Learn More about the Bajo Lempa Education Project


On the 1st, we launched a Global Giving fundraising campaign for an intensive educational project in the Bajo Lempa. To date, we’ve recieved numerous generous donations and have less than a week to reach our goal. Today Global Giving will be matching donations at 20%.

Have you been wondering what our Bajo Lempa education project is all about?             Click on the PDF below to get a better understanding of the nuts and bolts and, as always, feel free to share.

LEER, Lograr en Educación Rural / Success in Rural Education

Environmental, Cultural, and Economic Costs of Sugarcane Cultivation too High for Amando Lopez Community

Residents of Amando Lopez, a Canton of Jiquilisco, Usulután, and local civil society organizations, want to stop large-scale cultivation of sugarcane in their community. On one level, theirs is an environmental struggle. On another, it’s a struggle against globalization and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies of private investment and consumerism.

A 2013 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that “higher yielding sugarcane varieties, diversification of the industry into the production of energy and alcohol/ethanol, investment in milling equipment to improve sugar yields, and additional access to the U.S. market due to CAFTA-DR will all benefit El Salvador’s sugar industry over the next 3 to 5 years.” What investors want and need is more land.

In the final months of 2014, more than 10% of the population of Amando Lopez fled the community, many overnight, to escape death threats from violent gangs. They left behind their possessions, homes, businesses, and farmland. Some relocated to other regions of El Salvador. Others fled north to the United States and were detained on the border (a topic for another post). When they left, sugarcane producers wasted no time acquiring abandoned farmland. Families that would have never considered leasing land to sugarcane farmers were all of a sudden unable to say no because they needed the income to rebuild their lives.

Those who fled did so because they were in serious danger. Political scientists identify a nexus between globalization and the violence Amando Lopez and other communities are experiencing (good reads here and here). They argue that economically impoverished communities exposed to market forces and consumerism are unable to participate in the globalized economy in a meaningful, healthy, or satisfying way. This produces strong feelings of inequality, and a breakdown in family structures and social networks that allow for gangs and violence. Residents of Amando Lopez have largely protected themselves from market forces and consumerism, but last year gangs from other regions moved in and recruited local youth with phones, clothing, shoes, and money. As the threats and violence commenced, the community became even more vulnerable to globalized interests seeking land for sugarcane production.

Sugarcane is not new to Amando Lopez; farmers have grown small, organic crops for years to feed livestock and make sugar for local consumption. While these small crops are ok, the community is opposed to large-scale production that negatively affect their environment and public health, and further expose them to market forces. Their main concern is the use of toxic agrochemicals – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and ripeners. When sprayed these agrochemicals drift to nearby farms, forests, water resources, homes, and schools. Post-application they leach into the soil and water.

For example, the community is concerned about is Glyphosate (Monsanto’s Round Up), which is used as an herbicide and a ripener (ensures that a crop is ripe and ready to harvest all at once). In March, the World Health Organization released a report concluding that Glyphosate is a “likely carcinogenic” and associated with spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin defects, respiratory illness, and neurological disease. Russia, Mexico, and the Netherlands have banned the use of Glyphosate, and last month 30,000 doctors and health professionals in Argentina demanded that their government also ban it. Colombia recently prohibited the use of Glyphosate in national parks, citing environmental impacts.

In addition to the use of agrochemicals, residents oppose the practice of burning fields before harvesting a crop – growers do so to remove foliage, making cane easier and less expensive to cut, load, and transport. Burning, however, sends chemical-laden smoke and ash throughout the region, contaminating soil, farmland, water, and communities, causing high rates of respiratory illness.

Residents of Amando Lopez are also concerned that once one sugarcane producer starts growing and contaminates neighboring farmland, other farmers will be forced to lease their land just to survive. Others might be tempted by short-term financial gains. Once exposure to these market forces and investors begins, it will disrupt the entire economic and social structure that community leaders have tried to preserve.

Amando Lopez is not the first community in the Bajo Lempa to be faced with large-scale sugarcane production. Jose “Mario” Santos Guevara, the President of ACUDESBAL, a local organization recently said, “Sugarcane cultivation is growing at an exponential rate in the Bajo Lempa. It is being planted all the way up to the yards of houses, and the damage caused is serious. We have to put an end to these abuses. We are poor people, but we have dignity and we are not going to permit these types of violations of our right to live in a healthy environment.”

