Latin America’s prison system is in crisis. Human Rights Watch has called the Latin American penitentiary system “underfunded, overcrowded and often controlled by criminals inside their walls.” In March 2012, a prison fire killed over 350 inmates in Honduras. The same week, a series of prison riots in three Mexican penitentiaries resulted in 48 fatalities. Later in the year, images of black smoke and tanks moving through the streets of Caracas after a prison riot circled the world.
These tragedies have drawn renewed interest to the growing crisis facing the region’s prison system. Within the context of Central America, the Sistema de Integracion Centroamericano (Central American Integration System—SICA) has listed the improvement, expansion and modernization of the region’s prison system as a strategic objective of the Central American Security Strategy. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has already committed funds to update a diagnostic document detailing the state of the region’s penitentiary system.
El Salvador is no exception to the hemispheric trend of prison violence and overcrowding. Since the two main rival gangs announced a truce in March 2012, El Salvador has increased its awareness of the conditions and challenges that the penitentiary system faces. In June 2012, El Salvador’s Dirección de Centros Penales (Directorate of the Penitentiary System) confirmed that the prison system was operating at 317 percent of its capacity.
El Salvador is facing multiple threats to democracy. High crime, a slow economy and persistent poverty join more modern issues such as urban governance, reduced competitiveness and stagnant productivity. While these challenges disappoint members of the electorate, consistent political bickering is also a turn-off to a base of voters that desperately cries for moderation.
Political elites, who at times seem trapped in a time warp circa the Cold War, often refer to each other as mata vacas (cow killers) and escuadroneros (death squad members) in direct reference to terms used during the country’s civil war.
Political moderation in El Salvador doesn’t have a strong track record; whenever emerging figures have embraced it, regardless of party, their political careers are cut short.
For instance, in 2003 Evelyn Jacir de Lovo ran for mayor of San Salvador on behalf of the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Nationalist Republican Alliance—ARENA) party. Jacir de Lovo had served as education minister under the administration of former President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) and had been historically close to Catholic groups working with refugees in the 1980s. Her platform emphasized the need to bring ARENA from the Right to a more centrist position. She failed.
Top stories this week are likely to include: a political fracture among the Mexican Left; one month before the Venezuelan election; impact of U.S. suspension of intelligence sharing with Honduras; and the tenuous El Salvador gang truce.
A Split among Mexico's Progressives: Presidential runner-up Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) departure from the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD) that he led since 1996 sent shockwaves around the Mexican political establishment. AMLO, who made the announcement yesterday at a rally in Mexico City’s zócalo, ran for president under the PRD label in 2006 and 2012, and placed second both times. He announced that he would focus his efforts through the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (National Regeneration Movement—MORENA) movement, which has not been formally registered as a party according to BBC. How will the formation of MORENA affect the PRD, and will it mean a great split among the electorate of the Mexican Left?
Venezuela Election Countdown: The presidential contest in Venezuela between incumbent Hugo Chávez and challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski occurs in less than one month, on October 7. While Chávez claims that his victory is “written in stone,” Univisión reports that he is been falling in the polls, resulting in attacks on Capriles Radonski. Before the weekend, Capriles Radonski challenged Chávez to a debate anywhere in the country.
Related: Americas Society and Council of the Americas will host a discussion on September 18 entitled “The Road to Venezuela’s Elections: A Look at the Media, Public Opinion, and the Economy.”
Fallout of U.S.-Honduras Intelligence Cooperation Suspension: After two separate incidents in which Honduran forces shot down a suspected drug plane in July, it was likely that counternarcotics cooperation with the United States would be affected in some way. Over the weekend, the U.S. State Department announced that it was suspending intelligence sharing efforts with Honduras. This comes after a steady build-up in cooperation between the two countries. What will be the effect in overall security cooperation and on efforts such as the Central America Regional Security Initiative?
