Zika Challenges Mount

By Rachel Nadelman* and Fulton Armstrong

Scientists and Zika

Photo Credit: Pan American Health Organization / Creative Commons / Flickr

While scientists struggle to confirm their theories over the link between the Zika virus and the dread health conditions it apparently causes, national and regional leaders face the monumental task of addressing popular anxiety that’s spreading faster than the virus itself.  The Health Minister in Brazil – site of the largest outbreak of microcephaly – has said he is “absolutely sure” that the virus is causing women to give birth to babies with the condition, characterized by abnormally small heads and serious developmental deficits.  The head of the World Health Organization’s emergency response team said last week (2/19) that the “virus is considered guilty until proven innocent,” but that it will take four to six months to even potentially be sure.  In the meantime, other questions are emerging:

  • Argentine scientists calling themselves “Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages” suspect that the outbreak has been caused by pesticides. They note that thousands of Zika-infected pregnant women in Colombia – where the larvicide pyriproxyfen has not been added to drinking water as in Brazil – have delivered normal babies.  El Salvador, also hard hit by Zika, has not reported Zika-related microcephaly cases.  Other scientific authorities, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, question the evidence for this theory, and the later arrival of the disease in these countries means the consequences for infected expectant mothers cannot be fully determined.  Research is ongoing.
  • In lowland Colombia, along the Caribbean Coast, the virus is being blamed for an outbreak of Guillain-Barre syndrome, when victims’ immune systems damage nerve cells and cause pain, weakness, sometimes paralysis, and even death. Scientists are investigating.
  • Mental health experts say the Zika virus closely resembles some infectious agents that have been linked to autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. They can’t confirm their suspicions.
  • Entomologists and climatologists are warning that global warming will accelerate the spread of Zika and other diseases transmitted by the mosquito Aedes aegypti, which thrives in warmer, more humid environments. They caution that the number of people currently exposed to the mosquito, roughly 4 billion, will grow steadily.  Evidence is inconclusive.
  • Other theories include that the birth defects are caused by genetically modified mosquitoes released by a British company in Brazil to combat dengue; and by vaccinations given to pregnant women to prevent rubella and pertussis. But doctors and scientists have so far rejected each one.

Regional organizations and governments are taking whatever actions they can while awaiting more conclusive science.  Briefing the OAS, the Assistant Director of the Pan American Health Organization called on countries to “to mobilize to eliminate mosquito breeding sites in every corner where they may be” and pledged PAHO’s support to do so.  Brazil has formed special teams to travel around the country to rigorously quantify cases of Zika and possible links with microcephaly.  U.S. President Obama has asked Congress for US$1.9 billion and approval to reprogram funds left over from Ebola eradication efforts to deal with Zika in Latin America and the United States.  Cuban President Raúl Castro has mobilized 9,000 troops and police to spray neighborhoods and eliminate standing water in which the mosquitoes breed.

The “epidemic,” as some leaders are calling it, will be difficult to respond to even after scientists certify the mosquito-virus link.  Solving the mystery of the higher concentration of microcephaly cases in Brazil, or linked to Brazil, will also be essential to developing an effective public health response.  Eradicating all mosquitos would be a monumental undertaking – further complicated by the fact that the history of pesticides shows equal or even greater risks to citizen health when used widely.  The Aedes mosquito sucks the blood of both rich and poor, but population density and weak infrastructure — allowing for stagnant water – makes lower-income communities much more vulnerable.  Focusing on the mosquito may not be enough, moreover, because there are early indications that Zika can be sexually transmitted.  Traces of Zika have been found in breast milk, but the implications remain unclear.  Such questions fuel popular panic, increasing the risk that governments will make rash decisions that could have  profound costs.

February 26, 2016

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.

U.S.-Cuba: Migration Policy Growing Tortuous, Dangerous

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban migrants

Photo Credit: Coast Guard News / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in Cuban migration – prolonged at this point by U.S. policy paralysis – may show a dip soon but is growing tortuous and dangerous.  Since January 12, chartered aircraft and buses have been carrying about 360 Cubans a week from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and then through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, where they are admitted with special status.  The US$550 cost of the trip is being paid by the migrants or unidentified “donors.”  The air bridge has begun relieving pressure on Costa Rica, which has been caring for 8,000 Cubans since Nicaragua in October halted the underground railway transporting them up the Central American isthmus.  (Three thousand more are reportedly stuck in Panama.)  Despite the progress, an estimated 1,500 migrants have left holding facilities and turned to alien-smugglers to take them to Mexico (for $800) or to the United States ($1,500), according to press reports.

