Gang culture in El Salvador
By Martin Mowforth
In April this year (2019), it was reported in El Salvador that municipal employees who provide local services such as rubbish collection in the town of Apopa had stopped work because of threats from local gang members.
The threats began with two gang members who threatened the fee collectors from the almost 2,500 market stall holders, from which the municipality gains between $1,200 and $1,500 each week. Threats were later extended to burial services at the local cemetery where work also stopped meaning that three families had to bury their relatives in other municipalities. Also affected were rubbish collection services and one crucial bus service.
Local mayor, Santiago Zelaya, organised a group of volunteers to collect the rubbish with accompaniment by the National Civil Police. Initially only three police patrols were granted and other services could not be guaranteed by police protection. Mayor Zelaya said, “In view of this situation with reduced municipal ability, we request that the security forces support the progress and development that the municipality has made.”
It is believed that the gangs became short of money following the holiday period (December – February) and that the threats stemmed from their need to raise funds. Four gangs operate in Apopa (only 20 km from the capital San Salvador) where schoolchildren and students, as well as businesses, have to be extremely wary as they travel to and from their studies on account of the danger of approaches by gang members.
The Barrio 18 gang is thought to be responsible for the threats. The gang had an agreement with the previous mayor who is now languishing in jail along with several gang members.
Between the 1st January this year and the 25th February, fifteen assassinations were committed in Apopa, the same number as were committed during the whole of 2018.
On 30th January this year I participated in a visit to the Comunidad Romero, close to the town of Apopa. The visit was organised by the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS, Centre for Exchange and Solidarity), and our group discussed the problems of living there with a group of impressive young people who spend much of their time trying to avoid being approached and hassled by gang members. There is little work available and so young people who do not make the grade in school generally hang around on the streets where they are highly vulnerable to approaches by gang members.
The main street in Distrito Italia where the community is located, is run by the Barrio 18 gang on one side and by the Mara Salvatrucha on the other. Young people on their way to school or to get the bus to go into Apopa or San Salvador are particularly vulnerable to these approaches, and so many of the young people from Comunidad Romero have to go the long way round to avoid such contact.
Given the lack of employment opportunities and the lack of alternative forms of development, it is unsurprising that so many young adults join the migrant caravans in search of a future.
- La Prensa Gráfica, 14 April 2019, ‘Amenaza de pandilla en Apopa limita servicios municipales’ / ‘Gang threats in Apopa restrict municipal services’.
- Daniel Torres (El Salvador Day), 14 April 2019, ‘Pandilleros no permiten que se recoja basura en Apopa’ / ‘Gang members stop waste collection in Apopa’.
- Personal notes by Martin Mowforth from visit to Comunidad Romero, 30 January 2019.
In December 2018, Honduran human rights worker Dina Meza visited London. Because of the danger of her work in Honduras, she is accompanied there by Peace Brigades International (PBI). Both Dina and PBI feature several times in ‘The Violence of Development’ website, for which she was interviewed in 2017 – see https://theviolenceofdevelopment.com/dina-meza/
The following report by PBI explains her presence in London.
In December 2018 Dina Meza, a celebrated Honduran independent journalist, was invited to the UK to speak at the FCO’s Human Rights Day event. During her time in London Dina Meza met with the Minister for Human Rights; Lord Ahmad, All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, as well as representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discuss the human rights situation in Honduras as well as restrictions on freedom of expression and attacks against journalists in the country. She also met with NGOs and donors.
“We are joined by Dina Meza. She is a journalist in Honduras who is working to defend freedom of expression and information. And in case Dina, and after meeting her this morning, I would add this, a modest lady, and if she fails to tell you this herself is that she was named by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders of 2018. Why? Because of her work in this sphere. Thank you Dina for being here.” – Lord Ahmad
Committed to defending freedom of expression and information, Dina has spent years investigating and reporting on human rights violations across the country. She is currently the Director of ASOPODEHU and the President of PEN Honduras, an organisation that supports journalists at risk. She is also the founder and editor of the online newspaper ‘Pasos de Animal Grande’, which provides information and legal support to at-risk professionals, students and journalists.
In April 2018 Fortune magazine selected her as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders of 2018, highlighting her key role in bringing international attention to the assassination of activist Berta Cáceres, as well as the state violence surrounding Honduras’ volatile 2017 elections.
Dina works at incredible personal risk and has previously had to flee Honduras for her own safety. Due to the threats she faces she receives protective accompaniment from Peace Brigades International.
