El Salvador sees most deadly month in 10 years as violence overwhelms nation

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The month of June saw 677 murders in El Salvador, more than in any other single month since the end of the country’s bloodycivil war in 1992. Miguel Fortin Magana, director of the country’s Legal Medicine Institute, said July 3 that June’s total surpassed May’s total of 641 murders.

The first six months of this year have produced 2,965 murders, compared with 1,840 murders during the same period last year. The country is the size of Massachusetts and has a population of 6.1 million, confirming El Salvador’s rank as one of the world’s most dangerous places outside a war zone.

El Salvador had enjoyed a relative respite from violence after the Catholic church and the country’s previous government helped negotiate a truce between the country’s biggest street gangs, MS-13 and Calle 18, in February 2012. The ceasefire almost halved the murder rate and raised hopes that the country might finally emerge from decades of violence, but the delicate peace started to collapse more than a year ago.

It was declared officially over by the police in March 2014, and the new leftist-FMLN president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, ruled out further negotiations. Violence then surged as the country’s street gangs renewed their clashes with government forces and among themselves.

The recent spike points to a bitter escalation in the confrontation between gang members and security forces. Almost 40 police officers were killed last year, and at least 17 have lost their lives this year. In January, the director of the national police told rank and file officers to shoot criminals without fear of reprisals, and in one recent week alone three hand grenades were thrown at police stations, although it is not clear whom by.

Salvadorean authorities have unequivocally blamed the carnage on the gangs, but drug traffickers have also contributed to the mayhem. Taking advantage of the country’s weak institutions and high levels of corruption, international cartels have helped transform El Salvador into an important staging post for illegal drugs heading north to the United States.

According to InsightCrime, a group which analyses organized crime in the Americas, the pattern of criminality in El Salvador is increasingly “taking on overtones of a low-intensity war.”

The latest murder figures are a bitter blow to President Sánchez, who is trying to galvanize support for a radical new security strategy which focuses on social programs, prison reform and crime prevention rather than the more populist mano dura (iron fist) crackdowns.

– edited from The Associated Press, July 3, 2015, and The Guardian (U.K.), April 6, 2015
PeaceMeal, July/August 2015

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Chilean accused of murder and torture taught 13 years for Pentagon

SANTIAGO, Chile — A member of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s brutal secret police, who has been accused of murder and torture, taught for 13 years at the Pentagon’s premier university, despite repeated complaints by colleagues about his past. Jaime Garcia Covarrubias is charged in criminal court in Santiago with being the mastermind in the execution-style slayings of seven people in 1973, according to court documents. Another person alleged that Garcia Covarrubias was the person who sexually tortured him.

Despite knowing of the allegations, State and Defense department officials allowed Garcia Covarrubias to retain his visa and continue working at a school affiliated with the National Defense University until last year.

Some Latin America experts said the hiring by the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies reflected a continuing inclination by the U.S government to overlook human rights violations in Latin America, especially in countries where it funded actions to quash leftists.

The hiring of Garcia Covarrubias “undermines our moral authority on both human rights and in the war on terror,” said Chris Simmons, a former Defense Intelligence Agency and Army intelligence officer from 1982 to 2010 who specializes in Latin America. “If he is in fact guilty of what he is accused of, he is a terrorist. Then who are we to tell other countries how they should be fighting terrorism?”

To his supporters, Garcia Covarrubias is a brilliant thinker with a Ph.D. and purveyor of leadership skills. To his alleged victims, he’s a sadistic torturer with a penchant for perversity.

A 2008 Chilean military document identified him as a member of the Directorate of National Intelligence, the feared spy agency known by its acronym DINA. “DINA was simply the most sinister agency in Latin America,” said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst with the National Security Archive, which secured the release of U.S. government classified documents underscoring the complicit relationship between the United States and Pinochet. “Anyone associated with that agency should never have been allowed into this country, let alone given this job.”