  • Cubans’ fear of a change in U.S. migration policy since reestablishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations is most often cited as causing the surge, estimated at some 40,000 in 2015. It does not explain the estimated 20,000 who crossed into Texas in 2014 and before, when alien-smuggling networks were less developed.
  • Ecuador’s agreement to establish visa requirements for Cubans promises to slow the immediate flow, but the crisis has revealed corruption among migration authorities throughout the region, which will make stopping it difficult.
  • Central American resentment of the welcome Washington gives illegal migrants from Cuba is growing – aggravated in part by the arrival of airplanes from the United States full of deported citizens in the same timeframe. Senior officials from Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala have blamed the surge in trafficked Cubans on the preferences the United States gives them.

The U.S. Coast Guard reports an increase in the volume and violence of seaborne migration.  Migrants interdicted in Fiscal Year 2015 (ending September 30) grew to almost 3,000 – 900 more than the previous year – and, according to press reports, surged to 1,500 in the last quarter of 2015.  The Coast Guard says the migrants have concluded that Cuba’s economy will not improve even after U.S.-Cuba normalization, and they want to go before U.S. migration policy changes.  The service has reported a spike in violent confrontations with Coast Guard officers, violence against fellow migrants, and even suicide threats..

The U.S. government’s mantra that it will not change policy toward either overland or seaborne migrants is not working – and could even be backfiring by reminding Cubans of the special treatment they receive upon arrival.  The airlift and bussing of thousands of migrants from Costa Rica to the United States helps Costa Rica deal with its crisis, but also signals yet again to Cubans remaining on the island how far the United States will go to bring them in.  Violence among seaborne migrants has traditionally been rare, but the increased aggressiveness suggests that migrants have the impression that they can act with impunity and still be welcomed into the country.  Overland migrants’ preference to use coyotes, known for violence, is another red flag.  The United States has expended political capital by washing its hands of the Cuban migrant mess in Central America, and grumbling among the region’s leaders suggests that options like airlifts will disappear soon.  U.S. law, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, fully empowers the President to turn off the green light to undocumented Cuban migration – and reality could very well nudge him in that direction soon.

February 4, 2016

The Zika Virus and a New Debate on Reproductive Rights

By Rachel Nadelman*

Zika Women

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson and PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

The call by half a dozen Latin American and Caribbean governments for women to put off pregnancies – as the World Health Organization warns the feared Zika virus is “spreading explosively” – is stimulating a new debate on reproductive rights in the region.  El Salvador’s Health Ministry has urged women to “avoid becoming pregnant this year and next,” and Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia, and others are issuing similar advisories.  A mosquito-borne disease spreading rapidly in the Western Hemisphere for the first time, Zika is blamed for causing devastating neurological birth defects in newborns whose mothers contract the virus during pregnancy.  The U.S. Center on Disease Control has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to the more than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries now hosting the disease.

Named for the Uganda forest where it was discovered in the late 1940s, Zika is carried and transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, best known as the vector for life-threatening viruses like yellow fever and dengue.  Within the Western Hemisphere, the Aedes population has increased drastically in recent years, linked by scientists to changes in climate.  Yet Zika’s arrival in Latin America last year, first documented in Brazil, and subsequent expansion did not attract major attention until the pattern of birth defects emerged.  Zika’s symptoms are sometimes imperceptible or typically mild, including fever, joint aches, and conjunctivitis, so health officials did not consider it a major threat to the general population.  Although definitive clinical proof is still lacking, Zika is now linked to microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that causes children to be born with small heads because of abnormal brain development in the womb or immediately after birth.  The emergence of Zika in Latin America has coincided with a more than 20-fold increase in the incidence of microcephaly.  (Brazil has reported 4,000 cases in the past year, a drastic increase from just 150 in 2014).  The babies suffer from poor brain function and reduced life expectancy.  Doctors are finding traces of the virus in the brains of microcephaly-inflicted babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth.