1b Waterlow Road
London, N19 5NJ
Tel/Fax: +44 (0)20 7281 5370
UK Charity Number: 1101016
The following is a brief summary of an article published in September 2008 in NotiCen which offers news and analysis of international political matters as they manifest themselves in Central America and the Caribbean.
A tourism project of astounding proportions is rising up out of the ashes of the grandiose but defunct Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), replaced by Plan Mesoamerica – see Chapter 7. The tourism project was proposed for the Petén, Guatemala’s largest and most remote department. President Alvaro Colóm proposed an archeological park extending some 22,500 sq km across this, Central America’s largest, forested wilderness. The park would include both El Mirador, a giant ruins considered the cradle of the Mayan civilisation, and Tikal, the gem of the Mayan classic period.
Some of this vast area has been raped, turned into cattle ranches, denuded of the forests that could not be seen for the trees whose value as illegally felled timber has spelled their doom. It also necessitates the eviction of subsistence campesino families and would include a large area of the Petén which is lawless and in which forest is clear-felled with impunity for cattle grazing. Additionally, the area is used as a major trans-shipment route by drug smugglers. The Guatemalan NGO Trópico Verde refers to those responsible for the illegal felling as ‘narco-cattle ranchers’.
Carlos Albacete, Co-Director of Trópico Verde, said that the organisation first denounced the situation in 2006 and has documentation showing that, in at least five cases, lands within the Laguna del Tigre park were illegally deeded to persons linked to narco-trafficking. In the Mirador area of the central zone of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, the group has documentary evidence of state lands taken over by drug traffickers that were subsequently robbed of their timber and turned to grazing. After Trópico Verde made its charges, authorities nullified the titles, but they did not act against the drug traffickers. “They don’t mention that, to get the deeds issued, they had to bribe lawyers and officials, or that in Laguna del Tigre so far 40 small planes used to transport cocaine from Colombia to Guatemala have been found,” added Albacete.
The full article on which this summary is based is accessible on the ENCA website
Prepared by Alice Klein.
Latin America generally has strict abortion laws, but Nicaragua is one of the few countries in the world to outlaw therapeutic abortion; that is ‘the termination of pregnancy before fetal viability in order to preserve maternal health’. This includes when the mother’s or baby’s health and/or life is at stake.
Nicaragua’s ban came into force in October 2006, supported by the FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation) who made a cynical alliance with conservatives in order to woo the Catholic Church in the run up to national elections.
In November 2007, the Ortega government added criminal sanctions to the law. The Penal Code stipulates prison sentences for girls and women who seek an abortion and for health professionals who provide health services associated with abortion. This includes sanctions for doctors and nurses who treat a pregnant woman or girl for illnesses such as cancer, malaria, HIV/AIDS or cardiac emergencies where such treatment is contraindicated in pregnancy and may cause injury to or death of the embryo or foetus.
It even goes as far as punishing girls and women who have suffered a miscarriage, as in many cases it is impossible to distinguish spontaneous from induced abortions. Indeed, Human Rights Watch say the most wide-ranging effect of the ban is the surge in fear of seeking treatment for pregnancy-related complications, such as hemorrhaging.
Amnesty International says the ban is endangering the lives of girls and women, denying them life-saving treatment, preventing health professionals from practicing effective medicine and contributing to an increase in maternal deaths across the country. The human rights group says that according to official figures, 33 girls and women died in pregnancy between January and June 2009, compared to 20 in the same period in 2008.
Despite attempts by the country’s feminists to campaign against the ban, President Ortega’s government has responded by attempting to silence them. In September 2008, the Nicaraguan government launched ‘Operation No More Lies’ against NGOs it accused of embezzlement, money-laundering and subversion. It said the organisations’ promotion of human rights, gender equality and poverty reduction were “modern-day trojan horses” and a rightwing plot to destabilise the administration.
The following month, authorities raided the offices of the Communications Research Centre (CINCO) which works with the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM). Their work is financed by eight European governments and administered by Oxfam UK. It aims to promote “the full citizenship of women,” but Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo called it “Satan’s fund” and “the money of evil.”
Murillo has since formed her own women’s group and penned a manifesto titled ‘The ‘Feminist’ Connection and Low Intensity Warfare’ in which she characterises feminists as oligarchs, counterrevolutionaries, and well-paid agents of imperialism.
