Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Gang member conversions

Propelled by conversions to evangelical Christianity, some gang members are renouncing their former lives and quitting the gangs.   It is a phenomenon which is most pronounced in the San Francisco Gotera prison in northeast El Salvador.

From Revista Factum, as translated into English for InsightCrime:

It's happening in the streets, in the communities still controlled by gangs, and in the segregated prisons. It's a phenomenon which, despite being hard to believe at first, has been recognized by prison authorities: Hundreds of gang members are abandoning and outright rejecting their gangs, opting instead for the teachings of evangelical churches. In Gotera prison, close to 500 members of the Barrio 18 have retired from gang life and are now saying that they have no relation with the group....
 Montano, who left Gotera a little more than three months ago, remembers it like this: "That was the explosion. That was the bomb that went off in the prison. Because it was a situation that had not been seen before. It brought almost 500 young people to the decision to say 'I will not return to the gang, I am not a gang member, now I am not a subject of the code nor of the gang … If brothers with the letters MS arrive, I will live with them … If they come to remove tattoos I will remove mine.' You know it is not easy. If you talk to active [gang members] they will not understand this."
The government recognizes that a real change has taken place.   According to a report in El Faro, the government is relaxing its "extraordinary measures" for the 460 prisoners who it says have renounced their membership in Barrio 18 in the San Francisco Gotera prison.  Instead, they get access to a series of rehabilitation workshops in the governments "Yo Cambio / I Change" program.

A report from AFP describes the change:
The change brings with it an improvement to conditions behind bars.  Inmates are no longer kept separate in the prison, in overcrowded cells and with no family visits. They are given the right to leave their cells daily and participate in religious classes and in training workshops.  Most importantly, they are given opportunities to prepare for a different life, far from the brutish and often shortlived existence in the gangs.
This photo essay from Reuters shows scenes of the inmates participating in those programs.

The director of El Salvador's prisons, Rodil Hernandez, rejected suggestions that the government was in some way negotiating with the prisoners who were receiving improved conditions.   With respect to the 460 gang members who had quit Barrio 18, he downplayed the role of religion and instead touted the combined effectiveness of the "extraordinary measures" combined with the Yo Cambio program.

Whatever the reason is, El Salvador needs to find a way to replicate it across all its prisons holding thousands more gang members.




Monday, February 20, 2017

Noe Canjura -- from Apopa to Paris

“Le dormeur cache” by Noe Canjura

This past weekend a colonia in municipality of Apopa named for Noe Canjura celebrated a cultural festival and block party. The event featured music, art, food and conviviality.  But who was Apopa's most famous son, Noe Canjura?  

From Wikipedia:
Noe Canjura was born in 1922 in Apopa, to a family of landless peasants of humble origin. By the time of his death, he was recognized as one of the leading landscape, still life, and figure painters of France. 
As a youth, Canjura was raised in intimate contact with the struggle of wrestling a livelihood from the infertile soil of his native village. 
To pay part of his expenses and to lighten the weight of the sacrifices his father made to keep him in school, Canjura worked in a sawmill and often spent the night there, sleeping on bare boards. 
His talent for drawing came to light when he was seventeen years old and, without knowing how or why, his adventure in the art world began. He first studied painting at the Academy of Painting of Valero Lecha in San Salvador (1942–1946).
Canjura would later study in Mexico and ultimately made his way to Paris where his prominence as a painter grew.    He would return for a visit to El Salvador and Apopa in 1968, but died an untimely death from hepatitis in 1970 at the age of 48.

See more of Canjura's artwork at this link.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Unresolved historic memory

The New York Times has a photo essay titled Unearthing Justice in El Salvador and accompanying blog post on its website  regarding the open historical wounds of 1981 El Mozote massacre.    The photos tell the stories of families having a chance to finally put to rest their murdered loved ones and still seeking justice.   There is an ongoing search for justice, but we cannot tell whether and how that search might be completed.

 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

How a judge's order in Seattle may have saved a life in El Salvador

The Los Angeles Times today has a story about a Salvadoran teenager threatened with death by gangs in El Salvador.  This young man was granted refugee status under the Central American Minors programs commenced by president Obama and was ready to come to the US and safety on February 9.   Then President Trump intervened with his executive order suspending refugee admissions to the US.    

This young man would have been stuck in El Salvador where gangs promised to cut him into pieces, but was saved by a federal court injunction blocking Trump's executive order.   He boarded a plane for the US before Trump could try to cut off refugees once again.

