Latin America: Freelance Journalists are Essential but Vulnerable

By Bill Gentile*

Bill on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the northern mountains of Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Gentile on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the 1980s/ Backpack journalism – copyright Bill Gentile

Freelance journalists are at the center of covering many of the most important news stories in Latin America but face increasing threats to their security and well-being. Tough economic realities and competition from the internet have forced most traditional U.S. and European media to close their bureaus across the region since the 1980s. Whereas maintaining a bureau may have cost $250,000 a year (and double that for a TV production team), these companies can now get reporting from freelancers for a small fraction of that cost. Consumers of news in and outside Latin America have become steadily more dependent on unaffiliated journalists for information on key developments.

  • Prize-winning journalist Jason Motlagh, for example, is a freelancer who has done groundbreaking stories on gang activities in El Salvador, even accompanying specialists exhuming the bodies of murder victims whose families yearn to give them proper burial. Independent reporter Frank Smyth has covered violence in Central America, and in Colombia he uncovered that U.S. counter-narcotics aid was being diverted to death squads run by Colombian military intelligence. Ioan Grillo has explored tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border through which drugs and humans are smuggled. Stories such as these are rarely, if ever, reported by the “legacy media” that used to have full-time staffers in the region.

Although news consumers outside Latin America depend on them for ground truth, the freelancers lack the infrastructure and protections of their brethren in staff media positions. They hire local “fixers” to navigate complex places and gain situational awareness, but they depend mostly on their wits – and luck – to survive. Many report feeling exploited.

  • Security is their top concern. Criminal groups target any reporter looking into their activities, and freelancers – who often have the depth, language, and ideals to cover them aggressively – pose a particular threat. When journalists working as staff for traditional media have been kidnapped, their companies have helped get them released – something that freelancers can only dream of. Protection from governments is important too. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that 75 of the 251 journalists arrested for their work in 2018 were freelancers.
  • Some companies’ tendency to pay late, or never, is another problem. Even journalists with strong track records report having been assigned stories, submitting them on time, and then waiting months for payment. Overdue fees of up to $60,000 are not unheard of. Because of declining budgets, even excellent reporters working for serious news outlets have been forced to change careers.

Despite these trying conditions, freelancers still do solid journalism that supports the interests of the countries in which they work and the international community. But fairness dictates that the media who use them and the consumers of their news, including Latin America watchers like us, support ways to better protect them and their jobs. Some organizations, such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, provide assistance to reporters. The London-based organization ACOS Alliance is trying to “embed a culture of safety” throughout the industry. Its “Freelance Journalists Safety Principles” have been endorsed by nearly 100 news organizations, but the code lacks an enforcement mechanism. Some freelancers have proposed forming a trade union, but the mechanisms for binding media to contracts will be difficult to establish. The elements of a solution are not beyond reach, however. The staff foreign correspondent, representing a powerful media organization in North America or Europe, may be a dying breed, but the truth that they seek to report is not.

October 29, 2019

*Bill Gentile, a veteran news reporter, teaches journalism at American University. His video series, FREELANCERS with Bill Gentile, is available on multiple platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Video On Demand and Google Play.

Latin America: Drug Traffickers Vary Routes as Circumstances Warrant

By Carolina Sampó

U.S officers confiscating narcotics in the Eastern Pacific

Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics, Feb. 2, 2015 / Coast Guard Compass / Creative Commons / https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/files/2015/07/1785654.jpg

Drug traffickers, who have proven agile at avoiding detection and interdiction in the past, are increasingly creative in moving their product to market through circuitous routes – even moving cocaine through Africa on its way to the United States. Since cocaine is produced only in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia but consumed in many other countries, the criminal organizations run robust, expansive distribution networks. Routes are not chosen by chance; the traffickers are rational actors who evaluate the risks and advantages depending on circumstances, just as they did by shifting the flow to Central America and Mexico in the early 2000s when counternarcotics operations made the Caribbean less hospitable. My review of the criminal organizations’ shifts indicates they see several basic factors as key to determining a low-risk route:

  • The weakness of the state used as a transit route is key. A state without control of its borders and without effective presence in significant parts of its territory is particularly vulnerable to domination by criminal organizations. Corruption and impunity in government and society in general are also major factors. The availability of logistics networks controlled by local criminal organizations guarantees the secure movement of drugs. To make the business sustainable in the long term, traffickers want groups to have cooperative relations, not competitive tensions, and solid control over operating areas. While some instability has proven helpful to traffickers’ expansion, too much undermines their confidence. Evidence suggests, for example, that the deepening crisis in Venezuela has persuaded some traffickers to choose Brazilian routes. 
  • The countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – are vivid examples of how state weaknesses, corruption, and impunity open the door to Mexican and Colombian criminal organizations’ activities. Traffickers hire smaller criminal organizations – such as maras –to provide them the local support they need. In Venezuela, corruption has long been a factor, but the government’s inability to exercise sovereignty in border areas is increasingly a problem. The Colombian government does not exercise control over large parts of its national territory, and the breakdown of its peace agreement with the FARC suggests the situation will worsen. 

Some trafficking routes seem counterintuitive. Some of the cocaine reaching North America, for example, does not reach that market through Central America. My research indicates that it leaves South America through Brazil or Venezuela and goes to Western Africa, from which it is redirected to a final destination, sometimes entering the United States through Canada. 

  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last year that only 39 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States in 2016 came through Mexico, compared to 70 percent in 2013. Even though it may seem absurd, especially considering the distances involved in shipping through Africa, criminal organizations reduce risks if they do not take the Central American route. They are apparently using this new route also to create a wider market – some of the drug may go to Russia, for example, or to Asia and even Oceania – as well as to satisfy demand on the African continent. 

Governments seeking to stop the drug trade have not shown as much agility as have the traffickers, who have proven over the years that they can adapt to eradication, surveillance, and interdiction – which remain central elements of governments’ strategies. Colombia’s production surge, despite multi-billion-dollar programs over the past 20 years, shows that much work remains on strengthening the state and reducing corruption and impunity there as well as in transit nations. Addressing drug use as a public health challenge holds promise but requires political commitment that most big consumer countries have so far lacked. Efforts to follow the money trail and freeze suspects’ accounts help but haven’t dealt a mortal blow. No single tactic will work, and no strategy will work as long as governments’ partners show the vulnerabilities that traffickers are so adept at exploiting.

September 27, 2019

*  Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

New Leadership in El Salvador: Breaking from the Past?

By Eric Hershberg*

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele / Joint Base San Antonio / Public Domain

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s stunning defeat of both of his country’s two dominant parties in February was propelled by promises of change and new approaches to challenges that vexed his predecessors. His initial six weeks in office have featured notable gestures toward fresh directions but also grounds for concern. The country’s problems are many and severe. Decades of paltry private investment has produced anemic economic growth, worsened in recent years by a devastating internal security situation. The limited economic growth that has occurred relies disproportionately on remittances from migrants – the value of which exceeds that of exports – but the circumstances of Salvadorans in the United States are growing more precarious, potentially eroding future transfers. In addition, plausible shifts in trade policy by an erratic U.S. administration could undermine the U.S.-CAFTA-DR trade agreement, threatening critical manufacturing jobs. Corruption, meanwhile, is perceived by the population as no less urgent a challenge as joblessness and impunity for the gangs whose extortion and violence torment much of the population.

Bukele’s winning campaign formula was to promise to turn things around with a new vision and new people. One important signal of change was the President’s order to immediately remove the big block letters “Monterrosa” from the barracks of the armed forces 3rd brigade, in San Miguel, and his hosting a dinner at the Presidential residence for family of the victims of the El Mozote massacre that Lt. Col. Monterrosa had overseen. A handful of initial cabinet appointments signaled an inclination toward meritocracy and gender balance. Yet Bukele has more recently appointed to key positions dodgy veterans of the administration of former President Tony Saca (2004-09), who split (and was later expelled from) his ARENA Party to form a new party, GANA. While Saca is serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption, Bukele, who was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 and thus lacked a vehicle of his own with which to seek the presidency, opted to run on the vacant GANA ticket. The appearance of figures from Saca’s inner circle is thus not entirely a surprise, but it stands out given the degree that Bukele’s largely platform-less campaign highlighted the battle against corruption.

