Weekly News Round-Up, August 28

Rural Guatemala Photo: Anna Vogt

Rural Guatemala Photo: Anna Vogt

In Depth: Central America Rising

teleSUR examines the crises and opportunities in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and offers criticial analysis of the growing protest movements and the potential for a democratic resurgence in Central America.

5 Reasons Why Guatemala is in Upheaval Now

Guatemala is in upheaval: former vice president Roxana Baldetti is behind bars; President Otto Perez Molina is facing persistent calls to resign. Why is this all happening now? Here are five reasons.

Guatemala’s Embattled President

A team of dogged investigators and prosecutors is on the cusp of an astonishing feat: bringing down President Otto Pérez Molina, who stands accused of having played a leading role in a huge kickback scheme. Authorities in Guatemala City arrested Mr. Pérez Molina’s former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, last Friday, and began to unveil an extensive dossier that has prompted public outrage and led to the resignation of at least 14 members of Mr. Pérez Molina’s cabinet. In a region where judicial institutions are notoriously weak, politicized and corrupt, the transformation of Guatemala’s rule of law sector is a rare success story. It began in 2007 after civil society groups persuaded the government to agree to let the United Nations establish the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, an independent investigative agency that works alongside the attorney general’s office.

Guatemalan president faces growing threat of impeachment amid scandal

“Guatemala is in the middle of one of its worst-ever institutional crises. It is also a historic moment of opportunity to start a real social and institutional transformation,” said Alvaro Pop, a leftwing deputy in congress. “My hope is that Thursday’s day of action will create enough pressure to make the president’s prosecution unavoidable.”

Amid scandal, U.S. lawmakers oppose funding Honduran government

The money for aid to the Honduran police is part of an appropriation for fiscal year 2016 that the Obama administration has requested to fund the “Alliance for Prosperity.”  The appropriation, of $1 billion, would fund aid to social welfare systems but also to the security services of the three northernmost countries of Central America:  Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.  The Congressional letter, dated Wednesday August 19, addresses itself to the fact that President Hernandez has been pursuing a policy of militarizing the functions of the Honduran police, leading to multiple complaints of violations of human rights. Hernandez and his administration are also accused of massive corruption, and have been the target of hugedemonstrations, calling for his resignation since April.  

Cocaine Seizures by Mexico’s Army Jump 340%

The quantity of cocaine confiscated by Mexico‘s army during the first six months of 2015 — almost 2,800 kilos — is a more than 340 percent increase from how much was seized during the same period last year. Prior to this year, cocaine seizures by Mexico‘s army had been on the decline. The apparent drop in demand for cocaine in the United States and reduced coca cultivation in South America were the reasons given for the decline in seizures registered by Mexican authorities during 2013 and 2014. But the 2015 data shows a different story.

El Salvador’s supreme court declares street gangs, those who finance them, terrorist groups

The court said the well-known Marasalvatrucha or MS-13 gang and any other gang that attempts to claim powers that belong to the state would be considered terrorists. It defined terrorism as the organized and systematic exercise of violence. The court’s declaration came as a denial to four attempts to declare the country’s Special Law Against Terrorist Acts unconstitutional. The court found that telephone wiretaps and the freezing of funds belonging to third parties tied to terrorist groups are constitutional, among other issues.

New migrant rules spur crisis along Haitian-Dominican border

And while there is not yet a mass migration crisis at the border, the International Organization for Migration, which has been monitoring the camps’ emergence, is concerned about returning migrants getting stranded in remote locations such as Anse-à-Pitres and the impact it could have on the surrounding communities. “We are very concerned that a massive influx of people at the border may become the nucleus of new large informal settlements,” said Fabien Sambussy, IOM’s camp manager. “One of the solutions is to accompany them in their reintegration into host communities.” Even before the resumption of deportations, concerns were already deepening among migrant advocates of a humanitarian crisis along the porous 224-mile border.

Colombians flee across river amid Venezuela deportations – in pictures

More than 100 Colombians carrying their possessions on their shoulders waded knee-deep across a river back into their homeland, fleeing a Venezuelan crackdown on illegal migrants and smugglers that is generating an increasingly angry dispute between the South American neighbors. The dramatic scene came ahead of a meeting Wednesday between the nations’ foreign ministers to cool tensions that spiked after Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro closed a major border crossing last week, declared a state of emergency in six western cities and deported more than 1,000 Colombian migrants he blamed for rampant crime and widespread shortages.

Venezuela and Colombia hold talks over border dispute

“Venezuela’s problems are made in Venezuela, they’re not made in Colombia or other parts of the world,” Santos told a forum of former presidents from around the world. While about five million Colombians live in Venezuela, the security offensive has focused on a few towns near the border where Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames migrant gangs for rampant crime and smuggling that has caused widespread shortages. The crisis began a week ago when Maduro claimed armed paramilitaries linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shot and wounded three army officers on an anti-smuggling patrol.

Bolivia’s hollow victory in the war on drugs

Soon after the UN announced its survey, critics noted that the report focused on the coca leaf but omitted data on how much of the crop is being converted to cocaine. And without that data, the heralded fall in coca may be an optical illusion. “While voluntary reduction of coca shows that small farmers can play a role in national drug policies, the government doesn’t keep consistent data on the drug trade and cocaine production,” Bolivian economist Roberto Laserna, of Fundacion Milenio, told me. “They are controlling coca leaf, but indications are that trafficking and transport of the drug are increasing.”

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Gender Inequality and the Journey of Migrant Women

Young people performing a drama during the service week encounter.

Young people performing a drama during the service week activity.

Nancy Sabas, is the Connecting Peoples Coordinator for MCC Guatemala/El Salvador. She is originally from Honduras.

