Thursday, December 1, 2011

Paying the High Price of Gold

By Brooke Denmark
Witness for Peace International Team- Nicaragua

This article originally appeared in the Canadian journal Alternatives International.

It is no secret that gold mines wreak havoc on the environment. Less widely known is the incredible amount of power free trade agreements have granted to gold-mining corporations to cause this damage. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), as well as other pacts, include chapters that allow corporations to sue signatory nations for lost profits if a new law, such as an environmental or health regulation, threatens its investment. This is exactly what is happening now in El Salvador. A decision is imminent in the first case of its kind to be heard under CAFTA, Pacific Rim Mining Corp. vs. El Salvador. Anti-mining groups, environmentalists and trade justice activists throughout the Americas are poised for a response from the CAFTA tribunal, which could set a precedent for mega-projects throughout the region.

Pacific Rim, a Canadian-based mining corporation, is suing the government of El Salvador for violating its investor rights under Chapter 10 of CAFTA. The company claims that the government of El Salvador violated its investor rights by failing to issue a permit to begin operations. Since Canada is not a member of CAFTA, Pacific Rim is suing El Salvador under a U.S. subsidiary. The government of El Salvador acted in response to calls from a wide network of civil society groups, including communities potentially affected by the mine, environmentalists and the Catholic church, who rallied together to block the mine. They argued that the mine will contaminate El Salvador’s already limited water supply and cause serious environmental and health issues. Individuals involved in the movement have met violent repression for their opposition and the case is already stained with blood. Four Salvadoran anti-mining activists have been assassinated over the past two years. Those cases remain unresolved.

As Pacific Rim struggles to open its gold mine in El Salvador, another Canadian based company, Goldcorp, is closing up shop in Honduras after over a decade. In the mine’s wake, surrounding communities face chronic health problems and depleted natural resources. The situation is a testament to the kind of destruction the anti-mining movement in El Salvador is fighting to avoid.

The striking jade greens and golden yellows visible in the stream photographed are a result of acid drainage that will last for up 100 years. This is the water that communities near the San Martin mine use daily to bathe and wash laundry. According to a recent report by Honduran human rights leader Dr. Juan Almendares, the Honduran government has documented high levels of arsenic in the blood and urine of children living near the mine. Almendares’ report also shows that the Honduran government dragged its feet in revealing information about the contamination and in doing so, allowed the gold mine to continue harmful operations. Now Almendares and other human rights groups are calling for Goldcorp to pay for the environmental and health problems it left behind.

There are many international actors at play in the corporate web of gold mining. To trace the genealogy of the San Martin mine in Honduras, for example, we begin with Honduran company Entre Mares. Entre Mares used to operate as a subsidiary of Glamis Gold, a formerly Nevada-based gold company which was bought out by Goldcorp in 2006 to form the world’s third largest gold mining company. Three years before merging with Goldcorp, Glamis Gold was entangled in a similar struggle as Pacific Rim.

In 2003 Glamis Gold began a suit against California under NAFTA’s Chapter 11 for $50 million in damages. Glamis Gold brought the case against California after the state denied the corporation the right to construct an open pit mine. California reacted to outcry from environmental and indigenous rights groups arguing that the mine would cause environmental destruction and encroach on sacred sites. In this case, in order to submit a claim under NAFTA, Glamis Gold attempted to file as a Canadian company even though it was based in Nevada at the time. The tenuous nature of this claim is one of the reasons why it failed.

Ultimately, the tribunal ruled in favor of California. While the United States is not immune to being sued by corporations under these free trade agreements, so far it has been on a winning streak. Not all nations and states attempting to block damaging mega-projects have been as lucky. NAFTA tribunals have already awarded over $200 million to investors claiming lost profits. NAFTA’s Chapter 11 provided the model for CAFTA’s Chapter 10 and similar measures in other free trade agreements. Public Citizen calculates that there are currently $12 billion in pending claims under NAFTA-style tribunals related to the environment, health and transportation.

With the price of gold reaching record highs in light of the global financial crisis
, gold mining will remain a hot issue. One analyst quoted in a U.S. News and World Report article on gold mining states that “if gold prices continue to remain elevated, then [gold] prices are up, costs either stabilize or go down if the economy weakens further, and that could be a recipe for fat profit margins [for gold mining stocks]." As the gold mining industry stands to further benefit in the coming years, those being poisoned by its deadly practices, such as children living near the San Martin mine, will continue to suffer.

For now, social and environmental justice groups hope that the Pacific Rim decision will fall on the same side as the NAFTA tribunal’s ruling in the Glamis Gold case. A win in El Salvador would show the international community that groups resisting invasion of these mines stand a chance against a Goliath.

All photos taken by Fernando Reyes in Valle Siria, Honduras.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Leading Honduran Human Rights Group Rallies Against U.S. Bases

The following is a release from the Comite de Familias de Detenidos y Desaparecidos de Honduras. All credit for translation attributed to the Friendship Office of the Americas.

The first executive order issued by Porfirio Lobo in January 2010 after assuming the presidency following the coup d’état was the authorization of another Gringo military base in Caratasca and an extension in the small island of Guanaja.

The bases – sea, land, and air – join with Palmerola, in the heart of the Comayagua valley, which dates back to the 1980s.

In addition to these US military enclaves on the Atlantic coast and in Comayagua there are also U.S. Rangers in the department of Colón, and more than 300 DEA agents across the country, who participate in political and military operations.

In the public discourse, these US military personnel are here to cooperate with Honduras in the fight against narcotrafficking.

In the private discourse, they are here to exercise control over the natural resources of the country, and to contain the advance of new social and political forces that challenge their power.
It is obvious that the re-militarization of Honduras has geopolitical objectives, because as soon as Daniel Ortega crushed the right in the Nicaraguan elections, the chief of staff of the Honduran armed forces, René Osorio Canales, announced the arrival of more US troops before the end of the year.

In its geo-strategic reading, the empire evil, of war and death, considers that the consolidation of Ortega in the Sandinista Nicaragua will be an inspiration for the National Resistance Front, which has chosen to compete politically against the Honduran-golpista right in 2013.

We come to the close of the year in Honduras as it began in Costa Rica: with marine occupation, amphibious flotillas and warplanes, cordoning off the border to Nicaragua.

This, and nothing else, is the colossal objective of the hawks of death that had already released the nationalist golpistas in June 2009 in order to oust President Zelaya from power and to repress the massive resistance which they have not been able to overcome.

The strategy of the United States is to avoid further political defeats in Latin America, whose territories they have neglected over the last 15 years in order to pursue wars in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, resulting in multimillion-dollar businesses that benefit from their natural reserves of gas, oil, water, and other minerals.

Through instinct, information, and knowledge, the indigenous people of Honduras – represented by COPINH and the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, OFRANEH, among others – foresaw the militarization of Honduran society in the aftermath of the coup and forewarned us all.

They accurately interpreted that the concession of 48 rivers in watersheds with the richest biodiversity in the country, and the grabbing of land and territories by transnational corporations and drug-traffickers, is part of the hegemonic military strategy.

In response, the indigenous people and black communities have held three national conferences against militarization in less than one year: the first in La Esperanza; the second in La Ceiba; and the third in Tocoa, Colón.

Yesterday, as an outcome of these conferences, the International Observatory of Human Rights was inaugurated in the city of Tocoa.

While the Pentagon, CIA, DEA and the State Department use an old military agreement from 1954, and a more recent version approved by Carlos Flores Facussé in 2001, to justify the permanent military occupation, the indigenous people use Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, the legal awards made by former European kings, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their defense.

We join the indigenous people in rejecting the presence of foreign troops – be they Colombian, Israeli, or from the United States – just as we reject the presence of 85 private security companies with 70,000 armed men.

Equally, we reject the presence of the golpista Honduran Army in the country’s’ streets and those in the agricultural areas operating under the name Xatruch forces and Operation Lightning.
There is no better time than now, before the toxically commercial Christmas shopping takes over the markets, to warn that the military presence is synonymous with violence, disrespect, and death, and that we do not want the military among us.

Get out, get out, foreign military troops, and nationalist mercenaries, we want you out too!

-COFADEH –Comite de Familias de Detenidos y Desaparecidos de Honduras

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lessons From Oaxaca to Occupy Movement: A Delegate Reports Back

By Reid Mukai
CAGJ Co-Chair and Delegate on joint CAGJ/Witness for Peace Delegation in September 2011, “Food, Farms, and the Roots of Migration: A journey for food sovereignty to Oaxaca, Mexico”

On a sunny late September day in the dry hills of the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca State, twelve visiting food activists including myself plus two interpreters are in a small mud-walled hut meeting with Eleazar Garcia and Phil Dahl-Bredine of the Center for Integral Campesino Development of the Mixteca (CEDICAM) [Eleazar will be in Seattle Nov 17 - see below for details!].

