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Central America’s Northern Triangle: The Region of Those Who Run (Part I)


This article originally appeared as ‘La Región de los que Huyen‘ by Daniel Valencia Caravantes and Jimmy Alvarado in El Faro.

It is after thousands of Central Americans have fled the region, reporting that they were going to be killed in their own countries, that there is talk of a new wave of those displaced by violence. El Salvador does not recognise the phenomenon officially, but says it is creating programme to help those who migrate for that reason. In the meantime, the state hopes that its citizens help each other to escape the country.

A mother and her children flee El Salvador one morning because the eldest is receiving threats at school from the gangs.  A private human rights organisation helps them leave for another country. (Photo: Fred Ramos/El Faro)

A mother and her children flee El Salvador one morning because the eldest is receiving threats at school from the gangs. A private human rights organisation helps them leave for another country. (Photo: Fred Ramos/El Faro)

Chapter 1: A Mother and Daughter Flee

On the banks of a calm river, Maribel and Beatriz, a cosmetician, ate and bathed and played with Maribel’s daughter and Beatriz’s grandson. They dried themselves, changed their clothes, and, when the time came to leave, Maribel registered her last memory of El Salvador: Beatriz, the cosmetician, saying goodbye from the other side of the river. “Take care, mamita,” she said. The last memory that Beatriz has of that day is of Maribel’s back, loaded with a rucksack full of food and clothes. Maribel and her daughter, hand in hand, disappearing along a path that would lead them to Guatemala City.

Beatriz, the cosmetician, is a good Samaritan. When Maribel fled for the first time, she gave her refuge in San Salvador. When she escaped a second time, she put her up in an old family house in the city of Santa Ana. When Maribel finally had to leave El Salvador, because it was no longer safe for her or her daughter, she took her to the illegal crossing so that her escape would not be registered at the border. That’s how Beatriz, becoming a coyote, formed a plan that no one would know about, so that the gangs would not find out where Maribel was hiding.

***

In this part of the world, the northern triangle of Central America, when someone flees it is because they are being chased by gangs, organised crime, or drug trafficking. That is what the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says. Between 2008 and 2013, 58,063 Maribels crossed the borders of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador because they could no longer live in their home country. If, 30 years ago, thousands of people fled the wars in the region, now they run from the violence of gangs, organised crime, and drugs. The UNHCR says these are the new displaced persons.

Most of those displaced seek refuge in the US. There, the State Department reports that in the last five years, of the more than 40,000 asylum requests from citizens of the Central American triangle, almost half (18,873) came from Salvadorans like Maribel. The UNHCR says Salvadorans are pushed into exile mainly by gang violence.

***

Maribel, 24, grew up with children who later became prominent members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in her community, one of concrete walls and sheet metal roofs on the banks of a dirty river. Those who live in gang territory are subjected to their rules. The unwritten rule than condemned Maribel was the one that no pretty girl in the neighbourhood can turn down the advances of a gang leader. “I gained a husband by force, because that is how it must be,” she says. One of his friends sent someone to look for her, and she knew she could not say no. Without knowing her, anyone could think Maribel was foolish. Often, when the murder of a girl by suspected gang members is reported, social networks in El Salvador are full of users commenting that the victim was somehow to blame. “Who forced her to get involved with the gangs?” ask some. “She deserved it” conclude others. Today, Maribel reflects that she could not have turned to anyone for help. Who would rescue her from the intentions of a Marero, backed by his gang, in a community controlled by them? Not even Beatriz, the cosmetician, could do anything. Maribel feared that if she didn’t visit his friend, his friend would be annoyed, the gang would be annoyed, and her and her brother and grandmother could fall out of favour.

She obediently visited him again and again. At the football pitch, on the corner, in the kiosk, she drank cokes with him, then beers, they smoked cigarettes, then a ‘porrito‘ (joint), and they went into a little shack, and first it was a kiss, then two, then they were naked. After one year together, Maribel gave birth to the daughter of a Marero. She was 16 at the time. The gang member, the father, was 20.

There are other unwritten rules with the gangs – rules for living together in a community. For example, there are gang members who force local residents to come to their children’s birthday parties; those who resent neighbours enough to declare them an enemy for not inviting them to share a cake. For those that get involved in the gang, obeying its plans is another rule. In the case of a young woman, it can become a nightmare. There are gang ‘cliques’ that offer up virgin girls as birthday presents; there are gang leaders in prison that demand young girls from their communities come have sex with them and other inmates, or face violent attacks against their families. There are gang rapes… there are pure tragedies.

An MS gang member displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador (photo: Moisen Saman, courtesy of Sony World Photography Awards)

An MS gang member displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador (photo: Moisen Saman, courtesy of Sony World Photography Awards)

When Maribel’s daughter turned two, her gang member father was jailed, accused of murder. And so they came looking for Maribel again. They told her that every week she had to take a bus to the west of the country – a four-hour journey – to the Ciudad Barrios prison, the main prison holding Mara Salvatrucha gang members (more than 2,500 of them), in a mountain town. First she travelled just to have sex with him, but then he started to ask for more things.

“First I started inserting mobile phone chips into my vagina or anus. Then he asked me to insert marijuana. At first I refused, but then…” she says.

But then one night they came looking for her, again. They banged the door, and when she opened it, three young gang members leaped at her, pushed her to the floor, and began kicking her in the stomach, back, legs, thighs, face. They stamped on her, pushing their heels into her cheeks. “You have to go, bitch, or you know what will happen!” they said. “You have to go, or next time we’ll come for them too!” they warned her. From one of the two small rooms in her small house, her brother, grandmother, and baby daughter looked on in horror.

And so Maribel travelled four hours west, and in her vagina travelled a bag with 50g of marijuana. But something happened – perhaps she looked nervous – and they found the drugs during a search at the prison entrance. She spent six months in the women’s jail – six long months that still give her nightmares. “Being there, every night I dreamed that they went back to my house for my daughter,” she says.

When she was released, Maribel returned home and one night they returned. She had to try again, they said. This time not at the same prison, where her husband was, but another one. Unwritten rules. This would be a punishment for failing to deliver the other package. Maribel said yes, but in her mind she was already packing imaginary bags, and later that same night, she went to visit Beatriz, her cosmetician friend. In this first escape, she travelled from her home on the banks of a dirty gully to a middle-class house in the suburbs of San Salvador, near the airport. She carried her daughter, asleep. She remembers that night well: it was a night of fireworks, the ‘Luces Campero’, and the taxi she was in got stuck in a traffic jam. As she watched the sky explode with multi-coloured lights, Maribel cried – she hadn’t been able to say goodbye to anyone.

***

In Central America’s northern triangle, the most violent region in the world, there are two hegemonic gangs: Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS). The latter is one of the most dangerous according to the FBI, and listed by US authorities as one of the criminal groups whose finances must be attacked. Both gangs came from Los Angeles, created by young migrants from Central America to defend themselves against other gangs.

