Thursday, July 02, 2015

Stunning wedding chapel is architecture award contender

A stunning chapel overlooking Lake Coatepeque in El Salvador is a contender in this year's World Architecture Festival.  Named "Cardedeu," the chapel was designed by EMC Arquitectura.    Click here for a set of photos of this modern chapel set above a volcanic crater lake.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Where gang violence does not exist

PRI published a report today on small towns in the department of Chalatenango where the gang violence which afflicts many other areas of El Salvador is nonexistent.   The towns share a history of bloodshed during El Salvador's civil war and community organization dating back to organized opposition during the war years:
There are about a dozen towns in Chalatenango where crime has been largely non-existent. They all share a history of massacres and civic participation. These towns are also small, with populations of about 4,000. For the most part, they’ve remained isolated from the rest of the country, along long and curvy roads. But that’s starting to change. 
Another 45-minute drive away from San Antonio de Los Ranchos, along a brand new highway, is the town of Nueva Trinidad. On a recent day, residents from a handful of nearby communities met here to discuss their public security strategies. 
Teachers spoke about the need for after-school workshops to keep kids occupied. Mayors debated efforts to get funding for local development projects. 
Finally, the local police sergeant gave everyone an update on local crime trends.
There have been some petty crimes around town, he says. Maybe the locals should consider manning a 24-hour security station at the entrance to town? (more)
Earlier this week ContraPunto highlighted San José Las Flores, also in Chalatenango.  In the town ContraPunto labels a place "without violence or disenchantment," the characteristics of a history of war, a community which is well organized, and a certain isolation have also produced a location free of murders.   It's a success story attributable as well to long-running international accompaniment from the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Spanish government.

Both the PRI and ContraPunto stories point to the newly constructed "northern longitudinal highway" as bringing both the benefits and the perils of easier connection to the rest of the country.

Perhaps these towns in rural El Salvador, with their strong base of community organization, can provide one model for other communities looking to escape gang violence.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A bleak picture is worth a 1000 words

According to a 2013 report on citizen security from the United Nations Development Program, El Salvador's prisons are the most over-crowded prisons in the Americas.   This graphic shows El Salvador's dramatic increase in overcrowding from 2005-2011 in comparison to other Latin American countries:

In 2012, ElFaro ran a graphic photo gallery on prison conditions and overcrowding.  Today in a photo gallery titled Here are the jails of El Salvador, the worst in America, republished many of those photos again bringing into vivid detail the dehumanizing impact of such extreme overcrowding. The photos tell better than words why the idea of rehabilitation inside these prisons is far-fetched.  

Monday, June 22, 2015

US State Department issues new El Salvador Travel Warning

The US State Department has issued a new travel warning for those considering visiting El Salvador. The basic message is unchanged from similar advisories in prior years:  there is a lot of crime in El Salvador and travelers should take precautions to avoid being victims:
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, cruise ship visits, business, and volunteer work. There is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens are specifically targeted by criminals; however, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country. Since January 2010, 34 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador including a nine-year-old child in December 2013. During the same time period, 419 U.S. citizens reported having their passports stolen, while others were victims of violent crimes. 
Typical crimes in El Salvador include extortion, mugging, highway assault, home invasion, and car theft. There have also been cases reported in which criminals observe and follow customers making withdrawals at ATMs and banks, then rob them on the road or at a residence. Some victims unwittingly wander into gang-controlled territory and may be targeted, normally at night. Assaults against police officers have risen, and public shootouts are not uncommon. Armed robberies of climbers and hikers in El Salvador’s national parks are known to occur, and the Embassy strongly recommends engaging the services of a local guide certified by the national or local tourist authority when hiking in back country areas -- even within the national parks. The National Civilian Police (PNC) has a special tourist police force (POLITUR) to provide security and assistance to visitors. It has officers located in 19 tourist destinations. (more).
It's important to keep the information which I highlighted in bold in mind, as you read the appropriate cautions from the Travel Advisory.  There are more detailed safety suggestions and other useful travel information on the Country Specific Information page maintained by the State Department.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