Garcia Covarrubias is now back in Chile, ordered by an investigative judge in January 2014 to remain in the country while an inquiry continues into his alleged role in the murders of seven people weeks after the U.S.-backed Pinochet coup on September 11, 1973. His case is one of 108 involving tortured, disappeared or murdered supporters of the overthrown elected president, Salvador Allende. More than 3,000 people died at the hands of the Pinochet regime and, in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell offered regrets for U.S. involvement in the coup, calling it “not a part of American history that we’re proud of.”

One of Garcia Covarrubias’ alleged victims described being brutalized by him. Herman Carrasco told McClatchy News in Chile, “They submitted us to torture twice a day. We were submerged in feces. They stuck rifle barrels in our anuses.”

According to Carrasco, the torture unfolded in October and November 1973 — lorded over by the horsewhip-wielding Garcia Covarrubias — and included electric shock administered to eyelids, genitals and other sensitive areas of the body. The Nixon administration’s support of a regime that relied on rampant torture helped galvanize the human rights movement in the United States.

As early as 2008, Martin Edwin Andersen, the center’s former communications director, tried to talk to the school’s top officials about the charismatic Chilean. Emails show he was repeatedly scolded for raising the matter. As the center supported Garcia Covarrubias, it pushed out Andersen in retaliation. Last September he filed a complaint with the Pentagon’s inspector general. “It’s shameful that at a time the U.S. prestige as a democracy is under attack, that the National Defense University could be playing footsie with a former state terrorism agent,” Andersen said.

Officials with the Pentagon, the State Department and the Perry Center refused to comment. McClatchy News also asked the CIA whether Garcia Covarrubias had ever worked with the agency. “No comment,” said Kali Caldwell, a CIA spokeswoman.

– edited from an article by Marisa Taylor and Kevin G. Hall of Tribune News Service, March 13, 2015
PeaceMeal, May/June 2015

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Ex-dictator’s conviction of genocide in Guatemala annulled

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala’s highest court on May 20 overturned a genocide conviction against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and reset his trial back to when a dispute broke out a month previously over who should hear the case. Rios Montt was found guilty on May 10 of genocide and crimes against humanity during the bloodiest phase of the country’s 36-year civil war.

A panel of three judges sentenced Rios Montt to 50 years in prison on the genocide charge and 30 years for crimes against humanity. It was the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide in his own country.

However, appeals were lodged with the Constitutional Court over alleged irregularities in the handling of the case. That court has now ordered that all the proceedings be voided going back to April 19, when one of the presiding judges suspended the trial because of a dispute with another judge.

Rios Montt, 86, took power after a coup in 1982, and was accused of implementing a scorched-earth policy in which troops massacred thousands of indigenous villagers. Prosecutors said he turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to try to rid Guatemala of leftist rebels during his 1982-1983 rule, the most violent period of a 1960-1996 civil war. Rios Montt was tried over the killings of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous group, just a fraction of the 200,000 people who died and 45,000 more who disappeared. He denied the allegations.

During the nearly two-month trial, close to 100 prosecution witnesses testified about horrific atrocities. “(Rios Montt) had full knowledge of everything that was happening and did not stop it,” Judge Yasmin Barrios, who presided over the trial, told the courtroom where relatives of the victims had followed the proceedings.

The long sentence was a message, activists said, that the previously untouchable military structures can be held accountable.

It was unclear when the trial might restart.

– edited from Reuters and The Associated Press
PeaceMeal, May/June 2013

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Things you should know about Colombia’s armed conflict

Chris Knestrick

Contrary to what the major news sources say, the war in Colombia is about more than drugs.

So much of what the global north consumes comes from Colombia: flowers, bananas, coffee, chocolate, gold, oil, coal, palm oil. So why do we know so little about this country?

The war in Colombia has been raging for the last forty-eight years, which begs the question, “why?” To get to the heart of that question, here are four things everyone should know about Colombia’s armed conflict.

? First and foremost, the war is about land. Over the course of the war, those who have benefited most from the conflict are multinational corporations and large landowners.

Colombia has the largest internally displaced population in the world. Around five million people, mostly subsistence farmers, have fled their homes to take refuge in urban centers, leaving land vacant for the taking by multinational companies and wealthy landowners.

