Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The ongoing story of child migration from Central America

The press continues to cover the story of children coming across the southwestern US border without documents, although the ebola scare and ISIS have pushed the story from the front pages.

The newest statistics on the flow of children are out.  US Customs and Border Protection reports that in the year ended September 30, 2014 there were detentions of 68,541 children aged 17 and under who crossed the border unaccompanied by a parent or relative.    This compared to 38,759 the year before.

There were a total of  16,404 unaccompanied children from El Salvador in the year ended September 30, almost a 12 fold increase from the number of children detained in 2011.   In addition to the unaccompanied children detained, there were more than 14,000 "family units" of adults with children from El Salvador detained at the southwest US border this year.  Combining just the unaccompanied children with the family units would average out to approximately 124 Salvadorans per day being detained crossing the southern US border without documents.   And that doesn't count single adults who are apprehended.

Meanwhile, the US continues to deport more than 20,000 Salvadorans from the US each year.

The Center for Public Integrity has an extensive article on the challenges that Central Americans have seeking asylum after being detained entering the US titled Asylum in America: A High-Stakes Struggle for Border Crossing Kids.  The grounds for staying in the US are narrow the article explains:

Christopher Manny, a former asylum officer in Chicago and Miami, explained the constraints of the law. 
“As traumatic as it is seeing your friend or family member executed by a gang for refusing recruitment or refusing an extortion demand,” Manny said, “generally speaking that would not be considered grounds for a refugee definition.” 
Officers must also be convinced, Manny said, that children’s suffering had a “nexus,” or was rooted in a persecutor’s intent to harm them because of one or more of five reasons: religious or political persuasion, race, nationality or because they belong to an identifiable “social group” that’s persecuted and unprotected.
The Albuquerque Journal describes a court ruling that limits federal court review of immigration officer determinations of whether an asylum seeker has a "credible fear" in an article titled Judge says court can’t help asylum seeker.

So how does a traumatized family negotiate the legal requirements of an asylum claim?   The Washington Post gives an insight into how immigration judges are processing these cases in a story titled  How a judge decides detained immigrants’ future from 1,700 miles away.   The  Minneapolis Star Tribune describes how Unaccompanied children's cases put immigration system to the test.

Another view of the topic was provided by Religion and Ethics Newsweekly which last week broadcast a piece titled Immigrant Children and the Courts.

If asylum claims are not successful, returning to El Salvador or one of the other Central American countries can be perilous for a male teenager.  In a story titled Deported Salvadoran teen returns home to threat of gang violence, the PBS News Hour follows Jose and the danger he faces, after he was deported from Mexico when he tried to make the migrant journey to the north.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

El Salvador Gangs and Security Forces Up the Ante in Post-Truce Battle -- InsightCrime

This article was originally published on October 22 on the website of InsightCrime

Written by Steven Dudley

Since the dissolution of the gang truce, assassinations of police and military personnel and clashes between gangs and security forces have changed the security equation in El Salvador, closing any small window left to revive the short-lived and highly criticized ceasefire.

As of October 17, the violence had left 31 policemen and various military personnel dead in 2014, including six police in October alone. The victims range from low- to high-ranking members of the security forces and are spread across a wide geographic area. This gives the impression that they were not pre-selected or targeted, but rather were killed when the opportunity presented itself, or following security force disputes with local gang factions.

Clashes between security forces and gangs are also on the rise, officials in the police and army told InSight Crime. The police have reported 130 clashes with gang members this year; the army has had 14 just in October, compared to 12 in all of 2012.

That was the year in which the country's largest gangs -- the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and two factions of the Barrio 18 known as the Revolutionaries and the Sureños --entered a truce with the help of the government's proxy negotiating team, which was comprised of a former guerrilla-turned-security force advisor, and a bishop in the Salvadoran church.

The truce led to a steep drop in reported homicides, although critics claim this was partly because the gangs hid bodies in clandestine graves. The truce was also criticized for opening political space for, as well as legitimizing and emboldening, the MS13 and the Barrio 18 factions that participated.