New York Times on US response to Central American migration

Last week the New York Times published an editorial regarding continued Central American migration towards the north.   The editorial included this commentary:
Yet American politicians have shown little interest in devoting resources to address the underlying reasons Central Americans continue to head north. They include gang violence, chronic poverty, high unemployment and weak government institutions. Last year, Obama administration officials studied closely where the most recent migrants were coming from in drawing up a plan to improve the region’s economies and curb violence. 
The Obama administration asked Congress for $1 billion for the effort, arguing that the border crisis last year underscored the severity of problems in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the countries where most of the migrants come from. 
Last week, congressional appropriators in the House of Representatives marking up the bill that allocates foreign aid set aside less than $300 million for Central America. The lion’s share of the financing was approved for security initiatives. That is extremely shortsighted. 
The United States can afford to play a bigger, more constructive role in helping Central American nations. Letting the problems fester will inevitably mean that people seeking safety and a better life will keep heading north in large numbers, which will continue to drive up the cost of keeping them out.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Boy, A Girl, A Computer

The Ministry of Education in El Salvador is rolling out a program titled "A Boy, A Girl, A Computer" in the public schools.   The government of El Salvador is receiving from Venezuela 50,000 "Lempitas" notebook computers through the Alba Foundation which is funded with Venezuelan oil revenue.

From TeleSur:
With the program “One kid, one computer” the Salvadoran government aims at delivering computers to over 2,500 public schools throughout this year. “Today is a historical day for #ElSalvador's Education System. We begin the program: one girl, one boy, one computer,” [president] Sanchez Ceren wrote on his Twitter account.... 
By the end of the year, the Salvadoran government aims at providing computers to 84,396 students and 1,000 teachers. The program also contemplates providing internet access to all the public schools in the country.  Taiwan and the United Nations Development Program are also helping El Salvador in the implementation of the program.
The computers run the Linux operating system, have WIFI, cameras and microphones and are loaded with educational software.   The government recognizes the need to train teachers in how to incorporate the computers into their teaching strategies.  You can read the computer specs here.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Initial small changes to conditions in cane fields

In the Christian Science Monitor today, Whitney Eulich provides news of some initial attempts in El Salvador to change the working conditions in sugar cane fields as a way to combat chronic kidney disease and other work related illness:
While scientists and health organizations around the world work to identify the root causes, a handful of power brokers here – from a top businessman to government officials and community leaders – are starting to take action to reverse the trend, based on what they know. Masariego is part of the first scientific intervention among sugar cane workers aimed at determining if work-related conditions such as dehydration or heat stress play a part in chronic kidney disease (CKD). And the achingly simple changes being tested here could serve as a model for other employers and governments across Central America, helping to raise awareness of worker protection and human rights.   
“We need to do more research to find the causes, but meanwhile we can’t wait around for that research to happen before trying different interventions,” says Michael McClean, an environmental health professor at Boston University who is part of a research team that’s investigated CKD in Nicaragua.
Kidney disease has been killing off agricultural workers in Central America in alarming numbers without a firmly identified cause.    Research has pointed to both agricultural chemicals as well as the conditions under which workers toil.  Read the rest of the article here.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Constitutional Chamber strikes again, stops Salvadoran government borrowing

The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court has again issued a ruling which has again angered the other branches of the government.    The Chamber has issued an order preventing the government from issuing bonds to borrow $900 million needed for the functioning of the government and planned spending on citizen security and social programs.  The order remains in effect while the court considers a challenge to how those bonds were approved in the National Assembly.

El Faro described the legal challenges here.   The bonds originally failed to pass by one vote of the super majority needed to approve such borrowing.   The website for the National Assembly indicated that the measure was then removed from the legislative calendar and sent to archive.   Later that night, the GANA deputy who had abstained from voting for the measure departed.    A back-up deputy from GANA took her place.   The bond approval measure was recalled to the floor where the back-up deputy cast his vote for the measure, allowing it to pass by one vote.

The challenge before the Constitutional Chamber alleges two things.   First, the back-up deputy should not have been allowed to vote because he was not the back-up for the GANA deputy who had left the legislature, but was the back-up for a different deputy.    Second, the Constituion indicates that any measure sent to archive cannot be voted on again until six months have passed.   Here only a few hours had passed.