According to Peace Brigades International, “40 percent of Colombia's land has been licensed to, or is being solicited by, multinational companies in order to develop mineral and crude oil mining projects.” Furthermore, about 0.4 percent of the landowners in the country own 61 percent of the land.

? Human rights defenders seek justice and nonviolently struggle to regain their lands. Colombians continue to call for justice and peace for their communities. Many community leaders risk their lives in nonviolent resistance to forced displacement and demanding justice for their lost loved ones. For example, according to Colombia’s leading organization on displacement, CODHES, between March 2002 and January 2011, 44 displaced community leaders who were attempting to return to their land were killed. Moreover, the organization Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders) documented 239 violent attacks against human rights defenders in 2011. The same year, 49 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia.

? Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for union organizers. More union members are killed in Colom-

bia than in the rest of the world combined. Over 2,500 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia in the last 20 years and in 98% of the cases, no one was brought to justice.

The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed by the United States and Colombia in October 2011 ensures ongoing extraction of natural resources and continued threats to the security of union members.

Indeed, workers rights have deteriorated. In 2011, 30 trade unionists were murdered, and four unionists have been killed thus far in 2012.

? The United States has given Colombia billions of dollars in military aid. Under the guise of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, the U.S. government continues to pour military aid into Colombia and train Colombian soldiers in counterinsurgency warfare while human rights abuses continue.

Since the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2000, the United States has given $6 billion in military aid, mostly to fight the War on Drugs. Many experts say that this policy is a proven failure.

Furthermore, a recent report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation notes that “U.S. officials neglected their obligation under the Leahy Law [which prohibits U.S. aid going to battalions that commit human rights abuses], and ... many Colombian military units committed even more extra-judicial killings during and after the highest levels of U.S. assistance to those units.”

Chris Knestrick, based in Ohio, has served full time on the Christian Peacemaker Team in Colombia since 2008. His article was published in Signs of the Times, April-June 2012, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, July/August 2012.

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Former Guatemala dictator faces war crimes charges

GUATEMALA CITY - Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt will face trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity as the Central American nation seeks to close files on a brutal 36-year civil war. A judge found sufficient evidence that linked Rios Montt, who ruled during a particularly bloody period in 1982 and 1983, to the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous people in one counterinsurgency effort. “I believe that there is enough evidence in these charges,” said Judge Carol Flores, who agreed with prosecutors that Rios Montt, as head of the government, should answer for brutality under his rule.

Prosecutors allege that Rios Montt, who ruled as commander-in-chief for 17 months, turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to rid Guatemala of leftist insurgents. Lawyers also charge that Rios Montt conceived a counterinsurgency plan that killed at least 1,771 unarmed members of the Ixil tribe that he said were aiding guerillas and drove another 29,000 more into forced exodus.

Defense attorneys claim that Rios Montt, 85, did not control battlefield operations during the 1960-1996 internal conflict that left nearly a quarter of a million dead or missing and therefore cannot be held responsible. “Each commander is responsible for making decisions in his own post,” attorney Danilo Rodriguez said.

The right-wing party Rios Montt founded has lost relevance and the former general was turned out of Congress in a September general election, losing the immunity from prosecution granted to public officials.

Ixil women clad in bright red indigenous dresses attended the hearing that ended in Rios Montt being ordered to house arrest until a preliminary hearing in March.

– Reuters, January 26, 2012
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2012

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Guatemala sentences four in landmark civil war trial

GUATEMALA CITY - Guatemala on August 2 sentenced four soldiers to 6,060 years of prison each, in the first convictions for a massacre during the country’s brutal 36-year civil war. More than 200 people were killed in December 1982 when Guatemalan soldiers attacked the northern village of Las Dos Erres. The convicted soldiers, all special forces officers in an elite unit known as the Kaibiles, went to the village to look for missing military weapons, believed to be in the hands of left-wing guerillas. They shot, strangled and bludgeoned the villagers to death with sledgehammers.