In addition to gaining political capital, gang leaders were moved from a maximum-security prison to various minimum-security prisons, where they have better access to their rank and file, as well as more chances to visit with their families.

Certainly, the gangs, which the government numbered at 65,000 members during the truce with a potential reach of some 500,000, have tremendous political and coercive powers, especially in areas where they control territory and collect security "taxes" from local businesses and residents. And, in spite of waning public support for the truce, both major parties -- the left-leaning FMLN and the right-wing ARENA -- reportedly met with the gangs' leaders in the run-up to this year's presidential elections.

Election observers from ARENA claimed that the gangs used their muscle to influence the results, especially in the first round in February, which was won by the FMLN's Salvador Sanchez Ceren with a surprisingly wide margin. The second round in March resulted in far fewer complaints from opposition political observers and a much closer result, with Sanchez Ceren winning by just over 6,000 votes.

Meanwhile, proponents of the truce -- including one of the architects of the original ceasefire, Defense Minister General David Munguia Payes -- have argued that a truce is necessary to create the conditions for longer-term solutions, such as social and education programs in the poor areas where gangs are most prevalent. They also say meeting violence and gang activity with increased incarceration and repression, the preferred tactics to date, has only resulted in overflowing jails, stronger gangs and higher homicide rates.

As the truce crumbles, the Attorney General's Office is in the midst of a vigorous investigation regarding the circumstances in which the original truce came about, the benefits gang members and others may have obtained, and other potential transgressions.

The chief mediator, Raul Mijango -- an FMLN guerrilla during the country's civil war, who has since distanced himself from the party -- faced hours of interrogation about his part in forging the agreement, which fell into disrepair after the government swapped security ministers in June 2013.

The new security minister at that time, Ricardo Perdomo, initially attacked the truce and promised a new negotiation. However, his unofficial mediator, Father Antonio Rodriguez -- known popularly as Padre Toño -- was arrested in July this year and then quietly removed from the country, after investigators intercepted a series of compromising phone calls between Toño and gang members.

The FMLN government is now faced with the politically impossible task of determining a way forward. By all appearances, the Sanchez Ceren administration had been stalling since taking office in July, in an apparent attempt to avoid the political straitjacket a new gang truce would entail until congressional and local elections took place in March 2015.

However, while the previous government appeared to be trying to distance itself from the gangs, the increased violence seems to be forcing the current administration's hand in what is increasingly looking like a war. As attacks on security forces are rising, police have also killed more than 100 suspected gang members this year, police officials told InSight Crime. (Those close to the gang leaders say the real number is far higher.) And murder rates have returned to pre-truce levels.

In September, the government created a special "Council for Citizen Security" -- which includes members of the Catholic Church, business associations and non-governmental organizations -- to help it develop a coherent security plan. Sanchez Ceren's Security Minister Benito Lara also recently visited with leaders of Initiative for Peace (IPAZ), a group of religious leaders and organizations from Catholic and Evangelical churches, to talk through the government's options.

Meanwhile, the violence continues, as does the speculation about the cause of increased clashes between gangs and the security forces. Two sources close to the gang leaders, as well as one high-ranking member of the security forces (all speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation) said the gangs were targeting security forces in an effort to force a renewal of some facsimile of the truce.

Police officials and various intelligence sources, however, disavowed the claim the gangs had given the order to attack security forces, arguing that attacks on police and the army had been happening for years and that each of the deaths had a unique set of circumstances.

The dire nature of the conflict has obscured the irony of the situation: the FMLN, once a guerrilla group and now the ruling party, attacked government security forces for years in some of the same marginalized rural and urban areas where the gangs now hold sway.