We are in CEDICAM’s Milpa Museum, which despite its humble size is packed with an impressive array of information and artifacts utilized by Eleazar and Phil to guide our group on a tour through the history of the region and CEDICAM’s efforts to restore the land and culture. Through the museum, community projects, fairs, workshops and media, CEDICAM educates the public and campesinos, or small scale farmers, about the history of the Mixteca’s land, belief systems, traditions, architecture and agriculture and how they can help remedy current problems. They promote the use of traditional and appropriate technologies (sustainable and affordable tech) such as reforestation, development of corn seeds through selective breeding, sustainable water and soil preservation techniques, green composting, and milpas, an organic agricultural system that produces large yields and mixes a variety of crops, usually including maize (corn), beans and squash. CEDICAM also works with groups such as Witness for Peace to share knowledge with visitors that can benefit communities in other parts of the world.

For 10 days in September I was a member of one of the delegations to Oaxaca organized by Witness for Peace (WfP) and co-sponsored by CAGJ. Our itinerary was loaded with experiences like our meeting at CEDICAM, focusing on global trade, food sovereignty, migration, indigenous rights and agro-ecology (the application of ecological principles to agricultural techniques). WfP is an international grassroots organization founded in 1983 in response to U.S. Government-supported violence in Nicaragua perpetrated by Contra soldiers. They advocate peace, justice and sustainable economies by changing harmful U.S. Government and corporate policies. The WfP Oaxaca office opened in the Summer of 2006. During this period state violence against striking teachers seeking living wages and improved working conditions led to many deaths and human rights abuses.

Carlin Christy and Tony Macias, our delegation’s WfP guides and interpreters, also shared a wealth of information about the histories of Mexico, WfP and corporate globalization as well as practical skills to improve our group’s cohesion and functionality such as anti-oppressive practice and consensus decision making. All of the delegates also had much knowledge and a diversity of experience to contribute to these discussions and to our conversations with Oaxacan farmers and activists.

As explained by Eleazar, Mixteca means “place of clouds” because long ago it was an environment with regular rainfall and lush vegetation. Today it’s one of the poorest regions in Mexico and one of the most eroded areas in the world. The importation of goats, sheep, pigs and construction methods by the Spanish led to mass deforestation and soil erosion. More recently, some farmers use chemical fertilizers, pesticides and machinery that damages and compacts soil leading to increased crop failures, water runoff and worsened erosion. Besides the ecological damage, a devastated local economy made worse by unjust free trade policies has forced many young farmers to emigrate. Eleazar and CEDICAM’s goal is to provide the community with hopeful alternatives to preserve the land and natural resources so that people don’t have to leave for the U.S. and elsewhere to support themselves and their families.

Before our arrival at CEDICAM we met with a variety of allied groups based in Oaxaca doing equally important and beneficial work on related issues but with differences in focus and approach. The first organization we visited was an NGO called Services for an Alternative Education (EDUCA). According to Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa, a founding member of EDUCA, their focus is on two main goals, democratization of Oaxacan communities and the defense of rights of disenfranchised Oaxacans. One of their projects is “Our Rights Are Born From Our Roots” a campaign to train and organize communities through forums and media on the issue of rights, namely self-determination, rights to land & resources, political rights of women and rights to education. Another project, “The Initiative for Peace and Justice”, is a partnership with allied groups to create a truth commission for state-sanctioned crimes against activists. Miguel also shared recent data about Oaxaca State: it’s population is about 3.8 million people, it has over 500 municipalities, 16 indigenous groups and 8 major geographical regions. It’s the second poorest Mexican state after Chiapas with high child malnutrition and maternal death rates and approximately 76% living in poverty. The majority of work in Oaxaca is connected to agriculture and many farmers lost their livelihoods after the implementation of NAFTA in the 90s. He estimates that today about 60% of youth entering the job market are unemployed, forcing many to emigrate or enter the black market.

The next morning we visited Zaira de la Rosa Jiminez, Martha Miranda and Pete Noll of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, a group promoting food sovereignty through cultivation and distribution of amaranto, or amaranth crops. Amaranth is a plant related to quinoa and is indigenous to Asia and Mesoamerica (in fact it is one of Mesoamerica’s oldest crops). Puente views amaranth as an ideal crop to help overcome the problem of malnutrition because it’s higher in protein than rice, wheat and corn, contains more fiber and less carbohydrates and is gluten-free. Amaranth is a practical and affordable crop because it’s highly drought-resistant, easily harvested, grows quickly and is easy to cook. After having had a chance to try amaranth in the forms of breakfast cereals, snack bars, and drinks, I would add that it’s also delicious. That afternoon we met with farmers in the milpa system where the amaranth plants are grown with corn, zucchini, and pata de leon, a type of red flower used in Day of the Dead celebrations. At the end of the day we travelled to the library in Mazaltepec to meet with town authorities, campesinos, mothers, and their families. We discussed our respective backgrounds and their struggles as a community including protecting crops from GMOs, inability to compete with cheap subsidized corn from the U.S. and how that has contributed to economic problems forcing people in the community to emigrate.

Following Puente, we joined a large contingent from Red Autonoma para la Soberania Alimentaria (RASA), an autonomous network of people working for food sovereignty through training workshops, urban gardening and sharing of knowledge and resources. Representatives including Aerin Dunford, Lydia Zarate Ubieta and Jorge Narvaes Perez showed us some of the current projects of RASA members such as mushroom cultivation, a rooftop garden, a cornfield and apricot orchard on the city outskirts, and even invited us into the home of some of the RASA members where we had a feast featuring some of the best tortillas and oyster mushrooms I’ve ever tasted. From there we returned to the central district of Oaxaca City where we met with Wilfred Mendoza, a member of the board of directors of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez, Oaxaca (UNOSJO). They’re a prominent social organization which promotes sustainable economies, self-determination and respect for indigenous culture through media, technical assistance, fairs, educational workshops and conflict resolution for rural landowners. Wilfred sees agro-ecology as an ancient technology whose resurgence is essential for food sovereignty and a fundamental part of defending indigenous rights, a view shared by Beatriz Salinas and Esperanza Pilar Chagoya Minguer of the Center for Indigenous Rights Flor y Canto, whom we visited the next day. Flor y Canto is a human rights center that promotes indigenous rights with a focus on women’s empowerment and the protection of natural resources through education, denouncement of rights violations, legal defense, and support of allied groups such as the People’s Committee for the Defense of Water. They see an extreme polarity between indigenous cultures that care for the earth and a capitalist system that commodifies and destroys the earth. Many laws are dictated by money and capital so one of Flor y Canto’s roles is to create spaces where solidarity and humanity are respected. By helping indigenous communities obtain water through well construction projects and legal defense of water rights, they’re also addressing the problem of emigration. The national water commission ConAgua charges for water at price levels beyond what many campesinos can afford. During drought years such as in 2006, waves of migrations occurred because farmers couldn’t access enough water to irrigate crops.

After our delegation’s meeting with CEDICAM, we traveled further out to the countryside to San Pedro Coxcaltepec where we had an opportunity to stay with a local family of subsistence farmers dealing with many of the issues we learned about throughout the previous week. While there we had an opportunity to speak to town elders, learn about different aspects of the local culture, learn more about the work involved in managing a milpa, as well as participate in the work by shoveling and mixing green compost. This was an especially valuable segment of the delegation because it gave us a glimpse into the daily experience of Oaxacan campesinos, revealed a sense of the beauty and challenges of life in the Mixteca, and gave us time to bond with the family. It’s one thing to read about struggles of farmers or even hear about them through allied advocacy groups, but to meet campesinos who express their concerns directly while sharing their hospitality (as we also did with Puente and RASA) is an empathic experience creating a personal connection to the issues we came to Oaxaca to learn about. This will undoubtedly inspire all of us in the delegation to make use of the knowledge passed on to us in our own lives and to share it with others. Given the current political and economic situation in America and most of the world, strategies for food sovereignty, education and community organizing will be increasingly important for all of us.

Two weeks after returning from the delegation I was at the Occupy Seattle demonstration where I had a chance encounter with a protester attending the rally because he was “tired of getting screwed by government.” I told him I was tired of everyone getting screwed by transnational corporations and financial institutions backed up by corrupt governments. He went on to say “Obama cares more about Mexicans than the American people.” to which I replied “I recently got back from Mexico where I heard firsthand accounts of how our government and Wall Street harms Mexican workers as much as American workers if not more. They wouldn’t need to migrate if they could support their families back home.” Rather than argue, he muttered “Well, they’ve been screwing all of us in the 99%…” before wandering back into the crowd, which wasn’t a bad outcome but sort of a letdown. I was ready to help him understand in greater detail how and why immigration and mass unemployment are both symptoms of neoliberal policies at the core of economic crises in America, Mexico and around the world. It’s possible he simply didn’t feel like debating, but perhaps someone with a common but erroneous view that Mexicans (presumably immigrants) are a source of their problems was in fact, with a few words and widened context, able to accept that they’re as much victims of an unjust system as ourselves. Amidst the masses in Westlake Park, consisting of a diversity of ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds, I visualized the Occupation Movement strengthening their solidarity, not only within separate communities but with the global 99% uniting against the wealthiest 1% who benefit most from the current system and are the true source of the most pressing social-economic-environmental problems of our time. If this were to happen we might stand a chance to ensure a better world for future generations. La lucha sigue! (The struggle continues!)

