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Salvadoran General Deported from U.S. for Command Role in Human Rights Crimes During El Salvador Civil War

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General Vides Casanova] Credit: Latin America News Dispatch. General Vides Casanova. Photo Credit: Latin America News Dispatch.

Violations Cited in Justice Department Ruling Include Torture of Salvadoran Citizens, Murder of Four American Churchwomen, Among Others

By Alexandra Smith

Thursday, April 9, 2015—Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, former chief of El Salvador’s National Guard and then Minister of Defense from 1979-89, was deported from Florida yesterday as a result of a precedent-setting decision by the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals, following 16 years of legal efforts by human rights groups against him.

In 1999, The Center for Justice and Accountability filed a case against Vides Casanova and another former defense minister, Gen. José Guillermo García, charging them with liability for the torture of three Salvadoran civilians under the “command responsibility” doctrine illustrating intellectual authorship. The case, Romagoza et al. v. Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova, cemented the legal authority of the command responsibility doctrine with a verdict demanding…

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The Gran Canal: will Nicaragua’s big bet create prosperity or environmental ruin?

The planned “Gran Canal” project, financed by a Chinese transnational, has been the source of much debate in Nicaragua.  The project, which is projected to be nearly four times as large as the Panama Canal upon completion, will potentially bring great ecological harm, violate indigenous rights, and potentially endanger the livelihoods of poor farmers.  No environmental assessment has been provided to the public, and few details of the contract have not been made public.  Analysts fear that Nicaragua may reap little profit from the project.  The following is a detailed analysis of the proposed canal and its possible impact. It was originally published last month on

The Gran Canal: will Nicaragua’s big bet create prosperity or environmental ruin?.

by Jeremy Hance
August 27, 2014

Chinese consortium pushes new canal through Nicaragua, threatening indigenous people, environment.

This article was produced under the Global Forest Reporting Network and can be re-published on your web site or blog or in your magazine, newsletter, or newspaper under these terms.

A stealthy jaguar moves across a camera trap in Bankukuk, Nicaragua along the path of the Gran Canal. Conservationists fear the impact of the canal on Nicaragua's already-imperiled wildlife, including far-roving jaguars. Photo by: Christopher Jordan.
A stealthy jaguar moves across a camera trap in Bankukuk, Nicaragua along the path of the Gran Canal. Conservationists fear the impact of the canal on Nicaragua’s already-imperiled wildlife, including far-roving jaguars. Photo by: Christopher Jordan.

A hundred years ago, the Panama Canal reshaped global geography, allowing ships for the first time to bypass the long and perilous journey around Cape Horn by simply cutting through a continent. Now a new project, spearheaded by a media-shy Chinese millionaire, wants to compete with the infamous canal, building a 278-kilometer (173-mile) canal through Nicaragua. While the Nicaraguan government argues the massive project will change the country’s dire economic outlook overnight—Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti—critics contend it will cause undue environmental damage, upend numerous communities, and do little to help the people of Nicaragua.

“Consider the Panama Canal,” Gerald Urquhart, a tropical ecologist with Michigan State University who’s worked in Nicaragua for 20 years, told “One-hundred years after its construction, it is seen as a good thing for the people of Panama. However, until the Carter Trujillo Treaty returned the canal to Panama in 1999, the Panama Canal belonged to the United States and was inside of an occupied military zone. Panamanians were only allowed into the Canal Zone with certain credentials and did not benefit economically from the canal. Unfortunately, I see a similar scenario in Nicaragua if the canal is constructed.”

Last month, the proposed route for the Gran Canal was finally announced. If built, the canal will begin on the country’s Caribbean Coast, just south of Bluefields Bay. Moving west, it will cut along the borders of both the Cerro Silva and Punta Gorda Nature Reserves while also skirting the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve before reaching Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America. The canal would meet the Pacific at the mouth of the River Brito. In all, this massive canal would be nearly four times longer than the Panama Canal and will cost around least $40 billion, or four times Nicaragua’s current GDP.

A canal for Nicaraguans?

Rama Cay, the stronghold of the Rama people on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. Photo by MaSii.
Rama Cay, the stronghold of the Rama people on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. Photo by MaSii.