A Break in the El Salvador Gang Truce: Break in the El Salvador Gang Truce: After negotiation of a truce earlier this year between the Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 gangs, El Salvador has observed a dramatic drop in its murder rate. But is this delicate truce beginning to unravel? A new report from Fox News Latino seems to suggest that recent killings may point to a new reality in which gangs operate. “The truce was never intended to be the answer to El Salvador’s crime problems, but what it has done is placed increased urgency on finding solutions to prevent crime in the first place. This fragile peace is an opportunity for the country that cannot be missed,” notes AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak.
Brasil está de moda en El Salvador y con justa razón. Su ascenso a la palestra mundial como una de las potencias económicas del futuro han convertido a este país en un cooperante apetecible para las pequeñas economías centroamericanas. El Salvador no ha sido la excepción. La euforia por cortejar a Brasil puede llegar a tener réditos, pero pretender sustituir a México con Brasil es un error. Brasil es interesante pero México es estratégico.
La crisis de la seguridad ciudadana en México obligó al presidente Felipe Calderón a enfocarse en asuntos de interés nacional. Una guerra contra las drogas sin un fin a la vista, aunado a una agenda de política exterior históricamente complicada con Estados Unidos lo distrajo de la posibilidad de incrementar su cooperación con los países como El Salvador. Colombia y Brasil han ido llenando el vacío que México dejó. El próximo cambio de gobierno en México puede representar una nueva oportunidad para los países centroamericanos, siempre y cuando se reconozca el valor estratégico de una relación bilateral o regional de mayor trascendencia. México es el país miembro del G-20 más próximo a Centroamérica, representa la tercera fuente de inversión extranjera directa para El Salvador y el octavo lugar de destino de sus exportaciones. Ambos mercados comparten un idioma en común y las vías de interconexión marítima y terrestre ofrecen la oportunidad de incrementar el flujo comercial de manera sustancial. México es el destino de un pírrico 2 por ciento de las exportaciones de El Salvador y 9 por ciento de sus importaciones, por lo que queda claro que hay espacio para mejorar la balanza comercial.
La segunda oportunidad para ambos países está en el tema de seguridad ciudadana. Ciertamente México y los países del triángulo norte de Centroamérica se encuentran bajo el acecho del crimen organizado y la violencia. Sin embargo, también es cierto que en una república federal como México existen múltiples modelos exitosos de prevención del crimen y atención a víctimas. La recuperación de ciudades como Tijuana, Chihuahua y hasta Ciudad Juárez pudiera estar más apegada a las realidades centroamericanas que las favelas de Rio de Janeiro. Una no excluye a la otra, pero bajo una concepción estratégica el énfasis debe estar sobre la primera. La gran incógnita actual en México es cómo abordará el tema de la seguridad ciudadana su presidente electo, Enrique Peña Nieto quien a la fecha solo ha dado declaraciones generales sobre su estrategia. Sea cual sea el rumbo que Peña Nieto concrete en su gestión, lo cierto es que su diálogo con Estados Unidos sobre temas como la venta de armas e inmigración tiene más peso si cuenta con el apoyo del bloque de países centroamericanos.
In the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Development Bank published various reports indicating that El Salvador and Guatemala had the highest homicide rates in Latin America. Fast-forward sixteen years later and these two countries form, along with neighboring Honduras, the most violent region in the world by all accounts.
With a combined population of 28 million, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador constitute the northern triangle of Central America; a sub-region that has experienced almost twice-as-much violence as Mexico has since 2006, when Calderon’s war on drugs started. According to official data, approximately 50 thousand people have been killed in Mexico since 2006. In contrast, the northern triangle, with a population four times smaller than Mexico, has endured nearly 90,000 murders during that same period. But while Mexico, with an annual homicide rate of 18 deaths per one hundred thousand inhabitants, is a tragedy, the northern triangle, with average homicide rates surpassing 60 per one hundred thousand, is a catastrophe.