From November 15 to 17 Witness for Peace is organizing a speaker tour featuring campesino and sustainable agriculture expert Eleazar Garcia, a founding member of CEDICAM. He’ll be discussing the negative impact of the free trade model on the culture and economy of Oaxaca as well as solutions. On November 16 Eleazar will give a talk at noon in Bellingham and on Thursday November 17 he’ll be speaking in Seattle at New Hope Baptist Church, 116 21st Avenue in Central District, from 7 to 9 pm. For more information, contact CAGJ: 206-405-4600, or email

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Drug War and Migration Collide

By Claudia Rodriguez
Witness for Peace's Mexico-based International Team

The biggest news coming out of Mexico is the violence as a consequence of the warring drug trafficking organizations and the Mexican government attempting to dismantle them. The number of people dying and the brutal ways in which they are killed are making headlines. The death toll is nearing 50,000 lives lost since Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched his campaign to take down the drug trafficking organizations in 2006, as soon as he took office. Shortly after, the United States government began showing its support to President Calderon’s campaign through the Merida Initiative, a U.S. policy that provides equipment and training aid to Mexico to fight the drug trafficking organizations.

But what does the violence of the drug war have to do with migration? There are at least three answers to this question. First, it forces people to migrate, either from being displaced because of the violence or fleeing insecurity in their communities. Second, drug trafficking organizations are also largely responsible for many of the dangers migrants encounter on their journey. As migrants cross through Mexican territory, especially areas considered “territory” of drug trafficking organizations, there are dangerous and at times deadly confrontations with these organizations, which attempt to rob, rape, extort, and kidnap the migrants. And lastly, many of the root causes of migration – particularly lack of jobs and economic opportunities – are also causes of the rise of violence due to the lack of alternatives.

According to a briefing paper from December 2010 of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 230,000 people fled their homes last year because of the insecurity. About half of those people went to the U.S., and the other half remain in Mexico. That means around 120,000 people have been internally displaced in Mexico. While that may not seem like many people, it is important to note that the previous year, the amount of internally displaced people was only 5,000.

As Calderon’s U.S.-backed war rages on, not only is the death toll climbing, but also the number of internally displaced people is skyrocketing. A new term is emerging for those who flee to the US: “narco refugees."

This highlights a new phenomenon of Mexican citizens fleeing to the US and applying for asylum to escape the rising violence. One important group of those fleeing are journalists – Mexico has been named one of the most dangerous places for journalists in Latin America, and was recently named by the United Nations the fifth most dangerous place for journalists in the world.

Another extremely vulnerable group is migrants crossing through Mexico. Central American migrants are continuously targeted by traffickers. Some are robbed, raped, and also held for ransom and extorted. Some have called this “business as usual” or a way for the organizations to “diversify their profits.” In August of 2010, a survivor of a massacre of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas told the story about how they were kidnapped and held on a ranch by a drug trafficking organization.

Over the last year, there have been discoveries of what are being coined “narco fosas” or mass graves where drug traffickers are dumping dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies. The bodies dumped are commonly times migrants or people kidnapped by drug trafficking organizations. From April to June of this past summer, 429 bodies were found in mass graves in Durango and Tamaulipas, two states in northern Mexico.

Apart from robbing migrants, holding them for ransom, or killing them, drug trafficking organizations are also kidnapping and trafficking them. These organizations use the migrants for forced labor or sexual enslavement. Unlike a drug that is sold once and earns a profit, the forced enslavement and labor of a human being provides a repeat profit. Because many of the drug trafficking organizations already mastered routes to traffic drugs, many of those same routes are used to traffic human beings across the border. Female migrants are especially at risk.

Lastly, and what is often overlooked, are the root causes behind the proliferation of organized crime and the subsequent rise of violence. Apart from US demand for drugs, there are important, deep-seated root causes of drug violence, similar to those driving Mexican migration. Poverty and lack of economic opportunities leave people with no other option but to migrate. Some look to drug trafficking as a means of survival. Young people have been especially hit hard by this reality. More than 25,000 children have left school to join drug trafficking organizations since President Calderon came into office and started his campaign.

These children are also part of the 8 million youth in Mexico known as “ninis.” Ninis is a term in Mexico that refers to youth who don’t study or work (“ni estudia ni trabaja”), largely because of the lack of opportunities that exist in Mexico. It is estimated that at least half a million of the ninis have joined drug trafficking organizations. Working for these organizations is seen by these young people as a lucrative way to make money, even though many are aware of the risks involved. The common attitude is that it’s better to live well for a short time, than face a life of misery in poverty. Unfortunately these are some of the few “choices” that exist.

There is no end in sight for the escalating drug violence. It will continue to clash with migration by further endangering migrants and causing migration. And as long as the deep rooted structural inequalities, poverty, and lack of economic opportunities exist and are exacerbated by US polices like NAFTA, there will continue to be many people, especially youth, left with few “choices:” join with drug trafficking organizations, or migrate to save your life and provide for your family.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Exiled: Honduran Human Rights Defenders and Effects of U.S. Policies

By Brooke Denmark
Witness for Peace International Team - Nicaragua

After a meeting with a rural community in Northern Honduras, we were approached by a young man.

¨You all are working against militarization?" he asked.

He explained that he also works against militarization in the region and as a human rights promoter. He recently exposed a member of the military entangled in drug-trafficking. Since then he has survived two attempts against his life. He does not want to wait for a third. In a few days he will be fleeing the country.

A few weeks ago Adrienne Pine, an anthropology professor at American University, reflected on the asylum system in the United States. She wrote that the system upholds a narrative in which the U.S. plays savior to states that have failed at upholding human rights, but that this ignores the fact that many times the U.S. is responsible for creating those circumstances or keeping the repressive regimes in place.

The situation in Honduras today in some ways is reminiscent of the U.S.-backed bloodshed in Central America during the 80s. At that time the U.S. supported brutal military regimes in the name of fighting the spread of Communism. Today the language has changed from fighting Communism to waging wars against terrorism and drug-trafficking. When those working to defend human rights or in resistance movements are threatened and seek refuge in the U.S., they must overcome the political interests of Washington.

Juan Gonzalez reports on this bias against granting asylum to regimes that the U.S. supports in his book Harvest of Empire. He notes that between 1983 and 1990, the U.S. ¨granted only 2.6% of political asylum requests from Salvadorans, 1.8% from Guatemalans, and 2.0% from Hondurans, yet it granted 25.2% of those from Nicaraguans, whose Sandinista government Washington was seeking to overthrow.¨

Today the few asylum seekers that are able to make it out of the country where they are being persecuted and into the U.S. have only just begun their next hardship - beating the U.S. immigration system. First, asylum seekers who scramble together a way to get to the U.S. are frequently detained upon entering the country. Although Obama announced almost two years ago that the U.S. was going to move away from mandatory detention of arriving asylum seekers, in practice the change has been slow. When I worked with detained immigrants in the D.C. area before coming to work with Witness for Peace, an asylum seeker who had already been detained for nine months while still fighting her case said to me, "If I had known that I would have been put in jail for so long, I would have never come here. This is what I was trying to escape."

As part of comprehensive immigration reform the U.S. needs to fix serious flaws in the asylum system that treat asylum seekers as criminals and terrorists. The U.S. has this obligation especially because of the role our government has played in fostering environments abroad where human rights violations flourish. The U.S. simultaneously needs to change its foreign policy to stop propping up these regimes. One place to start would be to stop funding military and police in Honduras that persecute people like the young man we met the other day on his way into exile. I hope that he makes it safely out of the country and that I will not read about him in the papers as a victim of another incident of ¨random violence."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Think Globally – Act Locally on Immigration!

By John Clark Pegg
Witness for Peace – Upper Midwest Board

As we enter into the final phase of our Upper Midwest speaker tour, Nancy Garcia from Oaxaca and Moravia de la O from our WFP International Team, spent the past few days in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. They were based in Duluth, Minnesota, a small city and regional center to a population of about 200,000 souls. Duluth, which considers itself a progressive and “friendly” city, boasts several excellent institutions of higher education, an advanced care medical center which services the surrounding region, the nation’s farthest inland international harbor, and a tourism industry which plays host to the entire Midwest. It is a beautiful little city, nestled on the side of steep hills overlooking the majestic Lake Superior (which holds 10% of the world’s fresh water). Since we are only about 100 miles from the Canadian border, Duluth also is home to a large, regional U.S. Border Patrol facility capable of housing up to 50 agents. Its agent in charge issued a statement saying, “We must ensure that we are cognizant of the fact that we have good partners that will help us protect our nation both within our communities and to the north in Canada.”