Part of the concern by experts is the fact that the canal is being planned not by Nicaraguans, but by a China-based consortium—the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (HKND Group)—headed by telecommunications businessman, Wang Jing. Last year, Nicaragua’s National Assembly granted HKND a no-bid, 50-year concession for the canal with the chance to renew for another 50 years.

“Little is known about Mr. Wang Jing and his business enterprises. Nor was the granting of this 50 year (plus 50 year renewal) concession presented to the Nicaraguan public for debate prior to approval by the National Assembly,” Jorge Huete-Perez, the founder and director of the Molecular Biology Center at the University of Central America said, adding, “it is safe to say that there is a general feeling of concern, desire for more concrete data, and a need for reassurance that people will be justly remunerated for their expropriated lands, and that our natural resources won’t be destroyed.”

Huete-Perez was a co-author on a recent article in Nature that argued the Gran Canal could lead to “environmental ruin.”

But the Nicaraguan government, including current President Daniel Ortega, is solidly behind the project. They have gone so far as to approve the project before a single environmental assessment was undertaken. Moreover, the government has handed off the environmental assessment to the HKND Group, which has hired a consultancy firm, Environmental Resources Management, to conduct them. HKND has not responded to queries regarding this article.

Approximate canal route across southern Nicaragua, including Lake Nicaragua. Image from Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

For the Nicaragua government it’s all about a predicted economic boom. The government has projected that GDP growth will jump from 4.5 percent to 10.8 percent this year entirely due to the Gran Canal—even though the project is not set to break ground until December. And they say it will rise to 15 percent by next year. By 2018, the government says the massive project will lift 400,000 people out of poverty, while employing some 200,000.

Still, not all Nicaraguan politicians view the project as a slam-dunk for the country.

Opposition congressman, Eliseo Nunez, has dubbed the canal “a propaganda game, a media show to continue generating false hopes of future prosperity among Nicaraguans.” Nunez has suggested that the Chinese government is really behind the plan, though that has been repeatedly denied by the HKND Group. To date, the project’s financiers have been kept hidden.

Even aside from who’s ultimately behind financing such a large project, Urquhart believes few Nicaraguans will see benefits in the near-term.

“Because of the technical difficulty of this project, I doubt there are going to be many Nicaraguan engineers and workers employed in the project. The machinery will come from China, the machine operators will come from China, the engineers will come (mostly) from China, and so on. Although $40 billion dollars is expected to be spent on the project, I do not see much of that entering the Nicaraguan economy. Most of it will be Chinese money paid to Chinese workers.”

Waterfall in rainforest within the canal zone. Photo by: Christopher Jordan.
Waterfall in rainforest within the canal zone. Photo by: Christopher Jordan.

Not only might the Gran Canal not monetarily benefit the Nicaraguan people in the near-term, but it might worsen living conditions, already destabilized by environmental issues and longstanding conflict.

In fact, according to Huete-Perez, the canal will force the relocation of at least nine indigenous and Afro-Nicarguan communities in Nicaragua’s South Atlantic Autonomous Region. Although the autonomous regions were set-up to provide local communities with greater access and management of their natural resources, this special status doesn’t impact the approval of the Gran Canal.

“This will result in the extinction of some ethnicities starting with their ancestral language, the Rama being a case in point,” Huete-Perez told “Divided by the canal, the Ramas will cease to exist as a native culture. Furthermore, it would seem that Nicaragua’s indigenous communities lying in the path of [the canal] will soon lose their hard fought and precarious grasp of environmental justice.”

In the end, according to the Huete-Perez, the government has given no real assurance—or proof—that the Gran Canal will actually be good for Nicaraguans.

“The speakers for the canal concessionary have publicly expressed a ‘hope’ that this project will immediately rocket Nicaragua out of poverty and even into double-digit annual economic growth, with abundant training and job opportunities for Nicaraguans,” he said. “But unfortunately they have never shown any data to back these claims, instead they ask for people to have ‘faith.’ But as our history has shown [some] individuals may become wealthy at the expense of the country’s natural resources while the vast majority can only become poorer.”

Biodiversity hotspots along the way

A peccary caught on camera trap near Bankukuk, Nicaragua along the path of the Gran Canal and other industrial projects connected to it. Photo by: Christopher Jordan.
A peccary caught on camera trap near Bankukuk, Nicaragua along the path of the Gran Canal and other industrial projects connected to it. Photo by: Christopher Jordan.