With nuances in each country, today the gangs control large territories full of working class, marginalised, and impoverished communities. They are estimated to have tens of thousands of members across the region. In El Salvador alone, the government has estimated that there are around 60,000 active gang members. The National Civil Police calculate that there are 610 gang cliques around the country, with a presence in 14 districts. In San Salvador, where Maribel grew up, there are 216.

***

Weeks after that night of the ‘Luces Campero’, Beatriz the cosmetician sent Maribel far away, to a relative’s house two hours outside the capital. It wasn’t until she arrived there, far from home, that she called her brother. She asked him to tell her grandmother that she was ok, and told them to pretend that she and her daughter no longer existed. She didn’t tell them where she was, or directions, only that she no longer existed. “It’s better that way,” she said. Through tears and clenched teeth, her brother, two years younger than her, accepted. He would never ask for her again, so that they would never see that he was hiding information about where Maribel was staying.

A few months later, one Tuesday afternoon, in a mobile phone agency, Maribel froze. A week earlier she had reported a faulty phone at the agency, and they told her to come back then to get it fixed. Maribel arrived punctually for the second appointment, and that was when she imagined, once again, packing up her bags. “You’re that girl, right? Maribel? Your family is looking for you,” one of the salespeople told her.

Earlier that day, a news programme had aired a photo of Maribel above the word ‘disappeared’ and a phone contact. One of the salespeople at the agency had recognised Maribel – the young lady with a pretty daughter – that had come by a few days earlier. In the agency they took note of Maribel’s case, and she swears today that it was as if they were waiting for the day of her appointment. Maribel ran back to Beatriz’s house – to clear any doubt she called her brother again and confirmed that he had stuck to his promise to not look for her ever again. Everything suggested that a gang member had passed off as a relative, sent the photo to the news programme, and sought help to find her. Maribel feared the worst. In that town, her last refuge and where they almost caught her, there are 40 gang cliques, 26 of which are linked to MS, the gang that was looking for her. Maribel doesn’t know the exact number, but she was clear that moving from one place to another within El Salvador would not guarantee her anything. It would just be a pause – a break in her escape. The day she felt that one of the salespeople had identified her, her worst fears were realised: it was time to leave the country. That night in the darkness, as the rafters on Beatriz’s metal roof creaked, she imagined that they had arrived, that someone had told them where she was, the address she had given when she bought a new phone. She imagined the gang members walking on the roof.

Maribel feared death for two weeks. At every corner she felt as though someone was watching her. She barely slept, and every creak in the house made her jump. During that period, Beatriz searched for other relatives who could help. And after asking everyone she could think of, she managed to take Maribel away from the noise and risk of the creaking house and to a ranch near the mountainous border with Guatemala. A few days later, the two friends said goodbye, perhaps forever, on the banks of a river.

In Guatemala, friends of Beatriz helped Maribel get a job, but neither her nor her daughter had documents, and her daughter had to be able to study. Maribel spoke to lawyers, who advised her to seek asylum or refuge from the Guatemalan authorities. She travelled to the capital and visited immigration officers, who agreed to review her case. She told them her entire story, but they asked for proof, and she didn’t have any.

From Guatemala, the authorities sent written requests to El Salvador to confirm a few things: that the gang member, the child’s father, existed and was in prison. A register of Maribel’s own stint in prison, the case she was convicted for… but none of this proved her story was true, it was just her word and her tears. On 15th March 2014, the Guatemalan government believed a Salvadoran, accepted that the neighbouring country was incapable of protecting two of its citizens, and so offered them asylum.

Two migrants are detained by border police in Texas after crossing illegally into the US (photo: Fronteras Desk, via flickr)

Two migrants are detained by border police in Texas after crossing illegally into the US (photo: Fronteras Desk, via flickr)

 

Chapter 2: A Samaritan During the War, Shocked by Peace

A quarter of a century ago, Fernando Protti dodged jungles and bullets in a region where everyone was killing each other. He treated Salvadoran refugees who ended up at the Nicaraguan border fleeing the war between the army and the FMLN guerilla movement. He also helped indigenous people from Guatemala who were fleeing the genocide and seeking sanctuary at the southern border of Mexico. “More than 50,000!” he says.

Now Protti, with whitened hair and beard, is the representative of the UNHCR office for Mexico, Cuba, and Central America. Working from Panama, he is once again concerned by this region, considered by the UN as the most violent in the world for its murder rates, which in Honduras alone reaches above 90 per 100,000 people. Twenty-two years after the war, Protti and the UNHCR have returned to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They say they are worried: they have alerted the governments and reopened offices in each of the three countries.

“It’s not normal,” says Protti. “The alarming thing now is that we are at peace, at least in theory. And yet, people keep leaving. It is eye-catching to register 17,000 people from Central America fleeing ‘peaceful’ areas. Before, 20,000 would flee El Salvador for Nicaragua, or 50,000 Guatemalans for Mexico, because the army was chasing them. Now they are not leaving en masse, but they are still fleeing.”

From what are the people of Central America fleeing now? “The information we have tells us that they are running away from conflicts with the Maras, organised crime, and drug trafficking.”

Since 2008, the UNHCR has registered an increase in the number of asylum requests that Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans have made in countries all over the world. They count 17,000 Central Americans exiled across the world today, but each year around 8,000 more are telling foreign governments that they fear for their lives in their own countries. There were more than 50,000 requests made in the last five years alone, mostly in the US, though only 4.9% were granted. Only a minority become refugees because people don’t always believe their stories, and they don’t carry proof of their persecution or danger. In 2010, the UN established a norm to guide judges and lawyers all over the world in how to evaluate cases in which the victims were persecuted by gangs or organised crime. This was in answer to the the rise in petitions from people who feared returning to these three Central American countries.

“To reach today’s situation you have to a analyse what began several years ago, when people started arriving in Mexico, mainly, but also the US and Canada,” says Protti. “They said they were escaping the Maras, and the majority were from El Salvador and Honduras.”

Do the governments of these countries recognise that people are fleeing the violence caused by the Maras?

“While Honduras has acknowledged the problem it has, the government in El Salvador, while accepting that there is a problem with people being forcibly displaced by violence, has not reacted in the same way.”

It doesn’t admit it publicly?

“The El Salvador government recognises that there are areas of the capital and around the country where the Maras are present. There is clear evidence of this due to the number of empty houses in different neighbourhoods that have been abandoned by people who were scared or pushed into leaving by the Maras. That is obvious. And in our study of interviews held by the El Salvador government with those who return to the country, it is clear that many say they left because of the violence, even though I can’t give you exact numbers yet.”

The Immigration Office in El Salvador told El Faro that between January 2012 and May 2014, 4,487 citizens that had been deported from Mexico or the US said they had left because of violence.