Critics have described these actions as a further sign of intolerance and authoritarianism by the once-revolutionary Ortega.
 Emedicine obstetrics and gynaecology, http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/266440-overview (Accessed 11/08/09)
 ‘The government war on women’s rights in Nicaragua’, http://www.socialism.com/fsarticles/vol30no1/nicaragua.html (Accessed 11/08/09).
 Amnesty International (2009) ‘The total abortion ban in Nicaragua: Women’s lives and health endangered, medical professionals criminalized’, Amnesty International, New York.
 Human Rights Watch (2007) ‘Over their dead bodies: Denial of access to emergency obstetric care and therapeutic abortion in Nicaragua’, Human Rights Watch, New York.
 Op.cit. Amnesty International.
 See note 2.
 Rory Carroll (2008) ‘Oxfam targeted as Nicaragua attacks ‘trojan horse’ NGOs’, The Guardian, 14/10/08.
 Roger Burbach (2009) ‘Et Tu Daniel? The Sandinista revolution betrayed’, NACLA March/April: 33-43.
 Interview with Nicaraguan feminist Helen Dixon in Managua, July 2009.
 Op.cit. Burbach.
2016 has witnessed an increase in fatal attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala. From January 1st to October 31st, eleven human rights defenders were killed and since October 31st, the killings have escalated, and by November 18th the total number of defenders killed came to 16. (The total for 2015 was 13.)
Union members and community leaders
On 10th May, community leader Blanca Estela Asturias was shot to death in Villalobos, Guatemala. Two men approached her as she was at her newspaper stand at 6 am and shot her at point blank range. She had recently organised a protest to call for better water service and better maintenance of the community’s drainage system.
On 19th June at about 6 pm, Brenda Marleni Estrada Tambito (shown left) was driving through Zone 1 of Guatemala City when a vehicle drove up next to her. The occupants of the vehicle opened fire and killed her. She was a member of the Coalition of Workers’ Unions of Guatemala (UNSITRAGUA) and the sub-coordinator of the Legal Aid Commission within the union. UNSITRAGUA brings together workers’ unions from different industries, as well as self-employed workers and independent farmers. She was the daughter of lawyer Jorge Estrada, who is currently involved in investigating and assessing labour rights in several banana plantations in Izabal.
On 10th November, Eliseo Villatoro Cardona was riding home on his motorcycle when two pursuers, also on motorcycles, shot and wounded him. Despite his wounds, he tried to flee, but the gunmen continued to chase him and killed him. Villatoro Cardona was a member of the executive committee of the Organised Municipal Employees’ Union of Tiquisate (SEMOT) in Escuintla.
A variety of sources have been used in the compilation of the lists above. These include: Prensa Libre, Aquitodito, Cerigua, Radio La Franja, Front Line Defenders, Committee to Protect Journalists, NISGUA, UNESCO, Reporteros Sin Fronteras, Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC).
The GHRC’s ‘Preliminary 2016 Human Rights Review’ has been particularly helpful and this was the work of Imogene Caird and Pat Davis, to whom I am especially grateful. The GHRC’s website is: www.ghrc-usa.org/
The following map appears as Figure 9.1 in the book (page 189)
It is now almost a year since the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA) hosted an event entitled ‘Defending Rights Defenders’ on board the Tattershall Castle, a boat moored on the River Thames. My apologies to all the readers of the TVOD website monthly updates that we have not managed to upload a report of the event until now. Anyway, better late than never.
ENCA was strongly supported by Peace Brigades International (PBI), OFRANEH (Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras), the Guatemala Solidarity Network and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign. The event explored both the causes and potential solutions to the dangers of being a defender of land rights, environmental rights and human rights in Central America, attracted 140 people and provided a platform for discussion and solidarity.
The event was chaired by Doug Specht from the University of Westminster who introduced three speakers: Martin Mowforth, author of ‘The Violence of Development’ opened the talks with a contextual introduction to the northern triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) where life for rights defenders is extremely dangerous. He cited research by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Global Witness that stated that since the 2009 military coup d’état in Honduras, 123 land and environmental activists have been murdered in that country with countless others threatened, attacked or imprisoned. The situation for rights defenders in El Salvador and Guatemala can hardly be described as any better than for Hondurans.