Para leer en español

Each year, the Connecting Peoples program organizes a week long service activity, where many young people of Guatemala and El Salvador gather to discuss a relevant topic. Last year we discussed the issue of migration, and through skits, the youth acted out the realities of each of their contexts.

One of the skits was about a mother of two children who was abused by her husband. Tired of the abuse of their mother, the boys decide to migrate north in order to generate income and provide the means to remove their mother from her violent environment. This skit promteded me to ask: is abuse against women and gender inequality also as a cause of migration?

While this drama portrayed a woman in a stationary position without migrating, reality shows that the numbers of migrant women is increasing. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in 2013, the number of migrant women from Latin America and the Caribbean amounted to more than half of the total number of migrants.

If the majority of migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean are women, why do they remain invisible? Why do gender-based causes of migration not receive attention? Why is there not more attention centered on what happens to women when they arrive at destination countries?

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) points that it was not until the early 80’s that the term ´migrants and their families´ ( male migrants, plus their wives and children) stopped being used, to include women as active migrants. This, however, represented more of a semantic change, which is still poor on practicality and considerations that take into account gender variables.

Ignoring women even though they make up more than half of the migrant population in Latin America, enables the absence of state responsibility and results in the maintenance of a high-profit business that significantly increases the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the sending countries. According to the World Bank, in 2014 remittances reached 16.9% of GDP in Honduras, 16.4% in El Salvador, 10% in Guatemala and 9.6% in Nicaragua. For United States, the country that receives the largest number of Central American migrants, the work of international migrants represents 32% of their GDP.

However, abuse against women does not simply start on their journey as migrants.


A few months ago, local students in the Ataverapaz area dramatized the story of an indigenous woman washing clothes on a rock in the river. In the drama, a man approaches the girl and starts to harass her sexually. When she resists, he throws a rock at her to kill her. The rock wounded her but did not kill her, yet she responds back the same way and does kill her aggressor, unintentionally. The sketch ended in the imprisonment of the girl for killing her attacker in self-defense. Unfortunately, this drama reflects many of the situations lived by women in the different contexts of their countries of origin.

The most tangible form of violence in Central America are the recurring ‘feminicides’. A femicide is a murder that is linked to contempt for women, sexism and the assumption that women are property. The sketch illustrates the attempt of a feminicide: the aggressor feels entitled to the body of the indigenous woman and tries to kill her when she defends her body. According to the Feminist Centre for Information and Action: “’femicide’ in the countries of Central America are shooting to the point that in some countries in the region, there are over 100 homicides per 100,000 inhabitant.s¨ The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has reported that 90% of cases of femicide remain in impunity.

Violence against women is a vicious spiral system in different areas. Sexual street harassment as seen as normal and is not condemned. Women have less access to education assume much of the unskilled work in the manfacturing sector where they face exploitation, wage inequality and harassment. In the domestic sphere, abuse against women usually goes unreported due to fear of the spouse and the lack of trust in the judicial system.

As a woman begins her journey as a migrant her vulnerability increases. Amnesty International estimates that 60% of migrant women are victims of sexual abuse on their way north, although it is speculated that this amount could reach 80%. According to the UNPF, ¨Women migrants are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, a multimillion-dollar business. Trafficked women are exposed to sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, yet they have little access to medical or legal services.¨

Certainly, abuse to migrants on their way to the United States has gained media coverage compared with the almost zero visibility of the abuse women face in their destination country where the cruel discrimination and segregation of migrants is a real problem. During our week of service activities, a woman who worked as a cleaner and was deported from the US shared her experience: “There was an office which I was not allowed to clean, because the lady who worked there did not want a ´dirty illegal´ to touch her things.” Despiste these issues, the United States Supreme Court does not prioratize immigration reform that would benefit thousands of immigrants who are undocumented, allowing them to work temporarily under the protection of the law.

There are approximately 30,000 immigrants detained in the United States;10% are women. Human rights organizations have strong concerns about conditions at immigration detention centers, especially concerning sexual abuse, family separation, medical and mental health services, pregnancy and post-natal care, as well as access to legal counsel. The division of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch said: “Women in detention described violations such as shackling pregnant detained women or not following up on signs of breast and cervical cancer as well as affronts to their dignity. Given that immigration detention is the form of imprisonment with the fastest growth in the United States, these abuses are especially dangerous. They remain largely hidden from public scrutiny and effective oversight. “

If deported, the ´via cruxis´ of migrant women continues. The challenges faced at the time of repatriation can include: family separation, abstraction of their children born in the United States, trauma, financial problems, debts to coyotes, etc. Women who are deported usually find themselves living within an even harsher reality than the one they left before their journey and often try to migrate again.

The journey of the migrant woman is a complex reality that must be examined with a gendered perspective: one that assumes a specific context, gender and relationship with the different powers at each stage of their journey. The answers to the problem of migration must involve structural changes of the conditions that women are fleeing in their home countries. It needs to start with the visibility of migrant women and from there, target the creation of conditions and policies that ensure the non-exploitation of their labor, safety, sovereignty over their bodies, including zero tolerance of the discrimination they currently suffer , as well as sustainable change on the conditions in the country of departure.

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Weekly News Roundup, August 21

Cattle drive in Sonora, Mexico. Photo: Anna Vogt

Cattle drive in Sonora, Mexico. Photo: Anna Vogt

Wonder women and macho men

Women are still scarce in Latin American boardrooms. Not in politics, however. A quarter of legislators in the region are women, compared with one in seven in 2003. Yet Latin Americans are less likely than people in any other region to say that women are treated with dignity. Only a third say women are respected, around half the share who think so in the Middle East and Africa, according to a Gallup poll. In Peru and Colombia (where corporate bosses are more likely to be female than in any other Latin American country), just a fifth of people say women are appreciated.

