Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Forced displacement of families -- the refugee crisis

A report issued earlier this year offers an important view into the problem of families who must flee their homes as a result of gang and other violence in El Salvador.   The report on the situation of forced displacement through generalized violence in El Salvador (available only in Spanish) was prepared by the Roundtable of Civil Society against Forced Displacement, made up of several civil society and church groups who have tried to provide humanitarian assistance to these families.

The report notes that although international agencies had tallied some 289,000 internally displaced persons in 2014, the Salvadoran government was in denial of the problem and offered little if any support to such families:

The phenomenon of internal displacement is an effect of a situation of generalized violence in El Salvador. Hundreds of Salvadoran families flee their homes to protect their lives and physical integrity, many of whom end up seeking international protection outside the country's borders for lack of attention or for inadequate measures from Salvadoran state agencies. 
The Salvadoran government does not officially recognize that there is a problem of internal displacement forced by widespread violence. It does not have programs or institutions providing effective care and effective protection to the needs of these victims who are mostly nuclear families. The phenomenon is invisible or minimized and not taken into consideration in the design of public policies and the legal framework. There is currently no official record of how many persons internally displaced by violence are in the country. Due mainly to the denial of the existence of the phenomenon, the specific cases of people turning for help to public authorities are not registered.
The effects on families who are forced to become internal refugees are immense:
Civil and political rights [of displaced persons] are severely affected, as well as their economic, social and cultural rights.  Fleeing and hiding people leave their jobs or livelihoods, children, adolescents and the young drop out, and elderly people suspend their medical follow-ups.   In many of the cases that are attended by the member organizations of the civil society roundtable against forced displacement, families leave the homes they had acquired with much effort or which are mortgaged in favor of financial institutions. Even when they leave, they must continue paying with no possibility of selling.  Because of fear, no neighboring person dares to buy an abandoned house.
As the report notes, the absence of any effective state support and protection for these families, despite the government's obligation to provide it, often prompts the families to decide not to remain in El Salvador but to seek sanctuary in other countries including the US.    

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The niggardly US response to the Central American refugee crisis

The US first started paying attention to the flight of Central Americans from violence in the Northern Triangle when thousands of unaccompanied minors began showing up on the southern border.   The primary response of the US has been deterrence -- public service announcements and education campaigns about the dangers of the route north, expanded detention facilities for mothers and children, and round-ups and deportations of families back to Central America.  

In addition, the US has proposed two programs purported to be humanitarian responses to the flow of refugees.   The first to be announced was the Central American Minors Program.    Under this program, parents or guardians in the US can apply for their children in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala to receive refugee status and travel to the US.    A key part of the program is that children are interviewed in Central America rather than making the treacherous journey north.   (A flow chart of the process, including DNA testing, can be found here).

Since the program began in December 2014, more than 8948 applications had been filed under the Central American Minors Program, but the US government says that through the end of May 2016, it has approved only 1448 individuals for refugee or parole status

The second program provides a limited opening for Central Americans to be treated like refugees from other conflict zones around the globe.  In January of this year, the Obama administration announced that it would work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to offer aid to Northern Triangle refugees:
Speaking on foreign policy at the National Defense University in Washington on Wednesday, Kerry said: “I am pleased to announce that we have plans to expand the US refugee admissions program in order to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and offer them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey that many are tempted to begin, making them at that instant easy prey for human smugglers who have no interest but their own profit.” 
The state department said it would work with the UN and non-government organisations to identify people in need of refugee protection, including human rights activists.
A department spokesman added that, unlike the existing in-country program for Central American minors, this will not be a direct application program. Instead, it will be based upon referrals from organisations that work with vulnerable populations in the three countries. Also unlike the existing Central American minors program, individuals and families without relatives in the US will be eligible.
The UNHCR will assist with determining who should be referred for resettlement, but the final decision will rest with the US government. The eligibility criteria will be identical to those applied throughout the world under its existing refugee admissions program.
As of now, however, this refugee resettlement proposal has only been talk and not backed up by significant actions by the US.  According to US government statistics, only 113 refugees were admitted to the US between October 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016 from El Salvador, and only 148 from the combined Northern Triangle countries. During the same time period the US deported more than 50,000 individuals back to Central America.