Warnings and advisories offer no help to the millions of women who live in afflicted countries.  Governments are launching fumigation programs to reduce the Aedes mosquito population and thereby limit disease transmission.  Asking populations to refrain from having children appears a bit facile, if not cynical, in a region with low levels of access to birth control for reasons that range from religious dictates to economic obstacles.  Severely restrictive abortion laws also complicate potential parents’ options.  Five Latin American countries (including Honduras and El Salvador, hard hit by Zika) ban abortion without exception, even to save the mother’s life.  Others criminalize abortion with few allowances.  According to the Guttmacher institute, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America are unsafe, contributing to high maternal mortality rates. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Zika’s link to these devastating birth defects has generated unprecedented public discussion throughout Latin America about women’s and families’ rights and responsibilities for taking control of reproduction.  It is far too early to know if the health advisories will have practical impact on the incidence of microcephaly – or on attitudes toward reproductive rights over the longer term.   

February 1, 2016

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.

El Salvador: Just Saying No to Gold Mining

By Rachel Nadelman*

El Salvador mining

Photo Credit: laura / Flickr / Creative Commons

El Salvador’s refusal to allow gold mining within its borders sets it apart from most other Latin American countries, but the mining suspension is far from permanent.  Since 2007, three successive presidents, from both the right-wing ARENA and left-wing FMLN parties, have maintained an administrative metals mining “industry freeze.”  This executive action has created a de-facto moratorium that prevents all mining firms – international and Salvadoran, public and private – from accessing El Salvador’s estimated 1.4 million ounces of gold deposits.  Some in the Salvadoran media trumpet this policy.  When former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a philanthropic visit to El Salvador earlier this month, a number of news stories fixated on one of his travel companions: Canadian mining magnate Frank Guistra.  Some media slammed Guistra as “persona non grata in El Salvador.”  They showcased his billion-dollar global mining investments, labeling him (incorrectly) a major shareholder in Oceana Gold, the Australian company suing El Salvador for $284 million for having denied the firm a license to mine.

The mining freeze represents a drastic break from El Salvador’s past economic strategy.  In the 1990s, after the civil war, El Salvador, encouraged by international donors and creditors, embraced mining as an opportunity for economic growth.  Environmental activists challenged the policy, emphasizing the country’s ecological vulnerability and worsening threats of water scarcity and deforestation.  Consecutive ARENA governments ignored these arguments and implemented legal and regulatory reforms to attract foreign mining firms.  But a community-based social movement changed that.

  • Led by a decade-old Salvadoran coalition “roundtable” (with some international support) against mining, this movement strategically promoted a campaign that is pro-water rather than anti-industry, based on rigorously collected and analyzed scientific evidence.
  • The Salvadoran Catholic Church, citing doctrine as prioritizing water and land over economic gain, has provided the movement a level of non-partisan, moral legitimacy.
  • Individual government officials from across elected, appointed, and civil servant ranks have ensured that El Salvador’s weak but existent administrative mechanisms resist pressure from powerful multinational business to reverse policy.
  • A number of Salvadoran companies relying on water and land resources, such as agrobusiness, ranchers, and producers of juices and soft drinks, have largely stayed out of the debate, eliminating a potentially huge obstacle to the movement’s agenda.

The media’s zeal – strong enough for them to mistakenly connect Frank Guistra to Oceana Gold and the ongoing lawsuit – reflects strong popular support for the administrative freeze on mining.  My field research and earlier studies indicate that most Salvadorans do not see the environmental threat from mining as imagined.  Nonetheless, the suspension is precarious – based only on executive action and not legislation that would permanently prohibit mining.  Many in the anti-mining movement believe that a suspension is inadequate over the long term because a change in government could lead to its reversal.  New mining technology, which purportedly would ward against environmental damage, could give political leaders a pretext for lifting the moratorium.  Yet others who support the freeze under current environmental conditions want to have the option of opening the country to mining available in the future.  For those who advocate that total prohibition is the only solution, the fight to stop mining permanently for El Salvador will be a long one.

November 23, 2015

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service, whose dissertation research focuses on the unique aspects of El Salvador’s mining policies.

Correction: November 23, 2015

The original photo accompanying this blog was incorrectly labeled as being from a Salvadoran mining town.  The photo was actually taken in a town named El Salvador, Chile, and is unrelated to the content of this post.

Tax Reform or Governance Revolution?

