Response: April 2015 Issue

Leaving Home in Central America

Leaving Home in  Central America
Vilma Maldonado holds a photo of her son Jesús Humberto Sanchez Maldonado. She has not heard from him since a 2011 phone call from Mexico.

Vilma Maldonado's son Jesús left their home in Honduras in 2010. After a military coup the year before, gangs and police took turns terrorizing the town where they lived on the country's north coast. Jesús got death threats. With the country's murder rate among the highest in the world, he took the threats seriously and headed north, preferring to face the dangers of traveling through Mexico to those of staying home. He last called his mother in 2011 from northern Mexico. She hasn't heard from him since.

Late last year, Ms. Maldonado joined a group of mothers who traveled to Mexico to look ftor relatives disappeared along the migrant trail. She didn't find Jesús, but she did find some clues to his whereabouts. Although church activists in Mexico will continue the search, Ms. Maldonado came back empty-handed.

"When I got home, my 5-year-old grandson Alexander asked me if I had found his father. I said I had not. He told me to go back to Mexico and find him, that I couldn't leave him there," she said.

Ms. Maldonado belongs to a local mothers' committee that provides psychological support for its members, conducts DNA testing to identify the remains of migrants whose bodies are recovered and sells raffle tickets to raise money when they need to repatriate a cadaver from the United States or Mexico.

"Having other women to be with is a big help for me. Each of us feels supported by the others. The tears of one are the tears of all, whether we're crying with joy or with sadness," she said.

Ms. Maldonado didn't feel the same support in Mexico. "In Mexico they don't like Central Americans, and they treat us like delinquents. But our husbands and sons and daughters aren't criminals. They are international workers, and they should be allowed to pass through Mexico. They want to work, not stay in Mexico where there's crime and drugs and the Zetas and cartels. Mexico is a cemetery for migrants. We went to one mass grave for migrants and it was in a garbage dump. That's where they bury our loved ones," she said.

Child migrants

Similar support groups have cropped up around Honduras. In Goascorán, a hardscrabble village in the south of the country that in recent decades has been ravaged by war, drought and hurricanes, activists attempt to slow the flow of emigrants to Spain and other countries

"We let people know the risks they'll confront on the journey north. But even though they acknowledge they may die trying, we can't say don't go. It's their right, and for many there's no hope left here. There's simply too much poverty," said Heraida Ramirez, who heads the town's Migrant Families Committee.

Ms. Ramirez says that while 8,000 people live in the community, another 3,000 have left as migrants. "We went door to door to talk with people, and just about every house has a migrant living abroad," said Ms. Ramirez, whose sister Sandra has lived in Los Angeles for the past 25 years. "She doesn't have any papers, so when my mother and father died, she couldn't come back. She cries on the phone with me when we talk about our family."

Lorena Euceda, a teacher who heads a committee that combats human trafficking in the nearby border crossing of El Amatillo, says the demographics of migration have shifted over the years.

"First the men left, and the women stayed behind. The birth rate dropped and we had fewer children in the schools. Then the mothers started going. And now the children are leaving. Their parents are sending for them, paying coyotes [migrant smugglers] to take them north. I explain the dangers, but they insist on going," she said.

Ms. Euceda says school officials promised the children that if they were returned home, their teachers would help them make up for the school they missed while traveling north. So many did not return that schools had to make adjustments. In the nearby drought-stricken village of Los Horcones, so many kids left for the United States that the school closed last year. A few remaining students have to walk to another community for classes.

For those who insist on leaving, Ms. Euceda and the others attempt to equip them with basic survival strategies. For example, they tell them not to write down any phone numbers.

"If you've got a phone number written down and you're kidnapped, your captors can call that number and demand ransom. So we tell people to memorize the phone numbers they'll need and not to share them with anyone," Ms. Euceda said.

The exodus of children in the middle of last year was spurred on by false information that originated with those who earn their living smuggling migrants.

"The coyotes were spreading the word that it was easy to get across the border, and so people had to hurry," said Carlos Hernan Carmona, president of the committee of people with disappeared family members. "But it was lies. The coyotes tell you a lot of beautiful things, like that you'll ride the whole way in buses with good food. But in fact you will go hungry and end up walking for hours and hours through the brush or the desert."

