Central America Theater
Agents of El Salvador's Fiscalía, backed up by police troops, raided seven non-governmental organizations Nov. 22, ostensibly on the grounds of investigating "corruption." The Salvadoran popular movement describes the raids as the latest in an escalating campaign of political persecution by President Nayib Bukele against voices critical of the regime. Among the groups targeted were Las Mélidas, a long-standing women's rights organization, and PRO-VIDA, a humanitarian group that works in areas of healthcare, ecology, and strengthening of democratic institutions. Also targeted were the Coordinator of Communal Projects of El Salvador (PROCOMES), the Salvadoran Foundation for Democracy & Social Development (FUNDASPAD), the Helping Hand Foundation (Una Mano Amiga), the Association of Tecleña Women (AMTSV), and the Environmental Association of Santa Ana (FUNDASAN).
The Darién Gap, a dangerous jungle route used by a growing number of migrants trying to reach the United States from South America, has become even deadlier, according to Panama's Forensic Sciences Institute. It has reported over 50 migrant deaths to date in 2021, although the figure is believed to be far higher. Towns on the Colombian side of the border are swelling with migrants waiting to cross the Gap—mostly Haitians, Cubans and Venezuelans, but some from as far afield as Afghanistan and Burkina Faso. Colombian authorities say 67,000 migrants have passed through the border zone so far this year, more than 15 times the number in 2020. Former paramilitaries operating in the area are now preying on the migrants, who face rape, armed violence and extortion. (TNH)
Protests have repeatedly erupted in El Salvador over the past week as the country became the first to make Bitcoin legal tender. The US dollar also remains official currency, but the law pushed through by President Nayib Bukele mandates that all vendors also accept Bitcoin. Small merchants and especially those in the informal sector complain of problems in trying to download the official phone app needed to use the currency. Protesters say the new law will deepen poverty by further excluding the already marginalized from the economy. They also assert that it will further enable corruption. "This is a currency that's not going to work for pupusa vendors, bus drivers or shopkeepers," one protester told Reuters. "This is a currency that's ideal for big investors who want to speculate with their economic resources."
Details of an investigation into negotiations between the government of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and violent gangs, which involved trading fewer murders and electoral support for improved prison conditions, were revealed by El Faro, an online news site. The talks were carried out by a special unit created by attorney general Raúl Melara, who was ousted in May. Officials apparently conducted discussions with Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, and Barrio 18 Sureños, which the government considers terrorist groups. El Faro published audio files and text messages documenting what took place over at least a year beginning in June 2019. Gang violence has been one of the main drivers of migration from El Salvador to the United States. The US State Department recently accused several Bukele officials of corruption, which has cooled efforts to engage bilaterally on migration strategy.
The trial of the alleged mastermind behind the March 2016 murder of environmentalist Berta Cáceres began in Honduras on April 6. Cáceres was slain when a squad of gunmen invaded her home at the village of La Esperanza, Intibucá department. A visiting Mexican friend, Gustavo Castro, was also shot but survived. Cáceres had been campaigning against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project, then under construction by company Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA). Four of eight defendants were each sentenced in December 2019 to 34 years in prison for the murder of Cáceres, and 16 years for the attempted murder of Castro. Three others were sentenced to 30 years as co-conspirators in the crime. In the new trial that opened in a Tegucigalpa court, a former DESA president and military intelligence officer, Roberto David Castillo, is charged with being the "intellectual author" of the murder.
On March 21—the eve of World Water Day—an indigenous activist who was leading the fight against construction of a hydroelectric dam was shot dead in front of his family in Honduras. Juan Carlos Cerros Escalante, a member of the Lenca indigenous people, was gunned down directly outside the church at the pueblo of Nueva Granada, in the Caribbean coast department of Cortés. He was on his way to visit his mother, and his children were beside him. Cerros Escalante led the local group Communities United, which is mobilizing residents along the Rio Ulúa to oppose El Tornillito hydro-dam. The pending project would displace 10 communities in the departments of Cortés and Santa Bárbara.
In a video conference with representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) March 18, indigenous leaders from Nicaragua's eastern rainforest protested an illegal "invasion" of their titled territories by armed campesino colonists, who seize lands, clear trees and terrorize their communities. The four-way computer link brought together IACHR representatives in Costa Rica and Washington DC, Nicaraguan government officials in Managua, and Miskito and Mayangna indigenous leaders in the rainforest town of Bilwi, North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. The Miskito and Mayangna leaders said 13 indigenous residents were killed by settlers last year, with eight wounded and hundreds forcibly displaced. One of the worst attacks was in January 2020, when colonists burned 16 houses in the community of Alal, and killed six inhabitants. As recently as this March 4, an attack on the Mayangna community of Kimak Was left one resident wounded and another missing.
Thousands protested in Guatemala's capital Nov. 21 against a newly approved 2021 national budget that imposes deep cuts in funding for health care, education and programs to combat malnutrition—at a time when the country is hit hard by natural disasters and COVID-19. One breakaway group of protesters hurled improvised incendiary devices at the Congress building, setting it on fire. Police used batons and tear-gas to push protesters back, attacking not only the some 1,000 in front of Congress but also a much larger demonstration in front of the National Palace. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned what it called an "excessive use of force" by the National Civil Police, while the government of President Alejandro Giammattei accused the protesters of "terrorist acts" that will be "punished with the full force of the law." (NYT, Al Jazeera, Prensa Libre, Prensa Libre)