The Unwelcome Return of ‘Illegals’

Advocates for immigrant rights see the relationship between how people talk and how the government acts and have proposed replacing ‘‘illegal immigrants’’ with ‘‘undocumented workers’’ or ‘‘undocumented immigrants.’’ ‘‘In an increasingly diverse society in which undocumented immigrants are integrated in all walks of life, language belongs to the people whose stories are being told,’’ Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and activist wrote in Time. ‘‘To be an undocumented person in the U.S., after all, is to live a life dictated by getting the proper documents.’’ If immigrants are principally defined by their missing papers, their path to legal status becomes far more tenable. Imagine if we started calling all immigrants ‘‘dreamers,’’ which is how many of us think of our own ancestors. The word has been adopted by young adults who came to the United States as children from the Dream Act, a bill that would give them a path to permanent residency, if it is ever passed.

Four women were also raped and killed in Mexico journalist murder—but media calls them promiscuous

This case of Nadia Vera, Alejandra Negrete, Yesenia Quiróz, and Colombian Mile Virginia Martín provides a clear example of how violence against women is often treated as less important than violence against men in Mexico. The women in this case were made completely invisible until citizens pointed out that they too, had been victims—victims treated as lesser members of society. As Francisco Goldman reported in the New Yorker on August 14, Nadia Vera’s mother, Mirtha Luz Pérez, wrote a poem published by online newspaper Aristegui Noticias dedicated to her daughter: “Don’t leave me sugar girl / to dissolve inside weeping skin / Don’t leave me free bird / for the cold moorlands of absence.” Vera’s parents have been outspoken about the treatment of their daughter and the other female victims by government officials and the media.

Mexico City murders put defenders of women’s rights on high alert

The problem isn’t confined to Mexico: at least 20 women were killed in the same period in the dangerous triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador amid a toxic mix of gender violence, organised crime, corruption and impunity, where rights defenders are under constant threat. In 2012 alone, 414 other attacks, including threats, psychological harassment, excessive force and sexual violence, were registered in the region, a study by the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders found (pdf). State forces – police, soldiers, and government officials – were responsible for almost 90% of attacks.

‘Our Central American spring’: protesters demand an end to decades of corruption

“Our tolerance for corruption has to end,” Ariel Varela one of the organizers of the marches in Honduras, adding that corruption is at the root of many of Central America’s problems. “Corruption generates poverty and poverty leads to violence,” he said. As people began to gather at a small traffic circle in front of the IHSS for a recent Friday night march, Varela likened the movement to uprisings in the Arab world in 2011. “This is our Central American spring,” he said.

In Guatemala, Exhuming Children to Make Room for Death (photo essay)

Whatever its origins, the results are evident in the Cementerio General — the General Cemetery — with its unending daily funeral processions. Mr. Martinez, 34, started going there in search of a story and was stunned when he heard about the burial spots that were being cleared out for new corpses. He said that if survivors went 14 years without paying the upkeep fee, about $24 for four years, they were notified. If no answer was forthcoming, the grave was emptied. A local news report estimated that the process, which began in 2014 and will continue for up to another year, will free up 3,000 spaces that once were used to bury children and adults.

Strengthening El Salvador’s rule of law

Even if the FMLN does not go the route of an international commission, it must work with the country’s other political actors and elect an attorney general committed to strengthening the rule of law so as to support existing economic and security plans and consolidate educational and healthcare improvements. President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and the FMLN need to act in the interests of the Salvadoran people and stop dismissing all those who criticise their governance as “golpistas” (coup plotters) who wish to destabilise the government. The FMLN is no longer the opposition. It is the governing party that Salvadorans put their faith in to help resolve the country’s most pressing problems.

Dominican Republic resumes patrols to deport migrants

Dominican authorities on Friday resumed patrols to detain and deport migrants, the majority of them Haitians, who lack documents after a more than yearlong hiatus. The move came weeks after the government ended a one-year period for migrants to apply for legal residency under a program that has drawn international criticism.

FARC ceasefires caused decrease in violence in Colombia: UN

A unilateral ceasefire declared by Colombia’s FARC rebels during peace talks with the government has reduced conflict-related violence to its lowest level in 30 years, the United Nations said on Wednesday. The UN representatives also said there had also been a decline in displacement of individuals, attacks on civilians, victims of mine explosions and kidnapping.

How Bolivia Got Smart and Convinced Poor Farmers to Grow Less Coca

According to figures released this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), cultivation of coca in Bolivia declined by 11 percent in 2014, the fourth straight year of decreases. UNODC’s Coca Crop Monitoring Survey, a joint undertaking with Bolivia’s government, found that the area under cultivation fell from 23,000 hectares in 2013 to 20,400 hectares last year. Bolivia’s recorded coca cultivation is at its lowest point since the UN began monitoring the crop in 2003, and authorities are aiming for further decreases in line with a national law that currently sets aside no more than 12,000 hectares for planting. The country’s government is hashing out a final allowance that could permit up to 20,000 hectares of coca. Whatever the final target, observers say Bolivia has been unique in its ability to reduce coca cultivation while avoiding violence and the alienation of poor farmers that has plagued more orthodox eradication efforts in the region.

Don’t forget about Days of Prayer for the Displaced in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Aug 31 to Sept 6. Here is more information and resources.

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Katharine Oswald, together with her husband Ted Oswald, works with MCC Haiti as the Policy Analyst & Advocacy Coordinator. This post was originally published on Ted and Katharine’s personal blog. 