The officers were given 30 years of prison for the deaths of each of the 201 killed in the attack. The court also found them guilty of crimes against human rights, adding another 30 years to their sentences.

In July, the United States deported former Guatemalan soldier Pedro Pimentel Rios, 54, for his alleged role in the Las Dos Erres massacre. Guatemala’s Public Ministry will hold a separate hearing for him.

The current center-left administration of President Alvaro Colom has been under pressure by human rights organizations to bring war criminals to justice in Guatemala, one of the poorest and most lawless countries in Latin America. Nearly a quarter of a million people were killed in Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war and many thousands are still missing.

– edited from Reuters, August 2, 2011
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2011

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Brazil to buy back guns following school deaths

RIO DE JANEIRO — The Brazilian government has begun a disarmament campaign officials hope will take more than 1 million guns off the streets by the end of the year. Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo launched the campaign May 6 just one month after a lone gunman shot and killed 12 children in a Rio de Janeiro school before taking his own life. In similar campaigns held in 2003 and 2009, 1.1 million firearms were turned in. Cardozo says he hopes more guns will be turned in this year.

The Justice Ministry says on its website that gun owners can turn in their guns and ammunition with no questions asked and will receive the equivalent of up to $190. The weapons will be immediately disabled with a hammer and later melted down at a steel mill.

– The Associated Press, May 6, 2011
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2011

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Secret report suggests Allende was murdered in 1973 coup

Long-secret documents support the theory that Socialist Presi-dent Salvador Allende of Chile may have been assassinated and did not commit suicide during the 1973 coup in which he died, Chile’s state television channel has reported. TVN based its May 30 “Special Report” on a copy of a 300-page military review of Allende’s death long thought to be lost.

Early in his political career, Salvador Allende participated in founding Chile’s Socialist Party and went on to be elected to the Senate four times. He subsequently ran several unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency.

In the United States, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson encouraged Latin America’s “democratic left” as an avenue to social and political change. But U.S. policy toward Latin America changed dramatically after Richard Nixon became president in January 1969. Nixon supported the business elite and military.

When Allende ran for president again in 1970, the Central Intelligence Agency organized a propaganda campaign to sabotage him. Allende was elected anyway, and Nixon then ordered the CIA to come up with a plan to overthrow him. Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger oversaw a plan for a military coup, stating: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” The plan was to create a climate of chaos by economic, political and psychological warfare.

On the morning of September 11, 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet led the Chilean air force, navy and army in a coordinated assault on the capital and presidential palace. When Allende refused to resign, he was deposed and Pinochet set up a repressive right-wing military dictatorship that practiced flagrant human rights abuses, including torture and murder of political opponents.

Pinochet’s military announced during the September 11, 1973 coup that the Socialist president had killed himself with an AK-47 given to him by Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Allende was later buried in a closed casket in a secretive nighttime ceremony with only his widow present.

The recovered comprehensive military review reportedly describes ballistics and fingerprint evidence and includes photos and witness testimony, as well as the original autopsy report. Two forensics experts who analyzed the more complete set of documents told TVN they believe more than ever that Allende was shot first through the face with a small-caliber weapon, and that an AK-47 blast blew out the top of his skull after he was already dead.

One of the experts, Luis Ravanal, noted that the crime scene photos show Allende sitting slumped but upright in a chair, but with no signs of blood on his collar, sweater or throat. Due to gravity alone, his throat would have been bloodied had Allende fired the AK-47 while still alive. The review does not make any reference to the presence of blood on his clothes either, and yet the initial autopsy described Allende’s undergarments as drenched with blood.

 Ravanal has for years advocated the theory that another weapon was involved, citing a reference in the initial military autopsy to a small bullet hole in the back of Allende’s skull that is inconsistent with a wound from an AK-47.

The official version is that Allende killed himself, based chiefly on testimony from Dr. Patricio Guijon, who maintained that he saw Allende shoot himself with an AK-47 and that he was the only eyewitness. Guijon reiterated that testimony in a recent interview. However, other witnesses, including several interviewed on the TVN program, said Allende was never alone with Guijon, and that unidentified men were seen running from a side door moments after gunshots were heard in the hall where Allende died.

