations just because the hearing is in Washington, DC. By denying this visa, the U.S. is effectively blocking El Salvador’s ability to participate in international organizations of which it is a member.  Will you call the Consul General today and ask her to immediately authorize a travel visa to Mr. Berríos so that he can travel to Washington, D.C. on Saturday, October 23, to appear in the IAHRC hearing scheduled for Monday, October 25?  Thank you.

SAMPLE EMAIL

Dear Ms. Cabral,

On Monday, October 18, U.S. Consulate in San Salvador denied a travel visa to Mr. Hector Antonio Garcia Berríos.  Mr. Berríos was invited by the Organization of American States to give testimony before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission during a hearing entitled, “Environmental Defenders in Danger: the situation in Mexico and Central America in the scope of the mining industry” which is scheduled for this Monday, October 25.

As I hope you know, the situation for environmental defenders in El Salvador is very serious; the anti-mining movement in El Salvador saw three of its activists murdered in 2009, death threats and kidnapping and murder attempts against activists, priests and journalists continue. Mr. Berríos has himself been the victim on mining-related violence, which is why he was nominated to provide testimony.

I understand that Mr. Berríos presented an invitation from the OAS during his interview, as well as sufficient evidence that he had strong ties that would bring him back to his country, including: proof of employment, property titles, and the birth certificate of his young daughter.

I am deeply concerned about this visa denial, especially because Mr. Berríos’ presented a strong application and official OAS invitation. This suggests that there is a political motivation behind the decision, especially as he the FOURTH environmentalist from the anti-mining movement who has been denied a travel visa to the U.S. for a speaking engagement in the past month. I plan to call this situation to the attention of the new Ambassador as well as my Congressional Representatives and Senators.

By denying this visa, the U.S. is blocking El Salvador’s ability to participate in international organizations of which it is a member. It is completely unacceptable for the U.S. government to take advantage of the commission’s location in Washington D.C. in order to deny Mr. Berríos the opportunity to denounce human rights violations happening in his country.

For these reasons, I ask you to immediately authorize a travel visa to Mr. Berríos so that he can travel to Washington D.C. on Saturday, October 23, to appear in the IAHRC hearing scheduled for Monday, October 25.

Sincerely,

[Your name and address]

Thanks to CISPES for organizing this action and for your involvement!

Advocacy, Environment, U.S. Relations

Hector Berrios Denied a Visa, and Opportunity to Speak Before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Hector Berrios, an attorney in San Isidro, Cabañas, forwarded us a letter he wrote yesterday to staff at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Washington DC. Hector applied for a visa to visit the United States to participate in an October 25th meeting with the Inter-American Court on Human Rights . Though Hector had all of the required documentation, including invitations from CIEL and the Organization of American States, he was denied a visa, preventing him from testifying. As Hector points out, his is not the only application to be denied; other activists from Cabañas have also been prevented from coming to the United States to participate in the meeting.

Hosting institutions such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the OAS, and many others, carries with it an obligation to give people access. The U.S. should not use the visa hurdle as a way to regulate who has a voice.

With Hector’s permission, we’ve translated and posted his letter in its entirety:

Dear Sofia Splagakis,

I would like to inform you that this morning I presented myself at the US embassy in El Salvador in accordance with the appointment scheduled by the embassy. At the moment of the interview, the consular officer asked me for a variety of documentation.  She asked that I present a US visa, which has been valid for the last 10 years and previously authorized by the embassy. She also asked that I present the Invitation letter from the Organization of American States (OAS), and the letter from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). I noticed that the consular official glanced over the OAS letter and put it aside, whereas she carefully examined the letter from CIEL. After that, she began to type on her computer—transcribing the facts from the CIEL letter. A moment later she excused herself (taking the CIEL letter). From her actions I concluded that she went to consult with someone in regard to the CIEL letter, since that was the only document she took with her.

When she returned she asked me if I had any properties in my name. I said yes, and showed her the deed to my house with my name clearly written. Next she asked me for proof of my salary, and I gave her the documentation, showing a monthly salary of $1500. She asked me about my profession and I responded that I am an attorney, while showing her the respective documentation.  She asked about my bank accounts, and I presented her proof of two bank accounts in my name with a total available balance of $2100. She asked if I was married and if I had children, to which I responded yes. She asked if I have family in the United States and if so, what is their immigration status. I responded that my Father is a permanent resident and my two brothers are US citizens. She asked me where they live and I said in Los Angeles. She asked about my destination in the US, and I told her that I would travel to Washington, DC for a meeting with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Finally, she apologized and said that she was not able to approve the visa this time. I provided all the necessary documentation to receive a visa to travel to the US, but my request to participate in the meeting with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on October 25, 2010 was arbitrarily refused.  I believe that the US Congress, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Organization of American States should promptly examine what is happening to people in El Salvador that are involved in the issues of mining exploitation and its relation with the Central American Free Trade Agreement and wish to travel to the United States.  I am not the only person that has encountered this type of discrimination; 10 days ago, the visa request of Zenayda Serrando was denied, as was that of Father Neftaly Ruiz. Both Zenayda Serrando and Father Ruiz were invited by members of the US Congress to discuss the mining issue.

This type of negative attitude and obstruction of the people’s justice by the US consular officers is the result of the policy of the US embassy in El Salvador. It should be publicly reported that the embassy is obstructing access to justice for the people of El Salvador that want to make complaints in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inter-American_Commission_on_Human_Rights), which is part of the Inter-American System of Human Rights.  They are taking advantage of the fact that the organization is headquartered in Washington, DC (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington,_D.C.) by prohibiting access to this event, and obstructing the people’s justice. These people are part of the signing states of the Organization of American States, which is a regional organization with the objective of serving as a public forum for multilateral dialogs, regional integration, and decision making in the American arena.  The organization works to fortify peace and security, consolidate democracy, and protect human rights (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights) in the Americas. I await your response.

Sincerely,

Héctor Berríos

We will be following up on this issue in the coming days.