Of the three countries in the northern triangle, only Honduras has publicly recognised that it has a problem with people being forcibly displaced by violence. At the end of 2013, the Porfirio Lobo administration asked the UNHCR to reopen its office in the country, and in early 2014, the new government led by Juan Orlando Hernández created an Interinstitutional Commission to attend to the displaced. “We need to accept that the situation is overwhelming us,” declared the Honduran Foreign Affairs Minister Mireyra Batres. The commission, however, is still under construction, though the Foreign Affairs and Security Ministries, in collaboration with the UNCHR, have drawn up a route map to proceed along.

The UNHCR has officially reopened its office in Honduras, but also has representatives in Guatemala and El Salvador searching for official data to try and at least draw an outline of the problem in both countries. Neither of these two countries officially recognise the phenomenon of ‘forcibly displaced persons’, even though there are reports of legions of displaced people and ‘ghost towns’ with hundreds of houses abandoned and dismantled after the mass exodus.

Chapter 3: The Children Must Get Away

May 2014, on the outskirts of the capital San Salvador and the suburb of Soyapango. The bus bringing back the Salvadorans deported from Mexico has not yet arrived. In the Migrantes de La Chacra shelter, a group of mothers wait anxiously for the bus to come around the corner. Perhaps they haven’t anticipated it, but this arrival scene is unpleasant: the deported migrants step off the bus tired, scruffy, and shaken.

Much is known about the dangers faced by migrants crossing Mexico. They are raped, kidnapped, killed, and butchered. But the return journey is not entirely safe either. That’s why the migration officers remove their shoelaces and belts. They say that, from time to time, someone is killed on those long return journeys: one gang member murdering another, a coyote who doesn’t want to be given up, a trafficker who doesn’t want to be discovered…

The bus hasn’t arrived, and María’s face betrays her impatience. She composes herself, and while the bus arrives she explains why her son tried to flee to the US.

Not long ago, they almost killed José. He was in seventh grade in his town’s school when a group of classmates, linked to the MS, asked him to join. José refused, “and so they told him they would kill him.”

The Mara Salvatrucha (photo: Matheus Kawasaki)

The Mara Salvatrucha (photo: Matheus Kawasaki)

In José’s school and neighbourhood, located in a town in the Greater San Salvador metropolitan area, his mum says he was “one of the only ones left” when explaining how the majority of his group were on their way to joining the gangs. For a youngster in El Salvador, just living in a neighbourhood ‘owned’ by Barrio 18 and going to a school in MS territory – and vice versa – can mean death. José was harassed as he left home, and as he left school, but he always refused. Always. Until one day the boys grew tired of asking, they surrounded him, took him to a plot near the school, and beat him senseless between eight of them.

“We went looking for him, because it was late,” remembers María. “We found him bleeding heavily, as though he were dead. Who knows what they used to hit him. They had smashed up everything – his mouth, his head, everything. They had left him for dead. They beat him up alright! All smashed in! He was in hospital for two weeks.”

Central America – and particularly the northern triangle – is the region in the world where most youngsters are killed, according to the UN. In El Salvador alone, the age group most at risk of dying is that of 15-29 year-olds, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine. In the last 13 years, 56 out of every 100 people murdered belonged to that age group. In that period, 24,000 youngsters were killed.

After getting out of hospital José left the school. He never left the house, but the gang, who heard he had survived, came back to stalk him. “If we don’t leave, they are going to kill me mum,” he told María. They moved to another area and stayed with some acquaintances, but the gang still caught up with him. They pushed bits of paper under the door of the house he was staying in, saying that they had found him and would soon kill him. In the area he was hiding there were 38 gang cliques, say the police.

María would had never let her son go to the US, but he was so scared that he went behind her back to contact some migrant relatives in the US. They helped him pay the coyote so he could leave without his mother knowing.

José ended up in Tapachula, in southern Mexico, and only then did his mother, who thought he was dead, find out. “He told them his story there, but the authorities said it was a shame, but that they couldn’t help him,” says María.

José finally arrives. His face is tired as he gets off the bus. He has no shoelaces. He looks defeated. He lifts his head to acknowledge his mother from a distance. In a single file they are all led into a room to be given a lunch pack for returning migrants: a stuffed tortilla and a soft drink. The authorities interview him and he tells them he left for fear of his life here. He is moved from one office to another, where he is met by police assigned to the shelter. They don’t ask him why he left, but take his details and fingerprints. “To see if he has a criminal record,” explains the sergeant in charge. Afterwards, he is finally let out to his mother. They hug. He tells her that he has not eaten or slept well. His mother tells him that she has been talking with us.

“I don’t want to tell you any more, beyond what my mother has already said, because I’m afraid,” he says. We ask him what he will do next. “When we get out of here we’ll go to the coyote. He is already waiting for me to try again.”

Continue reading Part II here.

Translated by Marc Rogers

 

elfaro-logoEl Faro, Latin America’s first digital newspaper, was founded in May 1998. Published in El Salvador, it is dedicated to cultivating the narrative and reporting of in-depth investigations that tell the realities of Central America. In recent years it has won some of the most prestigious international prizes: World Press Photo 2014, IPYS 2013, Moors Cabot 2011, WOLA 2012, and Ortega y Gasset 2011, among others.

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Central America’s Northern Triangle: The Region of Those Who Run (Part II)


This article originally appeared as ‘La Región de los que Huyen‘ by Daniel Valencia Caravantes and Jimmy Alvarado in El Faro. You can read Part I here.

It is after thousands of Central Americans have fled the region, reporting that they were going to be killed in their own countries, that there is talk of a new wave of those displaced by violence. El Salvador does not recognise the phenomenon officially, but says it is creating programme to help those who migrate for that reason. In the meantime, the state hopes that its citizens help each other to escape the country.

Continued from Part I.

A mother and her children flee El Salvador one morning because the eldest is receiving threats at school from the gangs.  A private human rights organisation helps them leave for another country. (Photo: Fred Ramos/El Faro)

A mother and her children flee El Salvador one morning because the eldest is receiving threats at school from the gangs. A private human rights organisation helps them leave for another country. (Photo: Fred Ramos/El Faro)

Chapter 4. The Salvadoran Foreign Affairs Minister

Hugo Martínez is foreign affairs minister for a second time. At the end of the Mauricio Funes government (2009-2014) he left the role to become president of the Central American Integration System (SICA). But after the second victory by the FMLN in the polls, Martínez was called once again to lead foreign policy. He recently visited Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, to sign an agreement between the countries in the region to tackle human trafficking and stop the exodus of thousands of young Central American children. In the meeting, the Honduran foreign affairs minister and President Juan Orlando Hernández asked for help from the region, and above all the US, to fight drug trafficking, organised crime, and gang violence. “It’s clear that we cannot do it alone,” said Hernández.