Allende’s family has come to support the suicide theory, but also supports an ongoing judicial investigation to dispel any doubts and to develop evidence that might solve other human rights crimes. Allende’s body was exhumed on May 23 and an international team of forensic experts is now conducting a new autopsy. An angry Sen. Isabel Allende stated that TVN was speculating in the middle of a judicial process, where only the scientific investigation of her father’s remains will reach a conclusive review.

TVN wouldn’t identify the source of its copy of the military review, but said it was pulled from a home demolished in last year’s earthquake that had belonged to military prosecutor Col. Horacio Ried. He died in a 2005 car crash.

Many other people who might have clarified things are now gone. Some of Allende’s closest allies who were with him at the end disappeared after being captured and tortured. The respected doctor who did the original autopsy under close military supervision committed suicide several years later.

Judge Mario Carroza was told by the military that the 1973 review didn’t exist after he formally requested it along with other evidence earlier this year. Then someone on the Internet offered to sell a copy of the review for 2 million pesos (nearly $4,300), and the judge was preparing to have that copy seized. Only then did the military provide the judge with the original document, according to an anonymous source in the court system’s press office. The source said the military still hasn’t turned over key evidence, including the AK-47, bullet casings and the helmet Allende had been wearing.

– edited from an article by Eva Vergara and Michael Warren of The Associated Press, May 31, 2011, and Stephen Kinzer’s 2006 book, “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change.”

– PeaceMeal, July/August 2011

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How the drug war changed once-calm Cuernavaca

Cuernavaca, traditionally home to poets and artists, used to be a tranquil weekend destination for Mexico City’s middle class elites, as the capital city is only one hour away. But since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón came to power and declared a war on drug traffickers, Cuernavaca, like so many other cities across the country, has been caught in the throes of violence. Murders and disappearances have spiked, giving journalists an extra reason to sip coffee at a centrally-located café. The café's friendly manager, José Martínez Cruz, who is also head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in the state of Morelos, says his state was once a middle-class paradise, but now impunity and violence reign. Data collected by his organization show 80 extra-judicial killings last year, while 3,000 cases of disappearances were recorded in the past six years in Morelos alone. As drug traffickers battling each other have moved into the territory, panic has ensued.

Cuernavaca has not garnered worldwide notoriety as have other Mexican cities, such as Ciudad Juarez, one of the world’s deadliest. But that changed in March when the the body of Juan Francisco Sicilia, son of renowned poet and left-wing intellectual Javier Sicilia, was found asphyxiated and tortured in a car, together with another six. Cuernavaca quickly became the center of a nationwide movement, led by Mr. Sicilia, demanding the end of Mr. Calderón’s anti-drug policies. “We have had it up to here” became the movement’s slogan, together with “No More Bloodshed.”

In early May, a march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City culminated in a massive event in Mexico City’s Zócalo, or main square. People across the country started naming their victims, many of whom had gone unnamed all along, often archived by the police as victims of internal settling of scores between rival drug cartels.

After the success of May’s march, Sicilia launched another trek in June, this time thousands of miles long, all the way from Cuernavaca to Ciudad Juarez at the border with the United States, stopping in cities along the way that suddenly have become flashpoints in the government’s attempt to get rid of organized crime.

Mexico’s news media are increasingly under assault for covering a drug war that has claimed more than 35,000 lives, including at least 22 journalists, since 2006. There have been nearly 9,000 drug-related deaths since January 2008, mostly confined to a half-dozen cities. The State Department says firearms obtained in the U.S. account for an estimated 95 percent of Mexico's drug-related killings.

– edited from an article by Irene Caselli in The Christian Science Monitor, June 5, 2011
PeaceMeal, July/August 2011

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Survivors commemorate Colombian massacres

Chris Knestrick, Christian Peacemaker Teams

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)

Matthew’s Gospel recounts the story of how Herod the Great, fearing that his throne could be in jeopardy, ordered the slaughter of the holy innocents—all boys two years old and under in and around Bethlehem.