One of the Goascorán adolescents whose family was convinced by the rumors was Aleska Garcia, who was 16 years old in June when she headed north. Her mother, who has lived in the United States for 12 years, paid a coyote $6,000 for the trip. On her first day in Mexico, Ms. Garcia was apprehended by immigration police, detained for a week in crowded facilities, and then deported home. Yet a cousin traveling with Ms. Garcia made it safely to her family in the United States.

The experience has convinced Ms. Garcia to stay home for now. "I don't want to do that again. I want to finish high school, then enroll in computer classes at the university," she said.

Her grandmother, Petronila Reyes, is glad the girl is back. "I was sad when my granddaughter left. She has grown up with us old people. When I heard she was detained in Mexico I cried. But thanks to God she made it back exactly the same," Ms. Reyes said.

Push factors

When sociologists discuss immigra-tion, they often refer to "push factors," the elements of national life that encourage residents to flee. In Central America, push factors range from political instability to free trade to climate change.

In Honduras, a 2009 coup that over-threw the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, was led by General Romeo Vásquez, who trained at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The coup plotters hired Lanny Davis, an old friend of then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as their lobbyist. Soon the Obama administration backed away from imposing any consequences. U.S. military aid and training continued despite Honduran government repression of pro-democracy demonstrators, journalists and human rights activists. Honduras soon became the murder capital of the world.

Repression of journalists encourages government-friendly media, which retain official favor by making it appear that gangs-not the government or organized crime-are the main cause of the violence that pushes people to leave. Authorities are then free to repress gang populations. Governments in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have all attempted variations of mano dura, the "iron fist" approach, locking up anyone with tattoos or any evidence of links to gangs. As prisons filled up, violence continued unabated.

Catholics in El Salvador helped negotiate a truce between the two main gangs in 2012, and for 15 months the country's murder rate dropped by more than two-thirds. But resistance to the truce came from powerful private security companies as well as from media outlets for which headlines of gang violence helped to sell newspapers. Within the gangs themselves, resistance to the truce grew when extortion operations—deprived of the ability to punish noncompliance with death—began to lose their profitability.

Gangs offer young people both acceptance in a society of dysfunctional families as well as job security amid high youth unemployment. Several churches have launched job training programs, yet even well-qualified youth can have difficulty finding a job if they tell prospective employers they live in a neighborhood controlled by a gang.

According to Carlos San Martin, a Spanish priest at the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic parish, which runs a large job training program in the Mejicanos neighborhood of San Salvador, if youth can't find a job, they have three options. "One, you accept that you're going to live in absolute poverty without a future your whole life. Two, you join the gangs, which gives you certain guarantees and protection. Or three, you emigrate," he said.

Studies show that Mejicanos produces about 10 percent of the country's emigrants, so obviously many youth are taking the third option, despite the church's work.

Gangs have been demonized in El Salvador, and those who seek alternatives for young people are often dubbed collaborators. Mr. San Martin's predecessor, Father Antonio Rodriguez, was arrested by the government last year for communicating with gang leaders, and he was later deported. Mr. San Martin says he's not intimidated by either government actions or the danger of working in gang-controlled neighborhoods. "It doesn't make sense to remember someone crucified two thousand years ago if we don't accompany those who are crucified today," he said.

Differing policies toward youth

Gangs have taken inordinate power in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—what Central Americans dub the Northern Triangle—but not in Nicaragua, the poorest country in the region. Nicaragua has also sent fewer migrants north than its three neighbors. Why?

The draconian anti-crime laws that unleashed massive repression against marginalized youth in the northern countries contrast sharply with the preventative community-based policing approach employed in Nicaragua. These differences reflect recent history—the Northern Triangle incarnated the worst of U.S.-supported military repression in the 1980s, for example, while Nicaraguans ovethrew a dictator and then had to fight the United States to keep the Sandinista revolution in tact.

