Heat Is On In Central America (It's Not Just Nicaragua)

100 days of resistance
100 days of resistance
Daniela Quintero Díaz


BOGOTA — Nicaragua is facing its most violent crisis since the 1980s, when President Daniel Ortega first led the country. Between 295 and 448 people have been killed after more than three months of protests and violent crackdown by security forces, according to various rights groups. Ortega himself put the number last week at 195, and went so far as to blame ISIS for the chaotic situation.

But while Nicaragua may be garnering the most media attention right now, it is by no means the only problem-spot in Central America. Democratic political systems were established in the region starting in the 1990s, following a period of authoritarian governments. In Nicaragua, the Somoza family dynasty held power for more than 40 years (1937-1979). El Salvador was under the thumb of army dictatorships for nearly half a century (1931-1979). And in Guatemala, military governments — with help from the United States — ran the country from 1954 to 1982. All of that resulted in revolutionary movements and civil wars that continue to have repercussions today.

In addition, these countries all have high levels of poverty, inequality and marginalization that have led to serious problems with violent crime, displacement, migration and drug trafficking. The Northern Triangle countries (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) in particular struggle with an alarming mix of violence, insecurity and corruption.

Disputed elections in Honduras

The recent history of Honduras has seen a breakdown of key institutions and a series of political crises. The current leader, Juan Orlando Hernández, began his second presidential term on Jan. 27, following controversial elections that were marred by fraud allegations.

Hernández owes his new term to a Supreme Court decision that lifted a Constitutional ban on reelection. The country's vote-tallying system was also hit by a supposed "electrical failure" and the election results were delayed by several weeks, prompting observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) to recommend an election do-over.

Citizens took to the streets to protest the apparent electoral fraud. The government responded with military repression. It declared a curfew and a 45-day state of emergency. At least 34 people were killed during that time, according to the Honduran rights group Casa Alianza.

As if that weren't enough, in 2015, during Hernández's first term, evidence surfaced of a $335 million embezzlement scam involving the public health system. The president reacted by asking the OAS to supply a Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).

Later, the MACCIH uncovered another scandal, this time involving legislators who allegedly took nearly $12 million in public funds earmarked for non-profit humanitarian projects and invested the money in electoral campaigns. Evidence from the Pandora case, as it's known, implicates lawmakers, public officials, private individuals and political organizations (including Hernandez's National Party) on both the left and the right.

The situation in Honduras hasn't improved since then. Recently, anti-corruption prosecutor Luis Santos called for passage of a so-called "whistle-blower" law to reward people for supplying authorities with the information needed to break up corruption networks. The law has been collecting dust in Congress since early 2017.

"We're uncovering some corruption networks, but it's impossible to find out who's running things at the top without offering some kind of benefit to the people who have already come forward trying to provide the necessary information," he said.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for its part, has visited Honduras to evaluate the country's humanitarian situation, especially in light of the post-election political crisis that, according to the United Nations, saw at last 22 protestors killed as a direct result of government repression. That's on top of the alarming levels of everyday violence and insecurity in Honduras, which has a per-capita homicide rate of 43 per 100,000 inhabitants — four times what international organizations classify as an "epidemic."

Murder and migration in El Salvador

The homicide numbers are even higher in El Salvador, where they are attributed in large part to the "maras," as the country's street gangs are known. And they pose a huge challenge to the Salvadoran government, led by Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

The maras are international crime organizations that first arose on the streets of Los Angeles, in the United States, where thousands of Central Americans migrated to escape the civil wars of the 1980s. Once there, they joined already existing Latino gangs, only to be deported later on — and en masse — to their countries of origin. Upon returning, the gangs decided to replicate their model in Central America.

Nowadays, the maras have an estimated 70,000 members in El Salvador. The two largest are the Mara Salvatrucha (M-13) and Barrio 18 gangs. They are involved primarily in extortion rackets and drugs trafficking, and move large sums of money.

The pressure they exert has led to the forced displacement of regular Salvadoran citizens, both internally and, in large part, to the United States. Emigrating to the United States, however, has now become even more difficult due to the immigration policies of President Donald Trump, who also announced recently that the U.S. government will end its Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program. TPS benefits more than 400,000 people, including an estimated 195,000 Salvadorans who will have to return to the violence from which they fled.

Salvadoran authorities have consistently failed to rein in the maras, despite implementing a series of "mano dura" (iron fist) policies that have only increased the levels of violence. A gang truce that Sánchez Cerén's predecessor, Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), helped broker in 2012 by offering improved prison conditions for jailed gang members, was an exception.

After taking office in 2014, Sánchez Cerén turned his back on the truce, and in 2015 the Supreme Court officially classified the gangs as "terrorists." Since then there's been a spike in the number of deadly shootouts between police and suspected gang members.

Santiago, a Barrio 18 member since he was 15, addressed the "terrorism" label in an interview with the New York Times. "The only parallel I see with terrorism is that we represent a certain community, a segment of society that has been marginalized. But our violence is not ideological and certainly not religious," he said.

"The question isn't what services we provide," he added. "The question is more fundamental: What does our existence say about the government and the services it fails to provide? We exist because there is nothing else."

This, then, is the backdrop as El Salvador gears up for its next presidential elections, in February 2019. The most pressing question is what the next administration can do to tackle a problem that has proved impervious to a "mano dura" approach and seems to get worse by the day.

Fighting impunity in Guatemala

Guatemala is on shaky ground as well, and not just because of the deadly volcanic eruption on June 3 that killed scores and directly impacted some 1.7 million people. There's also the constant struggle between organized corruption and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed investigative and prosecutorial body set up nearly a dozen years ago.

The person who has led the CICIG for the past five years is Iván Velásquez, a law expert from Colombia. But in August 2017, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales declared Velásquez a persona non grata and ordered that he be expelled from the country. At issue was a CICIQ embezzlement inquiry involving Morales's brother and one of his four sons.

Velásquez had already played a key role in other corruption probes, including one that landed former President Otto Pérez (2012-2015) in jail. And recently, he exposed possible campaign financing irregularities linked to Morales's electoral campaign and political party, the National Convergence Front (FCN). Investigators with the CICIG found that while the FCN reported $14,000 in campaign spending, it may actually have spent around $960,000, according to the investigative news portal InSight Crime.

The president's decision to expel Velásquez was blocked by the Supreme Court. And it cost him both politically and in terms of important international aid money. Several ministers and deputy ministers resigned, and thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets to protest.

More recently, in June, Guatemalan authorities withdrew half of the police assigned to protect members of the CICIG. In an interview with AFP, the country's human rights ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, responded by calling it "yet another blow by the government which, instead of supporting the CICIG, is eroding its ability to function."

Despite the CICIG's accomplishments, its mandate ends in just a few weeks, on Sept. 3. And for the first time, there's no guarantee it will survive. That's because the only person who can formally request that the mandate be extended is the president — the same person who wants Velásquez gone.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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