Perhaps because the security policies of the second FLMN government are now under scrutiny, Martínez isn’t going to be the person to officially recognise this new wave of displaced persons, a phenomenon hard to measure because those who flee danger, like Maribel, usually go alone, silently, and without leaving any tracks. But perhaps also because thousands of people who migrate to other countries say they cannot live in El Salvador anymore, Martínez does confirm something: that the government is creating programmes to help those who leave.

Does the Salvadoran government officially recognise, like Honduras, that there is a phenomenon of people displaced by violence?

“How do you mean?”

Does the government accept that violence, especially that linked to gangs, is creating a new regional phenomenon?

“There are multiple causes of migration. One of the causes of displaced people in El Salvador and in other parts of the world is violence and organised crime, but there are also structural reasons like poverty, a lack of opportunities, the reunification of parents with their children or vice versa… if you ask me whether safety issues influence this phenomenon, then yes, they do. If you ask me whether they are the only influence, I’d say no. As would a sociologist.”

Honduras has recognised that the violence – and those displaced by it – is out of control. And it has asked for international support. Will El Salvador follow the same steps to create asylum and refuge options for citizens?

“We are cooperating with the UNHCR, but every country is different. We understand that violence is a factor in displacing people, but not the only one. With the UNHCR and the International Migration Organisation (IMO) we are working on programmes to help those who were forced to leave due to violence and organised crime.”

The archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor José Luis Escobar Alas, said in the first week of August that El Salvador was close to becoming a failed state. He said it right under the nose of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who was taking part in the celebration of religious rites for the patron saints of San Salvador. “In this historic moment in which we live, it is vital that we listen to Christ because, sadly, the level of self-destruction we see is so great it threatens to sink the country. We are at the point of becoming a failed state – our predicament is truly alarming,” said Escobar Alas, referring to the violence, murders, and extortions…

Sánchez Cerén, who was not going to make a speech that day according to his press office, had to improvise to respond: “I heard Monsignor Escobar Alas say ‘there is the possibility of a failed state’, but we must have faith, and confidence in our people. I call on the nation to work to prevent this country from sinking.”

One week later, Sánchez Cerén, joined by his security cabinet and the public prosecutor, launched the new Community Police from a neighbourhood in the capital. The government of El Salvador which, unlike its counterpart in Honduras still doesn’t officially recognise that the gangs control and evict families from their territories, now has a Community Police. According to the president, the main role of this new force is to “bring back security to the communities”.

Chapter 5. Elizabeth Fears for the Children

Elizabeth Kennedy is a researcher originally from San Diego, California. She specialises in forced migration because from a young age she liked working in the city’s shelters that gave refuge to young Mexican and Central American migrants. Years later, when doing her Masters’ degree in England, she shared her time between studying and volunteering in a refuge for Afghan children migrants who had fled the war in their country. Six years ago, back in San Diego and preparing for her doctorate, Elizabeth suspected that something serious was going on with the children she attended to from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. She taught creative writing, Latin dance, and ran a book and art club – being close to these children, she knew something was very wrong.

“Sometimes I would talk to the children and teenagers about why they left home. Often they wrote that they were afraid to stay, afraid of the Maras, of organised crime, of the cartels. In creative writing class everyone wrote about their lives: they often wrote about gang violence, and being chased. Some had mothers, fathers, brothers, or sisters murdered. So when I came here to El Salvador I knew that some children were scared and felt persecuted – they were afraid to leave their houses.”

From what these children told her, Elizabeth was able to gather enough information to write an essay for the University of Oxford entitled ‘Refugees from Central American Gangs’. Elizabeth is an academic who has studied child migration since 2010. She decided to stay one year in El Salvador to study the phenomenon as part of her doctorate. She is interested in why, in the last three years, more and more children from the northern triangle of Central America were arriving in the US. A phenomenon that a few months ago became international news after photos of the shelters in which child migrants were held in the US were leaked, and President Barack Obama acknowledged a humanitarian tragedy among the more than 50,000 child migrants that were arrested after crossing the border without any adults.

So far, Elizabeth has interviewed more than 500 migrant minors from El Salvador. She has analysed the answers of 322 of them and found that 60.1% responded that the principal motive for leaving their country was violence.

She provides an overview:

“One hundred and forty-five live in neighbourhoods with Maras. Half of them live in ‘red zones’, with both gangs in the area. One hundred and thirty go to school in areas where the Maras are close by, in parks, streets, or waiting in the street as the children arrive and leave. One hundred of them are in school where the Maras have an internal presence. One hundred and nine received threats to either join the gang or die. Seventy stopped going to school out of fear. Thirty-three were afraid to go out on the streets, and don’t go to church anymore. Fourteen have parents that were killed by the Maras.”

In these 500 interviews, have you noticed a pattern of persecution?

“The threats begin when they are leaving school or in the neighbourhood. Or, if they live in a ‘red zone’, when they cross into the other gang’s territory. If they are witness to a murder they start to have problems. If a girl turns down a romantic offer from a gang member her whole family is affected: if she has a brother of a least 13 he will be pressured to join the gang because his sister refused. It’s the same story – it’s not just the youngsters but whole families that are affected.”

What happens to those who report the gangs?

“Only 16 had filed reports. Two hundred out of 322 didn’t want to – they said things like: ‘The Police and the Maras are the same’, ‘they have sources of information in the prosecutor’s office and police’, ‘if I report them, they will know about it’, ‘the Mareros say that if we report them they will kill us’, ‘you don’t know who is who’, ‘the walls have ears’. They don’t want to report them because they think that they will get into worse trouble afterwards.”

In El Salvador there are no indicators to describe the impact that violence has on child migration. Nor in Guatemala or Honduras. Recently, one statistic has shocked North Americans, and was backed up by the Honduran president, Juan Hernández. The US Office for Homeland Security revealed that 70% of the child migrants that crossed into US territory were from the 30 most violent cities in Central America. Honduras leads the list, with San Pedro Sula, the most violent city in the world. El Salvador and Guatemala are not far behind, with both capital cities appearing on the list.

murder rate central america

Chapter 6. The Gangs Talk

Late April. Three gang leaders call a few media outlets, including El Faro, to a clandestine meeting at a house in the centre of San Salvador. One of them, the oldest, who does most of the talking, looks more like a construction worker than a gang leader. Another looks like a university student, and the third is the only obvious member. He hides behind dark glasses. The first represents the ‘southerners’ of Barrio 18, the second the ‘revolutionaries’ of Barrio 18, and the third the MS. The TV is on in the room – the 8pm news show talks about a shoot-out between the police and gang members.

For an hour, the three gang members deliver a flurry of announcements about the state of the truce between the gangs, which between March 2012 and midway through 2013 helped maintain a rate of between five and seven murders daily, half the normal rate before the pact. It is known today that the truce was born out of a negotiation between the government and the gangs to reduce the murder rate in exchange for certain prison benefits, among other incentives.