  • One of his pledges was to create a hybrid (national-international) anti-corruption commission – adapted from the experiences of CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras – to hold accountable political elites suspected of extraordinary levels of malfeasance. Yet both domestic and external constraints make such an effort less likely than Bukele might have imagined while on the campaign trail, and the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en El Salvador (CICIES) seems to have been relegated to a back burner.
  • Equally striking is the new President’s doubling down on militarized responses to gang violence, departing from both his campaign rhetoric and his mode of governance as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-15) and San Salvador (2015-18). Whereas he had entered into pragmatic if unspoken accommodations with the gangs in order to secure governability at the municipal level, he’s now declaring all-out war against the maras, sending the military into gang-ridden communities and clamping down on communication from the prisons from which gang leaders continue to direct operations. During the first week of July – a month after assuming office – he asserted that repression was but the first phase of a comprehensive anti-gang strategy, promising a second phase, focused on social opportunity, that would address the structural factors that draw youth toward lives of criminal violence. But details remain thin, and whether funds will be appropriated by a legislature in which GANA has only a small minority of seats remains to be seen.

Bukele represents El Salvador’s first Instagram and Twitter president – with a penchant for announcing sweeping personnel changes without having informed affected staff in advance. His recourse to social media for proclaiming “you’re fired” aligns him with other western hemisphere presidents eschewing traditional channels of communication with public employees and the citizenry, but in El Salvador as elsewhere this justifies concern over how governance through a cacophony of tweets may affect the quality of democracy.

Meanwhile, the new president has wisely emphasized that cordial relations with the United States are an imperative for his government. More than a third of his compatriots reside there, and he has already taken steps to gain Washington’s blessing for his administration. At U.S. urging, he invited the representative of Venezuelan assembly president Juan Guaidó to his inaugural, and when a Salvadoran father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande, Bukele exonerated President Trump’s border policies, saying “La culpa es nuestra.” Nonethelesss, he has been critical not only of Venezuelan dictators who Washington abhors but also Honduran ones who the Americans enable. Meanwhile, observers in San Salvador opine that, contrary to Washington’s wishes, he will not reverse his FMLN predecessor’s decision to deepen relations with China – he needs Chinese investment and recent history offers little reason for expecting analogous resources to arrive from the U.S. Finding the money needed to provide jobs, security and social welfare to the vast majority of Salvadorans who have lacked them may prove as vexing for the outsider president as it was for leaders of the dominant parties of the post-war period.

July 16, 2019

* Eric Hershberg is Professor of Government and Director of CLALS at American University. He took part in a delegation of AU experts for a weeklong visit to El Salvador in June, during which they met with political leaders across the political spectrum, as well as leading journalists, scholars, NGO leaders, policymakers and diplomats.

Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

Central America: Hybrid Anti-Corruption Commissions Can Work

By Chuck Call*

Map of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, with Guatemala and Honduras territory being covered by photos of well-known politicians being arrested.

Prospects for an International Commission against Impunity and Corruption in El Salvador: Lessons from Neighboring Countries in Central America logo / CLALS / https://www.american.edu/centers/latin-american-latino-studies/Prospects-for-an-International-Commission-against-Impunity-and-Corruption-in-El-Salvador-Lessons-from-Neighboring-Countries-in-Central-America.cfm

If newly inaugurated Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele pursues his campaign calls for the creation of a hybrid international commission to fight corruption and strengthen judicial institutions, he will face tough challenges from entrenched interests. However, the experiences of Guatemala’s CICIG and Honduras’s MACCIH show that a strong investigative mandate, close partnership with vetted national prosecutors, strong international backing, and transparent accountability will increase the chances of success of any such mission. (Full text of the study is here and aquí.) CICIG and MACCIH were born of political crises, but they were given different authorities, faced different expectations, and delivered different results.