Fast-forward to this past decade, when Honduras and El Salvador effectively suspend human rights to round up and imprison tens of thousands of youth in overcrowded and dilapidated facilities that became the site of inexplicable fires and massive abuse. In Nicaragua, where the police created special units for dealing with families and youth while at the same time participating in community organizations, transnational gangs have little presence. Moreover, crime is relatively low. The police—headed by a well-respected woman-are generally trusted. While far from perfect, Nicaragua's approach has mitigated some of the economic motivations to emigrate. And many of those Nicaraguans who felt compelled to seek economic opportunity elsewhere have preferred to go to neighboring Costa Rica rather than risk their lives traveling north.

Canal divides Nicaragua

One project that supporters suggest will create needed employment in Nicaragua is a 172-mile canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean coast. Supposedly bankrolled by a wealthy Chinese telecoms mogul, construction on the $50 billion project is scheduled to begin later this year. Yet questions abound about Chinese government involvement, the effect on water quality in Lake Nicaragua (the country's largest source of fresh water) and whether peasant farmers and indigenous communities that are relocated from the canal's path will be fairly compensated.

Championed by the country's president, Daniel Ortega, the project has been characterized by a lack of transparency; studies about the canal's environmental impact remain unpublicized, for example, stoking suspicion and opposition. At the inauguration ceremony in December, dozens of protesters were arrested. Even before digging begins, the canal has divided Nicaragua. And Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal warned in a recent Op-Ed that it will get worse. "With this canal, the country will be divided in two: the Nicaragua of the North and that of the South, like the two Germanys and the two Koreas," he wrote.

In the 19th century, Nicaragua was considered by many to be the most feasible place to construct a canal, but political considerations (and a Nicaraguan postage stamp featuring a volcano) threw the project into Panama, then a province of Colombia. After Colombia refused the U.S. canal proposal, the United States supported a revolution to create the independent country of Panama. The United States took over—and finished—canal construction begun years earlier by the French.

The proposed Chinese-Nicaraguan canal will be deeper and broader than even a recently enlarged Panama Canal. Crossing the isthmus at Nicaragua instead of Panama will shorten a trip from New York to San Francisco by 500 miles. But Central America has seen scores of canal projects that never materialized; opponents of the Chinese canal in Nicaragua may have to merely wait to see it fail.

Canadians steal beaches

The proposed canal is symbolic of an increasing Chinese economic involvement in Latin America. China is already the main trade partner for Brazil, Chile and Peru, and Nicaragua isn't the only place where graffiti stating fuera Chinos, "Chinese go home," has appeared. Resistance has grown in Ecuador to China's involvement in its oil industry and in Peru to China's mining enterprises.

The Chinese aren't the only outsiders whose presence has sparked protests. Along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, a group of Canadians headed by Randy Jorgensen, dubbed the Canadian "Porn King" because he made his fortune from a chain of adult bookstores, has taken over prime beach land belonging to the Garifuna people, descendants of enslaved Africans and Caribbean natives. Mr. Jorgensen has spearheaded the construction of several housing developments and a cruise ship port in Trujillo.

Bertha Arzu, director of the Network of Black Women in Honduras, a long-time partner of United Methodist Women, is among those Garifuna leaders who have banded together to fight the takeover. But she's not hopeful.

"We've lost a lot of land. Our people have been displaced. There's no justice now. There's total impunity," she said. "Every day we're poorer and more insecure. As we have lost our culture, people have emigrated. Our sense of solidarity, even within the family, has deteriorated. Our whole way of life has been lost to this collusion of national and international empires."

Yet the Canadian invasion may be just the beginning. Honduras has become ground zero for the "Charter Cities" movement, creating autonomous free-trade zones governed by investors and corporations—not the countries in which the cities reside. Last year the Honduran government pushed through legislation (after firing four justices on the country's Supreme Court when they disagreed) that legalizes the ceding of national sovereignty in huge enclaves that would be controlled entirely by foreigners. While North Americans have their eyes set on the Trujillo area, a group of Korean investors are making plans for the southwest of the country on the Gulf of Fonseca.

Resistance to mining

A decade ago, Central American governments ignored protests from their own citizens and approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States. The Dominican Republic was also included in what is commonly called CAFTA-DR.

The agreement has proved to be a disaster for the region's poor. Unemployment and labor abuses have risen, farmers have been displaced when they can't compete with grain imported from the United States, and natural resource extraction has expanded with little regard for the environment.