Last October/November the community of La Tirana, a small coastal community to the south of Amando Lopez, stood up to an investor who wanted to plant several hundred acres of sugarcane in a field adjacent to fragile mangrove forests. La Tirana residents, accompanied by civil society organizations, were successful, at least for the short term, and continue working to prevent future efforts to plant sugarcane.

La Tirana, Amando Lopez and civil society organizations are trying to get the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, in Spanish) and the municipal government to intervene. Lic. Lina Pohl, Minster of the Environment, acknowledges that the law prohibits actions that harm mangroves. She also said that MARN will approve a plan that, in part, will reduce the use of agrochemicals and burning sugarcane in and around those protected regions. That is positive for La Tirana, but offers little protection for Amando Lopez.

Min. Pohl recognizes that there are lands subject to change of use, indicating that they would be appropriate for sugarcane production. She also indicated that MARN would have to approve changes, perhaps meaning that new sugarcane crops would be subject to environmental permitting. The law requires a permit for new agricultural projects, but MARN has never enforced it. Sugarcane growers in Amando Lopez have already begun plowing and clearing trees, and are likely to plant later this month when the rainy season begins in earnest. But there is no indication that the grower has applied for or received an environmental permit, or that MARN officials will require them to do so.

La Tirana and civil society organizations have also been pressuring the municipal government of Jiquilisco to stop destructive large-scale sugarcane production. The municipal council is considering a new ordinance that would regulate the use of agrochemicals and prohibit new sugarcane projects. The ordinance has not passed yet, and would do little to stop the new project in Amando Lopez.

Residents of Amando Lopez have worked hard for many years to protect their environment and natural resources in order to provide their youth a healthy place to grow up. Even though the community has been struggling and lost 10% of its population, they are not going to stand by and allow private investors to contaminate their land and water, and make their children sick with agrochemicals, just so they can make money. And they are not going to allow globalization and market forces to deconstruct the campesino culture and local economy.

Israel Quintanilla, President of ALGES, and his son Alberto Zavala Found Dead

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Voices on the Border is sad to report that officials have found the bodies Mr. Ismael Quintanilla, the President of the Salvadoran Association of War Wounded (ALGES) and his son Alberto Zavala. They were disappeared Friday Afternoon, and their bodies found Monday.

ALGES, has been a historic partner of Voices on the Border and this tragic news causes us great sadness. We express our solidarity with the family and ALGES.

We also express our great concern for the growing violence in El Salvador, and the danger that citizens and social organizations experience daily.

Voices on the Border testifies to Mr. Quintanilla and ALGES’s tireless and courageous work over the decades, advocating for the rights of all people with disabilities from El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. Their work has put ALGES leaders at great risk over the years.

We would like to rule out that Mr. Quintanilla and his son were killed for the political advocacy work that ALGES has been involved in over the years, and demand that the Salvadoran Government take immediate action to find those responsible for their deaths.

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 Kennedy 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.

Crime Continues to Rise in El Salvador

Yesterday, Salvador Sanchez Cerén took office as the new president of El Salvador, becoming the first former FMLN militant from El Salvador’s Civil War to ascend to the presidency.

DSCF0265President Sanchez Cerén’s political victory has not been the glorious triumph many wanted for the former guerrilla leader. The runoff election against the ARENA’s Norman Quijano was surprisingly close, as Sanchez Cerén squeaked out a victory with only 50.2% of the vote. Quijano’s late surge seemed to stem from Salvadorans’ discontent with the lack of security and the failing truce between the country’s two rival gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.

The FMLN and the country’s mood have only soured since the election. In May, the police reported 396 homicides, 170 more than the same month last year, and fingers are being pointing in all directions. Now former President Mauricio Funes recently said recently that political interests “want to give the impression that there is a failed state incapable of facing crime,” meaning that foes of the FMLN want to make the leftist government seem unable to address crime.

Indeed, the State appears helpless in stopping the violence. The gangs have taken steps over the past few years by signing a truce but the government was unable or unwilling to support their efforts. And past administrations and political leaders continually fail to address economic and social equalities, or provide youth with good alternatives. Until they do so, gangs will continue to fill in the gaps left by the stagnant economy and broken families.

President Sanchez Cerén said yesterday during his first speech as President that he would lead a System of Citizen Security. He also said, “improving the security of citizens will require that we work together against organized crime, traffickers, extortion, and all expressions of violence. We will fight delinquency in all its forms, with all legal instruments and tools of the State.”