The approved route will slice the massive canal along the borders of two nature reserves—Cerro Silva and Punta Gorda—as well as the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. These three protected areas are known for their biodiversity, as well as important forest patches for long-ranging and iconic species.

“In these areas, we have found tapirs, jaguars, and other important rainforest species,” said Urquhart. “The forests in which these were found will be wiped out by the construction of the canal, but the overall impact on the populations of these animals is hard to determine.”

Despite being protected areas, Cerro Silva and Punta Gorda have already been hard hit by both legal and illegal occupants, many of them converting the forest into cattle pasture. In fact, data from Global Forest Watch finds that between 2001 and 2013, Punta Gorda Nature Reserve lost 23 percent of its forest cover, while Cerro Silva lost 16 percent.

“Because much of the area has already seen a lot of forest loss, the total forest loss due to canal construction is not going to amount to that much,” noted Urquhart. “The problem is that it will create another disruption in the ‘corridor’ of forests down the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. This forest connects larger tracts.”

One larger tract to the south is the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, which is faring much better than its northern cousins. During the same 12-year period, this protected area only lost less than one percent, equalling 2,726 hectares.

Pink shows deforestation from 2001-2013 across protected areas along the path of the Gran Canal in south eastern Nicaragua. The green patch with very little deforestation is the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. North of that are Cerro Silva and Punta Gorda Nature Reserves, showing heavy deforestation over the past 12 years. Data from Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

Overall, Nicaragua has lost 822,513 hectares of forest during the last 12 years, an area around the size of Puerto Rico. This means, using 2001 as a benchmark, the country lost over 10 percent of its forest cover in the past dozen years.

If built, the Gran Canal will only add greater pressure to the country’s forest. Huete-Perez says that the canal’s construction could lead to the destruction of “more than 400,000 hectares of forest and wetlands.” This would represent around half of the forest loss over the last 12 years or about 6 percent of the country’s remaining forest.

The region’s ecosystems could also be impacted by dredging. Cutting the canal through the country at over 27 meters deep and between 230-520 meters wide is going to create millions of tons of sediment. Depending on where this is dumped, it’s likely nearby ecosystems will be impacted.

It’s not just the Gran Canal that will be cutting a swathe through Nicaragua, but a whole string of development projects connected to the canal, including an international airport, a railway, two deepwater ports, four tourist resorts, a concrete production plant, an oil pipeline, and a slew of new highways. In addition, it’s likely the project will bring thousands of foreign workers as well as attract many Nicaraguans hungry for a job. With an increase in the population, massive development projects, and likely many new roads, it’s a fair bet the wildlife that does survive in these parks today will have an even more difficult time.

But Nicaragua’s already-embattled forests and wildlife aren’t the only ecosystems threatened by the Gran Canal.

What will happen to Lake Nicaragua?

A volcanic island rises from Lake Nicaragua. Photo by Aaron Escobar.
A volcanic island rises from Lake Nicaragua. Photo by Aaron Escobar/Creative Commons 2.0.

Given its size and importance, it’s no surprise that Lake Nicaragua has numerous names, including Lago Cocibolca and the descriptive Mar Dulce. Not only is it the largest lake in Central America, but it’s also the region’s biggest freshwater source. Moreover, the lake has a truly bizarre ecology, including a transient population of bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) and hugely-endangered sawfish that came from ocean, jumping rapids along the way. The lake is also home to diverse mix of endemic cichlids, well-known in the aquarium trade. However, critics fear that building a massive canal, that will cut directly through this distinct lake, will upend the ecology—bringing with it invasive species and floods of saltwater—while also undercutting a vital freshwater source.

“[The lake] supplies water for Nicaragua’s agricultural and cattle industries as well as livelihood for those living along its shores,” said Huete-Perez “Although the impact studies are not publicly available, from what we can infer, the selected route…did nothing to avoid these problems.”

Because the lake is too shallow for many ocean liner cargo ships, HKND is proposing to dug a 27-meter deep channel through the full-length of the lake, as well as the rivers and earth it will cut before and after. There is no word yet as to where the millions of tons of dredge will be placed, but scientists fear it will eventually end up back in the lake as damaging sediment.