After they finished saying what they wanted to say, it was time to ask them about the report by the UNHCR. In March, Fernando Protti, representative for the region, said in San Salvador that the main reason for people being forcibly displaced in Central America was the “threat of the gangs, drug trafficking, or transnational organised crime.”

The older gang member, who looked like a builder, was the first to speak.

“I would like to know how the institution reaches those conclusions,” he asks. From the number of cases in the countries in which migrants have sough refuge or asylum, I respond. “Mmm, yeah. I don’t know. You have to tell the UN not to be misled by those stories. People leave this country – these countries – because hunger is a bitch, because there is no work, and nothing to feed the children.”

So it is not true that your bands take over territories, threaten and displace people?

The MS gang member with the dark glasses interrupts the older guy. “In our communities, people don’t flee because we don’t get involved in them. It’s not true that we run people from their homes – it’s made up.”

And neither is it true that youngsters flee because they don’t want to be recruited by force, or the young girls because they don’t want to be abused?

In the conference, the gang member who looks like a university student explains that at this moment – end of April 2014 – recruitment has slowed. The MS guy says the same thing, and only the older gang member accepts that his group still recruit youngsters. On hearing that last question, the university gang member tells his colleague to end the conference. The guy with the sunglasses, the MS guy, abandons what minimal protocol there is and approaches me with an offer, in a joking tone.

“Don’t believe what people say. They are going to invent anything to get into the US. The chicks? Running from us? Why don’t we meet one day to carry on this conversation and we’ll go out with some of then, so you can see how much they fear us? Shall we do it? I’ll take you, for real.”

Chapter 7: A Defence Lawyer Throws in the Towel

Not long ago, Esperanza, a lawyer from the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University José Simeón Cañas (IDHUCA), in El Salvador, decided that she wouldn’t help anyone else flee the country. Not because she is a bad person, or because she has suddenly lost her inner drive. We can assume that those who get involved in these necessities have the spirit of a Good Samaritan in their heart and soul. Esperanza is like that, but one day she grew tired. And when she says that with a serious voice and a sad look in her eyes, you have to believe her.

Until a few months ago, Esperanza’s office was located in the heart of the Jesuit University, in front of the chapel and close to the garden in which six priests, along with one of their employees and her daughter, were massacred. In the middle of the war, a group of soldiers entered the enclosure, attacked the priests in their chambers and finished them off in the garden. They used the butts of their rifles to smash the skulls of some of them.

Maybe because El Salvador has changed, the IDHUCA has too. It used to be dedicated to cases in which the state was accused of directly violating human rights (by disappearing, torturing, or massacring people). Now they also take on cases in which the offenders are others, and in which the state is guilty by omission, by its terrible absense. One day, without even realising at the time, Esperanza’s anxiety began when her bosses gave her a new mission: attend to families that needed to flee the country because they were persecuted by violence. They explicitly told her that by violence they meant the actions of Barrio 18 and the MS.

Esperanza began her work in 2012, and one family came in. A week later another did, and another, until her office was full of cases. The time for each case became shorter and she couldn’t attend to other needs, because to help a family escape from the gangs you need to study the case, understand the family’s living conditions, find proof of the danger, try to relocate them within the country if possible, or otherwise speak on that family’s behalf to a friendly government who can offer them asylum. For a long time, Esperanza became something of a Salvadoran Oskar Schindler, making lists of families who were trying to escape their own holocausts.

Perhaps the most famous case that Esperanza’s office worked on was that of a 16-year-old athlete who was kidnapped and murdered in the Paracentral department of El Salvador in May 2012. Alison Renderos, a wrestler from the age of 11, was a big hope to win the country a gold medal in the Central American Games that were approaching. But the young girl was found weeks after disappearing, in a remote hill in San Vicente.

She was found by criminologist for the Public Prosecutor’s Office, Israel Ticas. Ticas is a strange official, famous in the country for his investigations into clandestine cemeteries, which he visits with a brush, shovel, and pick axe, and he digs, unearths and makes bas-relief scultpures with the decomposing bones he exhumes.

In the case of Alison Renderos, one of the Barrio 18 gang members in San Vicente spoke up, giving the lawyers coordinates and leading them to the brutal scene. Ticas, used to seeing scenes of unimaginable violence, says the one he saw that afternoon early in 2013 was the one that moved him the most.

“Poor girl. This was something unheard of before – I think it was a new practice. They cut her into small pieces: they dug a small hole, maybe three or five metres deep, and put her body in there, piece by piece.”

Had you ever seen anything like that?

Never. They usually cut up victims and bury them in different places, or even in one place. But like that… never.

What was the diametre of the hole?

“It was the size of a PVC tube – like the space you can make by touching the end of your thumb and index finger,” he says, forming the narrow hole that he remembers with his own hand.

That case went to court, but during the trial Alison’s family was threatened by the gang. They said they would kill them all. The Public Prosecutor’s Office couldn’t help Alison’s family, nor the police, nor the Office for the Defence of Human Rights, nor the state. The state could not fulfill its constitutional duty of guaranteeing the life and freedom of its citizens… They were all going to die, the gang warned, and the state couldn’t say that it would stop them. Someone told Alison’s family about the IDHUCA and Esperanza’s office, that was located where the priests and women were massacred during the war.

From 2010, many families started to arrive at the IDHUCA asking for help in fleeing El Salvador. Esperanza took on the work in 2012: she would study the cases, and when she was convinced she could help a family seek asylum or refuge in another corner of the world, she asked the Prosecutor’s Office for certificates to show the family was at risk. Sometimes, even they didn’t support her.

Why didn’t they want to provide those documents?

“We ask them for evidence, but they don’t want to give it because it proves their ineffectiveness. Sometimes they do, depending on the prosecutors in charge of the case. When they send us a case they are obliged to help us document it. But they do it aiming to get the people to testify or serve as a witness in the process. In exchange, they offer to get them out of the country, but instead they bring them here…”

At the start of 2014, Esperanza grew tired. The IDHUCA did too. It doesn’t have the resources or personnel to attend to all the cases that arrive at its door. Dozens of them. A hundred in the last four years. Esperanza was overwhelmed with people asking for help to abandon the country, because after a few successful examples that the prosecutors, police, and human rights lawyers heard about, the state sent over more and more cases.

That the Salvadoran state asked Esperanza to help its citizens flee is like a child asking for help from its mother, on whom he depends, and the mother sending him to the neighbour, or the parish priest, or the cosmetician around the corner.