Two thousand years later, governments continue resorting to the most barbaric acts of violence to remain in power. The history of the Patriotic Union (UP) in Colombia reminds us that the massacre of innocents is an ongoing story. On November 11, 1988, paramilitary forces backed by the Colombian army showed up in Segovia, Antioquia on a mission to rid the city of all UP supporters. They killed 43 people and wounded 40 more. Since that day, Segovia has wept for her children in silence.

However, 22 years later, on November 11, 2010, a voice was heard in Segovia—survivors refusing to be consoled. Descendants and survivors, joined by human rights workers and international witnesses, overcame more than two decades of fear to gather in the first public commemoration of the massacre to remember the victims and to call for justice and reparations.

The UP was a legitimate political party formed in 1985 when the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) reached an agreement with then-President Belisario Betancur. The party was presented as an exit opportunity for FARC members who believed the electoral process offered a solution to Colombia’s civil war.

The UP quickly gained popularity throughout Colombia and won hundreds of races at all levels of government in their first elections. The established powers felt the threat and followed Herod’s footsteps.

Since 1985, the UP has suffered 30 massacres and 6,000 assassinations. Presently, almost all of their members have been murdered by Colombian state security force and paramilitary groups with the help of the U.S.A.—a history referred to as “genocide” under the U.N.’s definition: “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

– Signs of the Times, October-December 2010
PeaceMeal, March/Aapril 2011

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Mexico drug war killings traumatize children

TIJUANA, Mexico - Mexico’s drug war is bursting into the lives of young children, especially in violent northern border cities where they are becoming traumatized by the sight of bloodied bodies and daylight shootouts. Schools in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and even the upscale business city of Monterrey have seen drug cartel battles break out in nearby streets, and young children are alarming their parents with their use of graphic drug gang slang. In one of the worst cases of violence near schools, gunmen and more than 100 police and soldiers fought a three-hour gun battle outside a Tijuana kindergarten in January 2008.

Teachers and parents want the government to send mental health counselors to visit classrooms and start programs to help children deal with the emotional trauma. “Children are scared and we have pupils with very serious emotional crises,” said Laura Elena Carrion, a teacher at the primary school in Tijuana, where children playing outside witnessed the killing of a drug hitman in early March and went running to their classrooms crying.

After another Tijuana drug killing in March, children stared as forensics picked up the bodies of three beheaded and dismembered men near a shopping mall. “It feels awful to see it,” said Gabriela, 8, who saw a different dead body on a Tijuana sidewalk in February. “Didn’t anyone tell them that killing is wrong?”

Some children have nightmares, wet their beds, turn aggressive or become quiet and shy. Not all are outwardly traumatized, however, and some boast about having seen decapitated bodies or are no longer shocked by violence.

The drug war killed some 6,300 people across Mexico last year, and the cartels are increasingly using teenage hitmen and breaking honor codes by killing youngsters. At least 20 children were killed last year in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, the drug war’s bloodiest flash points. In Ciudad Juarez, children going to school have had to walk past bodies dumped on roadsides. In one case a body was strung up from a bridge near a school. And in two incidents last year, gunmen seized children as human shields, leading to the death of a 12-year-old girl.

An escalating turf war between Mexican drug cartels is scaring the public, investors and tourists. Mexico’s border cities, where U.S. tourists used to flock, have become the most violent fronts in the drug war as top drug lord Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman and his rivals battle over smuggling routes into the United States.

U.S. President Barack Obama is tightening security along the border to prevent the violence from spreading further into the United States. Because of the drug war, Phoenix, Arizona, is already the kidnapping capital of the U.S. with an average of one a day last year.

– edited from Reuters, March 31, 2009
PeaceMeal, May/June 2009

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Murdered Guatemalan lawyer fingers president in video

GUATEMALA CITY — An average of 16 murder victims turn up in Guatemala every day, some shot, some stabbed, some bludgeoned, and only about three percent of the cases are ever solved. Even in the rare instances when a killer is arrested, the suspect frequently turns out to be a hit man hired by some shadowy figure who is never identified and gets away to plot again. But of the more than 2,500 killings on the books this year, one unsolved case has jolted this country like no other. The Mother’s Day shooting death of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a prominent lawyer, has thrown Guatemala into a full-fledged political crisis and focused all eyes on a United Nations commission created to prop up Guatemala’s ailing judiciary.