By Andrew Wainer*

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Taxation to fund development is becoming central to U.S. foreign assistance policy, but it would be a mistake for USAID and other foreign assistance agencies to view tax reform solely through the technical lens of financing for development.  In September, USAID Assistant Administrator Alex Thier penned an article subtitled, “Why Taxes Are Better than Aid.”  This follows the announcement in July of the Addis Tax Initiative at the UN Financing for Development Conference, where the United States and other donors pledged to double the amount of technical assistance for taxation in developing nations.  By most accounts, the potential fiscal benefit of increasing taxation –“domestic resource mobilization” (DRM) in development parlance – is huge.  The World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimate that in 2012 DRM in emerging and developing nations generated a combined $7.7 trillion.  This dwarfs average annual foreign assistance outlays, which in recent years have averaged about $135 billion.  One of many examples cited by USAID is El Salvador, where a $660 million increase in annual tax revenues has been channeled to health, education, and social services, as well as other development programs.

The issues of fair and transparent taxation are often a secondary component in discussions of DRM but – as events in Guatemala and elsewhere demonstrate – can also generate revolutionary transformations in governance.   Even as U.S. agencies emphasize the technical side of DRM assistance, organizations that monitor taxation are sparking historic citizen revolutions through revelations of governmental tax corruption.

  • The UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created in 2006 to strengthen the rule of law through “investigation of crimes committed by members of illegal security forces and clandestine security structures.” But it was CICIG’s revelations of a customs tax corruption network that brought 100,000 Guatemalans into the street in a single day.  The protests led to the forced resignation and jailing of President Pérez Molina as well as a surge in citizen engagement unseen in the country’s modern history.

The intimate link between taxation and governance should be a central factor in how the U.S. government and others think about DRM.  As the OECD states, “The payment of tax and the structure of the tax system can deeply influence the relationship between government and its citizens.”  DRM should place a high premium on the governance impact of tax reform, where appropriate.  Tax reform not only increases government revenues, but as the case of Guatemala demonstrates, it can also strike at the heart of ossified structures of governance and can spark revolutionary changes in the relationship between citizens and states.   

November 12, 2015

* Andrew Wainer is the Director of Policy Research in the Public Policy and Advocacy Department of Save the Children USA.

Guatemala’s Crisis is Not Over

By Eric Hershberg*

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

With President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation early this morning, Guatemala lurches into a new phase in its long-running political crisis, with little prospect that this weekend’s elections will resolve much.  The investigations into the Pérez Molina administration’s corruption, the national assembly’s unanimous vote to suspend his immunity, and the peaceful surge in popular protests demanding that he step down all suggest progress in the country’s efforts to build a functioning democracy.  The UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) fulfilled its mandate, and its example and training were arguably important factors in the ability of judicial officials in Pérez Molina’s own government to support the processes that led to his downfall.  (Click here for an AULABLOG assessment of CICIG in May.)  The Congressional vote to strip him of immunity was unanimous, including even his most loyal supporters, who until then had rejected popular clamoring for the president’s ouster.  By the end of last week societal disgust with the political elite had reached the point that even the most recalcitrant of incumbents realized that their own survival required ditching the president.  The comptroller’s office called on him to resign “to avoid greater social unrest that could have unpredictable consequences” – a sentiment echoed by powerful business groups and the Catholic Bishops Council.

The Guatemalan Constitution and laws lay out the next steps.  The Congress has accepted the resignation, clearing the way for Vice President Alejandro Maldonado – who replaced Vice President Roxana Baldetti after she was jailed in connection with the same corruption scandal – to take office.  The first round of Presidential elections, with 15 candidates in the running, will proceed as scheduled this Sunday, despite calls from some civil society organizations to delay the balloting on grounds that the campaign regulations reflect the influence and interests of criminal elements.  In all likelihood, a runoff round will be necessary six weeks later (October 25).  The convulsions of recent months and deep distrust in government suggest that tensions will be high between now and then, but there’s no indication yet that civil unrest could threaten the electoral process, and military intervention appears to be a thing of the past.  There is every reason to expect that a new President will be inaugurated on January 14.

The elections are unlikely, however, to lead Guatemala into an era of less corruption and greater accountability, or to install leadership willing or able to spearhead economic and social policies to enable the majority of the population to live with dignity.  The slogans on the banners of the tens of thousands of protestors in Guatemala City’s central square lacked any message beyond a rejection of the status quo.  “Throw them all out” and “I have no president”are potent rallying cries but do not address the core challenges of a country where the elite pay no taxes, half of all children are malnourished and tens of thousands of young people desperately seek better lives anywhere other than Guatemala.  