President’s and politicians have made so many speeches over the years but taken little action. If President Sanchez Cerén is going to promote security and end the country’s violence he will have be willing to take bold and creative measures that set aside politics. Language like fighting delinquency in all its forms and using all legal instruments seems to indicate more of the same Mano-Duro or heavy hand kind of law enforcement, which has never been successful.

Unfortunately, President Sanchez Cerén also seems to be embracing the same neoliberal economic policies that the U.S. government has been promoting since the end of the civil war – creating an export economy and attracting foreign investment. These policies have failed to address the social and economic inequalities that have allowed the gangs to flourish, and in fact made divisions even wider.

Most Salvadorans seem to have pretty low expectations for their new President and his administration, and he has given them little reason to have hope for something new. Salvadoran communities and Diaspora seem willing to support the new administration, but President Sanchez Cerén and his team will have to show a level of creativity and boldness that we haven’t seen yet.

USAID and SolucionES to Invest $42 Million in Gang Prevention Programs

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it will contribute $20 million to SolucionES, a public-private partnership led by the Foundation of Businesses for Economic Development (FEPADE, in Spanish). The program’s goal is to decrease youth violence and crime in El Salvador.

The program, which was first reported by the Miami Herald and elsalvador.com, will begin this month with a focus on youth development and in 50 communities across five municipalities. SolucionES has identified San Martin and Cuidad Arce as the first two municipalities where they will start.

The program will last five years and an alliance of Salvadoran businesses and non-governmental organizations will match the USAID funds with $22 million they will raise from “foundations, businesses, municipalities, and civil society.”

A USAID press release announcing the project focused as much on the funding and organizations involved as the projects themselves. It describes SolucionES as a new and innovative focus on prevention of youth crime and violence in Salvadoran communities through a partnership between the private organizations and municipal governments.

The Alliance of NGOs includes the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE, in Spanish), the Salvadoran Foundation for Health and Development (FUSAL, in Spanish), Glasswing International, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES, in Spanish), and FEPADE. All five organizations have strong ties to the Salvadoran business community and the right-wing ARENA party.

The Alliance will work alongside local government to provide workshops on prevention of violence, youth leadership, entrepreneurship training, and extracurricular clubs. The program will also work with businesses on violence prevention programs for their employees, and finance studies that will inform policy makers on effective strategies for crime prevention.

The USAID contribution is part of the Partnership for Growth initiative that has identified security (i.e. crime and violence) as one of the two main barriers to economic growth. The other barrier identified is low production of tradable goods.

Partnership for Growth and SolucionES are not the only ones to link economic growth to security issues. Last year, leaders of El Salvador’s gangs signed a truce to reduce violence. In doing so, they said that economic disparities and lack of jobs are main factors that drive youth to gangs in the first place. In order for the truce to hold, gang leaders called for support programs by the government for ex-gang members.

In an interview published yesterday in La Pagina, Viejo Lin, the leader of the Mara 18, said, “if we want our brothers to stop robbing and extorting, you have to create the right conditions.  The conditions that permit them to get dignified jobs.” Later in the interview he says, “our companions are not asking for thousands of dollars a month, they ask for a job that lets them work based on their strengths. It’s a right.”

USAID and SolucionES are steering clear of rehabilitation of gang members, focusing entirely on prevention – keeping youth from joining gangs.

A statement made by Haydée Díaz, the Director of the Strengthening Education Program for USAID said that “this initiative [SolucionES] is not related to the truce between the gangs, and the objective is not to eradicate the gang problem, but to prevent it.” Voices staff spoke with a USAID official who said the same thing – this is not about working with gang members, it is about preventing violence among youth not already involved in gangs.

Prevention is certainly important and a $42 million investment in youth, depending how the programs are implemented, can yield real benefits. It seems shortsighted, however, to believe that a prevention-only program will dramatically decrease rates of crime and violence in El Salvador. There will still be roughly 50,000 gang members in El Salvador who are marginalized and unable to participate in the formal economy, which will leave them few options other than crime and violence.

Gang prevention projects are pretty safe. All involved can feel good about investing in youth and sho that they are committed to helping El Salvador. Businesses look good for giving back to the communities. NGOs and their benefactors look like good, productive citizens. Politicians get to say they are taking action without worrying about looking like they are giving into the gangs. And USAID gets to report back to the American taxpayers that their money is being used to address one of the two barriers to economic development in El Salvador.

With less than a year before the 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador, these appearances matter. But we’ll see if prevention-only will actually improve the security situation.