“We are alone. We see ourselves in this dilemma, that if we keep receiving cases we’ll be overwhelmed and I’m the only lawyer… I can’t… looking after people’s safety is the job of the state…”

But the ‘esperanza‘ (hopes) of the state lay with Esperanza alone

Translated by Marc Rogers

 

elfaro-logoEl Faro, Latin America’s first digital newspaper, was founded in May 1998. Published in El Salvador, it is dedicated to cultivating the narrative and reporting of in-depth investigations that tell the realities of Central America. In recent years it has won some of the most prestigious international prizes: World Press Photo 2014, IPYS 2013, Moors Cabot 2011, WOLA 2012, and Ortega y Gasset 2011, among others.

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Honduras: Libre Party Activist Killed in Mayoral Dispute


Protests outside Town Hall in San Francisco de Opalaca (photo via Upside Down World)

Protests outside Town Hall in San Francisco de Opalaca (photo via Upside Down World)

An activist for the Liberdad y Refundación (Libre) party was killed, and several others injured, in a politically-motivated attack, according to a press statement released yesterday by the Civic Council for Popular and Indigenous Organisations in Honduras (Copinh).

Irene Meza, husband of a Libre councillor, was shot on Sunday in San Francisco de Opalaca, where a dispute between Libre and the Partido Nacional (PN) over last year’s elections results has been rumbling for over four months.

According to Copinh, a group of associates of Socorro Sánchez, the elected PN mayor of Opalaca, attacked a group of Libre supporters that have been maintaining a blockade of the Town Hall for months over alleged fraud in November’s elections. Meza was badly wounded, and then attacked again when being taken to hospital. This time, a group of hooded men that Copinh also claims to be supporters of Sánchez, opened fire on the car transporting the activist, causing it to crash. Meza died from his injuries after this second attack, while two other people travelling in the car were also hurt.

The killing of Meza comes as tensions escalate in San Francisco de Opalaca as Libre supporters and local indigenous groups block what they say is the illegitimate Sánchez administration. Sánchez, who came to power after the 2009 coup, tied with Libre candidate Éntimo Vásquez in the November election, but after a recount, The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) declared Sánchez the victor by eight votes, but Vásquez supporters rejected this decision, saying the extra votes had been added illegally.

Since late January they have maintained a vigil at the Town Hall to prevent Sánchez from taking office. In that period, the group claim to have suffered other attacks, and Vásquez’s brother, Juan Alberto, was found murdered in February.

After the weekend’s violence, Entimo Vásquez urged the government – led by President Juan Orlando Hernández of the PN – to intervene. “The conflict is intensifying and it’s time the state intervened to prevent more blood being spilled. There was a draw here, and the people are demanding a solution.”

Copinh, meanwhile, said it held President Hernández, the army and police, and other groups in power for the “policy of terror and criminalisation of our people and organisation.” On Monday the group also reported the killing of William Jacobo Rodríguez in Río Blanco, where he was part of a struggle against the Agua Zarca hydro-electric project on the territory of the indigenous Lenca community.

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Honduras: Violent Eviction of Campesinos


Bajo Aguán human rights meeting, where families show images of those killed in the conflict (photo courtesy of Honduras Delegation)

Bajo Aguán human rights meeting, where families show images of those killed in the conflict (photo courtesy of Honduras Delegation)

Fifteen people have been detained as a result of a massive police operation to evict campesinos from a terrain in Bajo Aguán, north Honduras. One police officer, and three adolescents are reported to have been injured during the operation.

Human rights organisations have labelled the operation “heavy handed”, and accused the 300 security forces involved of abuses.

The disputed land has been at the centre of conflicts between landowners and campesinos since 2008, and some 128 campesinos have been killed as a result of on-going violence, according to Honduras’ Permanent Observatory of Rights. Since the conflict began, some 300 families have been evicted from the land.

The campesinos say they had occupied the terrain as a result of a ruling by a regional court in Trujillo. However, that ruling was overturned by an appeals court in the capital Tegucigalpa, and so security forces were given a judicial order to evacuate the land, which was being worked by the family farmers.

Local media are also reporting that three of those arrested, Jaime Cabrera, Antonio Rodríguez, and Walter Cárcamo, are shielded by protective measures handed down from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The police operation took place on the third anniversary of the killing of four campesinos on the same terrain, crimes that have never been resolved.

 

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Latin America News Roundup: 5th May 2014


MS13 Gang Member (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Mara Salvatrucha gang member (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Honduras – Prisoners Killed in Gang Attack: Five prisoners from the mara M18 gang were killed yesterday after an attack by the rival Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, gang. All of the dead were under 18 and were jailed at El Cármen prison in San Pedro Sula. According to the police, the attackers threatened the guards, overpowering them with their weapons, and managed to get into the area of the jail that the M18 inhabit, opening fire and killing five of their rivals and injuring another. It is not clear if the perpetrators were fellow inmates or had come into the prison from the outside. Three of them have been detained. Neighbours reported hearing explosions, but police have denied grenades were used in the attack. Prisons in Honduras are notorious for being overpopulated, lacking guards, and being very violent. In 2012, over 350 inmates were killed in a fire in Comayagua prison, north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

 

Colombia – ‘No Chance’ for Survivors After Mine Collapse: Rescuers are continuing to search for miners buried in a landslide last week in Santander de Quilichao, Southwest Colombia, though there are no expectations of finding survivors. A dozen bodies have already been recovered from the site, while at least another four remain missing. Mayor Eduardo Grijalba already said on the weekend that there was “no chance” of finding survivors at this stage, with operation now focused on locating the bodies of those trapped. The gold mine did not have a license, and local authorities had tried to close it down on several occasions, the latest in February, but the local community prevented police from stopping operations. According to a recent report from the public prosecutor’s office, illegal mining is present in 70% of Colombia’s territory. These unregulated mines are often dangerous, with BBC Mundo reporting 25 accidents so far already in 2014. “What happened in Santander de Quilichao must not happen again in Colombia,” said Vice President Angelino Garzón this weekend. “One way or another, we must end illegal mining in the country.”

 

Juan Carlos Varela (photo: Wikipedia)

Juan Carlos Varela (photo: Wikipedia)

Panama – Opposition Candidate Wins Presidential Election: Opposition leader and vice president Juan Carlos Varela has been declared the winner of yesterday’s presidential election in Panama. With nearly 90% of votes counted by the Electoral Tribunal, Varela has 39.1% support, comfortably ahead of José Domingo Arias, the incumbent party candidate, with 31.7%. The former mayor of Panama City, Juan Carlos Navarro, is third with 27.8%. Varela joined the ticket with incumbent president Ricardo Martinelli in 2009, and served as foreign affairs minister until 2011, when his dismissal brought down the alliance between Varela’s Partido Panameñista and Martinelli’s Cambio Democrático. Since then, Varela has been one of the most outspoken critics of the administration, accusing Martinelli of corruption. “Today democracy was the winner,” said Varela after being declared victorious, adding that his would be a “humane government of national unity, leading with honesty and transparency.” Martinelli, meanwhile, said he would form part of a “constructive opposition”. With the conservative Partido Panameñista only winning an estimated 11 out of 71 seats up for election, the president-elect will need to seek alliances in the National Assembly. Varela will take over the presidency on 1st July.