Trump's orders have life and death consequences.   Luckily a federal court was there to strike this one down and probably save more than just one life.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

A less violent January and the path forward



According to statistics from El Salvador's National Civilian Police, the number of murders in the the first month of 2017 dropped to 256, compared with 484 violent deaths in a very bloody January 2016. That represented an average daily murder rate of 8.3, and the country enjoyed its first day without any murders in quite some time.
  
The country is currently debating two questions.   First, will there be an extension of the "exceptional measures" put in place at the end of March 2016?   Those measures include increasingly harsh conditions in the prisons aimed at isolating imprisoned gang leaders as well as more and more aggressive police and military tactics in the communities.  The government credits these measures with bringing down the homicide rate.  The legislative assembly is debating whether to approve an extension to those exceptional measures, which would appear likely.

The second question is whether the government will respond favorably to a proposal by MS-13 and Barrio 18 Sureños to sit down at a table with the government and a mediator such as the Catholic church.   The gangs say the discussions could include the possibility of dismantling the gangs.   Hector Silva Avalos summed up the prospects of discussions in a piece at InsightCrime titled
Negotiations Between El Salvador Govt, MS13 Prove Elusive:
According to security officials, the state is willing to stay the course with its extraordinary measures and continue to tolerate abuses such as those that occurred in Armenia. President Sánchez Cerén's silence, on the other hand, bears the signs of political calculations that do not yet add up to being in favor of dialogue.  
The possible participation of the Catholic Church, this time with the institutional support of the bishops and the Vatican's diplomatic representative (the local nuncio), as well as whispers of the UN's possible participation, appear to indicate that certain dynamics could very well have changed.  
Nevertheless, up until now nothing clearly demonstrates that this will give rise to productive talks, despite the MS13's proposal and the good intentions of the Catholic priests.
Meanwhile a protest at the gates of the National Assembly yesterday addressed both issues.    Family members of gang members accompanied by Lutheran bishop Medardo Gomez rallied to advocate against an extension of the exceptional measures saying they were too punitive on families who could not see their fathers and brothers in the prison.   Bishop Gomez also continued his consistent call for dialogue with the gangs.    According to an article in La Prensa Grafica, police at the rally were visibly hostile and arrested twelve young men in the crowd, and stating that blood was going to run in the streets after gangs killed a police agent the day before.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

High drop out rate plagues El Salvador's schools

Statistics from El Salvador's Ministry of Education show that the majority of students in El Salvador who complete sixth grade will not complete high school (bachillerato).   As reported in La Presna Grafica, only 42.6% of students who were in sixth grade in 2011 were still in school in 2016.   The national class of approximately 135 thousand sixth graders had dropped to 58 thousand still in school.  This drop out rate creates significant challenges for the students to successfully earn a future living and for the country to have an educated work force which can produce economic growth.

There are two primary reasons that youth fail to continue school according to officials cited by La Prensa Grafica.  The first is poverty.   Poor students are often forced to leave their schooling in order to work and help support their family.   Rural youth in poor families may be needed to work in the fields.   The second reason is violence and the lack of security.   Threats from gangs and the perils of crossing gang boundaries were cited as causing as many as 14-15,000 students to drop out of school.

For more background on the challenges facing El Salvador's educational system, you may want to read this 2015 report from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.



Monday, January 30, 2017

The impact of Trump's executive orders on Salvadorans fleeing their country

El Salvador has one of the highest percentages of its native born population currently living in the United States.   Estimates vary, but if there are approximately 2 million people originally born in El Salvador living in the US, then approximately 1 in 4 people alive who were born in El Salvador live in the US.  As a result, the actions of new US president Donald Trump on immigration and border security have major implications for El Salvador.

Although media attention has focused on the impact of Trump's executive orders from January 25 and January 27 on Muslim immigrants and refugees, the effects of the orders are more far-ranging and will have immediate impacts on Salvadoran migration.

There is currently a significant flow of children and families from El Salvador towards the US, seeking asylum as they flee violence and gangs in the country.   Nearly 14,000 Salvadoran children and family members were detained at the US border in October and November 2016 alone.  

Under policy as it existed under the Obama administration, such families were detained until they could be given a "credible fear" interview to determine if they reasonably feared harm if returned to their homes.   If they passed that interview, the families would be placed into regular deportation proceedings where they could prosecute their claims for asylum.   While their cases were pending, children and families could often be released on "parole" usually with electronic ankle bracelet monitoring or on a monetary bond of $5000 or more, to ensure that they appeared for future proceedings.  (Trump has dismissively called such parole of migrants as "catch and release.")