The FMLN and GANA who jointly control the National Assembly were outraged, seeing this action by the court as just another example of the Constitutional Chamber overreaching its authority, and again pledging to introduce measures to limit the court's power.

The executive branch expressed disappointment in the actions of the Constitutional Chamber, calling the injunction a "hard blow" against the Salvadoran people and wishing the Chamber had acted with more prudence.   The government spokesman claimed the first $100 million of borrowing had been intended to strengthen the public security apparatus in dealing with the current wave of violence.

This is yet another step in the various branches of government testing the limits of what it means to be truly governed by a constitution.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Deported from US -- now working in a call center

Call centers are big business in San Salvador.   They employ an estimated 17,000 people, many of whom were previously deported from the US.   In El Salvador, the English these deportees learned while living in the US is often the only marketable skill they have.

The Miami Herald has an article on the call center operations:

Clients calling toll-free numbers to book hotels, find airline flights, track down lost luggage or deal with bank questions usually have no idea that the voice on the other end is a Salvadoran, sometimes with a tattooed neck, arms and back, who’s been deported from the United States. 
International call centers have become a lifeline for thousands of Salvadorans who’ve been booted from the United States. The call center industry may as well be called Second Chance Inc. 
Some of the deportees had lived years, even decades, in the U.S., often in gritty urban neighborhoods. They arrive back in El Salvador disoriented, accustomed to speaking English, not Spanish, and trained in jobs that are useless in the tropics, like fireplace maintenance. Many bear tattoos common in the United States but that carry a heavy stigma in El Salvador, where they are seen as a telltale sign of criminality. 
Wilfredo Gómez Turcios, 35, spends his days politely booking hotel rooms for those calling, offering a congenial voice.  When he departs for home after work, some passersby give him a wide berth. 
“They look at me (and) they grab their kids,” said Gómez, who bears a scripted tattoo of his mother’s name, “Juana,” on his neck. 
Gómez is quick to recognize his own shortcomings, a past heavy on partying, traveling with the wrong crowd. But he’s also fluent in English, has an easy manner and is quick to please. That’s the kind of person the call centers like.
Read the rest of the article here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The complex and intractable problem of gang violence

I just finished reading Roberto Lovato's excellent piece in The Nation about the gang-fueled violence in El Salvador.   Lovato writes:
Mara Salvatrucha and El Salvador’s other maras, as the gangs are generically known, do exercise what can be described as hegemonic control over portions of the country (some experts consider them a serious threat to sovereignty). In the exoticized, Heart of Darkness narratives constructed by the likes of National Geographic and other mainstream media and US-government officials, one often hears that residents of communities like Nuevo Israel “live in chaos.” In fact, there is order here—an alternative order, one governed by the gangs. 
Mara law is unwritten but deeply felt on the bodies and in the interactions of these residents.Mara law affects their daily decisions as much as or, in some situations, more than the law of the state: It affects educational decisions like where and whether to send children to school; housing decisions like where to live; economic decisions like if and how to run—or shut down—a business or how and when to pay the local gang tax; lifestyle decisions like how to dress; and travel decisions like when and whether to visit certain neighborhoods or whether to leave the country altogether and brave the dangerous journey to the United States, as the children and mothers jailed in the Karnes City, Texas, immigration prison told me earlier this year.  
El Salvador’s estimated 70,000 gang members speak as a power because they do not act alone. Like the FMLN in its day as a guerrilla army, the maras operating in city shantytowns and, increasingly, poor rural areas have a social base, people whom they live among and receive support from.
 Lovato does an excellent job of exploring the complexity of the intractable problem of gang violence in El Salvador and how it is not susceptible to simple descriptions of the good guys and the bad guys.

The only problem with the piece is the title applied to the article by The NationEl Salvador’s Gang Violence: The Continuation of Civil War by Other Means, which incorrectly suggests that somehow the current violence is just a variation of the conflict between leftist guerrillas and an oppressive right wing regime.   Lovato certainly does not imply that in his article, and quotes plenty of critics of the FMLN government for continuing and escalating the iron-fisted (and counterproductive) policies of its predecessors.   The true parallel to the civil war, is that the primary victims are the same -- the poor and the marginalized.