  • Both missions have had historic investigative and prosecutorial achievements – bringing former and current senior officials to account as never before and putting powerful elites on notice that impunity will not be tolerated. CICIG has dismantled corrupt networks, exposing their reach into the Congress and the Cabinet, indicting hundreds. MACCIH has helped indict dozens of legislators and a former First Lady. Working with special units of prosecutors, they have also contributed to local institutional capacity to root out corruption.

Both CICIG and MACCIH have struggled against the pressure tactics of the many corrupt officials, legislators, and economic interests who most feel threatened by them. In contrast to Guatemala, where CICIG was key to the adoption of several laws that served as a foundation for effective investigation of organized crime, the Honduran Congress has refused to pass such laws. Legislatures in both countries have changed laws specifically to vitiate prosecutions (including of themselves) advanced by the missions. Corruption among judges, especially in Honduras, has made winning convictions extremely difficult. After CICIG shifted its sights beyond politicians to powerful businessmen a few years ago, Guatemalan elites launched a campaign to smear CICIG as an incursion on sovereignty and a socialist plot. Both missions have confronted constitutional challenges.

Key lessons from CICIG and MACCIH’s experience include:

  • Realistic expectations are important. The legal and diplomatic negotiations and logistics necessary to set up “hybrid” units combining domestic and international investigators slowed both entities’ starts. It took over two years for CICIG to secure its first convictions, and MACCIH’s investigations have led to only 12 cases, although these are major corrupt networks. The focus of many Hondurans on ousting President Juan Orlando Hernández has obscured some of the important cases advanced by the mission and its Honduran partners.
  • Anti-impunity missions can threaten systems of political and economic power in ways that go beyond judicial processes. Despite the technical and juridical character of both the missions, they have exposed in detail how criminal enterprises interact with political parties, elected, and appointed officials, and current and former security officials. The missions have also detailed how legislators receive illicit campaign funds and how they fraudulently spend public monies, forcing changes to these decades-old corrupt practices. In Guatemala, the prosecutions have dismantled corrupt networks involving cabinet ministers, generals, top business leaders and the former president and vice president, altering the political profile of parties and undermining the ability of prominent and corrupt elite structures of power to operate.
  • Strong partnerships with national prosecutorial units and with civil society are crucial for success and sustainability. CICIG and MACCIH could not have achieved what they did without close cooperation with carefully selected and vetted prosecutorial units. Those units, especially the UFECIC in Honduras, carried out much of the investigation and led the prosecution in both countries. The legacy of the hybrid missions rests in the future of these empowered professionals and society’s raised expectations of clean behavior from their public officials. Both missions have generated a greater sense that high-level politicians, officials and elites can be imprisoned for corruption and organized crime. Yet these missions have not heeded or informed civil society as much as they might have. Moreover, these experiences and the likely end to both missions in the coming months show that civil society is vital to educating society on the importance and possibility of accountable governance, and for demanding it from politicians and the justice system.
  • International sponsorship brings both advantages and challenges. The association with the UN (for CICIG) and the OAS (for MACCIH) has brought valuable political legitimacy, professional capacity, and needed resources. But it has also brought complications. In the case of MACCIH, slow and politicized appointments, questionable allocation of resources, and excessive day-to-day oversight from Washington, not to mention personal spats and undue interference by specific member states, have undermined performance and credibility. CICIG’s status as a non-UN body gave its commissioner the independence needed to take on tough cases and ignore political considerations. However, that lack of accountability is seen as having contributed to the alienation of many sectors in ways that left it politically vulnerable. Wavering U.S. support for CICIG since 2017 has emboldened the missions’ critics.