Trump's Executive Order on Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements dated January 25, 2017 makes changes.    First, he orders that more detention facilities be built so that migrants can be held and not released:
Sec. 5.  Detention Facilities.  (a)  The Secretary shall take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.
Second, he seeks additional asylum officers and immigration judges to rapidly adjudicate asylum claims:
5(b)  The Secretary shall take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately assign asylum officers to immigration detention facilities for the purpose of accepting asylum referrals and conducting credible fear determinations pursuant to section 235(b)(1) of the INA (8 U.S.C. 1225(b)(1)) and applicable regulations and reasonable fear determinations pursuant to applicable regulations.
(c)  The Attorney General shall take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately assign immigration judges to immigration detention facilities operated or controlled by the Secretary, or operated or controlled pursuant to contract by the Secretary, for the purpose of conducting proceedings authorized under title 8, chapter 12, subchapter II, United States Code.
Third, he orders the Secretary of Homeland Security to make sure migrants are detained and not released on parole except for "urgent humanitarian reasons" or where there is a "significant public benefit":
Sec. 6.  Detention for Illegal Entry.  The Secretary shall immediately take all appropriate actions to ensure the detention of aliens apprehended for violations of immigration law pending the outcome of their removal proceedings or their removal from the country to the extent permitted by law.  The Secretary shall issue new policy guidance to all Department of Homeland Security personnel regarding the appropriate and consistent use of lawful detention authority under the INA, including the termination of the practice commonly known as "catch and release," whereby aliens are routinely released in the United States shortly after their apprehension for violations of immigration law.


Sec. 11.  Parole, Asylum, and Removal.  It is the policy of the executive branch to end the abuse of parole and asylum provisions currently used to prevent the lawful removal of removable aliens.
(a)  The Secretary shall immediately take all appropriate action to ensure that the parole and asylum provisions of Federal immigration law are not illegally exploited to prevent the removal of otherwise removable aliens.
(b)  The Secretary shall take all appropriate action, including by promulgating any appropriate regulations, to ensure that asylum referrals and credible fear determinations pursuant to section 235(b)(1) of the INA (8 U.S.C. 1125(b)(1)) and 8 CFR 208.30, and reasonable fear determinations pursuant to 8 CFR 208.31, are conducted in a manner consistent with the plain language of those provisions.
(c)  Pursuant to section 235(b)(1)(A)(iii)(I) of the INA, the Secretary shall take appropriate action to apply, in his sole and unreviewable discretion, the provisions of section 235(b)(1)(A)(i) and (ii) of the INA to the aliens designated under section 235(b)(1)(A)(iii)(II).
(d)  The Secretary shall take appropriate action to ensure that parole authority under section 212(d)(5) of the INA (8 U.S.C. 1182(d)(5)) is exercised only on a case-by-case basis in accordance with the plain language of the statute, and in all circumstances only when an individual demonstrates urgent humanitarian reasons or a significant public benefit derived from such parole.
The net impact of this Executive Order is that we should expect to see increasing numbers of mothers and children from El Salvador and other Central American countries imprisoned in privately run detention centers, waiting for their petitions for asylum to be heard.   Mothers and children, literally fleeing for their lives, will be imprisoned in the country where they sought shelter.   Please note that we saw these images under the Obama administration as well, which hoped that the use of detention centers would discourage the flow of family asylum seekers.   But now the use of detention seems poised to increase as fast as the stock of the private prison companies.

Under the Obama administration, there was a small program to process families displaced by violence as refugees in connection with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.    Families who were identified could receive shelter in Costa Rica before a small number might be resettled as refugees in the US.    Under Trump's most recent executive order, any refugee admissions under this or any other program are suspended for four months:

EXECUTIVE ORDER: PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES dated January 27, 2017

    Sec. 5.  Realignment of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for Fiscal Year 2017.  (a)  The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.  During the 120-day period, the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Homeland Security and in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall review the USRAP application and adjudication process to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States, and shall implement such additional procedures.  Refugee applicants who are already in the USRAP process may be admitted upon the initiation and completion of these revised procedures.  Upon the date that is 120 days after the date of this order, the Secretary of State shall resume USRAP admissions only for nationals of countries for which the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence have jointly determined that such additional procedures are adequate to ensure the security and welfare of the United States....
It's not clear whether the Central America program would be restarted after that 120 day period.

US refugee policy has fixed annual numerical caps on a global basis.    Trump's executive order lowers the current cap to 50,000:
   (d)  Pursuant to section 212(f) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1182(f), I hereby proclaim that the entry of more than 50,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017 would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I determine that additional admissions would be in the national interest.
Since that cap has to cover all the existing refugee needs in the world, the number of slots open to Central American refugees would necessarily decrease.   In addition, Trump's decision to prioritize refugee claims for persons claiming religious persecution as a minority religion, may also diminish the chances of any refugee from El Salvador ever making his or her way to the US.