Many believe that the appalling rates of violence in the sub-region are the result of the penetration of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. According to this argument, in their effort to control the drug routes from South America to the United States, criminal organizations are not only bringing unparalleled violence to Central America, but also taking over highly fragile public institutions. The logical extension of this argument then is that this relentless assault of transnational gangs can only be addressed with greater police and military force.
Although the presence of criminal cartels has undeniably contributed to the skyrocketing violence in the northern triangle, the fundamental problem of security in Central America does not have to do merely with drug traffickers—or social conditions, for that matter. It has to do with government institutions. It has to do with local political and criminal-justice organizations that are extremely corrupt. It has to do with institutions that have been historically pervaded by local criminal lords, death squads, crooked politicians, and vicious paramilitaries who were present long before the Mexican Zetas or the Colombian syndicates began crowding the illegal enterprises of the region.
El Salvador has undergone various political events in the past couple of months. Political drama and institutional bickering have been present in daily news. For one, the legislative and municipal elections that took place this past March were fair and clean, while the same cannot be said about other countries in the region—namely Nicaragua. The outcome of El Salvador’s election results was bleak for the ruling Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí Liberation Front, or FMLN) party; FMLN’s largest loss was in the country’s most populous and important municipalities.
Second, the main opposition party, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA), simply recuperated what they had historically obtained in legislative elections before the defection of 12 of their deputies in 2009. ARENA’s main win was in taking the larger, emblematic municipalities from the FMLN which are also founding shareholders of Alba Petroleos, the gasoline-importing Venezuelan joint venture with the FMLN. With these results the citizens of El Salvador confirm the country’s preference for the two larger parties.
Changes in electoral legislation allowing for independent candidates proved useless: the most voted independent candidate only obtained a little over 1,000 votes. El Salvador’s strong political party system has allowed, for the most part, defining medium-term policy agendas and a certain degree of accountability toward voters. This is unlike Guatemala, where political parties come and go—creating a real problem for the democratic process.
Unfortunately, the outgoing legislature made some nefarious decisions prior to their term coming to an end on April 30. The most troubling decision was made regarding the anticipated election of Supreme Court magistrates and specifically some magistrates in the Constitutional Tribunal. In essence, the previous President of the Supreme Court—who also heads the Constitutional Tribunal—was removed from his office by the legislature before his term was over. The reason behind the shuffle presumably responded to some decisions that the previous Tribunal had made regarding electoral reform and political parties. Civil society organizations denounced the decision to no avail.
At the end of February, Americas Society released a white paper titled Bringing Youth into Labor Markets: Public-Private Efforts amid Insecurity and Migration as a part of its Social Inclusion Program. This white paper presents the findings of Americas Society’s Ford Foundation-funded research on innovative practices that foster youth access to formal labor markets. The report highlights innovative private-sector programs that promote youth employment as well as public policy efforts to foster opportunities for young workers in El Salvador and Mexico—countries grappling with youth unemployment along with security and migration challenges. The focus is on initiatives that further skills training, entrepreneurship, and support for at-risk youth.
• Mechanisms should be established to subject private-sector led programs to rigorous evaluations with the goal of ensuring the continuity of successful initiatives.
• The private and public sectors should provide incentives, such as guaranteed internships/apprenticeships or education scholarships, for youth who study the skills that nationwide employment trend forecasts determine are in highest demand.
• Nationally recognized accreditation systems in technical and non-technical skills should be created so that young job-seekers and employers can verify employment preparedness.
• Employers must reverse the bias and discrimination that prevents the hiring of at-risk youth.
Access the full white paper: Bringing Youth into Labor Markets: Public-Private Efforts amid Insecurity and Migration.
President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala said Monday that his country and others in Central America should consider legalizing drugs to help reduce violence in the region. Speaking at a press conference with President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador after a meeting on crime and security issues, Pérez Molina said, “We’re bringing the issue up for debate. If drug consumption isn’t reduced, the problem [of drug trafficking] will continue.” Funes, too, said he was “open to discussion” in his country on the matter.