The experiences of CICIG and MACCIH show that, despite ups and downs, hybrid international-national missions can help a society fight corruption. In Guatemala and Honduras, these commissions achieved more than most observers originally predicted by dint of the vision and discipline of their leaders and sponsors as well as the work of courageous national officials and civil society groups often risking their livelihoods and lives. Their performance also shows that getting the mission right and sustainable takes time, communication, and strong partnership with national prosecutors. The main challenge now is that corrupt officials and businesses have become proficient at blocking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

  • Creating an International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) may be harder now than before CICIG and MACCIH scored their victories. However, President Bukele may have a historic opportunity to press the country’s two main (but weakened) parties, ARENA and the FMLN, to approve a strong mandate that fits the country’s particular needs. Experts advising then-President Mauricio Funes (himself ironically now on the lam for alleged corruption) concluded in 2010 that the country’s Constitution provides the basis for an international mission with a sufficiently strong investigative powers to have impact. The Guatemalan and Honduran missions show that a strong mandate and significant national and international backing could improve help El Salvador’s justice system reduce corruption and impunity. Such efforts may also have comparable impact in exposing in dirty detail, and perhaps reforming, unaccountable and exclusionary systems of political representation.

* Chuck Call teaches International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, where he directs a Center for Latin American & Latino Studies project analyzing MACCIH and anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.

Central America: Evolution of Economic Elites

By Alexander Segovia*

 

El Salvador landscape

El Salvador landscape / Google Images / Creative Commons

The elites of Central America – traditionally organized in national business groups with strong family ties – have lost power and allowed certain reforms to advance over the past 30 years, but the full impact of this historic shift has been blunted by the lack of broad, inclusive national debates and the growing role of regional economic powers. Until the 1980’s, the powerful interests of the traditional agricultural export economy dominated for more than a century, with enormous influence by virtue of their control over property and every facet of the production, processing, and domestic and foreign marketing of their products.

  • For these traditional elites, the state was to be used for their own benefit. Their decisive influence continued even as economies changed and exports diversified somewhat after World War II. It survived the growth of cities, the emergence of new players in industry, the growth of organized labor, and the expansion of government bureaucracies. Elites obstructed changes that threatened their interests and parried others into minor tweaks of the essentially agro-export model that they dominated. They preserved many inequities in social and economic systems, slowed diversification, and protected governments that were weak, corrupt, disorganized, and often authoritarian, repressive, and undemocratic.

Since the late 1980’s, according to my research, the agro-export model that enabled elites to have such power has changed significantly – facilitating the emergence of new economic models (albeit with different manifestations in each country) and eroding the old elites’ grip on society. The change was driven by the armed conflicts, political and social crises, emigration, and the flow of remittances. Neoliberal economic reforms, including liberalization, deregulation, privatization, and opening to foreign investment, had an impact within the context of the broader capitalist globalization gaining momentum during the period.

  • Although not always with alacrity, elites had to accept the advent of new spaces and patterns in which other actors were able to accumulate wealth and power. Tourism, telecommunications, banking, and other service sectors gave rise to new voices, as did the development in some countries of non-traditional exports. New entrepreneurs brought in new foreign actors, including many from neighboring countries and the rest of Latin America. Powerful transnational economic groups (known by the Spanish acronym GETs), with strong family ties, began to operate across borders – creating both new opportunities and new challenges. The GETs have already flexed their enormous influence over public policies. As a result, the traditional elites gradually have found themselves forced to function within a matrix of national and regional power, with new dynamics, over which their grip had been broken or at least significantly weakened.

National elites such as El Salvador’s have broken with the old stereotype of selfish economic interests united around an extreme right wing ideology – being more heterogeneous today in composition and perspectives than ever before – but deeper, lasting change is going to take time and effort. An inclusive national dialogue in each country to build agreement on the broad outlines of a political project to address how to effect national transformation and modernization would be the best way of reassuring all sides that their voices count, but unfortunately no country is holding one. Generational change – characterized in part by younger family members’ constant connectivity with peers outside strictly national circles – could also be a factor.

  • The increased activism of the GETs may explain why breaking the grip of the nation-based traditional elites has not led to deeper and broader change – essentially swapping one elite’s manipulation of government for another’s. The GETs have important, and sometimes decisive, influence over public policies not just in their home countries, but beyond. The future of reform therefore would appear to depend on the willingness of regional elites to pursue them. Several initiatives, including one undertaken by the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y Cambio Social (INCIDE), of which I am President, aim to promote a constructive dialogue between society and the GETs. Progress hasn’t been easy or quick, but we have proven that change is indeed possible.