In addition to speaking events at three universities, WFP-UMW also sponsored another public forum on immigration. Nancy was joined by two Latino/as from the community to join in dialogue on issues facing migrants, including both the challenges they face when heading north in Mexico as well as the barriers and opportunities they encounter here in the States. As we put together this conference, we learned something significant about Duluth. For people of brown skin (and black), Duluth is not perceived as a “friendly” or “welcoming” city. Several Latino/as who were invited to attend our forum declined to come, as they were concerned about attracting the attention of authorities here. Our U.S. panelists reaffirmed from their own experiences the difficulties and challenges of life in Minnesota for immigrants. Clearly the extravagant funds we are spending to fund a massive buildup of agents in places with minimal security needs, construct massive walls, and contract with private companies to build and manage “detention” centers, is neither an effective, nor humane, nor just means of dealing with migration. We need to address the root causes of dislocation and migration, including a renegotiation of unfair free trade agreements to level the playing field and protect the rights of workers and the environment. We also need to reform our U.S. immigration policies to reflect the realities of our need for migrant workers and provide pathways for both legal work status and citizenship for those who choose. With this in mind, an excellent, brief and to-the-point video on the need for immigration reform can be viewed here:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"We can neither eat bullets nor guns": the impact of U.S. military aid on Garifuna communities in Honduras

By Riahl O´Malley and Brooke Denmark
Witness for for Peace International Team - Nicaragua

Driving into Triunfo de la Cruz, a Garifuna community on Honduras´ northern coast, things seem normal. Children of all ages are dressed in uniform, making their way to school. Women sit in front of their homes chatting with their neighbors. When we arrive at Teresa Reyes´ house, the secretary of the Community Board, she and her husband, Alfredo, are fixing the roof.

As we begin speaking with her and two other community representatives, it becomes apparent things aren´t as they seem. Teresa and Alfredo are fixing their roof because someone had tried to burn their house down with them and their children inside. Why?

Because Triunfo de la Cruz, like many Garifuna communities living throughout Northern Honduras, is in a constant struggle to maintain their ancestral land and the culture it sustains. This land is being taken by large landowners and international big business. Teresa and Alfredo are part of the peaceful struggle to maintain their traditions and livelihood, which is met with constant repression.

Speaking for only a short while we begin to see the diversity of problems they face. From neoliberal mega projects such as “model cities” and hydroelectric dams, to multi-million dollar tourism projects supported by international development banks, to the threat of large landowners like Miguel Facusse.

Another threat to the community´s safety and autonomy is the spread of narco-trafficking throughout the region “like a cancer that is difficult to rid.” Tied to that spread is increased militarization to fight the “drug war." Today, 60% of cocaine enters the U.S. through Central America. An estimated 9 tons of cocaine were seized in Honduras in 2010. This is how the United States has justified providing over $24 million dollars in aid to the Honduran police and military between 2009-2011. But instead of solving the many issues Garifuna communities face, it is making it worse.

“When we hear of the help that the U.S. and other countries give to the military and police it scares us,” José Angel, member of the Community Board, explains. “I think Obama and Hillary Clinton need to revise how they apply this funding in these countries. Instead of improving the social situation, it is a huge step backwards. It actually creates fear. It is destroying our communities.” He adds, “The U.S. is trying to cure the effect rather than the cause: U.S. demand.”

The community leaders expressed little confidence in the police and military. Teresa states, “The police are obligated to give us protection, but we don´t see the police anywhere. It's an illusion, it´s false. Security doesn´t exist. Protection doesn´t exist. But if someone comes from the outside and wants to take over our land and we defend ourselves, if we take down the fences or knock down whatever they put up, they accuse us and the police come to arrest us. It´s completely backwards.”

She continues, “We don´t want other countries to continue financing the military…the military and police have attacked us, have repressed us, they have criminalized protest. We don´t need more military or police. Our culture has always been one of peace. Why are we spending so much on security but there isn´t any security? …We don´t need more of this policy. What we need is that those who are in the military go plant crops instead. What we need is food."

Jose Angel adds, “We haven´t learned how to eat neither bullets nor guns….What we need is to participate in and to be a part of the plans they make to improve our community.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Political Cartoon You’ve Got to See

By Jess Hunter-Bowman
Associate Director
Witness for Peace

I have to admit, I am a political junkie. As much as I love a 3,000 word New Yorker piece by Seymour Hersh, a good political cartoon gets me like nothing else.

A good political cartoon is pure genius. It takes a complex policy issue and distills it to something I can digest in 30 seconds. It makes you angry and laugh at the same time. It takes you to the heart of the matter.

And that brings me to this excellent political cartoon on our immigration crisis. While corporations long for undocumented immigrants that cannot demand just working conditions or join a union, policymakers scapegoat those same undocumented immigrants and deport them at a rate never before seen.

What is your favorite political cartoon (on immigration or anything else)? I'd love to see it. Copy a link to a political cartoon you love in the comments section or post it to our Facebook page.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Record Deportations Tear Families Apart

By Moravia de la O
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

Last year a record 393,000 immigrants have been deported by the Obama Administration. That means that since President Obama took office, there have been over 1 million immigrants deported.

The US government credits the high number of deportations to the growing implementation of its Secure Communities program. Launched in early 2008, Secure Communities is a highly problematic program which extends the reach of ICE officials into local and state jails. For jurisdictions that are part of Secure Communities, every person who is arrested has their fingerprints run through an immigration database.

Although the program is supposed to prioritize “dangerous” criminals, an overwhelming majority of those deported because of Secure Communities are not serious offenders. And this is not the only problem with the program. By giving local police immigration duties, there is more incentive for police to racially profile and arrest people they suspect of being undocumented. In addition, this discourages people from reporting crimes to the authorities for fear of being deported. Secure Communities is in fact making communities less safe.

More and more, those deported are people who have spent significant amounts of time in the US. They leave spouses and children behind without knowing how and when they will be able to see them. When deportation figures are released, it is hard to not be startled by the high numbers. It is even harder to not be angered when you start to think about how many families have had their entire lives interrupted and affected by the deportation of a loved one.

Often those deported return to communities and countries that they hardly know. Carlos Ruiz knows what it feels like to be unable to see your family and have to start a new life in a foreign place. This summer, we chronicled his story and that of other return migrants. Their stories show the high human cost of the United States’ immigration policy.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Untold Stories of Female Migrants

By Amanda Tello
Witness for Peace Delegations Assistant

Every year, thousands of migrants risk their lives on a treacherous journey toward el norte, facing violence, extortion, kidnapping and discrimination. However, female migrants face a heightened risk of exploitation in the form of sexual violence and trafficking at the hands of many groups: criminal gangs, corrupt officials, law enforcement, immigration or security forces and other migrants. Despite the enormous risks, thousands of women continue to make the harrowing journey northward. According to Katharine Donato, an associate professor of Sociology at Rice University who studies Mexican migration to the United States, as many as 35-45% of those crossing the border are women. While other experts have estimated the number of female migrants crossing the border to be closer to 15-25%, it remains a significant portion of the migrant population.

Although it is commonly thought that most female migrants are following their male counterparts to the United States, an increasing number of women are migrating independently to find work and support their families. Impelled by unemployment or underemployment in their home countries, frequently a consequence of free trade agreements like CAFTA and NAFTA that have “eroded” local economies, migrants are forced to look beyond their own borders for a means of supporting their families. Additionally, a press release from a Mexican women’s advocacy group, REDGE, reported that more and more women are migrating as a means to escape intra-familial and drug-war related violence.

The Perilous Journey

Mexico is commonly referred to as both a point of origin and destination for migrants throughout Latin America. The complex flow of people, many traveling without legal documentation, between Mexico’s northern and the “forgotten” southern border gives criminal gangs and corrupt officials an opportunity to exploit the masses of vulnerable migrants, particularly women and children. Those crossing the southern border are primarily Central Americans who are viewed as “easy” targets because their transitory status makes them unlikely to report abuses out of fear of deportation or repatriation.

Local and international NGOs report that 6 in every 10 women are raped and as many as 80% of female Central American migrants are sexually assaulted during the volatile journey. A study conducted in 2006 with 90 migrant women at the Iztapalapa Detention Centre revealed that: “Twenty-three women reported experiencing some kind of violence, including sexual violence. Of these, 13 stated the person responsible was a state official.” Nevertheless, researchers believe that sexual violence is often underreported out of fear, lack of resources or assistance and the victims’ desire to continue their journey.

Sexual assault is such a frequent occurrence that many women tragically consider rape the price they must pay to migrate, according to Fermina Rodriguez of the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center. In fact, rape is often viewed as a form of currency that perpetrators exact upon women to earn their passage. To take precaution, many women inject themselves with contraceptives prior to migrating, oftentimes at the behest of their smugglers.

In addition to rape and sexual assault, women are targets for traffickers who kidnap them along the migrant path or lure them from home with romantic promises and the possibility of employment. Many credit the government’s militarized strategy of combating the drug war with inadvertently pushing drug traffickers and criminal gangs toward “alternative revenue sources,” namely human trafficking and forced prostitution. Sex trafficking not only involves less risk, as undocumented migrants are less likely to be reported as missing or to file reports of abuse, but it also provides criminal gangs with an additional source of “reusable” revenue.