 

 

 

 

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Latin America News Roundup: 27th March 2014


Peruvian, Bolivian and Chilean territories before the 1879-83 War of the Pacific (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Peruvian, Bolivian, and Chilean territories before the 1879-83 War of the Pacific (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Landlocked Bolivia Creates ‘Sea Ambassador': In a press conference yesterday, President Evo Morales announced the creation of a new, itinerant diplomatic position to follow the landlocked country’s maritime claim and Chile, and also changed his country’s ambassador to Chile. Magdalena Cajías, an historian and former minister of education, will take up the position in Santiago, while the president has still not confirmed who will be taking up the position of roving ambassador. The neighbouring countries have not had full diplomatic relations since 1976, when Bolivia tried to regain access to the Pacific which it lost in 1879 during the War of the Pacific, which changed the borders of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, seeing Chile annex Bolivia’s coast and part of the south of Peru.

The announcement came on the same day Chile and Peru finalised new maritime borders after 27th January’s ruling in the Hague demarcated the Pacific ocean frontier.

Tension Between El Salvador and Honduras over Isla Conejo: El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, yesterday sent a letter to his Honduran counterpart, Juan Orlando Hernández, demanding that Honduras “immediately vacate” Isla Conejo. The spat comes after Honduras’ recent construction of a heliport on the tiny, uninhabited island, which preceded last week’s visit to the island by Hernández. Funes said that his neighbour’s behaviour has “gravely affected the countries’ bi-lateral relations”, to which Hernández replied that the island is Honduran and that Funes’ protest was “impertinent”. Funes also sent a note to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, lamenting Honduras’ provocation. The International Court of Justice marked the maritime border between the Central American nations in 2004, but Isla Conejo, which sits just metres off the Honduran coast, was not specifically named as it sits well within the country’s maritime borders. El Salvador’s claim on the island, which lies in a strategic location, stems from the country’s occupation of the island until 1983, when the country’s army abandoned the islet during the El Salvadorian civil war.

Colombia: FARC will not give up Police Killers: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced yesterday that they would not hand over those responsible for the death of two police officers earlier this month. Germán Méndez and Edílmer Muñoz were captured by the FARC on 15th March in the south-western department of Nariño and beaten to death, something Juan Manuel Santos’ government has deemed a “war crime”. The Colombian government and the UN went on to ask that FARC give up those responsible as a sign of their commitment to the on-going peace talks. In yesterday’s communication, FARC’s leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, known as ‘Timochenko’, responded by saying that those responsible will face “guerrilla justice”, and went on to say “Let’s sign a ceasefire, Santos, and make peace possible.”

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Latin America News Roundup: 14th March 2014


Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos  (Photo: Facebook official account)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
(Photo: Facebook official account)

Colombia: Dozens of New Members of Congress Tied to Paramilitaries: Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation has reported that 70 of the candidates elected in Sunday’s legislative elections had been questioned for ties to paramilitaries or other criminal organisations. Thirty-three were elected to the Senate and 37 to the Chamber of Representatives. Before Sunday’s elections, the NGO had highlighted ties of 131 of the 2,324 candidates to such organisations, and the fact that over half of them were elected led to a “bleak” panorama. According to their investigation, the party with the most questionable members of Congress was President Juan Manuel de Santos’ Partido de la U, with 18, followed by Conservatives and Liberals, with 13 each. Most of those elected came from northern provinces, which historically have the most ties to the paramilitaries.

Honduras: Justice of Peace and Lawyer Killed: Two legal representatives were killed in separate attacks today in Honduras. Justice of the peace Lenin Castañeda was shot dead outside his home in the Caribbean city of Tocoa, while lawyer José Nicolás Bernárdez died after motorcyclists fired on his car in San Pedro Sula. Police sources have confirmed that Castañeda was the son of Adolfo Castañeda, the founder of the MUCA, a campesino movement. So far no motive has been given for either attack. These latest murders brings the number of legal professionals killed since 2010 to 75, according to the country’s Human Rights Commission. Each day, an average of 14 people are killed in the Central American country, and with a rate of 169 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants San Pedro Sula was last year declared the most violent city in the world for a second year in a row.

Chile’s New Government Apologises to Mapuche: Francisco Huenchumilla, the newly appointed governor of Chile’s Araucanía region, today apologised to the Mapuche population for removal of their land and admitted that the country had a pending debt to the indigenous community, promising public policies that would help alleviate poverty. Around 600,000 Mapuche live in the region, and are currently in conflict with forestry companies, demanding their land back from what they say was illegal usurpation. Huenchumilla has said that he will meet with all sides that have been affected by the violence, as “everybody should be given a voice”. The region has seen clashes since the 90s between the Mapuche and farmers and businessmen who have been exploiting land the Mapuche consider to be ancestrally theirs.

Regional Environment Summit Closes in Mexico: The 19th Meeting of the Forum of Ministers of the Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean, considered the most important environmental meeting in the region, ended today in Los Cabos, Mexico. Climate change, chemicals and waste management, and biodiversity conservation were the top items of the agenda, and the summit aimed to strengthen regional cooperation in addressing these issues. Conservation was high on the agenda as the region is home to 34% of the world’s plant species, 30% of mammals, 41% of birds, 50% of amphibians, 35% of reptiles, and 31% of fish. The event was organised by the Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), gathered together ministers and high-level officials from 31 countries, as well as representatives of the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Andean Development Corporation (CAF) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and civil society.

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Latin America News Roundup: 18th February 2014


Leopoldo López (centre) gives himself up to the National Guard today (photo: AFP/ Juan Barreto/Télam)

Leopoldo López (centre) gives himself up to the National Guard today (photo: AFP/ Juan Barreto/Télam)

Venezuela – Opposition Leader Arrested as Protests Continue: A figurehead of the opposition protests taking place since last Wednesday in Venezuela, Leopoldo López, handed himself over to the National Guard while leading another march today in Caracas. López had been wanted by police for several days, suspected of various crimes, including inciting the violence that left three dead last week. Dressed in white and carrying flowers, López spoke to protesters gathered on the streets of the capital before giving himself up. “If my incarceration serves to awaken the people, it will be worth it,” he said. Pro-government groups also took to the streets again today in a show of support for President Nicolás Maduro, who spoke to the crowds this afternoon.

Also today, the government confirmed via the Official Gazette the removal of the head of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin), days after confirming that members of the unit had disobeyed orders not to go out on the streets during the marches on 12th February. Gustavo González was named at the new Sebin director.

