Monday, June 22, 2015

Violence in El Salvador at post-civil war peak (June 22, 2015)

El Salvador is going through the most violent period since the end of its bloody civil war 20 years ago. There were 635 homicides reported in May for the country of just over 6 million people and it seems likely that June's numbers will be even higher, according to the Associated Press. In the first ten days of this month 240 homicides were reported and numbers for femicide are also on the rise, according to the Tico Times.

Yesterday suspected gang members killed two soldiers guarding a bus terminal. And last week a high-level security officer said a stolen car found with a grenade booby trap was an attempted attack on the police. This would point to a new level of hostility between security forces and gang members, according to InSight Crime.

Violence between the two has been escalating since a 2013 truce between gangs and the government broke down last year. (See April 22nd's post.) Members of El Salvador's main street gangs, Barrio 18 and MS13, have increased attacks on security forces, which have responded aggressively.

The truce had permitted gang leaders to be housed in prisons where they effectively ran their criminal organizations remotely. As part of a government crackdown, they have been moved back to maximum security prisons, which has led to the streets being controlled by younger, more reckless leaders, another factor behind increasing violence, according to the AP piece. 

The crackdown, which has included sending army battalions to fight gangs, has pushed criminals into the countryside, spreading violence from cities into rural areas.

"The situation of violence in the country is difficult and grave," United States Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte warned during the inauguration of a course on hate crimes organized in El Salvador by the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), reports the Tico Times.

And gangs are increasingly sophisticated, reports InSight Crime. Street gangs were reportedly involved in a criminal network that trafficked weapons into the country. Authorities detained 90 people accused of participating in a criminal network that sold illegal weapons sourced from neighboring countries. Among those arrested were at least 21 alleged members of MS13.

Fear is pervasive in the country. The AP recounts a pervasive rumor that gangs have "outlawed" women from being blond. Though the gangs have even emitted statements saying its not true, women have flocked to hair salons to die their tresses darker, according to the piece.

InSight Crime had a piece in May on the panic caused by the rumor. "In the end, while misinformation has allowed these unconfirmed rumors to take root, it is the fears of a population traumatized from living with gangs and the threat of violence that has allowed them to spur a general panic."

A piece on The Hill reports on the situation of the thousands of people internally displaced by the gang violence.  Over 280,000 according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre says Sarnata Reynolds a senior adviser with Refugees International. Violence sends people fleeing north, which is the target of the Obama administration's proposed a $1 billion aid package to support economic and development programs in Central America, and therefore counter the power of gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. But one of the most important drivers for external displacement is El Salvador’s inability to provide security and humanitarian assistance to people inside the country right now, argues Reynolds.

PRI has a feature piece from earlier this month on youths in El Salvador who participate in a volunteer ambulance service called Comandos de Salvamento. The volunteers, who have training in first aid, can be sent to any kind of emergency scene, including traffic accidents, shootings and murders. The group, which has about has about 3,000 volunteers, was founded in 1960, but grew during the Salvadoran civil war between 1980 and 1992.

McClatchy has a piece on call centers in El Salvador, which might as well be called Second Chance Inc. for the  thousands Salvadorans who have been deported from the U.S. Deportees often arrive in El Salvador disoriented and with little training for available jobs. They are stigmatized because of their tattoos, which in El Salvador denote criminal activity. But their English is put to good use at the centers that employ about 17,000 people. Over 27 thousand Salvadorans were deported from the U.S. last year. About a fifth have been living in the U.S. for five years or more, though without legal residency, according to the piece. (Makes you think twice about the international outrage towards the Dominican Republic for it's deportation program for undocumented migrants, see today's briefs.)

If you're looking for the human side of the numbers, Unicef UK has a heart-wrenching story of a young boy whose brother joined a gang and was killed, with the warming conclusion that he will avoid making similar mistakes -- though the film unwittingly seems hint that avoiding a similar fate will depend solely on Bryan's willpower, as there is no reference to any sort of initiative to help him out.