This afternoon would be a good time to send out a prayer request for Haiti. This evening, we expect the election results – the first election results in over four years – to be announced for all eagerly awaiting parties. These are the first-round legislative election results, tallied from voters’ choices two Sundays ago, August 9.

On that day, Ted and I participated in elections monitoring with a longtime MCC partner and a top Haitian human rights organization, RNDDH. RNDDH trains and mobilizes hundreds of elections monitors to disperse throughout Haiti’s ten departments, keeping a close eye out for irregularities in voting procedures. With RNDDH team leaders and drivers, we each traveled throughout the Port-au-Prince region, checking in with fixed elections observers at dozens of voting centers and reporting information back to RNDDH headquarters.

Our 15-hour day, roving around localities as diverse as Fond-Parisien, to Leogane, to Cite Soleil, felt like a major initiatory experience into the political process in Haiti.

Our fearless team leader, Minerve (on the right) with our driver/experienced observer/co-boss of MCC Haiti, Kurt (left) (Not pictured: our third team leader, Nixon Boumba.)

Our fearless team leader, Minerve (on the right) with our driver/experienced observer/co-boss of MCC Haiti, Kurt (left)
(Not pictured: our third team leader, Nixon Boumba.)

The feedback from Haitian elections monitoring teams after the fact was unequivocal: the elections proceedings were rife with irregularities and instances of corruption. Of 1,500 voting centers in the country, 54 had to be closed on elections day due to violent disturbances. (We visited one such site after it had closed. Ballot boxes were toppled and torn ballots spread everywhere.) And just because a voting center was not closed does not mean there weren’t clear problems with how voting proceeded. Lack of voter confidentiality, intimidation, and general disorder within voting centers was documented at centers all over the country. An estimated 6 individuals lost their lives. Some groups felt that the results from this first round of elections should be disregarded, but that option has since been thrown out the window by Haiti’s electoral council.

The explosion of political parties since Haiti’s last election is one factor that led to so much chaos on election day. Candidates represented over 100 parties, and each party technically had the right to have an elections mandataires in place, to prevent fraud at voting stations. Instead, what we saw, is that squabbles among party mandataires kept many voting centers from opening up on time, and party representatives were very active in campaigning for their candidates within voting center boundaries. From several accounts we heard, the elderly were especially targeted in this way. (At one center in far, southwest Haiti, young men working for political parties offered to drive elderly folks to the voting center if they would vote a certain way.)

Entering a voting center - see all the campaign posters on the gate that aren't supposed to be there.

Entering a voting center – see all the campaign posters on the gate that aren’t supposed to be there.

I don’t share all this detail to discourage people – though I will say the experience was profoundly discouraging, mostly so for our Haitian co-workers and colleagues at RNDDH – but to paint a picture of what this means for further elections planned for this year, and even for how it implicates international donors.

These first-round legislative elections were funded by international donor countries, and the next two rounds planned for this year (October 25 and December 27) will also largely be funded by foreign bodies. It’s a large investment by outsiders, but it cannot be forgotten that this is Haitian business and should be determined primarily by Haitians. When international donors and monitoring groups like Organization of American States – who sent a couple dozen representatives to observe elections – said that things went “well enough,’’ or “as best as could be expected,” it felt like an insult to Haitians, who have seen something better. The general feeling was “why set the standards so low?” when, clearly, these irregularities would cause much more concern and consideration if they occurred in richer countries. 

Of course no one wants the elections to have to be re-held. It would jeopardize the plan to hold second-round elections, first-round mayoral, and Presidential elections later this year. But Haitians also want to see a process that makes sense, that doesn’t just pass as “good enough.”

No results announced this evening could please everyone. Obviously, with 100+ political parties, quite a few people are going to be disappointed either way. Some amount of protests and roadblocks are expected in the streets – it’s just a matter of how many.

Please pray tonight:

–For safety in the streets as results are announced; for no violence or targeting of parties.

–For peace, for minimal disruption of people’s lives.

–For results that are somehow beneficial and  truly helpful for the country moving forward.

–For good governance, international partnerships, and the participation of the population in further election activities.

–That people would trust the potential good in the process enough to continue voting and working for the good of their country.

A finger being marked to indicate a completed vote.

A finger being marked to indicate a completed vote.

I personally admit that prayer in light of big, complex processes can feel simple or inadequate at times. But it’s a major way to deepen our engagement, to demonstrate love, and affirm Hope, isn’t it?

To continue to pray for Haiti, consider taking part in Days of Prayer for the Displaced in Haiti and the Dominican Republic from Aug 31 to Sept 6. Resources are available online. 

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Jello for Breakfast, Rice the Rest of the Time


Lettuce, but no rice!

Anna Vogt is the MCC LACA Advocacy and Policy Analyst. This post was originally published on Anna’s personal blog.  

Every lunch and dinner at the conference last month included a giant bowl of iceberg lettuce. There were different dressings and toppings for the lettuce at each meal. If that had been the only vegetable option, it would have been a little sad. Instead, there were generally at least two other veggie choices and I was impressed with the variety and flavour of meals cooked for seven thousand people.

After the second meal, however, I could predict with complete accuracy the response of the majority of my Colombian colleagues every time we approached the food tables. To a one, the expression was the same at every meal: “Lettuce again? It will be so good to be back in Colombia to eat normal food.”

Rice at the farm.

Rice at the farm.

Every single meal I have eaten with Colombians over the past four years has been centered around rice. Until the second last meal in Harrisburg, when I finally blurted out how tired I was of rice in response to a colleague’s despair over six days of lettuce, I had never expressed my boredom with rice to Colombians.


Rice with chicken

In fact, I feel very little liberty to complain about anything in Colombian society to Colombians. I generally say nothing about air pollution, traffic, public safety, really long meetings, and especially, the food.