“There certainly will be an increase in pollution on Lake Nicaragua, but how severe is unknown,” said Urquhart.

A bull shark in the Bahamas. This species was once abundant in Lake Nicaragua, today it is almost gone. Photo by: Public Domain.
A bull shark in the Bahamas. This species was once abundant in Lake Nicaragua, today it is almost gone. Photo by: Public Domain.

Moreover, as ship traffic picks up, ecologists are concerned that invasive species will get into the lake, which has already suffered decades of pollution problems and overfishing. In fact, according to Urquhart, the lake’s famous “shark and sawfish populations are already decimated.”

With rivers leading into and out of the lake also widened and deepened, scientists fear an influx of saltwater could change the lake’s makeup, further dooming local fish and the people who depend on them.

Another unknown are the lake’s volcanoes. Two volcanoes, one still active, sit on Ometepe Island which was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 2010.

“Local experts have yet to study possible volcanic activity and the impact on the canal,” said Huete-Perez. “There may be a significant impact of the canal on the twin volcanoes…[Ometepe island] is still pristine and unspoiled, rich in biodiversity and fledgling ecological projects, and home to archeological remains of Nicaragua’s rich pre-colonial history…ships will pass close by the island on the planned canal route that slices through Lake Nicaragua.”

Huete-Perez also warns that the country’s many earthquakes could injure the “canal structure.”

Before choosing the Panama Isthmus for its canal, the U.S. seriously considered building it through Nicaragua. In fact, it even came to a vote in the U.S. Congress, which voted for Panama over Nicaragua in 1902. Politics and instability scared off some U.S. politicians, but the deciding factor against Nicaragua where concerns over earthquakes, and especially, volcanoes. Over a hundred years later and it’s still not clear how a new canal could mitigate against tectonic realities.

Shrouded in secrecy

A canal across Nicaragua has been the ambition of wealthy and powerful nations for centuries beginning with the U.S., which almost built it instead of the Panam Canal. Today, it's a Chinese company that's pushing for the Gran Canal. This is from an old German-language publication, showing a proposed route for the canal that is very similar to the one chosen by HKND. Photo by: The British Library.
A canal across Nicaragua has been the ambition of wealthy and powerful nations for centuries beginning with the U.S., which almost built it instead of the Panam Canal. Today, it’s a Chinese company that’s pushing for the Gran Canal. This is from an old German-language publication, showing a proposed route for the canal that is very similar to the one chosen by HKND. Photo by: The British Library.

Despite approval from the Nicaraguan government and a selected route, few details are actually known about the Gran Canal. Until now, no environmental assessment has been completed, let alone made public; the canal’s current funders remain hidden; and the impacts of the canal—both the good and the bad—remain largely unstudied.

“HKND has provided no concrete data to…Nicaraguan experts in engineering, water resource management, environmental conservation, etc., regarding the proposed structure of the canal and related sub-projects, nor have we seen data from the feasibility and environmental assessments that HKND paid for,” said Huete Perez. “This makes it very difficult to form an educated opinion about the magnitude of the impacts.”

Rainforest lying within the canal zone. Photo by: Christopher Jordan.
Rainforest lying within the canal zone. Photo by: Christopher Jordan.

Still, HKND is steamrolling ahead: they say they will break ground by December and see its first ship through by 2019. But, even setting aside the legitimate environmental and social concerns, some worry the hugely-ambitious scheme may prove an economic debacle.

Trade expert Jean-Paul Rodrigue told National Public Radio that he believed the government’s projections were exaggerated.

“It’s going to take a lot of traffic and a very, very long time,” he said. “That’s why I say the project is technically feasible but commercially very, very dubious.”

To better understand the decision facing Nicaraguans, Huete Perez and colleagues are planning an International workshop through the country’s Academy of Sciences.

“Discussions will focus on defining major concerns and potential irreversible impacts (and their significance) associated with construction and operation of the canal and its sub-projects; and exploring alternative, sustainable uses for [Lake Nicaragua],” he noted.

Given Nicaragua’s well-published challenges—the drug trade, entrenched poverty, and decades of civil war—it may not be surprising that the government is looking for a big development project (and few, if any, are bigger than this) to transform the country’s fragile outlook overnight. It’s an understandably tempting prospect: approve one big project, and suddenly the country’s decades-old, ingrained problems will right themselves.