Southern Mexico in particular has become a hot spot for forced prostitution and human trafficking in recent years. According to Patricia Villamil, the Honduran consul in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, the now infamous criminal organization known as the Zetas is primarily responsible for luring and kidnapping young girls from Honduras and forcing them to work as prostitutes upon their arrival in Chiapas. Despite the influx of reports Villamil is receiving, she claims that the Mexican authorities have been “slow to react.” In fact, while Enrique Mendez, the official prosecutor in charge of crimes against immigrants in Chiapas, admitted that trafficking is occurring, he insisted it was “not widespread.”


In response to the growing problem of sexual exploitation and violence along the migrant path, the Mexican state has taken the formal step of passing human rights treaties, including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (UN Migrant Workers’ Convention). Moreover, the Mexican Congress passed a law known as, “la Ley para Prevenir y Sancionar la Trata de Personas,” in order to assist victims and “prevent and penalize human trafficking.” Although the passage of these laws and treaties are positive developments, there have been very few convictions and the government continues to focus its efforts on the drug war.

Moreover, NGOs insist that state officials remain complicit actors in the problem either by inaction or direct involvement. For instance, many migrants report that state officials allow buses full of kidnapped migrants to pass freely through government checkpoints after receiving bribes. Other public officials and members of security forces assume more active roles, either by directly assisting criminal organizations with the kidnapping and trafficking of migrants or by raping female migrants as a means of payment.

As UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Jorge Bustamante described, “transnational migration continues to be a business in Mexico, largely operated by transnational gang networks involved in smuggling and trafficking in persons and drugs, with the collaboration of the local, municipal, state and federal authorities…With the pervasiveness of corruption at all levels of government and the close relationship that many authorities have with gang networks, incidences of extortion, rape and assault of migrants continue.”


Excerpt from “On the Mexico-Guatemala Border, Migrants Demand End to the Violence” by Kristin Bricker from the Center for International Policy Americas Program:
Honduran migrant Daniela Melendez, mother of five, recounted how her coyote, the man she paid to help her cross Mexico and enter the United States, tried to rape her as she traveled through Chiapas. In an attempt to pressure her to have sex with him, he told her, “Here, I’m just one man. But I work with the Zetas, and if I turn you over to them, it’ll be fifteen or twenty men raping you.” Melendez managed to reach the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, run by Father Alejandro Solalinde. “Father Solalinde’s team in the shelter rescued me,” she recounts.
Salvadoran woman quoted in the 2009 CNDH special report on kidnapping:

“All the time they swore at us, slapped us, pushed and kicked us all over and hit us with a whip, they covered our eyes and mouths... they killed my friend because she didn’t have any [relatives] to help her and she couldn’t given them [phone] numbers, so they shot her twice in the head and they left her bleeding in front of me for three hours to intimidate me... The place they held me captive is a big, dark, dirty house that smelled bad. The two days I was there I slept on the ground with no blanket. They only gave me something to eat once and a little water. The men who kidnapped me also stripped me naked and raped me. In that place, I heard the whole time the moans, cries and groans of other people”.

From the Washington Office on Latin America’s report entitled, “A Dangerous Journey Through Mexico,” By Maureen Meyer, with contributions from Stephanie Brewer:

My name is Nancy, I am Salvadoran and I was kidnapped from April 13 to June 22, 2009. I was in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, staying in the supposed shelter of a woman nicknamed “the mother” who tried to pass for a nun so we that we would trust her and fall into her trap. Some large trucks arrived there that were like moving vans and they grabbed me and 83 others…They took us up to Reynosa, on the state of Tamaulipas, and on the road we passed checkpoints of the National Migration Institute and Federal Police who saw how we were traveling and even so they did nothing, they merely took the money that was given to them as a bribe to keep silent. The kidnappers told us to pay attention so that we would see that they had paid for everything. One of the men began to bother us women and sexually abuse us. Then, one of our male companions got angry and tried to defend us, but he couldn’t because they raped him too and then they beat him to death…”

Click here to watch a clip from CNN about “Claudia’s” traumatic story of being trafficked to a brothel in New York.

Friday, October 14, 2011

FTA- Not OK!

By Paul Magno
Finance & Operations Director, Witness for Peace

Last month, the President spent Labor Day in Detroit talking to union workers (and unemployed not-quite workers) about “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Next, he spoke to Congress, and pitched the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) as job-producers, applauded by Republicans and Democrats alike.

The other day he didn’t get his jobs bill, but last night he got his FTAs passed, alas. And since it is what he asked for, he’ll likely sign them in a hurry. But you can still let him know it’s not OK with you.

Mention that working people yearning for a secure livelihood are interested in more than embracing the President’s applause lines. And stress that the FTAs won’t do it for them, really, jobs-wise, in the long run.

Implementing these agreements will have quite predictable and destructive consequences, opposite their advertised benefits

The apparent promise of jobs in the FTAs is seductive on the surface, but belied by the riptide underneath . . . jobs out over time to the bottom-wage third world, and misery and social destabilization with them. Because also going out are US agribusiness exports that undercut local crops and local economies, and people who have been reliant on their land for generations have neither cash nor food for their families.

Eventually the refugees from that chaos pour into the imperial metropolis, aggravating the tea-party/nativists and copping low wage jobs here, undermining the good jobs at good wages profile here too. Immigration from Mexico (with or without papers) is five times higher now than it was before the advent of NAFTA in 1994 because people are destitute and starving, and naturally follow the money that’s been siphoned from their localities back to US-land.

A bible story is illustrative. Jesus watches a widow pay her temple tax with the last coin she has. Traditionally we are told that her faith is admirable because she gives everything she has to the collection plate and that “Jesus was deeply moved.” A closer look and accurate translation: Jesus sees the Pharisees writing eligibility rules for the temple that allow well off folks to easily afford a seemingly small fee to enter and participate in its life. But the widow, to enter the holy place, is compelled to fork over her last dollar. She will feed her children, how? Or pay her landlord, how? Jesus observes and understands the lopsided imbalance written into law by the powers that be, and thus he is “shaking with rage” when he turns to his disciples to illuminate the meaning of the episode. An ungodly rip-off of the already poor in the name of religion. Outrageous!

Thus it is with these agreements. On the altar of Free Trade, we enable the wealthy to enhance their abundant coffers, and compound the poverty of those already living hand-to-mouth in the first place. Obscene!

There are scads of good reasons people all over the country are in the streets, occupying everywhere. What is being done with the FTA schemes is typical. The FTAs work for big business and its profitability, but rob laborers & farmers and their families at either end of the hemisphere of livelihoods, dignity and hope. Are we shaking with rage yet?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Foreign Direct Invasion: What “Free Trade” means for small producers

By Riahl O'Malley
Witness for Peace International Team - Nicaragua

In Spanish, the verb “invadir” can mean a number of things: to encroach, to overwhelm, or to invade or attack. This is the verb that Maria Selina Valladares, co-founder of a small womens’ sewing cooperative operating out of Somoto, Nicaragua used to describe the role of big producers in Nicaragua under the Dominican Republic - Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). “Nos invaden,” she told me. “They’re invading us.”

Yesterday Congress passed three new Free Trade Agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, respectively. These agreements follow the same model as DR-CAFTA. By reducing taxes on imports and exports and expanding the ability of companies to set-up abroad they are said to create “a level playing field for U.S. investors.” But since DR-CAFTA came into effect, María Selina has felt anything but level with large multi-national corporations.

Four years ago María Selina was one of 12 women in Nicaragua’s rural town of Somoto who decided to start a sewing cooperative.

“The idea was to generate employment, find the market and export our product abroad, to let them see that we have the capacity to work and to make a good product,” she said.

They received legal council, attended meetings with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Investment, Industry and Business, and even received a government grant to purchase their equipment. So far they have had few opportunities to sell their product. Even people in their own region would rather import than buy their local product, which ends up being more expensive.

“We have to charge the cost of the cloth, the thread, all of the materials plus our labor,” she explained. “We have very strong competition… The products that come from Managua don’t give us the opportunity to work.”

Foreign textile and apparel producers have been on the rise in Nicaragua since DR-CAFTA came into effect. They are said to benefit hugely from the agreement. Under DR-CAFTA, they can import a significant amount of cloth from a cheaper country like China, assemble it in Nicaragua and ship it duty-free to the U.S. in a box labeled “made in Nicaragua.”

It was mostly foreign companies from countries like the U.S. that were included in the negotiations that formed DR-CAFTA, so it is of little surprise that the agreement was designed for their benefit. Meanwhile, those who have little access to the same networks and resource as large multi-national corporations, like María Selina’s sewing cooperative, are, according to María Selina, “completely drowned out.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Faces of Migration: Those Left Behind

By Carlin Christy
Witness for Peace International Team - Mexico

Petra Juarez has six children living in the US who she hasn't seen in years. One of her sons, Paz, came home to southern Veracruz four years ago. This was after working many low-paying, grueling jobs for eight years in various states across America. The modest house where we met Petra was built with the money Paz had earned and sent home while working as an undocumented immigrant.

Carmen and Eligio's 30-year-old son also left Veracruz for the US about a year ago. They are hoping he will return soon. They didn't seem ready to consider the possibility that he might stay in the US for years. For now, they are worried about how he is adjusting, if he is working or not, and if he is eating well. 