Colombian food is not my favourite (besides the mayonnaise flavoured potato chips). A popular dish, the Bandeja Paisa, consists of ground beef, pork rinds, fried eggs, beans, rice, sausage, arepas, and avocado. It’s not that it tastes bad, it is just greasy, salty, kind of bland, and an exercise in excess that usually involves two full recovery days, just like poutine.

Last week, I saw a woman sitting on a park bench eating cold hot dogs out of can. The same little sausages are the most popular items ordered from a colleague’s catalogue side business and have become a popular breakfast item, alongside soda crackers. Yesterday, I found, tucked inside my power bill in the mail, a coupon for a breakfast combo from a local coffee shop: a cappuccino, a deep fried pastry with cheese, and a green jello cup. When did  jello and hot dogs become breakfast foods?


But more than anything, I am tired of rice. Leftover rice for breakfast, rice and pasta, rice pudding, rice mixed with tuna, chicken, salty cheese and quail eggs, with chicken flavoured potato chips on the side.

Yet is was not until I was surrounded by one hundred Colombians at the MWC Assembly, the majority very vocally expressing their dislike of lettuce and overly sweetened lemonade, that I realised that I also have a voice.

Ever since returning to Colombia, I have had multiple conversations with fellow foreigners about our fear of complaining, several of whom even gave up vegetarianism, just to make things easier for their communities. Why don’t we feel like we have a right to express our own feelings to Colombians when they often show no hesitation in expressing their feelings to us, in our home contexts? When are our personal opinions valid?  Are we so afraid of creating conflict or replicating colonial patterns that we go to the opposite extreme of over-the-top praise for a plate of rice?

As I mull over these thoughts, I keep on remembering my first week on the coast. It has slowly faded into a blur of confusion, but The Great Chicken Killing Day of 2011 still stands out.  I was invited to accompany the culmination of the San Pablo school’s productive project: the butchering and sale of hundreds of chickens. There were people chasing chickens, plucking chickens, killing chickens, weighing chickens and gutting chickens, yet I was forbidden from doing anything because I was the special international guest. In an attempt to make me feel useful, I was finally allowed to write down the weight and price of each chicken.

Yet when people scurried to get a fancy chair for their international visitor and wondered what they would feed me, community leader Juana waved away their concerns. “Anna can sit anywhere and eat anything. She is like one of us.” So I sat in my plastic chair and ate my chicken and rice, just like everybody else, confident (and also dreading) that doing so was one small step closer to gaining enough trust to be allowed to someday also pluck the chickens.

A year's supply of rice hanging in a traditional rural home in the Montes de Maria.

A year’s supply of rice hanging in a traditional rural home in the Montes de Maria.

Over the past few years, I have meet not only chicken projects, but also other food producers (including rice) and seen the hard work, with very little profit, that they proudly engage in everyday to feed their families and their country. When I eat avocados, I think of the farmers in the Montes de Maria and the economic devastation they are facing, along with their determination to stay farming on their land. I still may not enjoy eating rice everyday, but I am trying to cultivate an appreciation for the work of the campesinos that feeds Colombia. To tell farmers their food is not something I want to eat, even when it is not the food I prefer, feels like throwing that work in their face.

Understanding food’s context makes eating with a community of food producers a joy, not a sacrifice of taste.

I do think there are moments for expressing discomfort, especially as reminders that we come from different contexts and cultures, with all of the preferences associated with those backgrounds.  Looking back, I can see with clarity instances where it would have been helpful if I had stated a frustration or hesitation, instead of blind acceptance, because it would have made  made things easier in the future.  In my house, therefore, I invite people to try other foods and try not to be offended when they don’t like them, including the lettuce.

In a country, and a global economic system, based on class and privilege, however, I do not want to perpetuate patterns of superiority and status, where my tastes are pandered to simply because of my background. The personal is, after all, political. 

Pass the rice, please.

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Weekly News Round-Up, August 14

“To be a young person is not a crime.” Guatemala Photo: Anna Vogt

Four Ways Mexico’s Indigenous Farmers Are Practicing the Agriculture of the Future

The use of erosion control barriers, intercropping, and seed saving are part of the knowledge León Santos inherited from his Zapotec ancestors. And it’s working. León Santos says he has seen yields increase fourfold after incorporating these ancient and modern sustainable growing techniques. The newly established vegetation sequesters atmospheric carbon and attracts biodiversity.

Families United say the GATEs have been involved in at least sixty cases of forced disappearance in the region. The group has also been accused of carrying out threats, arbitrary detentions, intimidations, robberies, and beatings, and even ofplanting explosive devices at a police station and a city hall in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. According to Ariana García Bosque, a lawyer who works with Families United, GATEs routinely detain and torture people for two or three days before handing them over to authorities. They justify their actions by allegedly claiming the detained were involved in organized crime. Meanwhile, the governor of Coahuila has dismissed out of hand claims that the GATEs are involved in criminal activity.

Kidnappings in Guatemala Fall Dramatically: Report

An alternative explanation for why kidnapping is going down in Guatemala is that criminals no longer see the crime as an easy source of income. It is possible that instead, criminals have turned to extortion. This is an attractive alternative to kidnappingas it is less labor intensive, harder to trace, and can be carried out en masse, even from behind bars. In Guatemala alone, extortion is  a $61-million-a-year criminal industry.

El Salvador Now Using Anti-Terrorism Law to Tackle Gangs

El Salvador has invoked its anti-terrorism laws to prosecute alleged gang members — raising the debate over definitions of crime and terrorism, where the two intersect, and the government’s motives in framing the gangs as terrorist organizations.