“Nicaragua is a country facing incredible difficulties,” said Urquhart. “They face very difficult decisions in considering the canal. There is a need to invest in the country, but I am not sure if this is the best plan.”

Huete-Perez is more blunt, saying that the Gran Canal is a “dishonest and offensive proposal that Nicaragua should not accept.”

Forest loss across Nicaragua from 2001-2013. Experts predict that the building of the Gran Canal will exacerbate deforestation considerably in the country. Data from Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

Baird's tapir caught on camera trap in Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.
Baird’s tapir caught on camera trap in Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.

A view of Lake Nicaragua. Photo by: Zach Klein.
A view of Lake Nicaragua. Photo by: Zach Klein/Creative Commons 2.0.

White-tailed deer on camera trap within the canal zone. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.
White-tailed deer on camera trap within the canal zone. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.

A house in the community of Pijbaye in the canal zone. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.
A house in the community of Pijbaye in the canal zone. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.

A paca on camera trap within the canal zone. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.
A paca on camera trap within the canal zone. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.

A red brocket deer on camera trap within the canal zone. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.
A red brocket deer on camera trap within the canal zone. Photo courtesy of Christopher Jordan.

Forest loss from 2001-2012 in the Cerro Silva and Punta Gorda Nature Reserves in Nicaragua. Data from Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.


  • Meyer, Axel, and Jorge A. Huete-Perez. “Conservation: Nicaragua Canal could wreak environmental ruin.” Nature 506, no. 7488 (2014): 287-289. doi:10.1038/506287a


Amnesty International publishes report on human rights and mining projects in Guatemala

Source:  Amnesty International

19 September 2014

Guatemala stokes conflict around mining by failing to consult communities

Sign outside a silver mine in San Rafael Las Flores, Guatemala.

Sign outside a silver mine in San Rafael Las Flores, Guatemala. © Private

“We’re concerned that the violence seen in the past will continue if a fair and balanced consultation process is not introduced.”
Amnesty International’s Erika Guevara Rosas

The Guatemalan government is fuelling the fires of conflict by failing to consult local communities before awarding mining licences to companies, effectively raising the risk of bloodshed and bulldozing over the rights of its people, said Amnesty International today.

The report, Mining in Guatemala: Rights at Risk, published today, exposes significant gaps in protection for communities affected by mining projects. New legislation put forward by the Guatemalan government not only fails to address widespread concerns among Indigenous and rural communities about a lack of consultation, but includes measures that may exacerbate existing tensions.

“The proposed legislation effectively side-steps the concerns of communities. It does not address the issue of consultation in any meaningful way. If enacted it would essentially mean that communities’ views and concerns continue to be ignored. This is a significant missed opportunity,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director of Amnesty International.

Reforms to the Mining Law are currently before Congress having been drafted in 2012. However, the proposed reforms will simply replicate the current loopholes allowing just 10 days for challenges to licence applications, exacerbating the problem of lack of consultation.

Tensions over a lack of fair process and proper consultation have previously led to violent confrontations, with protesters clashing with security guards and police over the proposed mine site.

International human rights standards require that those potentially affected by mining projects must be consulted and adequately informed, and that projects on Indigenous peoples’ land should only proceed with their free, prior and informed consent.

“Analyzing the implications of any mining project takes time, and 10 days to respond to a licence application is not realistic for communities who might be affected and therefore need to examine the proposal carefully,” said Erika Guevara Rosas.

“We’re concerned that the violence seen in the past will continue if a fair and balanced consultation process is not introduced. We are also aware that the rights of Indigenous peoples are not being respected,” said Erika Guevara Rosas.

In many cases, the authorities have failed to thoroughly investigate the death and injury of those protesting against mining projects.

On 13 June 2012, activist Yolanda Oquelí was shot and seriously injured by two unknown assailants. She was returning from a protest over mining when two men on a motorbike cut across her path and fired at her with a pistol. She was hit by one bullet which lodged close to her liver. She survived the attack and went into hiding with her family.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Guatemalan government to provide protection to Yolanda Oquelí and her family. Although the Public Ministry opened an investigation into the attack, to date no one has been brought to justice.

