Central America Theater
A plane chartered by the US government carried 38 Honduran deportees from an immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, to the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on July 14. This was the first US deportation flight entirely dedicated to mothers and children: eight mothers, 13 girls and nine boys were scheduled for the trip, although two couldn't travel because of illness. Reporters, Honduran officials and Ana García de Hernández, the wife of President Juan Orlando Hernández, were on hand for the flight's arrival. President Hernández's government promised the deportees job leads, a $500 stipend, psychological counseling and schooling, but a returning mother, Angélica Gálvez, told the Los Angeles Times that in the end she and her six-year-old daughter Abigail didn't get enough money to pay for the three-hour trip to their home in La Ceiba. "They haven't helped me before," she said. "Why should I believe them now?"
On July 12 the 1,066 laid-off employees of El Salvador's Manufacturas del Río (MDR) apparel factory began receiving benefits, back wages and severance pay that they were owed after the plant closed suddenly on Jan. 7. MDR—a joint venture of Mexican company Kaltex and Miami-based Argus Group that stitched garments for such major brands as Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Lacoste, Levi Strauss and Adidas—shut down without notice after the Textile Industry Workers Union (STIT), an affiliate of the Salvadoran Union Front (FSS), spent two months attempting to negotiate a contract. No apparel plant in El Salvador has a labor contract.
Nicaragua's Commission for the Development of the Grand Canal on July 7 approved a route for the proposed inter-oceanic canal through the Central American country. The waterway, to be built by Chinese company HKND, is slated to run from the Río Punta Gorda (South Atlantic Autonomous Region) on the Caribbean Coast to Brito (Rivas department) on the Pacific coast—a route more than three times as long as the 48-mile Panama Canal. The Commission said the canal will be operational by 2020, but questions have been raised on how the Hong Kong-based company plans to finance the project, estimated at $50 billion—nearly four times greater than Nicaragua's national economy. The canal is to be privately owned and operated. Ecologists have raised concerns about impacts on Lake Nicaragua (also known as Cocibolca), Central America's largest lake and an important fresh-water source for the country. There are fears the the water used by the canal's locks could seriously deplete the lake. The Río San Juan, which feeds the lake and forms the border with Costa Rica, would be dammed to feed the locks. Costa Rica has formally demanded the right to review environmental impact studies for the project before work begins. The Rama-Kriol indigenous people, whose territories in the Punta Gorda river basin would be impacted, are demanding to be consulted on the project. (La Prensa, Nicaragua, July 17; Tico Times, Costa Rica; July 15; Nicaragua Dispatch, Reuters, El Financiero, Mexico, July 8)
Honduran security forces mounted a major operation on July 3 to remove hundreds of campesinos from an estate they had occupied in a dispute over land in the Lower Aguán River Valley in the northern department of Colón. One of the occupiers, Pedro Avila, was shot dead in the operation and two were wounded, according to Santos Torres, who heads the campesinos' organization, the Gregorio Chávez Collective. Some 400 families were "violently evicted" and "repressed with tear gas and live ammunition," the campesinos charged in a statement, and at least 20 people were detained. The operation was carried out by soldiers under the command of Col. René Jovel Martínez and by National Police agents and by security guards in the pay of the Corporación Dinant food-product company, the campesinos said. The estate, named Paso Aguán, is owned by Honduran entrepreneur and landowner Miguel Facussé Barjum, Dinant's founder. On July 4 Dinant business relations director Roger Pineda denied that company security guards were involved. Pineda claimed no one was killed, although "the effects of the tear gas made [one person] pass out."
In a statement released in the last week of June, the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH), a leading organization of the Garífuna ethnic group, charged that the US-backed Honduran government was largely responsible for the dramatic increase in minors trying to migrate from Central America over the past few years. The organization said the government "blames the numbers only on narco trafficking; however, they forget that this catastrophe is also caused by collusion among politicians, business leaders, state security forces and criminal organizations linked to the trafficking of narcotics. The government has seen the situation worsen for years without doing anything to change the scenario, much less to avoid it."
US vice president Joe Biden made a one-day visit to Guatemala on June 20 for a meeting with regional authorities on the recent increase in Central Americans, especially underage minors, apprehended while attempting to enter the US without authorization at the Mexican border. Calling the influx of children "an enormous danger for security" as well as a "humanitarian issue," Biden said the US planned to continue repatriating the young immigrants but would provide Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras with $9.6 million to reintegrate the deportees into society. The US is also offering financial aid that officials say will help stop the flow of immigrants: $40 million to Guatemala to launch a five-year program to reduce youth recruitment into gangs; $25 million for a five-year program to add 77 youth centers to the 30 already operating in El Salvador; $18.5 million through the six-year-old US-sponsored Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) to support Honduran institutions in the fight against crime; and another $161.5 million for CARSI throughout the region.
In an historic vote on June 12, El Salvador's national Legislative Assembly ratified a reform to the nation's constitution that recognizes indigenous peoples and the state's obligations to them. The newly reformed Article 63 reads: "El Salvador recognizes Indigenous Peoples and will adopt policies for the purpose of maintaining and developing their ethnic and cultural identities, cosmovision, values and spirituality." All parties in the Assembly gave their votes to the amendment, save the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party.
On June 6 a criminal court in Geneva, Switzerland, sentenced Erwin Sperisen ("El Vikingo"), Guatemala's national police chief from 2004 to 2007, to life in prison for his participation in the extrajudicial execution of seven inmates in 2006 during a police operation at the Pavón prison near Guatemala City. Swiss authorities had detained Sperisen, who holds dual Guatemalan and Swiss citizenship, in August 2012 in response to arrest orders Guatemala issued in 2010 following an investigation by the United Nations-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Under Swiss law citizens cannot be extradited, but they can be tried in Switzerland on foreign charges. The Geneva court acquitted Sperisen of three other charges due to lack of evidence; these concerned the killing of three escaped prisoners in October 2005. One of the former police chief's lawyers said the defense would appeal the convictions in the Pavón case.