Despite the clear dangers of living in the murder capital of the world, the many youth, children, women and men fleeing El Salvador will not find refuge in the US.  A lucky few might find placements in the limited US programs for refugees, but the rest will join the plane loads of refugees regularly deported back to the Northern Triangle countries.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Central American refugee crisis

The World Day of the Refugee was June 20.    In recognition of that day, I plan to spend the next few posts on this blog on the refugee crisis created by the criminal gang violence in El Salvador as well as Guatemala and Honduras.

An article from Insight Crime describes the nature of the crisis:
A new United Nations report highlights skyrocketing rates of forced displacement in Central America's Northern Triangle region, attributing the trend in large part to rampant organized crime related violence.  In its latest annual Global Trends report (pdf), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the number of asylum-seekers from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador rose from 20,900 in 2012 to 109,800 in 2015 -- a more than five-fold increase. 
 The report suggests a toxic mix of local gangs and transnational drug trafficking groups is driving much of the displacement. 
 "Violence and persecution generated by transnational organized crime, gang-related violence, and drug cartels in some parts of Central America are likely to be the primary cause behind the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers from Central America seeking international protection in the United States of America," the report reads. 
 The most common destination for Northern Triangle refugees is the United States, where 18,900 asylum seekers from El Salvador registered in 2015, 16,400 from Guatemala and 14,300 from Honduras.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been increasingly concerned about the refugee flow from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, recently warning:
[Refugees’] flight from danger is becoming increasingly common in El Salvador, where the gangs’ criminal activities include murder, extortion, kidnap and rape, and now impact people from all walks of life. Victims range from school children and bus drivers to business owners, police officers and their families, leaving a growing number with no option but to flee, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are seeking asylum throughout Central America and Mexico according to the UNHCR which is calling for urgent action:
[L]ast year alone 3,423 people, most of them from El Salvador and Honduras, sought asylum in Mexico. This was 164 per cent increase over 2013 and a 65 per cent increase since 2014. Asylum claims by Salvadorans were up almost four times over this period. Mexico currently hosts 3,448 refugees, the majority of them from Central America. 
The number of asylum claims in other parts of the region from people fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala - the “Northern Triangle of Central America” - has also risen dramatically. Costa Rica, for example, registered 2,203 asylum claims in 2015 - a 176 per cent increase over 2013 and a 16 per cent increase since 2014. These were mainly people arriving from El Salvador. Costa Rica today hosts 3,616 refugees.\ 
As in previous years, preliminary data from 2015 shows that the United States remains the main country receiving asylum applications from the Northern Triangle, on track to receive over 250 per cent more than in 2013 and almost twice the number of 2014. 
“UNHCR considers the current situation in Central America to be a protection crisis. We are particularly concerned about the rising numbers of unaccompanied children and women on the run who face forced recruitment into criminal gangs, sexual- and gender-based violence and murder,” [UNHCR spokesperson Adrian] Edwards told journalists.
In Belize, where the population is less than 400,000, 633 people sought asylum in 2015, up ten-fold over 2014.
“Other countries in the region, notably Nicaragua and Panama, are also seeing similar sharp increases in asylum requests from people fleeing the Northern Triangle countries,” Edwards added.
And the figures above are only the counts of people who have formally sought some type of asylum or refugee status after fleeing the Northern Triangle.   There are certainly many thousands more who have fled undocumented and fearful to the US and elsewhere.

The UNHCR has tried to humanize the crisis with personal stories of Central American refuees like Ada from El Salvador:

Other Salvadoran refugees whose stories have been featured by the UNHCR include a family of tailors and a transgender Salvadoran woman who fled after a brutal stabbing.

Many have called the current level of violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America akin to a war.   Like every other war, those who flee deserve the help and compassion of the rest of the world.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Food insecurity affects 1 in 9 Salvadorans

700,000 people, or one out of every nine people in El Salvador, suffer from food insecurity, especially in the country's rural areas according to international organizations working in El Salvador.   Droughts, the El Niño phenomenon, and the impact of roya (coffee rust fungus), have had a serious negative affect on families incomes and harvests over the past three years.

The effects are widespread, touching 104 of the country's municipalities especially in the east.  In 24 municipalities, almost 20,000 families are receiving direct food aid.   The aid is provided by the World Food Program and the National Council on Food Security.