“The violence and repression that has taken root around mining in Guatemala cannot continue. The Guatemalan government must ensure that they implement and respect legislation to facilitate dialogue and decision-making between mining companies, state authorities and affected people. Communities must be provided with full and objective information about the benefits and risks of mining in a clear and culturally appropriate manner,” said Erika Guevara Rosas.

“We are also calling on the home governments of foreign-owned mining companies in Guatemala to monitor and hold their companies to account for the human rights impact of their activities, wherever they operate.”

Additional information

Many of the high-profile companies currently operating in Guatemala are subsidiaries of Canadian companies.

Guatemala is still struggling to deal with the legacy of past human rights abuses from the internal armed conflict (1960-1996) when over 200,000 people were killed, including an estimated 40,000 who were forcibly “disappeared”.

Today, Indigenous peoples remain economically and socially marginalised. Land tenure is a particular problem, with Indigenous communities bearing the brunt of acute inequality in the distribution of land.

In Guatemala approximately 30 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty.

Amnesty International is presenting the report Mining in Guatemala: Rights at risk in Guatemala City today with a delegation comprised of Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, Sebastian Elgueta, Central America Researcher, and Tara Scurr, Amnesty International Canada’s Business and Human Rights Campaigner.

Congress Poised to Vote on Unaccompanied Minors

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U.S. folks – please act now to prevent Congress from stripping provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). The TVPRA contains important provisions designed to protect the rights of unaccompanied minors. Many of these minors have fled violence – including state-sponsored repression and torture – and have come to the U.S. seeking safety and protection.

Guatemala Human Rights Commission

Right now in Congress, our elected officials are considering lifting important protections for migrant children currently provided under the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) — a law which requires children to have a hearing before a judge and to have an attorney present.

We must demand that our elected officials ensure the safety of children arriving at the US border.
You can take action now by signing our petition calling for Congress to protect Central American children.

Our friends at the Chicago Religious Leadership Network have also circulated this call to action. Please join us in supporting this important initiative:

Congress is Preparing to Vote on the Unaccompanied Minors! Can you spare a minute to make sure they vote the right way?

Call (1-866-940-2439 ) or email your U.S. senators and representatives in the next 48 hours and urge them to pass the Senate Bill…

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The Desperate Choices Behind Child Migration by ALEXANDRA EARLY

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Source: Counterpunch

As someone who just returned from living and working in El Salvador, I’m still having a hard time adjusting to our mainstream media’s never-ending wave of know-nothing commentary on the subject of immigration. A case in point is the column penned by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on Sunday, June 22nd. Douthat expresses alarm about the “current surge” of “unaccompanied minors from Central America” who are dangerously crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in such unprecedented numbers that the Border Patrol and the courts are now “struggling to care for the children and process their cases.”

What has caused this “children’s migration?” According to Douthat it is “immigration reform’s open invitation”–“the mere promise of amnesty” that has now worsened “some of the humanitarian problems that reformers say they want to solve.” Douthat is a conservative but his solution is a familiar, bi-partisan one: “let’s prove that a more effective enforcement system can be built and only then codify an offer of legal status.”

That immigration policy proposal, per usual, totally ignores what’s really driving the big increase in border crossings by impoverished young Central Americans and what the U.S. government could be doing to make staying in Central America a viable choice.

The “Push Factors”

To see things differently, it helps to put yourself in the shoes of others. Let’s imagine that you are poor single mother living in Apopa, a dangerous city next door to the capital, San Salvador.

You work cleaning houses for $15 a day. Your neighborhood is completely gang dominated. When you take the bus to the house where you work you are often late because the police check the bus and make all the men disembark for body searches. There are some mornings when you wake up and send your daughter to the corner store for eggs and she sees dead bodies in the street. They could be the bodies of a neighbor or a storeowner who refused to pay the extortionate demands of the local gang. Just a few days ago, walking with your son you were caught in a shoot out between two rival gangs. You could do nothing but duck and cover and try to comfort your wailing child.

Your son is 12 and one of the gangs–let’s say la Mara Salvatrucha (MS), the country’s most violent–is starting to recruit him. They want to use him as courier to send messages and deliver drugs. Perhaps more frighteningly, your older daughter, 14 now, is attracting the attention of an MS leader in the neighborhood. You tell her to reject his overtures, but you know how hard it is for any young woman to spurn such a relationship—or end it, once it has begun.