Pérez first indicated his support for legalization in a radio interview on Sunday, saying his proposal would include legalization of consumption and transportation of drugs. He plans to bring the issue up at a summit of Central American leaders next month. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala responded to the proposal with strong criticism, issuing a statement in which it said to legalize drugs would represent “a threat to public health and safety.” Pérez Molina said he considered the statement to be “premature” and that the U.S. should be a part of the debate.
Pérez Molina, a former general, was elected in November 2011 and took office last month promising to crack down on crime, including military action against drug cartels. In his first month in office, he has transformed himself into one of the strongest voices in favor of legalization. Anita Isaacs, a Guatemala expert and professor of political science at Haverford College, said the change could be a political calculation to pressure the U.S. into providing Guatemala with more military aid, while Pérez Molina’s backers say the change reflects a realization that, with continued U.S. demand for drugs, Guatemala will never have the resources to stem the flow of drugs north.
A growing number of Latin American leaders have expressed support for the legalization of drugs. President Santos has said it is a theme that “must be addressed,” and that he would be open to legalizing drugs if the entire world were. Former Presidents Vicente Fox, of Mexico, and Fernando Enrique Cardoso, of Brazil, have also expressed support.
El Salvador is heading toward another important electoral event within the next month. On March 11 Salvadorans will cast their votes to elect 262 mayors and 84 deputies to the Legislative Assembly. The results, especially for the legislative election, will shape the remaining two years of the Funes presidency.
The latest polls show a strong political opposition led by the conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA, with higher voter preference over Funes’ governing, left of center, Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional, FMLN. President Mauricio Funes still maintains high approval ratings however it seems like his apparent likeability among voters isn’t translating into potential votes for his party. Some argue that this may be the result of Funes (and the FMLN) maintaining a complex relationship filled with public disagreements on some issues and coincidences on others.
If the polls remain the same for the next month the big looser may be the orthodox leadership of the FMLN. Pressure has been mounting on the traditional, hard line leadership of the FMLN, from their base to break away completely from Funes. These militants perceive Funes as too much to the right and not pushing for radical reform. However, if ARENA does well and the FMLN doesn’t perform as expected this would leave President Funes in an awkward position as he would effectively become a “presidente sin partido” (president with no party). Should this scenario occur Funes would most certainly look for refuge in one of the smaller political parties and face a difficult two years characterized by attacks from both the left and right of the political spectrum.
Citing an op-ed she wrote condemning violence against gays and lesbians, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) for weeks led the charge in the U.S. Senate to block the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to be the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador. On Monday, the Senate voted 49 to 37 to block Aponte’s nomination, 11 votes short of the 60 needed to break a Republican-sponsored filibuster. Lost in the lead-up to the vote and the outcome was a key question: why is a position against violence targeting homosexuals and in defense of gay rights a valid reason to reject a nominee to an ambassadorship?
At issue for Senator DeMint and the 48 Republicans (and one Democrat, Senator Ben Nelson [NE]) was Aponte's op-ed titled “For the Elimination of Prejudices Wherever They Exist” in the El Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica on July 28th this year. The offending op-ed declared that everyone has a responsibility to “inform our neighbors and friends about what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender” and praised El Salvador for signing—along with the U.S. and 80 other nations—a UN declaration for the elimination of violence against gays and lesbians.
Echoing the sentiments of a coalition of conservative El Salvadorans and Latin Americans who had objected to the essay, DeMint said this week that, “We should not risk…an ambassador who shows such a blatant disregard for [El Salvador’s] culture…” Never mind the fact that Ambassador Aponte—posted in El Salvador for the last 15 months on a recess appointment—was only implementing the administration's initiative in support of Gay Pride Month, which really means this is a policy issue better taken up with the President. The larger issue should be whether making locals uncomfortable on issues of human rights should be the way we gauge our policy and diplomats. Would we pursue the same course in other civil and political rights? Human rights in Syria? Voting rights in Russia? When did homophobia or violence against the LGBT community become a matter of local culture that deserves respect?