The recent periods of drought have reduced flow rates in El Salvador's rivers by as much as 20 to 60%, and declining as much as 90% in the eastern region.  According to OxFam, which works with populations in the eastern departments of Morazan, San Miguel and Usulutan, there has been a 40% reduction in access to water.  One result is that women now spend an extra half hour a day just to retrieve water for their household use.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Remittance growth strong

El Salvador's Central Reserve Bank (BCR) reported this week that remittances which Salvadorans outside of the country send back to their families in El Salvador grew strongly during the first five months of the year.    Total remittances so far in 2016 have been $1.84 billion, up 6.8% from the year before.   This is impressive considering that both the US economy and the Salvadoran economy are experiencing annual growth rates of 2% or less.

Just in the month of May, family remittances totaled $412 million, the highest total recorded for a month of May.    May is usually a month with high levels of remittance activity as Salvadorans abroad send money back for Mother's Day, according to the BCR.

The BCR also reported on the economic activity of Salvadoran born women living in the United States:

  • On average Salvadoran-born women in the US send back 20.8% of their income to El Salvador, a greater percentage than sent back by men.
  • 69%  of Salvadoran-born women in the US are in the labor force
  • 17.7% have some level of university studies and 5.7% have college degrees.
  • 19.6% of Salvadoran-born women in the US are naturalized citizens.
Remittances continue to be the economic safety net in El Salvador.   It's not a recipe for a country to develop and flourish when it depends on exporting its most productive citizens to generate those dollars.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

UNDP reports on vulnerable populations in Latin America

Much of Latin America saw progress in lifting people out of poverty over the last decade.   Yet a significant number of those people remain vulnerable to falling back into poverty according to a new report from the United Nations Development Program:

In the report titled Multidimensional Progress: Well-being beyond income, UNDP expresses particular concern over the 25 to 30 million people in the region—more than a third of those who left poverty since 2003 — who risk falling back into poverty. Many are youth and women, with precarious employment in the service sector. They are part of a larger group of over 220 million people (38% of the population, or almost two in every five in the region) who are vulnerable: officially they are not poor (living on less than US$4/day) but have been unable to rise to the middle class (living on more than $10/day). 
The factors that pushed people out of poverty are different from those that prevent them from falling back, the HDR stresses. In the past decade, labour markets and education were the biggest engines behind exiting poverty. However, the report argues that it is essential that a new generation of public policies strengthen the four factors that prevent setbacks: social protection, care systems (particularly for children and older persons), physical and financial assets (such as owning a car, a home, savings or bank accounts that act as ‘cushions’ when crisis hit), and labour skills. These four key elements comprise what the regional HDR brands as a ‘resilience basket’, enabling people to absorb shocks and prevent setbacks. This is especially important during economic slowdowns.
These risks are quite evident in El Salvador.   While there has been a reduction in extreme poverty in recent years, the middle class has not grown.   The expanding sector of society is that income band where families are just one setback away from returning to poverty.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Troops in the streets

They are images that hearken back to the bloody years of El Salvador's civil war.   Heavily armed troops deployed in front of National Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador's historic center.   On Tuesday, the government of Salvador Sánchez Cerén made a public show of the deployment of "Task Force Historic Center" which includes 800 military and police.

The historic Center Task Force was deployed this day in 29 sectors with the objective of reducing the activity of criminal structures and bands of organized crime that affect the citizenry and the commercial activity in the zones involved.   All this done through joint permanent patrols by foot and vehicle, the capture of criminals in the act or per judicial order, guaranteeing with this free movement and healthy living in the Salvadoran capital.

This deployment is part of the ongoing "exceptional measures" which the Sánchez Cerén government has been employing since the beginning of April.   Although the deployment of troops to combat crime is politically popular in the country, there is little evidence that the troops actually contribute to any reduction in crime.   

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Did El Salvador's 'Iron Fist' Lower Homicide Rate?

This post originally appeared at InsightCrime.org.
Written by Luis Fernando Alonso  Monday, 13 June 2016

El Salvador officials have attributed a steady decline in the violence-wracked country’s homicide rate to the government’s crackdown on gangs, but it is too early to confirm this causal relationship or to determine whether the improvement will endure.

Howard Coto, director of the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil- PNC) announced the lower homicide rates in a June 7 press conference.

Coto said homicides dropped from an average 23.8 per day in January to a daily average of 11.3 in May. Homicides declined gradually over the first five months of the year, registering a rate of 22.9 per day in February, 19.7 in March, and 11.7 in April. He added that figures for the first week of June indicated the drop is set to continue, with an average of 7 per day.