Mr. Rosenberg foresaw his killing and identified the people he believed were out to get him in a chilling video he prepared three days before he died: “My name is Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano, and unfortunately, if you are watching the message, it is because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom,” he said, going on to also blame the president’s wife, Sandra Torres; the president’s personal secretary, Gustavo Alejos; and various bankers and businessmen.

In the video and a written statement, Mr. Rosenberg said the president and those around him were involved in a corruption scandal tied to Guatemala’s Rural Development Bank and had already killed one of his clients, the businessman Khalil Musa, as well as Mr. Musa’s daughter, Marjorie Musa, with whom Mr. Rosenberg was having a relationship. He called the bank “a den of robbers, drug traffickers and murderers.”

Mr. Rosenberg offered no proof to back up his allegations, but the fact that he foretold his murder — he was shot by one assailant as he rode his bicycle near his home and then finished off with a bullet to the head by a second gunman — has led to calls for the resignation of Mr. Colom, a leftist leader elected in 2007 on a platform of, among other things, reducing crime.

Mr. Colom has denied having had anything to do with the killings, as have his wife and others mentioned in the video, and has turned the case over to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a United Nations body set up in 2007 to help a judiciary riddled with corruption. The commission is made up of international jurists who do not present cases themselves but support Guatemalan prosecutors, lending an international imprimatur to an institution that few here trust.

Two schools of thought have emerged from the intrigue: that Mr. Rosenberg, in an elaborate setup, was killed by opponents of Mr. Colom who wanted to damage the president; or that he was killed, as the video suggests, by the president’s own inner circle because he had learned too much about misdeeds among those in power.

There have been some promising leads, people with knowledge of the case say, including a surveillance video that recorded the actual killing of Mr. Rosenberg, evidence suggesting that Mr. Rosenberg was being followed for days before he was killed, and some possible witness testimony. Investigators have begun speaking to an array of witnesses, including Mario David García, a radio commentator and critic of the president who recorded the video of Mr. Rosenberg on May 7. “I don’t have any more information,” said Mr. García, suggesting that he feared that his life might be threatened as well. “It could be deadly to have anything, and I don’t.”

Beyond the investigation, there is a political battle raging. Mr. Colom’s many critics, especially in the business community, have begun calling for his ouster. The first lady’s involvement in the scandal is relished by Mr. Colom’s detractors because she has led social programs for poor people in rural areas and is widely viewed to be laying the groundwork for her own presidential run in 2012.

Given Guatemala’s history of high-profile murders that are never fully solved, many fear that this case will follow the familiar pattern. Mr. Colom’s own uncle, Manuel Colom Argueta, a onetime presidential candidate, was killed by members of the army in 1979. That family history may explain why Mr. Colom has pushed for the public release of police archives from Guatemala’s bloody, 36-year civil war, which could help identify some of those responsible for many wartime killings and disappearances.

– edited from The New York Times, May 22, 2009PeaceMeal,May/June 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S. policy in Mexico: The perfect storm

Fidel Santiago Martinez stands on the southern side of the U.S./Mexican border, a man-made line that snakes 2,000 miles from California to Texas. All U.S. debate on immigration reform, a critical issue during these 2008 election campaigns, begins and ends at this border, centering upon what Martinez plans to do next: take a step without proper documentation into U.S. territory.

Martinez is caught in the perfect storm of U.S. policy, which has the potential of being changed, modified, or kept in place after this year’s election. His family is left behind in the wreckage of rural Oaxaca where the International Monetary Fund’s economic programs have severely reduced subsidies and credit to small farmers. NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement), by loosening and phasing out trade barriers, has allowed subsidized multinational corporations to import millions of tons of agricultural products that under-price his harvest. He simply can’t compete.