Food insecurity in Nicaragua: farming on the edge of a volcano

Within the model farms, vegetable gardens are being managed using agro-ecology methods. Where possible, natural processes, are being used – instead of chemical fertilisers, nitrogen-fixing plants are being planted among rows of crops, acting as a form of natural fertiliser. These methods help prevent the buildup of financial debt and are more beneficial to the environment. Significant effort goes into promoting soil health, which increases water retention and promotes crop growth. The aim is to grow more food using the limited land and water resources that are available. Alongside the farms, beehives provide an additional source of income and encourage conservation of the surrounding forest.

Blood, sweat and sugar: Trade deal fails Haitian workers on DR plantations

Workers are paid by the weight of what they cut, which means older and sicker people earn less or work longer hours. Often both. Pierre says he makes the equivalent of $3.34 per ton and usually cuts a ton a day. That’s far below the three tons a day cut by more able-bodied workers. It still works out to 8 cents more than the minimum daily wage for cane cutters, but that minimum wage is for an eight-hour day. Pierre says he works 12-hour days. The legal limit for cane cutting is 10 hours, and for anything over eight, the law requires overtime pay, which Pierre says he doesn’t get. The DOL has been demanding that cutters’ hours be monitored, and at least one company, CAEI, the country’s second-largest sugar producer, recently started complying, but most don’t. So payment varies tremendously from plantation to plantation, and overtime pay is rare.

A sweet deal: The royal family of cane benefits from political giving

In 2013, after a two-year investigation, the department issued a report expressing concern that the Dominican government might be failing to protect sugar workers. The report was followed by three reviews, one every six months, that found working conditions still lacking. But as the DOL pushed for reform in Dominican sugar, members of Congress and other politicians maintained lucrative relationships with the royal family of cane: the Fanjuls.

Colombian army unit commander sentenced to 58 years for murdering civilians

Lieutenant colonel Beismarck Salamanca was the commander of the Urban Counter Terrorist Special Forces (AFEUR) unit, an elite unit created to carry our counter-terrorism and hostage rescue operations. However, instead of going after alleged terrorists, Salamanca’s unit executed innocent civilians in separate operations in 2004 and 2005, dressed their victims’ bodies in guerrilla outfits and presented the homicides as combat kills.

Toward a Sustainable Peace In Colombia

This latest de-escalation of the conflict between the FARC and the Colombian government offers not only hope, as Humberto de la Calle, Colombia’s head negotiator, described it, of “a great chance to end this conflict,” but also of reducing the environmental destruction associated with it. Whether it can lead to a lasting peace, however, remains to be seen. If the FARCs ceasefire remains in place, in four months Santos has said he will revisit the agreement and consider the progress made in the peace talks, with an eye toward consideration of a bilateral ceasefire. Unfortunately, peace alone won’t solve Colombia’s environmental problems. As the FARC pointed out in response to criticism after the Tumaco spill, they aren’t the only one’s responsible for environmental degradation. The economic and environmental policies of the government, or lack thereof, also play a significant role, particularly in important areas of the Colombian economy, such as fossil fuel extraction, palm oil production, and mining.

Bolivia’s president Morales says he wants to improve ties with US

Bolivia is set to try to rebuild ties with the United States and exchange ambassadors again, President Evo Morales said Tuesday, citing Washington’s warmer Iran and Cuba stances. “We are here today to get back on course to good relations with the United States,” Morales told a briefing at the presidential palace, ahead of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic visit to Havana on Friday.

A Bolivian Subway in the Sky (photo essay)

The city of La Paz, Bolivia, has long struggled with transportation issues. Steep terrain, high density, and narrow streets have resulted in years of traffic nightmares for fleets of minibuses and private taxis. In the past two years, the government has worked to alleviate this by building the largest urban cable-car system in the world. Currently La Paz has three urban ropeway lines in operation, stretching over 10 kilometers, with plans to triple the size of the network. The city recently announced six new lines, which will extend the aerial system to 30 kilometers and carry up to 27,000 passengers an hour.

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A flurry of support for peace

Charissa Zehr is the legislative associate for international affairs at the MCC Washington office. This article was originally posted on the Washington Memo

You know how it goes when you are getting ready to go on vacation- a flurry of activity to accomplish all the tasks that need to be done before you can really take a break, unplug and unwind. The same holds true for Congress! The last weeks have been busy with wrapping up all kinds of loose ends before the August recess. The good news is that this resulted in a flurry of actions in support of the peace process in Colombia.

Justapaz meets with Representative Ruben Gallego (AZ)

On July 29, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter to President Santos of Colombia, expressing that they are encouraged by the progress of negotiations to date. They reaffirmed the commitment of the U.S. government to remain engaged and supportive of the peace process. Representatives Sanchez (CA) & Gallego (AZ) signed the statement as the leaders of the Caucus. MCC’s partner, Justapaz, recently met with Representative Gallego while here in Washington.

On Monday, Representative McGovern (MA) and Representative Farr (CA) sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry and U.S. Special Envoy Aronson in support of the ongoing peace process in Colombia. The letter urges the negotiating parties to keep victims rights at the forefront of the talks. Signed by 65 members of the House, this is an encouraging sign that U.S. policymakers remain engaged in these critical negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC.

At a time when things have been rather uncertain in the Colombian peace process, these signs of affirmation and support are exciting to see from Congressional leaders. This has been a continual message of our advocacy efforts, from Colombian partners and from other advocacy organizations that we partner with in Washington, D.C. The people, the churches and the grassroots movements in Colombia are longing for peace. These recent signs of public support from Congress suggest that they have heard these messages.

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Are Haiti’s tent cities being forgotten?