March 21, 2019

*Alexander Segovia is a Salvadorean economist and President of the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social.  He was Technical Secretary of the Presidency of El Salvador (2009-2014). This article is adapted from his recent book, Economía y Poder: Recomposición de las Élites Económicas Salvadoreñas.

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019

U.S. Immigration: Lacking Lawyers, Newcomers Join the Undocumented

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Immigration court backlog

Pending cases from the Northern Triangle in U.S. immigration courts. These cases now account for over 53% of the total backlog. / Note: FY 2018 data is through July 31. / Data source: TRAC, “Immigration Court Backlog Tool,” http://trac.syr.edu/phptools/immigration/court_backlog/.

As Central Americans swell the backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts, the tens of thousands of them who do not have lawyers are joining the ranks of the country’s undocumented population.

  • The immigration court system lacks the resources to keep pace with the influx of unaccompanied children and families from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The backlog of cases has more than doubled since 2013 – from 350,000 to over 764,000 as of August – with cases involving people from these three countries now accounting for more than half of them.  The wait for a hearing is now several years, and pro bono or low-cost attorneys are overburdened.
  • Many thousands of other newcomers – lacking information and the ability to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers and fear – are not looking for legal assistance, and they remain unaware that representation is critical to their chances of legally staying in the United States. Migrants without an attorney are far less likely to appear in court, and many – nearly 40 percent (or 103,000) of all Central Americans whose cases were filed in 2013-17 and have been decided– are ordered deported “in absentia” just for failing to appear at a scheduled hearing.  Immigrants with an outstanding removal order who are apprehended are subject to expedited deportation without judicial review, meaning that – again, without a lawyer – they will be returned to their home countries without ever having the legal merit of their claims evaluated.

Nonprofit community-based organizations across the country are mobilizing resources – often in collaboration with local governments and pro bono partners – to address these people’s legal needs, but a report* by CLALS reveals that access to counsel varies widely.

  • Access remains inadequate even in large receiving destinations like the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, where robust legal service infrastructures have developed in response to decades of immigration. In less traditional destinations, like North and South Carolina, only around a quarter of juveniles are represented in immigration proceedings.  In addition to geographical disparities, newcomers face differing odds of securing an attorney depending on their nationality.  Less than half of Central American minors nationwide have an attorney.  Based on a review of decided cases initiated in 2013-17, Salvadoran juveniles were more than twice as likely to be represented than their Guatemalan and Honduran counterparts, probably a reflection of the extent their communities are organized.

President Trump is justified in claiming that the immigration courts are inefficient – cases take an average of almost two years – but his proposal (tweeted on June 24) is to restore “Law and Order” and to “immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring [migrants] back from where they came.”  His deeper dissatisfaction appears to be with a legal process that requires the impartial application of U.S. law – which for the majority of Central Americans fortunate enough to have an attorney results in a grant of legal status.  While this outcome may be unacceptable to the president, many localities across the United States have recognized the social and economic costs of destabilizing families and communities, and of depriving immigrant community members of due process.  Trump may hope that denying due process will dissuade individuals from entering or remaining in the United States, but the crisis in the U.S. immigration adjudication system is likely to remain serious, and tens or even hundreds of thousands more newcomers are likely to join the millions of immigrants already living in the shadows.

October 16, 2018

*The full report, “Newcomer Central American Immigrants’ Access to Legal Services,” is available for download here.  No registration is necessary.  The report is the first in a series generated as part of the project by CLALS in collaboration with the University of Houston, “The Impact of Central American Child and Family Migration on U.S. Communities,” led by Eric Hershberg and Jodi Berger Cardoso.

MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.