The reputations of the leading candidates and their failure to articulate coherent governing platforms give little room for optimism.  Leading in the polls is a wealthy businessman, Manuel Baldizón, whose running mate is already being investigated for corruption and whose own closet is widely understood to contain plenty of skeletons.  Protestors have already singled out Baldizón as unacceptable, taunting him with chants of “it’s your turn next.”  In second place is a comedian named Jimmy Morales, who enjoys the support of the economic elites and media but has advanced no policy platform whatsoever.  Former first lady Sandra Torres appears to be running third.  She divorced President Álvaro Colom in 2011 to circumvent a court ruling that, as First Lady, she couldn’t run for office.  (The Constitutional Court put a final stop to her campaign a month before elections that year.) 

Electoral victory by any of these candidates would leave Guatemala with weak leadership at a time that most government institutions desperately need revitalization.  Corruption is too deep-rooted for CICIG and its few allies in government to face down alone, and these candidates won’t use the presidency to carry out the needed purge.  The organized criminal groups that traffic drugs and persons through the country and permeate governing institutions stand to grow only stronger, and the misery that plagues a population deprived of education, health care and jobs will continue unabated.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s billion-dollar aid package for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already in trouble in Washington, may have nowhere good to go.

September 3, 2015

*Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University, witnessed the protests in Guatemala City last week.

Remittances and Sustainable Community Development in Latin America

By Aaron T. Bell and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: Futureatlas.com / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Futureatlas.com / Flickr / Creative Commons

Remittances to Latin America hit a record high in 2014 at $65.3 billion, according to the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, but their impact on development would be much greater with better coordination between sending  and recipient communities.  Mexico receives over one third of those funds, but remittances represent a significant component of GDP for many countries across the region.  The bulk comes from the United States, where 54 million Hispanics include 19 million first-generation immigrants, according to 2013 U.S. census figures.  In several Central American and Caribbean countries, funds sent home by migrants represent the largest single source of foreign exchange.

  • Remittances alleviate poverty by contributing to household income, helping to satisfy basic consumption needs, and sometimes enabling savings and investments in education.
  • Groups of migrants from particular communities sometimes pool resources through hometown associations to support shared objectives back home. A paved road or a new soccer field affects quality of life in tangible ways, and émigré financing of local political campaigns can determine the results of elections for mayors and other officials.
  • But remittances seldom promote local economic development initiatives that will generate sustainable incomes and opportunities for wide segments of the population – missing opportunities to address the causes of migration in the first place.

Some governments, development agencies, and philanthropies look to remittances as a potential mechanism for ensuring that Latin American citizens enjoy living conditions that afford them the “right not to migrate” from home communities.  Last month the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) convened a workshop to explore the challenges and opportunities for linking diaspora organizations in the United States, their communities of origin in Latin America and the Caribbean, and potential philanthropic partners to advance community development in the region through the effective deployment of remittancesParticipants identified several challenges.

  • Cooperation between immigrant-led diaspora organizations and their sending communities and governments is not a given.
  • Despite some research into hometown associations – created in the United States by migrants to connect with their communities of origin – we have relatively limited knowledge about how they function and the conditions that enable them to support community development.
  • Effective transnational cooperation requires broad multi-sectoral partnerships aligning immigrant-led groups, sending community organizations, and possibly governments and international funding institutions.

Despite information gaps and practical obstacles, there are successes to celebrate, such as the Salvadoran Fundación para la Educación Social, Económico y Cultural, with which the IAF has partnered.  Technical training on how to handle incoming funds and face-to-face meetings between participants and supporters in the United States and El Salvador have promoted transparency and trust.  Participants in the CLALS/IAF workshop offered several potential avenues for community organizations and philanthropic foundations to build enduring institutional connections.  It was agreed that further research should be conducted on hometown associations and other forms of diaspora organization to better understand how they function, how they relate to their affiliated sending communities, and how they can be catalysts to promote local development.  Policy-based research institutions in Latin America should be brought into the conversation, as should mainstream Latino organizations in the United States.  And immigrant associations and their counterparts in Latin America should not have to grapple with complex development challenges alone.  Indeed, U.S.-based community organizations and philanthropies could play a valuable role in catalyzing cooperation aimed at promoting development by making the case for public policies and transnational collaborative efforts that support “the right not to migrate.” Such development-supporting initiatives could, at least in theory, gain resonance across political groupings in the United States, appealing both to those interested in fostering global development and those concerned about immigration.