Three-year-old Elena (not her real name) has never even met her father. She was born months after he headed back to work in the States, again. With few sources of income in the countryside, he has spent over a decade living and working in the U.S. in order to support his family in Mexico. 

As the U.S. is caught up in anti-immigrant hysteria, it seems many have forgotten about the basic humanity of our immigrant brothers and sisters and their families back home. While news pundits and lawmakers debate the status of undocumented immigrants in our country, we forget that in Mexico there are wives that essentially live as single mothers, children that grow up without one or both parents, and grandparents who have no way of seeing their U.S. born grandchildren.

We must understand that the issue of migration affects real people, real lives, entire families, and entire communities. Policies and laws that fail to recognize this are simply unjust and inhumane.

The millions of people who are physically torn apart across the US-Mexico border bear deep emotional scars that come from months, years, and even decades of living without their loved ones. Lupita and Juana are two women from rural Veracruz state that know this all too well. We met them this past summer, and were able to see a brief window into their lives. We hope you will listen to and share their stories of what it is like to be "left behind" by those who have been forced to choose migration as a means of economic survival. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lessons from a Canine Immigrant

By Sara Joseph
Communications Associate, Witness for Peace

During the year-and-a-half that I worked in Nicaragua with Witness for Peace, I lived less than two blocks from the U.S. Embassy. The colossal building is sandwiched between agencies that advertise help secure a “visa for a dream.” And long before the day heats up, the line for visa interviews extends well onto the sidewalk in front of the Embassy.

Of course, even after submitting all your paperwork and paying for an embassy interview, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be granted even a visitor’s visa to the United States. A few years ago, a friend of mine was denied a visa to visit his cousins even though his mother, stepfather, and half-siblings were all granted travel documents.

Fortunately, I was able to help one friend secure a visa to the United States: my dog Dino. I adopted Dino two months after arriving in Nicaragua and was soon unable to imagine life without him. But would I be able to take him with me when I returned to the United States?

When I inquired at the U.S. embassy I was informed that a new embargo against shipping dogs had recently been established. My heart dropped.

“There are two ways to skirt around the embargo,” I was told. “The first option is to ship another animal to the U.S. first, say, a duck or a chicken.”

Huh. It wasn’t looking good. “And the other option?” I asked, almost scared to hear the answer. I couldn’t imagine having to leave Dino behind – he’s part of my family!

“You can join Continental’s frequent flyer program,” he told me. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Clearly, this was nothing compared to the hoops Nicaraguan people are forced to jump through to get a visa to the U.S. And although I was nervous about whether Dino would be scared or uncomfortable traveling from Managua to Boston in the airplane’s cargo, the risks can’t compare to what many Nicaraguan immigrants undertake when forced to reach the United States by land – and undocumented.

Today, as I write with Dino happily munching on a mango pit at my feet (he is a Nicaraguan pooch, after all), I can’t help but think about the pain our immigration laws cause to families throughout the Americas – and the discomfort of knowing that as a U.S. citizen, I was able to bring even the most rebellious of mutts home with me without much difficulty. Now, it is my appreciation for being able to maintain my own odd family that inspires me to keep working against the arbitrary, punitive, and often hypocritical legislation that keeps so many family members separated.

Refueling a Vicious Cycle

By Bart Evans
Coalition Coordinator, Student Action with Farmworkers

In the 17 years since NAFTA went into effect, agribusiness seems bent on continuing to insist that Free-trade Agreements are the answer to our current agrarian woes. Just days ago, Larry Wooten, President of the NC farm bureau, published an opinion piece calling for the acceleration and expansion of free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Perhaps he worried that given the crackdown on immigrant farmworkers in neighboring states of Georgia and Alabama, potential migrants, many of which now come from southern Mexico and Central American countries, might think twice about heading north to labor on our farms. Indeed, if the effect NAFTA had on small-scale, indigenous farmers in Mexico were to play out in Colombia and Panamá, it could certainly ease Carolina farmers’ current or perceived future labor shortage problems. Free trade and drug wars have decisively scarred the Mexican landscape and people—can we really afford to continue advocating for such a model?

The long journey pa’l norte is not an easy one by any means, and despite more recent media attention on the train-riders passing through Mexico, for example, nevertheless the extreme human rights abuses and hazards of the trip persist. I went with Student Action with Farmworkers on a WFP delegation to Oaxaca this past January, visiting the Centro de Orientación al Migrante (COMI) local office and learning about the everyday risks migrants face as they head north. Sadly, we learned that many migrants make it to Oaxaca thinking that they are almost there, when in reality they still face thousands of dangerous miles across Mexico into the vast northern deserts and across the border into the United States.

COMI from SAF on Vimeo.

However, once here in the U S of A, one might be cautious to breathe a sigh of relief. The good ol’ global economy has got us not looking too good over here either. Our slumping economy, as it slumps even more, is rearing its ugly side: Stark inequalities in wealth, legislation legalizing racial profiling, a.k.a. “driving while Mexican/driving while brown.” (For further reading, see this article in GQ magazine about blueberry farmworkers in Maine.) Migrants are coming into a situation here in the US (especially the southeast) where black and brown families on average own just a few cents for every dollar owned by white families. This racial wealth-gap is astounding, and conservatives are using it as fuel for the anti-immigrant fire. You’ve heard it all before, the “they’re taking our jobs” myth. Farmworkers are getting caught in the middle.

Wooten writes, “Agricultural trade is not only critical to North Carolina's farmers, it is vital to the U.S. economy and the creation of American jobs. Every $1 billion in agricultural exports supports 9,000 U.S. jobs, such as transportation workers, food processors, packers and even sales and marketing professionals.” Borrowing Wooten’s stat of 9.6 billion in annual NC farm receipts, that equals about 86k jobs in North Carolina farms—but wait—aren’t those the jobs that American’s won’t do?

Farmworker picking beans in North Carolina. Photo by Beatriz Cruz.

This disconnect between arguments for job-creation with the anti-immigrant rhetoric of “stealing our jobs” plays directly into the hands of US growers. Growers who are dependent on immigrant labor, and on “opening” foreign markets via free trade agreements, to further fuel the vicious cycle we are caught in.

The system is broken, and it is an embarrassment to continue to see arguments calling for the continuation, let alone the intensification, of global, neoliberal policy.

To take action to stop three pending free trade agreements, please click here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fleeing an unsecure world, only to come to one that you still feel unsafe in!

By Emmy Andersson
Intern, Witness for Peace

Have you ever thought, “I am glad I was born here, I am glad I was born in a family that could give me food, safety and opportunity in life?” If you have, you are lucky. Unfortunately, not everyone can say that.

I think that every mother wants their children to have that safe childhood or at least that when they grow up, a chance in life that they never had themselves. How far a mother would go to ensure her child’s safety is probably as far as is needed, since more and more women now choose to migrate from Mexico to the U.S. to be able to support their children. Not only is it extremely dangerous for a woman to make that route, but in most cases they have to leave their children behind.

With more attention drawn to the drug trafficking in Mexico, drug cartels have found another way to bring in money: sex trafficking. As InSight Crime has highlighted, drug traffickers increasingly turning to this trade has resulted in an increased number of women and girls disappearing. Women are easy targets both for sex traffickers and for sex abuse.

In Ciudad Juarez, located on the U.S.-border, hundreds or even thousands of women have been found dead in the last 20 years. Femicide, gender based killing, is getting more common in Mexico. It seems to accompany the more generalized drug violence. REDGE, a women’s advocacy group, in their recent press release said that most female migrants from Mexico to the U.S. are escaping violence and insecurity. To just be a woman in Mexico is now very dangerous. To try to make it to the U.S. is even worse.

35-45% of migrants are now women; twenty years ago it was fever than 20%. People do not migrate because they want to; they migrate because they have to. Their feeling of insecurity doesn’t even end when they come here to the U.S., because here they are too scared to go outside, due to harsh immigrant laws. The violence needs to stop in Mexico and we need to stand up against the tactics and laws that the Mexican and the U.S. government use, because apparently they don’t work. I think everyone should have the right to think, “I am glad because I am safe,” don’t you?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Transforming Guilt and Shame into Action and Community

By Jeanine Legato
Witness for Peace International Team - Colombia

We were in our hotel in Cali, Colombia debriefing the days events of a barbeque and charla with the parents of Jhonny Silva Aranguren and Katherine Soto. Over the course of the afternoon, we’d eaten grilled meat and plantains and swung contentedly in hammocks. Then we settled down to the business of hearing the circumstances of Jhonny and Katherine’s murders by the
Colombian military; Jhonny had been gunned down during a peaceful protest at his school, Universidad de Valle. Katherine, also a Valle student, was shot by a military official while crossing a bridge en route to a weekend beach get-away.

Already half-way through the delegation, we’d seen many times how the over 8
billion dollars in U.S aid to Colombia over the last 11 years, used mostly by the military and police, has contributed to the death of countless innocent civilians. We knew that Jhonny and Katherine’s murders and those of many like them remain in impunity and that the U.S
continues to fund the ever-increasing militarization of Colombia anyway.