El Salvador: End of TPS Will Challenge Government and Society

By Jayesh Rathod and Dennis Stinchcomb

People wade through knee-deep water

Flooding in Jiquilisco, El Salvador / Global Water Partnership / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s end of Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans in the United States next year potentially will drop some 200,000 people into an environment in which basic needs, including personal security, cannot be met.  TPS for Salvadorans was first granted in 2001 after earthquakes caused “environmental disaster and substantial disruption of living conditions,” but subsequent 18-month extensions have been based on a broad range of factors.  On 11 occasions over the past 16 years, Washington has cited the lack of infrastructure, food, housing, and health care and slow economic growth as reasons for continuing TPS for Salvadorans.  Violence, corruption, and impunity as well as limited state capacity to combat them were also key reasons.  Statements by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announcing the policy change this week make limited mention of these factors, but numerous experts, including those contributing to a recent joint report by CLALS, The Washington College of Law, and the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI), concluded that El Salvador remains unable to adequately handle the return of its nationals.

  • Despite a decline in its national homicide rate, El Salvador remains the most violent country in the hemisphere. While the government espouses a narrative of progress, other indicators make clear that improvement on the security front has been limited, if not altogether absent.  Extraordinary security measures have coincided with increased allegations of extrajudicial killings perpetrated by both security officers and civilian self-defense groups.  Citizens’ pursuit of safety has made El Salvador the second-ranking country in the world of new displacements relative to population size.  Widespread corruption and weak rule of law contribute to impunity and abuse.
  • El Salvador remains extremely vulnerable to natural disasters – experiencing three major earthquakes since July 2016 and deadly torrential rains throughout 2017. El Salvador consistently remains Central America’s slowest growing economy, and under-employment affects more than one quarter of the labor force.  (That percentage will increase to roughly a third if TPS beneficiaries return to their homeland.)  The country has the highest deficit in adequate drinking water in the region.  Six out of 10 families who live there lack adequate housing.

The Salvadoran government is trying to put the best possible face on decision to terminate TPS, which it had previously lobbied against forcefully.  On January 8, the Foreign Ministry expressed “thanks to the government of the United States” for “postponing” the end of TPS for 18 months because it acknowledged the contribution of Salvadorans to the U.S. economy, culture, and society.  The government also thanked various non-governmental actors for supporting the “renewal” of TPS.  In closing, however, the government reiterated its commitment to push “alternatives” in the U.S. Congress that would promote Salvadorans’ “migratory stability” in the United States.

  • Think tanks and humanitarian organizations in Washington have condemned the Trump measure. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said ending TPS is a “senseless and inhumane policy.”  The Inter-American Dialogue notes that the Salvadoran MS-13 gang – one of President Trump’s most-stated enemies – will be a “primary beneficiary.”  Some fear that returnees, because of their perceived wealth, will be targets for extortion and other criminal activity at the hands of gangs.  A number of observers say that the resulting increase in instability in El Salvador will trigger more illegal migration into the United States.

Ending TPS for Salvadorans casts a shadow of uncertainty over the lives of 200,000 law-abiding, tax-paying migrants – half of whom have lived in the United States for more than 20 years and a third of whom have homes with mortgages, according to estimates.  That same uncertainty extends to TPS beneficiaries’ families, which include 192,000 U.S. citizen children. The Salvadoran government’s statement dodges the key issues of whether it can accommodate the influx of returnees and the loss of a significant portion of the roughly $4.5 billion (equivalent to 17 percent of El Salvador’s GDP) they send home each year.  There is no evidence that it can provide even basic protection for the returnees.  The Foreign Ministry’s unctuous thanks for Washington’s “extension” of TPS until the Salvadorans lose their status in 18 months suggests a mysterious confidence that the U.S. Congress will carve out exceptions for its compatriots in the United States.  However desirable that scenario might be, there’s precious little evidence that the U.S. legislature’s current leaders, who have shown support for most of Trump’s anti-migrant agenda, will help avoid the train wreck that Trump has now set in motion.

Click here for an in-depth review published by CLALS, The Washington College of Law, and ICEFI on the rationale behind TPS since 2001 and continuing need for protection.

January 10, 2018