La Prensa Grafica reported the total number of homicides for the first five months of 2016 at 2,705. The trend for the year so far represents a dramatic reversal from the upwards trend registered from the beginning of 2015, which saw the daily homicide average increase from 10.8 in January to 20.7 in May.


The lower homicide statistics come as El Salvador continues to push its “Mano Dura” (Iron Fist) security policies. At the beginning of April, the government enacted a package of "extraordinary measures" designed to combat the country's powerful "mara" street gangs, most notably the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. The measures target the ability of imprisoned gang leaders to effectively operate from behind bars.

Additionally, the government has created a new anti-gang rapid response force, passed legal reforms that reclassify gang crimes as terrorism, and recentlyannounced the deployment of 400 additional armed forces reservists to tackle insecurity in capital city San Salvador.

Minister of Security Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde said the new security measures have directly contributed to the lower homicide rate, La Prensa Grafica reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

While lower homicide trends are a positive sign, the overall security situation in El Salvador remains dire. The country is still wracked by criminal violence, and it is unclear how effective the government’s hardline approach to the issue has been.

The militarization of the gang conflict has also lead to concerns about human rights violations, as lopsided body counts are reported in what security forces describe as clashes with criminal gangs.

The most dramatic decrease in daily homicide rates actually came in April after gang leaders themselves ordered their members to stop the killing in an unsuccessful attempt to dissuade the government from enacting the extraordinary measures. In subsequent public statements representatives of the gangs have taken credit for the lower murder rate and threatened to step up their violence if the government persists with its hard line.

However, the jury is still out on precisely what has caused the daily murder rate to fall and whether or not the reduced rate will hold.

This post originally appeared at InsightCrime.org.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Businessman allegedly uses threats and suits to silence his opponents

Human rights activists in El Salvador are publicly denouncing judicial harassment and intimidation from a powerful Salvadoran businessman directed against a journalist and criminal defense lawyers.   Organizations including FESPAD, ASDEHU, Colectiva Feminista, MPJL and others held a press conference on June 10 to highlight alleged abuse and harrassment by Salvadoran businessman Enrique Rais against investigative journalist Hector Silva Avalos and the criminal defense lawyers for opponents of Rais,

Hector Silva, who is producing important investigative journalism at the website RevistaFactum, had published a series of articles investigating Rais, the businessman's ties to the former attorney general, and recent seizure of aircraft owned by Rais by the DEA in Florida.   You can see some of those articles in English translation on the InsightCrime website here.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) wrote:

Recently, Silva published several pieces in Revista Factum on Salvadoran businessman José Enrique Rais, and his alleged connections with former Salvadoran Attorney General Luis Martínez and with various political figures. On April 26, Silva co-authored another article on Rais highlighting his ties to several private planes recently seized by U.S. authorities in Florida on suspicion that they had been used for transporting drugs. The stories are well-researched pieces of investigative reporting, based on interviews and documents. 
Troublingly, Rais has responded to the articles by filing legal charges against Silva. He has accused Silva of defamation and sought to have a judge issue an arrest order for him. Rais’ attorneys appeared at the door of Silva’s mother’s home in San Salvador to deliver copies of documents. While WOLA does not know the motivation behind Rais’ acts, the effect of the acts themselves, taken together, appears to be intimidation, discouraging Silva, directly and through his family, from continuing his investigative reporting. 
In its most recent report on the situation of Freedom of the Press in El Salvador, the Salvadoran Association of Journalists (Asociaciòn de Periodistas de El Salvador, APES) condemned Rais’ actions against Silva..... 
There seems little doubt that, in this case, the lawsuit and the related actions have a chilling effect on investigative journalism. This is disturbing, not only for Silva and his family, but also because investigative journalism has proven itself, in Central America and elsewhere, to be an important tool for increasing accountability and transparency, and ultimately for deepening democracy. 
Silva and other journalists in El Salvador have pointed out connections between the country's former attorney general Luis Martinez and Enrique Rais.   The connections include Martinez accepting trips on more than one occasion on aircraft owned by Rais.

With respect to the airplanes of Rais which had been seized by the DEA, it was reported on June 10 that US authorities were voluntarily dismissing that matter having found no evidence of drugs and were returning the planes to the Rais Group.