So when James, a first-time delegate, spoke up in the hotel room about how discouraged he felt, we all could sympathize.

“A lot of you speak really eloquently about feeling energized by the activists we’ve met. I just feel helpless. I feel like there is so much to be changed and that I can’t really make an impact.”

I joined the Colombia International team two months ago. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in this short while is that most activists never knew they had it in them. They were forced to react to the extraordinary circumstances of victimhood. They are like Katherine’s
mother Julieta, who the International Team visited at the Valle campus at last weekend’s National Congress for Territory, Land, and Sovereignty. Julieta was installing a memory gallery for the Valle students lost to the Colombian armed conflict. She was ecstatic; so many people
were coming by to remember her daughter. It occurred to us how much courage it took for Julieta to return to a place so filled with her daughter’s memory, to repeatedly face the fact of Katherine’s murder even though the silence of impunity insists as if nothing ever happened
at all.

Not all victims become activists, or all delegates. But I think that those that do are moved
by a terrible and endless inadequacy in the face of “making just” such a loss as phenomenal as the loss of one’s daughter to senseless violence. Or, like James’ experience, a haunting moment when a parents’ frank plea to do something about the impunity of a child’s case leaves
them feeling ashamed and unable.

What I don’t think James realized at the time was that his feelings of shame were power.
Sometimes it’s more what we don’t do when we could have that actually motivates
us to get active, to have “moral courage”--in the sense of this excerpt from J.N Figgis--the next time around:

“Ask yourself for one moment what your feelings have been on the eve of some act involving courage..what has happened to you? If it has really called forth courage, has it not felt something like this? I cannot do this...All of me will be gone if I do this, and I cling to myself.

And then supposing the Spirit has conquered and you have done this impossible thing, do you find afterwards that you posess yourself in a sense that you never had before. That there is more of you?...So it is throughout life...”

What about you? Has a commitment to peace and justice ever come out of a memory of a time when you witnessed and failed to act as you wish you had? Were you ever empowered by the feeling of inadequacy in the face of a great injustice?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Upper Midwest Speaker Tour on Migration Hits the Ground Running

By John Pegg
Board of Directors, Witness for Peace Upper Midwest Region

Nancy Garcia, Administrator of the Center for the Orientation of Migrants in Oaxaca (COMI), along with Mexico-based WFP staffer Moravia de la O arrived this weekend to begin their month-long speaker tour in the WFP Upper Midwest region. Their arrival prompted a kick-off conference on immigration Sunday evening in Minneapolis. Nancy expressed interest in having a conversation with other Latinos on this side of the border who were working on immigration issues. As a result, we hosted a panel including three Latino community leaders from the Twin Cities. One had strong experience in economic development through forming a cooperative marketplace for Latino entrepreneurs. Another works as a community organizer, helping immigrants work together to claim their power and take collective responsibility for their lives. The third was a recent college graduate who works with young people and their families to gain access to higher education.

Following their presentations and a group discussion, we enjoyed an excellent Oaxacan dinner prepared by a local chef who recently migrated here and gathered around tables for small group conversations. After dinner we enjoyed a one-act play produced by a St. Paul Latino social theater company called Teatro del Pueblo. Then we closed with an update on how the legal system affects migrants in Minnesota by the Executive Director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. Moravia said that she thought it was a great opportunity to plug into the immigration reform movement those who had not been actively involved so far. Nancy felt that she learned a lot about what the immigrant experience was like for people once they made it to the U.S. She never realized that migration across Mexico wasn’t the only challenge and that people here still had many difficulties and barriers to overcome before they could achieve what they all were looking for by migrating to the U.S. It was a great opportunity for cross-border dialogue and a highly informative and inspirational gathering to begin our tour!

On Monday we kicked into high gear with three presentations by Nancy on two campuses, Macalester College in St. Paul, and the University of Minnesota main campus in Minneapolis. We premiered the Witness for Peace Mexico-based International Team’s outstanding short new video on the roots of migration with a showing of “Perils of Migration,” which features Nancy and her work at COMI. The video was created in collaboration with volunteer documentarian Kate Fenner.

Monday, October 3, 2011

When children are too scared to go to school, something is terribly wrong

By Jess Hunter-Bowman
Associate Director, Witness for Peace

Our immigration system is broken. There is no denying it now.

When states like Alabama and Arizona are left to set the agenda for immigration policy, the results are laws that turn police officers into de facto immigration officials and laws that turn public schools into places of fear.

After Alabama’s harsh immigration law was upheld by courts last week, the impact was felt immediately.

One of the law’s most controversial aspects requires public schools in the state to verify and record the immigration status of new students. This has sent shockwaves through the public school system, leaving students, parents and administrators reeling.

Take Foley Elementary School, for example.

According to The Birmingham News
, the day after the immigration law was upheld by the courts, 19 of Foley Elementary’s Latino students withdrew from school. Another 39 were absent. As for the other 165 Latino students that showed up for school, Foley’s principal Bill Lawrence says most of them arrived in tears.

"It’s been a challenging day, an emotional day. My children have been in tears today. They’re afraid," Lawrence said. "We have been in crisis-management mode."

In Montgomery, the state capital, 231 Hispanic children were absent from school the first day the law went into effect.

Foley’s principal said he expected many Latino students and their families would be leaving the state this weekend. Some of them are U.S. citizens, but still feared staying in the state because their parents are undocumented.

This is what we’ve come to. Despite Supreme Court rulings indicating that all children must be allowed access to public school independent of immigration status, Alabama’s lawmakers have found a way to ensure Latinos feel they cannot send their children to school.

And, apparently, a mass exodus of Latinos from the state is underway.

There has never been a more urgent time for us to stand up for immigrant rights. Let’s raise our voices, joining with the churches, immigrant rights advocates and civil rights activists, to call for justice! Justice in Alabama. Justice in Arizona. Justice across the United States!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

La Gotita Sobre el Acero: a poem in English and Spanish

By Franciso "Chavo Romero"

They call me El Chavo, and I was born and raised on the coastal city of Chiques (aka Oxnard, CA), territorio ocupado del Pueblo Chumash.

I am an organizer in the barrio... organizando spaces of resistance with la gente de abajo y a la izquierda against repression in all its forms. Soy indigena, descendant of various pueblos orginarios on this continent, Guachichile, Juchipila, Coahuila roots. Mexicano, cien porciento. Aqui estamos..y no nos vamos.

I taught middle school math and reading for 10 years, now I currently am the Events Coordinator at the Acuña Gallery and Cultural Center at Cafe on "A" in Downtown Oxnard.

As part of my commitment as a community organizer and activist I organize with Unión del Barrio and serve on the Raza Press and Media Association Editorial Board and on the Witness for Peace Southwest Regional Board and an active participant in the Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective.

The following poem was inspired by a report published last week by the organization No More Deaths. It is a report that details the "abuse, negligence and dehumanization of migrants as part of the institutional culture of the U.S. Border Patrol..."

I would like everyone to read this report, called Culture of Cruelty
. I hope it makes us think, get together, organize and fight these catastrophic violations. We are one people, Without Borders!

From the occupied territories of the Chumash People

El siguiente poema fue inspirado por un reporte que se publicó la semana pasada por la organización No Mas Muertes. Es un reporte que detalla sobre el “abuso, negligencia y deshumanización de migrantes que es parte de la cultura institucional de la patrulla fronteriza…”

Quiero que todos lean este reporte, nombrada Cultura de Crueldad
- Espero que nos ponga a pensar, después a reunirnos, organizarnos y luchar contra estas violaciones catastróficas. Somos un pueblo, Sin Fronteras!

Desde los territorios ocupados del pueblo Chumash

La Gotita Sobre el Acero (English translation below)

Tranquilamente penetra el acero,
Las gotitas de sus llantos,
Oxidándose sobre los siglos,

Cultura de crueldad e impunidad.
Los agentes brutales maltratan,
Gritándole y burlándose con abuso psicológico,

"Que se muera!"

Tirada y entumecida sobre la celda,
Manos detrás sintiendo el frió del metal,
Penetrando y picando sus huesos,

Una gotita de sangre,
Penetra el acero.

Despierta con estómago retorcido,
Come galletitas insípidas y sin sabor,
Asquerosas condiciones apestan a heces y orín,

Aire frio congela su alma,
Sin cobija y sin dignidad,
Descalza con ampollas en el corazón,
Enroscándose como un bebe,

Lagrimitas chocan con el concreto,
Cierra sus bellos ojos,
Soñando de su querido pueblito,
En el pie de la montaña.

Una gotita de sangre,
Penetro el acero.

The Droplet Upon Steel

Quietly penetrating the steel,
The droplets of her cries,
Rust over the centuries.

Culture of cruelty and impunity.

The brutal agents mistreat,
Shouting and laughing with psychological abuse,


Thrown and numb in the cell,
Hands behind feeling the cold of the metal.
Penetrating and biting her bones,

A droplet of blood,
It penetrates the steel.