This article was originally published on October 22 on the website of InsightCrime

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A history of destructive quakes

The 7.3 magnitude earthquake which shook El Salvador last week and left one person dead and caused some minor damage was a reminder of El Salvador's history of large, killer earthquakes.   This week the country's Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) delivered a set of historic documents and photographs to the country's national archives for safekeeping.   Some of the photos were released online which you can view here.

You can see scenes from the 1951 earthquake in this newsreel footage from the time:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A painful year of mosquito-borne disease in El Salvador

Each year in El Salvador, the rainy season brings the problem of mosquito-borne illnesses.   This year, in addition to dengue fever, mosquitoes have brought the Chikungunya virus for the first time.   This diseases which originated in Africa arrived for the first time in the Americas in 2013.

El Salvador's health ministry is reporting that the number of cases of  Chikungunya has finally stabilized after increasing steadily since May of this year.   The country has reported some 59,000 suspected cases of the mosquito-borne disease since the virus first appeared in El Salvador in 2014.  Symptoms of the disease include a high fever and severe joint pain which can become chronic.
The 59,000 cases exceeds this year's total cases of dengue fever which currently stand at 46,830 suspected cases.     Both diseases are transmitted by the same breeds of mosquitoes, the aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus,

There is no vaccine or treatment for chikungunya.    Prevention is accomplished by avoiding mosquito bites -- wear long pants and sleeves and use insect repellent.   Authorities in El Salvador are combating dengue and chikungunya by fumigating and encouraging Salvadorans to prevent standing water where the mosquitoes can breed.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

1992 Peace Accords -- now in government hands

The 1992 Peace Accords brought an end to twelve long bloody years of civil war in El Salvador.   Yet the original signed document had not been in the possession of the government.   Former president Alfredo Cristiani has been keeping the original signed document at his house for the past 20 years.   Today he returned the historic document to the government.   And in the picture above we see Cristiani, the former ARENA president who governed during the last years of the war, delivering the Peace Accords to current president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the former commander in the FMLN guerrilla army.   Both Cristiani and Sanchez Ceren were among the original signers of the accords in 1992.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

7.3 Earthquake off coast of El Salvador, one dead

A strong earthquake struck off the shore of eastern El Salvador last night.   Reports this morning say that one person was killed after electricity lines fell on him.    Approximately 20 houses have been reported damaged and some areas are still without power this morning.

From Reuters and The Guardian:

A magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck off the coast of El Salvador and Nicaragua late on Monday and was felt across Central America, killing at least one person. 
There were no immediate reports of major damage. El Salvador’s emergency services said a dozen homes in the department of Usulutan had been slightly damaged but that coastal areas appeared calm and the country’s international airport was unaffected. 
Wilfredo Salgado, mayor of the city of San Miguel in El Salvador, tweeted to say that a man was killed when an electricity post fell on him. “It felt really powerful, suddenly the whole house started to move,” said Xiomara Amaya, 30, who lives in Usulutan.

More details from La Pagina here (in Spanish).   Tsunami warnings have been lifted as no tsunami waves materialized.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Taiwan gave millions to Flores who gave it to ARENA

El Salvador's president from 1999-2004 was Francisco Flores.   During his presidency, two killer earthquakes hit El Salvador in early 2001 killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless.   As the country worked to re-build following those quakes, the government of Taiwan delivered $10 million to Flores, with the purported explanation that it was intended for the victims of the earthquakes.  

Flores is now under arrest and being held in jail on corruption charges.   His arrest came after it became clear that the millions did not go to earthquake relief, but until now we did not know where the money had actually gone.  In a story reported on October 2, the journalists at El Faro revealed that most of the $10 million had been doled out in dozens of checks to support the presidential campaign of ARENA candidate Tony Saca:

The money went into such efforts as Saca's "Casa por casa" -- "house by house" -- campaign effort, into ARENA rallies and events and "citizen mobilization."

El Faro obtained access to copies of 156 bank checks used in the Attorney General's investigation.   They show a specific effort to finance the presidential campaign of Tony Saca in 2003 and early 2004, including 41 checks to Élmer Charlaix, Saca's campaign manager who would later take a post in the Saca administration.