In front of Martinez wait the Border Patrol, the National Guard, rumors of migrant-hunting armed civilian groups like the Minutemen, and a brutal desert that has claimed the lives of over 4,000 migrants since 1994. Beyond all that is a potential job as a janitor, doing landscape work, picking fruits or vegetables, jobs that could earn him more in an hour than in an entire day in Mexico where minimum wage is an unlivable five dollars a day. Martinez will take any job that will allow him to send money back to his family. He understands that an immigration raid could deport him penniless back to Mexico.

According to WFP partner organizations in Mexican civil society, the elements of this perfect storm need to be urgently addressed if there is to be an honest and comprehensive immigration reform package, starting with the economic conditions in communities from where people are migrating in unprecedented numbers.

“One of the principal consequences of NAFTA has been — because of the disaster to small farmers in rural Mexico and the loss of jobs due to the devastation of Mexican industry — millions of Mexicans have had to migrate to the U.S.,” says Marco Antonio Velazquez Navarrete of RMALC (Mexican Action Network on Free Trade). “In the last six years 575,000 Mexicans each year have migrated to the U.S. This statistic alone clearly demonstrates the failure of NAFTA.”

Carmen Alonso Santiago, director of the Oaxaca based Indigenous Rights center, Flor y Canto (Flower and Song), has lived this devastation first-hand in her community which she describes as a “community of ghosts.” “Right now the only ones left are the old. We no longer have a kindergarten. Why? Because there aren’t any children. The teachers have left. Everybody has migrated. Small farmers cannot possibly compete with huge companies. If you go to the supermarket, imported tomatoes may cost 8 pesos a kilogram. It costs 15-20 pesos a kilogram to produce tomatoes in the countryside. What do the small farmers do? They lose. They migrate. Everybody is gone. This is serious. There has to be a renegotiation of NAFTA.”

Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa from the Oaxacan non-governmental organization Services for an Alternative Education (EDUCA) suggests that leveling the playing field may be the first step to a renegotiation. But first, policy makers have to seriously study and establish the correlation between poverty, migration, and social conflict. He explains, “Under the NAFTA model in Mexico there is no investment in small producers. If employment is not being created, if there is an abandonment and neglect of small farmers in rural Mexico, and if small farmers and the poor don’t have any other alternative but to migrate to the U.S., one can establish a relationship and correlation between high levels of poverty created by this model, the amount of people who migrate, and the potential for social conflict as seen in Oaxaca in 2006. From this analysis two clear concrete steps could be taken immediately to start a renegotiation: either a reduction of subsidies to huge U.S. based agribusiness, or increased investment in small Mexican farmers, or both, to begin to create a level playing field of competition.”

Velazquez Navarrete from RMALC follows Vasquez’s logic and puts it squarely into the immigration reform that needs to happen. “We have to consider an immigration policy that includes not only the social, civil, and political rights of migrants in the U.S., but that also considers development in the countries from where people are migrating. If they want to avoid an increase in undocumented migration, the negative results of NAFTA have to be reversed. Mexico then has to create an honestly developing economy.

“Instead of destroying Mexican industry, instead of crushing and bankrupting the rural farmer, it is necessary to invest in development projects that give people the opportunity to choose not to migrate, so that they have the option not to leave their land, so they have the right to dignified work in the state where they were born — with a living wage, with benefits that cover the needs of their families. If this doesn’t happen, they will not succeed in stopping migration, not with physical or virtual walls, not with the military on the border. Migrants will continue crossing from Mexico to the U.S.”

Fidel Santiago Martinez took that step across the border into U.S. territory. Like many, if not most, he never wanted to leave his home, his family, his culture, the place where he was born. If in the future there are significant changes to U.S. immigration and trade policies, Martinez will never see them. His body was found this year in the Sonoran desert in Arizona. The cause of his death was exposure to the elements. Martinez’s death gives testimony that millions of Mexicans who have migrated, are migrating, or will migrate undocumented to the U.S. have a lot at stake in the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections. It is time to change the perfect storm of policy that already has decimated too many lives.

 – Witness for Peace, Fall 2008
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2008

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)