No Rural Refuge

You think about just packing up and moving to the countryside, but you have heard stories. Your next-door neighbor, an office worker, faced gang pressure to pay a fifty-dollar a month extortion fee. So she decided to move back to her hometown, a tiny village in rural San Vicente. But even small towns in El Salvador aren’t safe these days. After your neighbor moved back home, her nephew, a 16 year-old scholarship student was killed in the middle of the afternoon in his own front yard, right across the dirt road. He wasn’t the slightest bit involved in any gang activity. All he did was date the ex-girlfriend of a gang member.

In Apopa, you try to keep your kids inside as much as possible. And you worry. You worry about how you will pay the rent and find the money to send them to high school, let alone college. And you think about sending them to la Usa. Your brother lives in Maryland. Maybe he could cover part of the cost of their journey? You know the journey is dangerous but what other choices are there?

How many American parents have ever had to weigh such terrible options—the danger of daily life for their children versus the dangers of illegal immigration? How many have experienced the emotional pain of resulting family separation—first from parents leaving for work in Los Angeles or Maryland, with their children staying behind, and now from the stream of children and teens following the same route north in search of a safer and better life?

Forced to Leave

In February, with my U.S. passport in hand, I left El Salvador and hopped on a plane headed for the U.S. – adios gangs, adios fear, adios poverty. I left behind many Salvadoran friends who will never be able to do the same thing. Just a few months later, a bright young man from one rural community I often visited left to join his father in Washington State. To me, with a steady job and money in the bank, his beautiful mountainside community seemed like paradise. But the young man couldn’t gain admittance to the one affordable, public university in El Salvador and couldn’t find a job. While Douthat bemoans the fact that Border Patrol agents are “neglecting other law enforcement duties” to deal with the influx of child migrants, I am hoping they will be too busy to catch my young friend and that he will reach his destination safely.

The vast majority of Salvadorans, like other Central Americans, don’t want to migrate to the U.S. They love their families and communities and would much prefer to stay and work or go to school in their own countries. Creating stricter immigration rules and deporting more children will not stop this wave of forced migrants; only giving them the chance to survive and prosper at home will.

U.S. Policy Impact

The U.S. Government could do a lot to make life better in El Salvador and Honduras. But right now they are doing just the opposite. In El Salvador, the Obama administration is currently undercutting efforts by the Salvadoran government to support sustainable, small-scale farming. The U.S. Ambassador has threatened to deny a multimillion-dollar aid package if the FMLN government continues to buy seeds from local farmers, instead of from foreign companies like Monsanto, as part of their highly successful Family Agriculture program.

Meanwhile in Honduras, since the military take-over of June 2009 the U.S. has been supporting a corrupt, illegitimate regime responsible for increased economic inequality and violence. I have participated in a number of human rights and electoral observation delegations to Honduras and heard from community leaders about the hundreds of murders of women, gay people, activists and union leaders that have occurred under the watch of the post-coup regime. If I were Honduran, watching right wing hard liner Juan Orlando Hernandez “win” the presidential election through blatant fraud and intimidation would have been the last straw for me. I would have left too.

I am no Harvard trained political analyst like Ross Douthat, but I know that only a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy will help change conditions in Central America and ease the humanitarian crisis at our border. The U.S. government must stop pushing free trade and privatization and start funding social programs. But most of all it must stand up for human rights. And these include the right not to migrate but to stay, study, work, speak out and live happily in your own home country.

Alexandra Early worked for four years in El Salvador as a Coordinator for U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities. She can be reached at

New Report Explores Harmful Impacts of Canadian Mining in Latin America

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Guatemala Human Rights Commission

MarlinMine1 A crater and contaminated rubble — results of the Marlin Mine in Guatemala. Photo by James Rodríguez

A recent report presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) explores the growing presence of Canadian mining companies in Latin America, highlighting a series of environmental and social concerns, and raising questions about who should ultimately be held responsible for violations related to Canadian-owned projects. The report, titled The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada’s responsibility [full report in Spanish], was written by a working group made up of six civil society organizations from Latin America and one from the US, with input from twenty-two additional Latin America-based organizations.

Open pit mining is well known to cause serious environmental damage, and the authors draw particular attention to the contamination of rivers and drinking water. The damning report also describes flagrant violations of the right to life…

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