Honduras – Government to Establish ‘Dry Sunday’ to Combat Crime: The government in Honduras announced yesterday that it would impose a ban on alcohol for 11 hours from Sunday afternoons in an effort to reduce violent crime and road accidents. Presidential Secretary Reinaldo Sánchez told press that the sale of alcohol would be forbidden between 5pm on Sunday until 6am on Monday and will be enforced at a national level. Honduras has one of the world’s highest murder rates, calculated by the Autonomous National University of Honduras (UNAH) at 79.7 per 100,000 people in 2013 (compared to an estimated global average of 8.8). However, director of the Violence Observatory at UNAH, Migdonia Ayestas, said more studies must be conducted to investigate the link between alcohol and homicides. “We can say that the violent murders in Honduras are usually committed on weekends. Whether this is due to the intake of alcohol requires greater investigation and analysis.”

Brazil – Curitiba Confirmed as World Cup Venue: The Arena da Baixada stadium in Curitiba was today given the green light by football governing body FIFA to host matches in the 2014 World Cup starting 12th June. The venue had been in doubt due to severe delays in the construction of the stadium, and was given until today to convince FIFA that it would be ready on time. After an inspection, FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke announced via Twitter this afternoon that Curitiba would remain a host city, “based on financial guarantees, the commitments by all stakeholders, and progress made.” Valcke added that: “It’s a race against a very tight timeline.” The stadium is scheduled to host four group stage matches during the tournament, with the first to be played on 15th June.

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Latin America News Roundup: 3rd February 2014


Salvador Sánchez Cerén, El Salvadorian presidential frontrunner (photo: wikipedia.org)

Salvador Sánchez Cerén, frontrunner in the El Salvadorian presidential elections (photo: wikipedia.org)

El Salvador Presidential Elections go to Second Round: With nearly all the votes counted, results indicate yesterday’s presidential election in El Salvador will go to a run-off on 9th March. Current vice president Salvador Sánchez Cerén from the governing left-wing FMLN party received 48.9% of the votes, and will face conservative Norman Quijano from the Nationalist Republican Alliance, ARENA, who took 38.9% in the first round. The winner will take power on 1st June and will govern the country for the next five years. Both candidates accepted the results and announced their willingness to form alliances with other political parties. Sánchez Cerén has already reached out to the UNIDAD movement’s candidate, Elías Antonio Saca, to work together in the next government. Sunday’s election had a turnout of just 53%, according to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, almost ten percentage points lower than the 2009 elections.

Costa Rica Elections: Residents of Costa Rica also went to the polls yesterday to vote in the country’s general elections, choosing new representatives in congress, new governors, and a new president. With no outright winner, the two leading presidential candidates will face a run-off on 6th April. The governing Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN)’s candidate, Johnny Araya, who obtained 29.5% of the vote, will face Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC)’s Luis Guillermo Solís, who obtained 31% of the vote. Neither candidate has so far spoken of potential alliances, but it seems likely the winner will have to form some kind of coalition to govern, as they will face a divided congress when they take power on 8th May. PLN received 18 of the 57 legislative seats, PAC took 13, with the remainder divided between five other parties.

Honduras – Diplomatic Relations Re-established with Latin American countries: The governments of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador officially recognised Juan Orlando Hernández’s government in Honduras at last week’s Celac summit in Cuba. Following this, the three countries announced at the weekend they would re-establish diplomatic ties with the Central American nation after almost five years, when a coup ousted democratically-elected Juan Manuel Zelaya, leading to a political crisis in the country, and a diplomatic crisis in the region.

Cuba has Highest Literacy Rate in Latin America: According to a UNESCO report published on Saturday, Cuba has the highest literacy rate in Latin America. The annual report, entitled ‘Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All‘, highlighted the Caribbean island’s achievements, noting that 13% of the country’s GDP goes towards education, compared to a regional average of 5.5%. The report looked at countries’ progress under the Education for All global commitment to provide basic education for all children, youth, and adults, as agreed at the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000. At the forum, 164 governments pledged to work towards six goals to be met by 2015, and are working with development agencies, civil society, and the private sector to achieve the targets, under the coordination of UNESCO. In Latin America, around 10% of children of school age are not achieving basic standards in reading and writing, and 30% are lacking in mathematics. Standards varied widely by country, and within social groups within national borders, with the poorest often faring the worst. For example, in Haiti only 42% of young people from a poor background know how to read and write, compared to 92% of their better off compatriots. The report highlighted that if current trends continue, developing countries will not achieve their targets until 2072.

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Latin America News Roundup: 27th January 2014


The map shows the proposed boundaries (in red and blue) and the final boundary as established by the ICJ (in black). Courtesy of ICJ.

The map shows the proposed boundaries (in red and blue) and the final boundary as established by the ICJ (in black). (Image courtesy of ICJ)

Chile and Peru: The International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague issued a ruling today on a long standing maritime border dispute between Chile and Peru. The ruling considered both positions in establishing a new maritime boundary, which extends along the line proposed by Chile -parallel to the Equator- for the first 80 nautical miles, and continues along the equidistance line proposed by Peru from there on. The dispute between the two countries, brought before the ICJ by Peru in 2008, concerned a triangle of around 38,000km2 rich in fishing resources, especially anchovies. The fishing industry in this area produces revenue for an estimated US$200m yearly, and the places most affected by the decision will be the Chilean town of Arica and the Peruvian town of Tacna. Whilst both governments have pledged to abide by the ruling, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said that “this transfer constitutes an unfortunate loss for our country.” Peruvian President Ollanta Humala celebrated that the ICJ “recognised the validity of the Peruvian position” and that his country “has won over 70% of the lawsuit.” Alvaro García Linera, Vice-president of Bolivia, said that the ruling “offers a very important precedent” and that President Evo Morales will refer to the matter tomorrow at the Celac summit in Cuba. The landlocked country is also involved in territorial disputes with Chile.

Honduras: Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn in as President of Honduras today. The ceremony took place at 9.50am local time in Tegucigalpa, and was attended by foreign dignitaries from around 80 countries. During his opening speech, Hernández promised to create 100,000 new jobs and to improve the quality of life of the 800,000 Honduran families that earn less than US$1 per month. He also pledged to improve the social security system, education, and to fight against corruption. Hernández was elected president on 24th November for a four-year term, amidst allegations of fraud by rival party LIBRE. Members of LIBRE organised a demonstration in Tegucigalpa to coincide with the ceremony, in protest against the “fraudulent” electoral process.

Ecuador: A man has been sentenced to six months in prison for killing a condor. Manuel Damián Damián, 61, confessed to the crime after pictures started circulating on social networks in April 2013 showing him with a dead female condor. Since he was arrested in November 2013, he will have to complete another four months in prison, pay a US$5,333 fine, and upon his release he will have to complete a series of environmental remediation tasks imposed by the tribunal. The condor is an endangered species -according to Ecuador’s Environment Ministry, there are fewer than 50 left in the wild, and 19 in captivity, in the country.

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