Silva responded forcefully to Rais in a rebuttal on the RevistaFactum website.  Noting that Rais campaign against him also included paid newspaper and television ads, Silva asserted that Rais had never presented evidence to dispute the reporting done by Silva and that Rais was trying to distract attention away from himself.

Rais is a powerful figure in El Salvador.   He is the owner of El Salvador's waste management company MIDES.  The website for the Rais Group describes Enrique Rais this way:
He is a prominent and successful businessman, considered one of the most important investors in El Salvador and regional level, is known for being a visionary and successful entrepreneur with high degree of Social Responsibility towards the environment, he has contributed significantly to the development of the fishing industry in El Salvador, as well as in the Sugar Industry of the country, presiding positions companies in the international market field.
Rumors were also going around on social media in recent days that Rais will seek the presidency of El Salvador in 2019, with one person saying that Rais was the Donald Trump of El Salvador.

Some of the controversy surrounding Rais relates to his disputes with business rivals.   Hector Silva describes what has happened to some of them:
Mario Calderon was, in 2012, one of Enrique Rais' main advisers. However, Calderon stepped down. Calderon ended up working with Matteo Pasquale and Franco Pacetti, Rais' rivals. After the change in clients, the lawyer faced three legal proceedings initiated by the Prosecutor General's Office. Today, Calderon is imprisoned in Metapan for one of these cases. His wife, Claudia Herrera, is also in prison.
El Salvador's Supreme Court recently ordered the release of Mario Calderon for failure of the attorney general to produce sufficient evidence of a crime.

Bertha Deleón and Pedro Cruz are two criminal defense lawyers who have been defending Calderon's wife, Claudia Herrera, in criminal lawsuits.  That case has been protracted for an extended period of time, and the lawyers want to force the court to move forward.   Deleón and Cruz filed a motion asking that the judge overseeing Herrera's case be removed from the case on account because he could not be impartial.   The motion was partly based on the long history of one of Rais' lawyers, Luis Ernesto Peña Ortiz, working in the same court where Herrera's case is being heard.

The lawyer for Rais, Peña Ortiz, now is bringing a criminal defamation complaint against Deleón and Cruz for allegedly impugning his character in their motion.   Deleón and Cruz also report being followed and attempts to record their actions.

Having read the motion filed by Deleon and Cruz seeking to remove the judge from Claudia Herrera's case, it appears they were simply being effective advocates for their client.    (That's from the point of view of a US trained lawyer, and not from someone with knowledge of Salvadoran legal procedure).

Allowing investigative journalists and lawyers in the courts to do their jobs without threats and intimidation is important if El Salvador is ever going to rid itself of corruption, end impunity, and strengthen the rule of law.   The tactics which Rais is employing in the Salvadoran courts are symptomatic of a weak judicial system unable to resist improper influences.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Jesuits case at crucial juncture

The long-running attempt by a Spanish court to bring justice in the case of the murder of six Jesuit priests in 1989, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, may be coming to a head.  

The human rights lawyer who has been in the lead of this human rights case, Almudena Bernabéu, announced an important new piece of evidence.    Former Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani, who held office at the time of the assassinations, has given an interview where he purportedly acknowledged the responsibility of the Salvadoran military officers.   The interview was given to novelist Jorge Galan when Galan was researching his recently published book Noviembre about the massacre.  

Galan talked to a reporter where he stated that he was put in contact with Cristiani through the ex-president's daughter.   In his interview he asked Cristiani about the intellectual authors of the Jesuit massacre, and Cristiani confirmed with the names of the military officials.

In November 2015 when Galan's book, a fictionalized account of the Jesuit murders, was published, he faced threats and was forced to flee El Salvador.

El Salvador has detained 4 of the 17 military officers for whom the Spanish court has issued arrest warrants.  (There's been no real explanation for why the other officers have not been located and detained).  

The officers arrested have petitioned El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court to release them and reject the extradition request from Spain.   Reports in El Faro about draft decisions being prepared by the court suggest that it will do just that.  The court seems prepared to deny extradition on the grounds that some of the officers were already tried in El Salvador and that others are protected by the amnesty law passed after the end of the civil war.   In 2012, the court also denied extradition of the military officers with a strained reading of the international arrest warrant request.

It may be that the only former Salvadoran military officer to face the Spanish tribunal will be former Colonel Orlando Montano.    Montano is being extradited by the US government to Spain after being convicted of immigration fraud when he entered the US.