Mennonite Central Committee Haiti is part of the Coordination Committee of NGOs – Haiti (CCO), a consortium of NGOs operating in the sectors of humanitarian aid and development in Haiti. This piece was written by David Kroeker-Maus, originally published here, and is based on a French-language press release recently issued by the CCO.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, August 5, 2015 (AMG) — A group of over 40 non-governmental organisations in Haiti has today called on the government there to not let elections overshadow the plight of Haitians still living in camps and tent cities after the 2010 earthquake.

The statement released by the Haiti NGO Coordination Committee (known by its French acronym CCO-Haiti) calls on the Haitian government to ensure that residents in camps and other informal settlements are still provided with basic services and are not subjected to forced evictions later this year.

Background: More than five years after the devastating earthquake of 12 January, 2010, at least 60,000 people are still living in 45 camps in and around Port-au-Prince, according to the figures used by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Although this is a significant reduction since the height of post-earthquake displacement in 2010, when 1.5 million people were living in tent cities, the situation of those still living in the camps remains bleak.

The Haitian government has committed to a goal of closing all camps by the end of 2015, but many civil society organisations are worried that, without any permanent housing in place, the closure of the camps will result in forced evictions of camp residents with nowhere else to go. Indeed, the IOM estimated that at least 23,000 residents being threatened with evictions had not yet been targeted for relocation assistance.

Moreover, COO-Haiti noted that several programmes which provide basic services such as water and sanitation, as well as help with relocation, will come to an end between June and September this year. The group notes that, with little or no basic services, the day-to-day life of camp dwellers is “characterised by extreme vulnerability.”

A matter of human rights: Recognising the current electoral campaign, the statement says “even though elections are currently the priority of the Haitian government, it remains no less of an obligation for the state to work for the respect and promotion of the human rights of everyone within its territory.”

The NGO group is calling on the Haitian government to respect and apply laws and international obligations that protect internally displaced persons, to ensure that the regularisation of informal settlements does not translate to forced evictions.

The statement makes several appeals to the Haitian government to respect its international obligations to protect internally displaced persons, and to guarantee access to sanitation services, housing and legal aid to protect home ownership and promote security of tenure.

The statement can be read in its entirety (in French) here.

Image Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid

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Weekly News Roundup, August 7

Small family garden in Colombia.  Photo: Anna Vogt

Family garden plot in Colombia. Photo: Anna Vogt

Artists in Mexico turn low-income neighborhood into one giant mural

A community project in central Mexico is bringing art to people’s homes. Literally. An artists’ collective known as the German Crew have spent 14 months turning the hillside neighborhood of Las Palmitas into a giant, colorful mural in an effort to bring the working-class “barrio” together and change its gritty image.

Huge Mexico City Rally Over Killing of Journalist

Of the seven journalists killed in 2015, four worked in Veracruz. Since 2010, 13 journalists have been killed there in the tenure of Gov. Javier Duarte, of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, according to Article 19, a media rights group. In all, 41 journalists have been killed since 2010. To those at the rally, the killing was a reminder of the violence journalists face here. “I can’t put responsibility for his death on the government directly, but we can hold this government responsible for the climate of harassment and impunity that prevails in Veracruz,” said Jenaro Villamil, an investigative journalist.

Honduras And Guatemala Anti-Corruption Protests Spur Hope For Change For The First Time In Decades

“This is a really historic time in Central America,” said Arturo Matute, a Guatemala-based analyst for the nonprofit International Crisis Group, headquartered in Belgium. “The question is whether this will really turn into a critical juncture in which society, civil organizations, the private sector and political parties can really come together in making the best out of this opportunity that’s being presented to us to begin really cleaning up our state institutions.”

Guatemala Calling: Lynchings and the Politics of Inequality

The barriers to popular participation are steep, as already noted, but these protests suggest a fundamental shift in citizen voice and activism. They also demonstrate the country’s marked shift away from when organized violence was the default reaction to political disenfranchisement. What is needed now are the systemic changes that redistribute opportunity that protestors are demanding, and provide opportunities to influence policing and daily security fears. Until then, lynchings will continue to exact a toll on victims, perpetrators, and the collective Guatemalan psyche.

The Executioners of El Salvador

“We’re a society that knows nothing about peace,” Oscar told me. “I’ve never lived it.” These days, El Salvador, he argued, is in the grip of something terrible, something frightening and lawless, and it’s natural for people to be outraged. But allowing police to kill with impunity is far too dangerous a proposition in a country with El Salvador’s history of state violence…The night before he left the country, Óscar told me that he understood the anger, and he knew that he and his co-authors would be attacked for his investigation. “I only hope,” he said, “that the readers who applaud the fact that the police are now judge, jury, and executioner don’t suffer one day at the hands of the police they’ve empowered.”

As murders soar, El Salvador gangs want to talk truce

Santiago looks at the gangs in political terms – poor, deprived communities which are ignored by the state and which must be given a better deal. “There are no football teams, but there are gangs. No boy scouts, but gangs. Nothing, just gangs,” Santiago told of the communities during an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera. “They don’t understand our culture. They have never taken the trouble to understand the phenomenon of the gangs,” he said.

Honduras’ Garifuna communities resist eviction and theft of land

Additionally, the communities’ locations make them vulnerable to encroachment by palm oil producers and narco-traffickers. Therefore, defending territory has also come to mean defense against these legal and illegal industries. By recuperating the land, the Garifuna communities will be able to continue to slow down the transportation of narcotics through their territory. Since 2012, the community of Vallecito has through their permanent presence successfully kept the local narco-traffickers from reconstructing a transit point along the coast, which was destroyed by the Honduran military. But the communities have faced intimidation and violence from the traffickers.