So far, only ex-president Flores, and not the recipients of his Taiwanese gifts, is being prosecuted for corruption.  

Friday, October 10, 2014

Norman Quijano quits San Salvador mayor's race

Incumbent San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano has decided to withdraw from running for a third term.   Quijano, from the right wing ARENA party, was the party's presidential candidate earlier this year and lost in the second round of the presidential elections by a scant six thousand votes.  He has been the mayor of San Salvador since 2009.

In the announcement of his decision on Wednesday, Quijano simply stated that everything had its own cycle and it was time to close this cycle of his life.

ARENA party officials announced that Quijano would be one of the party's candidates in the 2015 elections for deputies in the National Assembly.

Former president Mauricio Funes speculated that Quijano must have been forced out of the race by ARENA party "oligarchy", and that the oligarchs wanted someone who would protect their particular interests.   

ARENA indicated it would name a new candidate for mayor of the country's largest city withing 10 days.  Ana Vilma de Escobar,  the country's vice president under Tony Saca, gave an interview to La Pagina where it was clear she would be happy to be asked by ARENA to run.

The new ARENA candidate will face Nayib Bukele, the popular young FMLN mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlan, and Walter Araujo for GANA.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Community policing in Santa Ana

An article from Fronteras describes a community policing initiative in Santa Ana which has been developed with help from the US:

“It is all part of this philosophy of prevention,” said James Rose, the State Department’s regional gang adviser, who works out of the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. “To achieve prevention you have to have a proactive attitude from the police.” 
The State Department helped the Santa Ana police make a number of reforms, including implementing new data collection strategies, creating programs to keep kids out of crime and introducing community policing techniques. 
“Knowing your community, knowing who is there, who is coming, who is going, who is involved in criminal activity,” Rose said. “What changes are going on. What the concerns are of the community. And by doing that [the police] are able to win the trust of the community and they are able to collect that useful data.”   
The model is a contrast to the mano dura — or iron-fist policies — that Salvadoran police used in the past. 
Rose said right after the U.S. launched its program with the Santa Ana precinct in 2011, the agency used the new techniques to prevent future gang homicides. By analyzing the data of past homicides, Santa Ana officers found a pattern. 
“One clique was responsible for over 60 percent of [gang] homicides,” Rose said. “So then they knew how to create a tactic to lower the homicide rates: they went after that clique.” (more)
Community policing is a central part of the public security strategy slowly being developed by the Sanchez Ceren administration.   It reflects part of the only way El Salvador is going to reclaim its neighborhoods from the gangs -- street by street, relationship by relationship.

Monday, October 06, 2014

El Salvador's Constitutional Chamber and the will of the voters

The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court continues to issue rulings impacting the respective rights of voters and political parties in the country.  On October 1 the Constitutional Chamber ruled that deputies elected to the National Assembly under the banner of one party could not defect to form another party.  They can declare themselves independent, but they may not adopt another party affiliation.

The ruling stemmed from a group of dissident ARENA deputies who had formed themselves into a new grouping "United for El Salvador."   The court found that these party defections violated voter's rights to choose deputies belonging to a political party and ideology.   If deputies could be elected under the banner of one party and then shortly afterwards defect to another, the will of the voters could be thwarted.  Deputies must not defect to another party until the next election when they are free to change alliances.

At first blush this ruling might seem to run counter to earlier rulings of the Constitutional Chamber which have seemed to diminish the power of party leadership.   Now party leaders can be more assured of ongoing loyalty of their deputies, something ARENA has had problems with in recent years.   But I think this ruling is really consistent with the basic thread in the recent court rulings -- voters should have the right to choose the candidates they want, whether those candidates are sponsored by parties or are independents.   And now when they choose a candidate from one party, voters are assured that candidate will not suddenly declare allegiance another party for whom the voter did not cast a ballot.