Waking up with stomach twisted,
Eating crackers bland and tasteless,
Filthy conditions stink of feces and urine.
Cold air freezes her soul,

Without a blanket and without dignity,
Barefoot with blisters in her heart.
Curling like a baby,

Tears collide with the concrete.
Closing her beautiful eyes,
Dreaming of her beloved town,
At the foot of the mountain.

A droplet of blood.
Penetrates the steel.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mexico’s Caravan for Peace Unites Voices of Resistance in Oaxaca

By the Mexico-based International Team
“Today confusion, fear, distrust, shamelessness, fraud, death, and impunity reign. But in our stubbornness, hope has not died. We have had it up to here with this senseless war that has Mexico wounded and covered in a sea blood. We can no longer stand the hunger, poverty, violence. We live in an emergency, without justice, without government, but no evil is eternal if one thousand souls unite.”
These words describing the national crisis confronting Mexican society were recited by poet Fernando Guadarrama in Oaxaca’s central square on Monday night. Guadarrama was inspired to write the lines in dedication to nationally recognized poet and writer Javier Sicilia. On March 28, Sicilia became a grieving parent, as his 24-year-old son Juan Francisco, along with six others, was found brutally tortured and murdered in the city of Cuernavaca, Mexico.

To listen to the full poem, click here.

A Movement is Born

Amidst his anguish, Sicilia has sparked a national movement to oppose Mexico’s war on drugs. This war, launched by President Felipe Calderon in late 2006, and supported with U.S. military aid through the Mérida Initiative, is estimated to have claimed nearly 50,000 lives in less than five years.

At a press conference on March 31, Sicilia called for an end to violence and a new strategy in this undeclared war. Two weeks later, he announced the first action of an emerging movement- a silent march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City from May 5 to 8. Uniting under the call of Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity), and the phrases No Más Sangre (No More Blood), and Estamos hasta la madre (We’ve had it up to here), this grassroots effort captured the attention of international media and united a number of social movements from across the country. Participants in the movement number well over 100,000 and include victims of state repression, family members of those murdered or disappeared, youth, migrants, and civil society organizations.

Javier Sicilia, members of the movement, and local organizers speak with the audience.

Since its launch in May, the Movement for Peace has held dialogues with the federal government and led a caravan throughout the central and northern regions of Mexico, where the drug war violence continues to rage in places like Monterrey and Ciudad Juarez.

In these northern cities, a sense of insecurity has gripped the population. The fear is not limited to drug trafficking organizations, which have proven disregard for innocent life in the battle to control routes and territories. State forces including the police and military are also linked to thousands of human rights violations, including over 5,000 forced disappearances that have been documented since Calderon came into office. Despite the myriad of documented cases of disappearance, murder, kidnapping, and torture, only 2% of criminal cases result in a conviction. An atmosphere of impunity reigns. The frustration felt across the country was summed up on a banner denouncing the drug war: “Militares en todas partes, justicia en ningun lado.” Military everywhere, justice nowhere.

Heading South

In an effort to unite the southern half of the country with the movement against the drug war, the Caravan for Peace and Justice with Dignity is currently traveling through Mexico City, seven Mexican states, and Guatemala. While the war on drugs and state repression play out differently in the southern half of the country, many pressing issues threaten the livelihood and security of these communities. The Caravan’s southern tour brings together the voices of those suffering violence in order to develop new peaceful strategies for repairing the social disintegration that is endemic to Mexican society under the militarized drug war.

One of the buses that is transporting the 600 caravan participants.

Oaxaca Vive, la Lucha Sigue

The fourth day of the caravan’s southern route was spent in Oaxaca city. Local social justice organizations hosted a series of events that brought human rights issues to the forefront. Indigenous rights defenders from the organization Flor y Canto, along with hundreds of caravan participants and locals opened the day’s events with a welcoming ceremony at the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.

Later that morning downtown, participants shared personal testimonies in spaces devoted to issues such as indigenous rights, state repression, women and gender violence, aggression towards journalists, and economic, political and cultural violence. Caravan members and supporters also visited a nearby prison to demand justice for political prisoners held there, and wrapped up the day with a large rally and concert in Oaxaca’s main square.

Indigenous Rights
Participants at the indigenous people’s table spoke about the impacts of economic violence in Oaxacan communities. According to one person in attendance, “Gringos sell guns to both sides, and [when we are out of the way] transnational corporations end up with our water, forests, and minerals.”

One speaker referred to the expanding interest of foreign capital in resource-extraction projects in Oaxaca as a new form of the “Gold Fever” that gripped the Spaniards arriving in the New World over 500 years ago. During the conquest, physical violence facilitated the theft of natural resources from indigenous peoples. Now a well-armed state that promotes resource privatization represents more of the same for these communities: “It’s not the hacienda anymore, but corporations that cut down our forests, use the rivers, and erase our culture and identity.”

Defending Corn and Culture

The threats to Oaxaca’s 9000-year-old tradition of growing corn were a continuous theme in the session on different types of violence and aggressions in Oaxaca. Neoliberal politics that force migration out of the countryside, reforms to Article 27 in preparation for 1994’s NAFTA, as well as the deliberate lack of support from the federal government were criticized for dismantling the agrarian way of life that has been the foundation of Oaxaca’s communities for millennia.

Of serious concern to many Oaxacans is the potential for genetically modified corn to contaminate local seeds. Given that Oaxaca is the birthplace of corn, hundreds of varieties of seeds have traditionally been farmed with thousands of years of ancestral knowledge. The potential for foreign corporations like Monsanto to introduce patented GMO seeds into farming communities is considered to be a cultural death sentence, as traditional communities base their customs, diets, and systems of mutual aid around corn.

As indigenous campesino Joel Aquino stated during the session “For twenty years we have been in a process of re-evaluation of our culture, community, language, and in particular the value of corn. Of everything that makes up our culture, our community, the heart of the community is corn.”

Oaxacan campesino Joel Aquino

Politicians, Criminals, and Criminal Politicians

The Movement for Peace Caravan highlighted the state of insecurity in Oaxaca, not just since the uprising of 2006, but for several decades. Many people indicated that today in Mexico, it is impossible to distinguish between the country’s politicians and its criminals.

Here state violence, imprisonment under false pretenses, forced disappearances, and assassination of social movement leaders are frequent occurrences and are used as tactics to criminalize social protest.

As described by writer and intellectual Gustavo Esteva during the gathering, “Politicians [and] governors have become the model for criminals. Their practices and their impunity, the way in which they can commit the worst crimes without fear of punishment…has created a climate of violence that is unbearable.”

Javier Sicilia further connected the impunity in Mexico with the continued growth of criminal activity. He referred to the brutal repression of the 2006 teacher’s strike in Oaxaca, whose victims continue without justice five years later:
“What they are saying when they don’t convict, when they don’t make those responsible pay for the wrongdoings, the massacres, the contempt for the Mexican people and in this case the communities of Oaxaca… when they don’t do this, the message they are sending to criminals is ‘keep at it!’ It’s about finding a way to get around the law. It doesn’t matter how, whether it’s legal or illegal. And so the line between the state and crime has been erased. We don’t know where it is and if the political parties and the political class maintain [a state of] impunity for their governors, [and] members of the political class, they are simply working to further crime. They commit criminal acts just like organized crime and allow organized crime to run rampant like it is.”
U.S. Intervention

A die-in representing the 50,000 dead in the drug war violence.

Although a large percentage of Mexican people are opposed to Calderon’s militarized drug war, this has not stopped the U.S. government from supporting it. Since 2008, under the Mérida Initiative, it has provided Mexico with hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment, and military and police training. A total of $1.3 billion dollars have been dedicated to this initiative, which was originally set to run for three years. Despite critiques that the initiative contains no benchmarks for evaluation and has produced few results, it has been extended indefinitely under President Obama. As recent reports show, the U.S. is increasingly expanding its role in the war on drugs in Mexico. But with the death toll spiraling out of control, and little to no reduction in drug consumption on the northern side of the border, U.S. citizens and the Global Commission on Drug Policy are questioning the efficacy of fighting a war that could be better seen as a public health issue.

What Lies Ahead

While Oaxaca is not the epicenter of the drug war, there is fear that violence could increase. The eastern part of the state is increasingly dangerous for Central American migrants, who face extortion and kidnapping by gangs. The potential for more violence is troublesome; given that Oaxacans already face widespread poverty, violence towards women, threats to food sovereignty, decades of out-migration, and the legacy of corrupt and brutal state governments.

The crowd in Oaxaca's central square listening to reports from the day's events.

Yet Javier Sicilia, like many others, finds hope in the peoples of Oaxaca and their long history of resistance, rebellion, and diverse indigenous traditions. During one of the closing sessions, he reflected on the opening ceremony at Monte Alban.

“What was expressed there through the indigenous word that accompanied the ceremony… is precisely this, which is denied by a state at the service of only the economy [and] capitalists. That is to say dignity, humanity, and the presence of a life of peace and justice, which is in the memory of indigenous peoples. And [this] should be the seed in which this nation should grow.”