August 4, 2015

A New Line of Defense: Trends at Mexico’s Southern Border

By Dennis Stinchcomb

The boat to Mexico.  Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

The boat to Mexico. Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

Statistics show that the United States is relying on Mexico to do what U.S. immigration law and the Northern Triangle countries can’t: keep Central American children out of the U.S.  In 2014, the same year in which Mexico announced tightened security measures along its southern border with Guatemala and Belize, Mexican authorities deported over 18,000 children, up 117 percent from just over 8,000 the previous year, according to Mexican government figures.  A similar increase is already being registered in 2015.  During January and February of this year, deportations of minors from Mexican soil tallied over 3,200 – a 105 percent jump from the same period in 2014.  Since launching what U.S. officials have dubbed a “layered approach” to immigration enforcement, data reveal several noteworthy trends:

  • Mexico’s get-tough approach has prevented a significant number of migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the first seven months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 witnessed a 48-percent decrease in unaccompanied child apprehensions and a 35-percent decrease in family unit apprehensions along the U.S. border.  However, considered in light of the unprecedented number of deportations from Mexico, these figures suggest that child and family migration from Central America remain at historic highs. 
  • Central American children detained in Mexico are unlikely to be offered forms of humanitarian protection mandated by international law. Despite increases in child detention and deportation, a report by Georgetown University Law School’s Human Rights Institute points to inadequate screening and arbitrary detention as among the obstacles preventing tens of thousands of children from seeking and receiving relief from removal.
  • Both Mexican and U.S. data show that a growing share of child and family migrants are Guatemalan. According to analysis by the Pew Research Center, the number of Guatemalan children deported from Mexico during the first five months of FY15 doubled since the same period last year and now accounts for 60 percent of all child deportations from the country.  Meanwhile, the share of child deportees from Honduras dropped from roughly one-third to less than one-quarter, and those from El Salvador fell off slightly to just above 15 percent.  An analogous shift is also evident at the U.S.-Mexico border where Guatemalans now comprise 35 percent of unaccompanied child apprehensions compared to 25 percent during FY14.  Similarly, the proportion of Salvadoran and Honduran children has declined from roughly 25 percent each to 18 and 9 percent, respectively.
  • Smugglers and migrants are already adapting to heightened enforcement in Mexico and charting new, more dangerous routes north. Local media reports have covered migrants’ attempts to bypass border checkpoints by sea and traverse Mexico undetected on foot or in third-class buses.  Data show that successful migrants are crossing into the U.S. at less traditional and harder-to-access points.  At the height of last year’s crisis, the majority of migrants were surrendering themselves to border officials in the Rio Grande Valley along Texas’ southern-most border.  While apprehension in the Rio Grande control sector have decreased significantly this year, three sectors – Big Bend (Texas), El Paso (Texas and New Mexico), and Yuma (California) – have registered at least double-digit percent increases in both child and family apprehensions.

During Mexican President Peña Nieto’s recent visit to Washington, President Obama stated that he “very much appreciate[d] Mexico’s efforts in addressing the unaccompanied children [crisis].”  Despite applause from the White House, Mexico’s aggressive border enforcement – driven at least in part by U.S. encouragement and funding – has implications for Mexico’s already problematic human rights record.  While it is true that Mexico’s actions have largely staved off a repeat of last year’s crisis, it has yet to translate into the sort of political bargaining chip the Obama administration has hoped might sway the immigration policy debate in the U.S.  With comprehensive immigration reform legislation long dead and recent executive actions on indefinite hold, the administration apparently hopes that ramped-up enforcement will improve prospects for congressional approval of $1 billion in development assistance to the Northern Triangle.  But with Mexico’s clampdown blocking another surge of migrants into the U.S., many legislators are likely to question the prudence of pouring more money into corrupt, dysfunctional regional governments.  By backing the militarization of Mexico’s southern border, moreover, the administration is privileging political goals at the expense of humanitarian objectives and is indirectly complicit in blocking thousands of Central American children from accessing lawful forms of relief for which most are likely eligible.  Meanwhile, Mexico’s migrant extortion market continues to boom as vulnerable children and families seek new routes north at the mercy of increasingly brutal transnational networks.

June 4, 2015

CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015

Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015