CAFTA-DR includes a provision called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism, which allows private corporations to sue governments over profits the corporations supposedly lost because of government regulations.

Some governments have given away the store when it comes to mining. In Honduras, for example, mining permits have been issued for about 35 percent of the land. But two countries have responded positively to citizen demands to protect their environment. Community pressure in El Salvador to protect watersheds—which are deeply vulnerable to toxic mining runoff—has so far prevented companies from successfully extracting minerals like gold on a large scale and convinced the government to declare a moratorium on mining. In Costa Rica the legislature voted unanimously in 2010 to prohibit open-pit mining and ban the use of cyanide and mercury in mining activities.

Punishment has been swift. Several U.S. and Canadian companies have used CAFTA-DR's provisions to sue these governments directly. Such disputes are arbitrated by secret tribunals like the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, which is hosted by the World Bank.

In 2009, Commerce Group, a U.S. company, sued El Salvador for closing a highly polluting mine. The case was dismissed in 2011 for lack of jurisdiction, but El Salvador still had to pay several million dollars in fees for its defense. In a case still in process, the gold-mining conglomerate Pacific Rim sued El Salvador over its strict anti-mining regulations. To get around the fact that the Canadian company wasn't from a signatory country to CAFTA-DR, it moved its subsidiary from the Cayman Islands to Reno, Nevada, in a bid to use the agreement's provisions. Although since acquired by an Australian company, it has continued to demand over $300 million in "lost profits."

CAFTA-DR has been used by corporate pirates in other economic sectors as well. TECO Guatemala Holdings, a U.S. corporation, alleged in 2009 that Guatemala had wrongfully interfered with its investment in an electricity distribution company. In other words, TECO wanted to charge higher electricity rates to Guatemalan users than those the state deemed fair. When the case concluded, Guatemala was forced to pay $21.1 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in legal fees beyond what it spent on its own defense.

Such legal proceedings, which essentially undermine sovereignty and democracy, have a normative effect on governments what's been dubbed "regulatory chill." Although Guatemala has paid tens of millions of dollars in investor-state lawsuits, it has yet to be sued by a mining company. So far the mere threat of lawsuits has convinced the government to open the doors wide to mining, no matter the industry's record on the environment or human rights.

Defending the land

This has left communities to face the mining companies on their own. Despite bullying and assassinations, many have valiantly resisted the theft of their lands and water. They haven't always prevailed, however.

When the Reno-based Kappes, Cassiday and Associates wanted to start a gold mine in San José del Golfo, just outside Guatemala's capital, villagers who lived around the mine entrance blocked the way, preventing the company from bringing heavy equipment to the site.

"If the mine goes ahead, our rivers will dry up and the forests will disappear. Our communities will suffer or even cease to exist," said Teodora Oliva, one of the protestors. "The damage that the mine will bring is clear. But we old people are struggling to leave to our children a better world, not a world full of pollution. We'll be here opposing the mine as long as we need to be, with the Lord standing beside us, even though we know the personal risks for speaking out."

The struggle in San José del Golfo has been led by women.

"Women have had greater protagonism than the men here because we're more patient. We unfortunately have been dealing with violence from men for a long time. So if the mine operators or the police mistreat us, we won't respond with violence. If they mistreat us, we sing and pray, or we just don't listen. And that bothers them," Ms. Oliva said. "Our men at first wanted to solve things with violence. But that never solves anything. We've seen that when resistance like ours follows a path of violence, people get hurt and killed and end up in prison. And nothing much changes. So they've been learning from us women, and changing their way of thinking."

After the nonviolent protestors kept the mine entrance closed for more than two years, in May 2014 the riot police showed up in force. Although clanging church bells called more protestors to the site, the police succeeded in violently evicting villagers from the entrance to the mine. According to José Angel Llamas, a local activist, the protestors aren't planning on abandoning their vigil at the mine entrance, however. He says they maintain several legal actions aimed to force the mine to stop operations.

"Although the transnational corporations and the government are aligned against us, we're here because there's a deep faith among the people. It keeps us struggling for the right to have clean water and a dignified life," he said.

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He lived for 20 years in Central America. He blogs at

Posted or updated: 4/1/2015 11:00:00 PM