Thousands of Haitians fleeing Dominican Republic stuck in camps

Tens of thousands of Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans have fled the Dominican Republic in response to its strict new immigration policy with many settling in squalid camps in Haiti. Haitian officials estimate the population at four camps in the south of Haiti is at least 2,000 and growing.

The United States Once Invaded and Occupied Haiti

The United States ended its occupation in 1934, but its effects still persist today. The U.S. turned Port-au-Prince into a bustling urban center and created an army to squelch opposition in rural areas, explains Tharoor. Future leaders employed the same model to maintain dominance. The U.S. occupation may have failed in its goal of improving American and Haitian relations, but it it left a blueprint for oppressors to come.

Where Are the Bodies Buried in Colombia?

Unmarked graves, mass graves and common graves abound in Colombia. The puzzle is finding those who know their whereabouts and who they contain. This is clearly easier said than done. As the Criminologist said: “These groups are organized, the idea is to leave no evidence and no witnesses.” It is clear that La Escombrera is just a start as thousands of Colombian families yearn for closure in a process which could easily take decades.

Rewriting the History of Plan Colombia

Lost somewhere in the narrative battle is the fact that, during the last 25 years, the FARC has not even been the biggest human rights violator in Colombia. Moreover, the consensus among serious analysts is that Plan Colombia was one of the major factors in the breakdown of the government’s previous negotiations with the rebels. If Kelly understood his mission as “charting the path to peace,” he wouldn’t have published his incendiary op-ed when he did: at a moment when the two-and-a-half-year peace process was faltering and talks were preparing to broach the subject of transitional justice, for FARC rebels who “displaced innocents and destroyed livelihoods across Colombia” and for members of the Colombian military who did the same, only on a larger scale.

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The Harsh Law V. Christ: Haitan Criminal Justice Up-Close

Inside the court room

Inside the court room

Ted Oswald, together with his wife Katharine Oswald, works with MCC Haiti as the Policy Analyst & Advocacy Coordinator. This post was originally published on Ted and Katharine’s personal blog

When setting foot into the Palais de Justice in Les Cayes, Haiti, I am greeted by bold words Nicholas Nickleby might have copied from the walls of Dotheboys Hall: Dura Lex, Sed Lex, the law is harsh but it is the law. On its own, not the most surprising maxim to find in a courtroom. What makes me stare is that beneath it is a crucifix.

I nudge the Haitian lawyer next to me. “Is this display common in Haitian courtrooms?” He assures me it is.

The room bustles. Lawyers don their long black robes and law students natter and clerks huff and passersby with wide-open afternoons settle into back benches to be entertained. As I take my seat I puzzle over Christ and the Harsh Law and their meaning, intended and otherwise. Bells ring. We rise. We sit. I take out my pen, my notepad. I observe.

The Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) is a Haitian human rights organization representing a trio of victim’s interests in a civil lawsuit against five men accused of violent crimes, including murder. BAI invited trial observers to help encourage fair proceedings and protect victims from reprisal. As the lawyers’ verbal sparring picks up, the language is either in French or a barrage of Kreyòl too speedy for my mind to match. The temperature increases and I pull at my necktie. I find my observing eye stray, taking in details around the courtroom.

Met Mario Joseph of BAI with the victims and supporting witnesses

Met Mario Joseph of BAI with the victims and supporting witnesses

First, there are the victims. Back in 2007, they were attacked by Jean Morose Viliena, the local magistrate, and a group of his supporters in the town of Les Irois. One victim lost his eye. One lost his leg. Another lost his brother. For bizarre procedural reasons—the court secretary didn’t take notes or they were lost, so the high court set aside the original guilty verdict and ordered a re-trial—all of the victims were there in court, repeating their testimony, hoping for justice. I am impressed by their composure.

Second, there are the accused. The five men sit on a bench, looking tired, sad, or plain absent. Their ages vary from their late twenties to one man in his sixties. They’ve already been incarcerated for over seven years in Haitian prison while proceedings have stretched on. One of their cohort died during this time, and Jean Morose Viliena, their leader, reportedly absconded to the U.S. to avoid trial. I am struck by how very ordinary these men charged with so much harm appear.

Third, there are the lawyers. The prosecutor—calm, imperious—does most of the questioning. The opposing sides have deep benches of lawyers and they approach the lectern in turn like tag-team wrestlers.

There is a theatricality to the defense’s questioning that irks me. Imagine recreating a trial eight years after the initial crime, with no court transcripts, police reports, or physical evidence, just the testimony of the victims and their bodies, the accused, and a collection of witnesses. Though I don’t doubt the guilt of these accused, I wonder about the imperfect justice this system is known to churn out. I compare what I’m seeing to trials I’ve watched in U.S. criminal court and I sit in a place of judgment. But then I scold myself. Racially-disparate outcomes; money meaning the difference between guilt and innocence; wrongful convictions; pressuring innocent defendants to accept harsh plea bargains. The American brand of justice just hides its seams better.

The afternoon wears on. Another bead of sweat slips down my face. My eyes wander.

They return to Christ on his cross. Why is the crucifix even here? If I understand correctly, the maxim and the crucifix lack a shared, cumulative meaning. But I can’t escape them in this space together.

Jesus’ face happens to be inclined toward the accused. Jesus, the all-seeing, all-knowing. Jesus, wounded for the sins of the world. It brings to mind Calvary itself, when Jesus invited the repentant thief to enter into Paradise. I wonder if these men, likely to be condemned, are repentant.

Ah, the law is harsh, and it is the law, and I am for justice, but I am for grace. Not impunity, but a grace big enough to meet and cover the villainous wrongdoing of those men on that bench who very likely maimed and murdered. A grace able to temper that harsh law.

Outside the courthouse

Outside the courthouse

Ted Blog Aug 4

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