Following this introduction we were delighted to be joined by Aurelia Martina Arzú Rochez, vice-coordinator and spiritual guide of OFRANEH, who gave a powerful and personal account of living with the oppression of being an activist in Honduras. The Garífuna people are currently experiencing illegal takeovers of their ancestral lands by Canadian investors who are intent on developing a tourism industry that caters to wealthy foreign cruise passengers but which displaces and dispossesses the Garífuna people from their land. Moreover they suffer constant criminalisation by the authorities which are intent on protecting international investors rather than Honduran people.
More case studies of abuses of rights defenders from around the region were then presented. Following Aurelia and the other case studies, Emily Spence of Peace Brigades International took to the stage to explore ways in which rights defenders can be defended and supported through the work of PBI and other solidarity networks. The presentations were rounded off with a lively and interesting Q&A session.
While the presentations may have concluded on a sober note, the feeling of solidarity and the importance of pushing forward for new and better ways of living and fighting for rights was, quite literally, drummed home by the Pengenista samba-reggae drum band who capped off the evening with a lively range of dance and protest songs that got the whole room on its feet to join in celebration of what can be achieved when we engage in solidarity.
Below are just a few pictures and videos from the evening.
Video clips used in the presentations:
Carlos Mejía Orellana killed
Information from Rights Action (email@example.com), 13 April 2014
Radio Progreso has reported that Carlos Mejía, a member of its staff, was murdered last night in El Progreso, Honduras. In 2009, Carlos had received precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due to threats that he had received. Radio Progreso issued this statement:
“Carlos was a beneficiary of precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and therefore we demand that the State of Honduras through the relevant institutions investigate the facts and that this crime does not go unpunished.”
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Honduras is the deadliest place for environmental activists with scores of Hondurans killed defending land rights and the environment from mining, dam projects and logging, a campaign group said on Monday.
Between 2010 and 2014, 101 activists were murdered in Honduras, the highest rate per capita of any country surveyed in a report by Global Witness, although the overall number was greatest in Brazil.
Globally, killings of environmental activists reached an average of more than two per week in 2014, up 20 percent from the previous year, the report said.
Latin America fared worst, accounting for nearly three quarters of the murders – with 29 deaths reported in Brazil, 25 in Colombia and 12 in Honduras.
“Historically there has been very unequal land distribution in Latin America which has caused conflict between local and foreign companies and communities,” Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Governments in Latin America are by no means taking this problem seriously. Impunity levels are also very high so perpetrators of crime get away with it,” he said.
The report found 40 percent of environmental defenders killed last year were indigenous people caught on the frontline as they tried to defend land and water sources from companies in an escalating scramble for natural resources and land.
“Many indigenous groups lack clear land titles to their land and suffer land grabs by powerful business interests,” the report said.
Honduran activist, Martin Fernandez, said he was forced to flee for safety to Brazil for three months in 2012 after he received telephone death threats and was followed by cars with black tinted windows near his work and home.
“We live in fear, in fear of constant attack. I and many colleagues have had to live in exile,” Fernandez, head of the Movement for Dignity and Justice, a Honduran land rights group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
He said Honduran and foreign companies were exploiting indigenous lands and clearing forests, particularly in the northern Yoro province where the Tolupan indigenous group live, to make way for dam construction and mining projects.
In its report, Global Witness said the Honduran government hoped to attract $4 billion in mining investments and recently freed up 250,000 hectares of land for new mining projects.
With the world’s highest murder rate, Honduras is struggling to contain drug-fuelled gang violence and organized crime. The government did not respond to requests for comment on the Global Witness report.
Heightened dangers faced by environmental activists in Honduras are likely to be raised next month at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council when the country’s rights record comes under review.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Rosalind Russell)
This table also appears, slightly amended, in the book as Box 9.4 (page 184).
24 October 2009 – Victor Galvez shot 32 times as he left his office in Malacatan, San Marcos.
13 January 2010 – Evelinda Ramírez shot and killed in the municipality of Ocos – see Chapter 4.
29 January 2010 – FNL member Pedro Garcia shot and killed while driving home.
17 February 2010 – FNL leader in San Marcos Octavio Roberlo shot 16 times from a passing car while closing his store in the bus terminal.
21 March 2010 – Three community leaders who had denounced Unión Fenosa, Carlos Noel Maldonado Barrios, Leandro Maldonado and Ana María Lorenzo Escobar, killed by gunshots and machete wounds in the municipality of Ocos.
22 March 2011 – Head of the local committee for the nationalisation of energy, Santiago Gamboa, shot and killed by Guatemalan soldiers during protests in the town of Las Brisas.