News Briefs 

  • Though feared mass deportations of Haitians from the Dominican Republic did not materialize after a deadline passed last week to register for legal status in the DR, advocates say that small groups of Haitians have been detained and sent to one of four border stations, where they will be held until their return can be arranged with the Haitian government, reports theNew York Times. Many unregistered Haitian migrants -- and even Dominicans who have not been able to gather requisite documents -- are hiding out for fear of police round-ups. (See last Wednesday's post.)
  • Reform is needed in Guatemala to avoid a continuation of criminal mafia control of politics, argues Haverford College professor Anita Isaacs in the New York Times. But real reform -- banning public funding for political parties, guarantees of equal media access and the establishment of quotas for candidates who are indigenous people or women -- is unlikely to occur under the current president she says. In this context, U.S. diplomatic policy towards Honduras is "terribly misguided" she argues strongly. Though U.S. pressure was instrumental in obtaining the Vice President's resignation in May, diplomats have backed off on the president, in exchange for willingness to enact anti-corruption measures. But this has meant turning its back on protesters, she says. American diplomats are concerned that a political vacuum in Guatemala would strengthen organized crime, and they are also betting that a politically weak president will bow to American demands. "In fact, American officials seem to be running the show at the presidential palace: Recently Todd D. Robinson, the American ambassador, held a news conference, with Mr. Pérez Molina meekly standing to the side, where he announced that American officials would administer polygraphs to all tax authority employees. This approach is desperately misguided," argues Isaacs. Pérez Molina has been able to ally himself with an equally corrupt opposition, she says, and "the criminal networks that control politics also seem to have reaffirmed their influence over the judicial system: Last week the Constitutional Court blocked an investigation into whether to strip the president of immunity from prosecution." Isaacs argues that this is a second chance for the U.S. to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of Guatemala, where the country is still vilified for its role in a 1954 coup. But would this really be a change in U.S. strategy, or a repeat of old attitudes using a new ideology? Despite good intentions, it's worth noting that U.S. support for regime change might not be welcomed in the region (when it comes to democratically elected governments, is it ever?). Last week the OAS general assembly passed a motion supporting Guatemala's government and rejecting any threat to the constitutional order. (See last Tuesday's post.)
  • Consumer sentiment in Chile has been impacted by political corruption allegations, reportsReuters. Politicians from across the political spectrum have been accused of accepting campaign donations from major businesses, and President Michelle Bachelet's son has been accused of using political connections to help his wife gain preferential access to a $10 million real-estate loan. "Polls show that there was a significant deterioration (in sentiment) towards the end of the first quarter, beginning of May. And my unequivocal conclusion is that politics started contaminating the economy," said Finance Minister Rodrigo Valdes on Chilean TV yesterday.
  • Across the Andes, in Argentina, consumption has been kickstarted by government programs encouraging citizens to buy stuff ahead of October's presidential elections. Reuters reports that government programs allow people to access refrigerators and televisions at lower prices or with quota payment plans, and have helped the country defy dire economic predictions. The strategy, which included an income tax cut in May, is paying off. The consumer confidence index leapt to 55 last month, its highest level since February 2012, from 38 a year earlier, a study by the University of Torcuato Di Tella showed. Some see the programs as an electoral ploy to favor Daniel Scioli, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's candidate to replace her. But government officials quoted in the piece say it's just good sense.
  • Brazilian military police on Marajó Island in the Amazon River Delta ride on water buffalo. The animal is integral to life on the tropical island and helps soften the image of a police force that nationally is associated with human rights violations, including forced disappearances and killing of innocents, reports the New York Times
  • A gas station that played a central role in a wide-ranging investigation into political corruption in Brazil is unaffected by it's notoriety, reports the Wall Street Journal. Despite allegations that a currency exchange and money-wiring service on the premises was used to to help Petrobras executives transfer money from the oil company into overseas bank account, people continue to line up for cheap gas and delicious fried snacks. The investigation into alleged kickbacks from Petrobras contractors to the ruling Workers' Party has been dubbed "Operation Car Wash" by prosecutors, in honor of the gas station. Rather tongue in cheek, the piece reports: "A laundry is also on the premises, where customers can drop off dry cleaning or wash a load of clothes for about $10. Curiously, there is no carwash; the owners replaced it years ago with more gas pumps. Prosecutors declined to say why they kept the name even though the car wash is long gone, or why they didn’t name it Operation Laundromat." All joking aside, the piece gives a useful overview of the investigation's roots. A separate WSJ piece gives more background.
  • Corruption allegations and poor economic performance have driven Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's ratings to their lowest point, reports the Wall Street Journal. According to a survey by the Datafolha polling institute, 10% of respondents said the Rousseff administration was “excellent or good,” compared with 13% in a poll published in April.
  • Texas prosecutors indicted Eugenio Hernández Flores, former governor of the northeast Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, on on money-laundering charges. U.S. law enforcement agencies allege that Flores received bribes from the Zeta criminal gang to allow it to operate freely in his state while he was governor from 2005-2010, reports the New York Times.
  • More than 900 industries in the Santiago metropolitan area temporarily shut down, and about 40 percent of its cars were forced off the roads, after Chilean authorities declared an environmental emergency regarding air conditions in the capital, reports Reuters.

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