Sunday, January 29, 2017

A not so sweet harvest


Driving in north central El Salvador this weekend as I have often done, I was struck by a changing landscape.   In many more locations than before, sugar cane was being grown and harvested.  Where once corn stalks had stood or cows were grazing, the tall stalks of of sugar cane dominated.  

This is the time of year of the sugar cane harvest.    The smoke of cane fields being burned can be seen every day.    We live on the southern side of the capital city of San Salvador, and the black ash regularly floats through open windows and doors.    Massive cane trucks fills the highways carrying the harvested cane stalks to the country's sugar mills.

Statistics from El Salvador's Ministry of Agriculture confirmed my impressions that sugar cane production has expanded signficantly in El Salvador in recent years.   According to numbers from the Ministry, the amount of land dedicated to sugar cane production increased by 33% between 2010 and 2015.  Additional growth was fueled by a 2015 contract with China, and now China is the largest purchaser of Salvadoran sugar.    Since tiny El Salvador is not getting any bigger, the large increase in acres of sugar cane means that other crops are being displaced by the sugar cultivation.

The increase in sugar cane fields raises significant concerns about the adverse effects of cane production on the country's overall food security.   As food crops are displaced for exportable sugar, El Salvador becomes less and less able to feed itself.   Sugar cultivation is very hard on the soil and growing the crop involves intensive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.    Working conditions are harsh, and the low paid workers in the sugar cane industry suffer high rates of illness and injury.

These adverse effects of sugar cane production were well documented in a 2016 report from Voices on the Border titled Large Scale Sugar Cane Production in El Salvador.    I strongly recommend anyone not familiar with the sugar industry and with its adverse effects to read this thorough report.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations:
1. The Government of El Salvador must begin enforcing its environmental laws. 
2. The Legislative Assembly should pass and the President sign into law the General Water Law as proposed by civil society organizations in 2006, along with the 2014 ban on agrochemicals, and the constitutional amendment on food security.

3. The Salvadoran government should enact more policies that benefit small farmers and local markets. These include protecting vegetable and grain markets with import tariffs like they do for sugarcane growers, and helping more rural communities create weekly farmer’s markets. The government should also launch a nutrition campaign that focuses on eating locally produced goods. 
4. Municipal governments should adopt ordinances that regulate agricultural practices, and help rural communities create environmental units to monitor local development issues.

5. Launch a campaign in rural communities about the impacts of large-scale agriculture, and assist them in developing food security plans that are based on local production for local consumption. 
6. Create a movement of communities affected by large-scale sugarcane to advocate for the rights of the people and proper regulation of the industry.



Thursday, January 26, 2017

2016 remttances hit record high

One reason El Salvador is so worried about president Trump's actions on immigration is the country's dependence on family remittances from relatives in the US.   During 2016, those remittances hit an all time record high according to El Salvador's central bank:
Remittances to El Salvador jumped by 7.2 percent in 2016 compared to the same period a year earlier, reaching the highest level in the country's history and marking the biggest increase in a decade, El Salvador's central bank reported Monday. 
Remittances, which mostly come from the United States and underpin the impoverished Central American country's economy, totaled $4.58 billion in 2016
"The accumulated [amount] between January and December 2016 constitutes the highest amount in the history of remittances received in El Salvador and the highest growth rate in the last 10 years," the bank said in a statement.
 The remittances equal 17.1% of El Salvador's total economy.  

(Source  VOA News).

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Confidence in institutions

Every year end the University of Central America Institute for Public Opinion polls Salvadorans on a variety of topics.   One of the questions asked each year is which institutions Salvadorans have  "much confidence" in.    Taking the results from the most recent poll at year end 2016 and the results from 10 years earlier, I have displayed the changes over a decade below.

In 2016, the most trusted institutions are now the evangelical churches, trusted by 33.4%, a number largely unchanged since 2006.    The least trusted, with only 3.5% of Salvadorans expressing much confidence, are the political parties, followed closely by the National Assembly (5%) and Businesses (5.9%).

Interestingly, the entities which had the largest increases in confidence from 2006-16 were those involved in security:  the National Civilian Police (18.4 to 25.8%), the Armed Forces (23.8 to 29.3%), and the Attorney General (7.3 to 12.9%).

Dropping the most in confidence was the Catholic Church.    While the Church was the most respected institution in 2006 with 42.6% of those polled expressing much confidence, in the 2016 poll that percentage had dropped ten points to 32.7%.